7 for 6: Logjam in the Middle

This week on 7 for 6: Ups and downs for The Process, Ass Slaps, and passing around the blame for the Nerlens Noel Fiasco.

1: The Process vs. Boogie Cousins

Because of last month’s postponed game between the Sixers and Sacramento Kings, the first matchup between Joel Embiid and DeMarcus Cousins had to be put on hold. But the two big men finally squared off in Sacramento on Monday, and it was certainly worth the wait. Joel Embiid posted one of his best stat lines of the year: 25 points, 8 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 blocks, and 1 assist in just over 28 minutes. Not to be outdone, Boogie Cousins had a strong game to the tune of 30 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals. He also knocked down the game winner in a closely fought 102-100 victory for the Kings.

They also got into an ass-slapping exchange early in the first quarter. Yes, you read that correctly.

Embiid’s performance against one of the best centers in the league is encouraging. Beyond being the team’s best player, Embiid has raised his game when facing off against the league’s best. And that has earned him respect from his peers. Boogie said after the game “I don’t give a lot of props but I like that kid a lot. I think he’s got a great chance to be the best big in the league after I retire.”

Hopefully that retirement doesn’t come soon, because watching these two go head to head will be a treat for years to come, especially with their outspoken personalities.

2: Smashing Through the Rookie Wall

Most rookies don’t maintain a consistent level of play over the course of their first 82 game NBA season. While some may start fast they will often go through slumps and struggles. Joel Embiid, fresh off being named the NBA’s Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for November, seems like a prime candidate for a slump, especially given how little he’s played in the past two years. But that slumps hasn’t arrived. In fact, Embiid has had some of his better games of late. 8 days before he went toe-to-toe with Boogie, Embiid dropped a career high 33 points in the Sixers 108-107 victory over the Brooklyn Nets.

“I thought my teammates were finding me, and then I was getting into the flow of the offense. I wasn’t forcing anything. I was just playing basketball,” Embiid told reporters after the game.

That mindset bodes very well for Embiid moving forward. Rookies can find themselves trying to do too much, especially in a situation like Embiid with such a high usage rate (which stands at nearly 36% right now). It’s best for the Process to keep it simple; take the open looks that he does get and learn to pass when double teams come.

3: Turnovers, Turnovers, and More Turnovers

The Sixers have made a lot of strides this year as a team, but one area that still needs significant improvement is turnovers. Philly coughs the ball up an average of 17 times per game, 2nd worst in the entire league. Embiid is especially guilty of this, averaging 3.7 turnovers per game by himself (this could attributed to high usage rate and might decrease once Ben Simmons returns, but it’s still an area of concern).

To see how damaging turnovers are, we can look at the Sixers’ 123-116 loss in Phoenix last Friday. After not committing a turnover in the first quarter, Philadelphia gave it away 20 times over the last three quarters and allowed Phoenix to take control of the game. The Suns dropped 70 points in the 2nd half, including 20 fast break points.

“Our turnovers continue to haunt us and we can’t let it go. We’ve got repetitive examples of people either too much in a crowd, examples of people not handling pick and rolls when they come out and hedge. Post players dribbling too much and not reacting to double teams and to pass outs,” head coach Brett Brown told reporters earlier in December.

The Sixers are decidedly limited because of the talent on this roster, but the amount of turnovers only exacerbates other problems. If they can find a way to cut down on those giveaways, it would lead to a lot more wins.

4: Nerlens is Frustrated

It hasn’t been a good year for Nerlens Noel. The first center to come to town under Sam Hinkie missed the start of this year recovering from a knee injury. Because of the logjam at center, his return to the lineup has been slower than some, Noel included, would have liked. After playing only 8 minutes in a loss to the Lakers on Dec. 16th, Noel told reporters “I’m too good to be playing eight minutes…. that’s crazy. [The Sixers] need to figure that shit out.”

Noel is frustrated, and that’s fair. He’s eager to play and show the Sixers (or teams that might trade for his services) how valuable he can be and can’t do that without being on the court. Since he’s due for a new contract after this season, he wants to maximize his earning potential. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with being upset that your employer is hindering how much money you stand to make in the near future.

But to publicly criticize the team might not be the best approach, especially since Noel hasn’t spent much time with the team. He rehabbed his knee injury in Alabama, away from his coaches and teammates. Although he’s played under Brett Brown for three years now, the team likely wants to to ease him back into things. If nothing else, the Sixers are cautious with their injured players, and Noel is no exception. For someone who sat out his entire first season with the team, you would think that Noel understands that.

5: Brett Brown’s Reaction to Noel

While Noel raises valid points that the Sixers have a logjam at the center position that needs to be sorted out, raising that point publicly instead of to the team privately is not the best approach. In response, coach Brown announced that Noel would be out of the rotation, save for foul trouble, for the time being. It was a disciplinary move that felt like an empty gesture; Noel played in 3 of the next 4 games. And considering the scheduled days off for Embiid, Noel will certainly get playing time.

Brown’s response was strange. In his defense, Noel’s comments to the media demanded some kind of response by the head coach. But to announce the benching of an already disgruntled player, only to go back on that word, sets a poor precedent for the rest of the team and draws more scrutiny from the media.

Still, Noel has known Brown for 3 years now and seems to understand that the head coach has also been put into an awkward situation.

“He [Coach Brown] just has a lot on his plate, so no pointing fingers. It’s a situation that we’re dealt with. We had a conversation. He kept it more real with me, so I respect him a little more for that,” Noel told reporters.

6: Bryan Colangelo’s Role in this

While we might hear more public comments on this center log-jam from Brown and Noel, the onus on fixing the problem falls squarely in General Manager Bryan Colangelo’s lap. And he hasn’t exactly handled it perfectly. Just one day after Brown’s decision to bench Noel, Colangelo contradicted that notion and insisted that Noel wasn’t being benched. When asked about the crowded center position, Colangelo was quick to point out that he had inherited this mess from Sam Hinkie.

There are kernels of truth to what Colangelo has said, but the contradiction of Brown and unwillingness to take any responsibility for the current roster situation do not reflect well on the Sixers’ GM. He had all summer to trade one of Noel or Jahlil Okafor, and there appeared to be legitimate interest. But Colangelo has repeatedly said that he wouldn’t take cents on the dollar for one of the team’s big men. The problem with that approach is that the Sixers are not negotiating from a position with leverage. Every team in the league knows that the Sixers need to trade one of these players. To expect fair value in return at this point might be wishful thinking.

Noel’s comments simply highlight how poorly managed the situation was from top the bottom. Noel, Brown, and Colangelo are all culpable in allowing it to reach this almost toxic place. Brown and Noel can work to make the best of what they’ve been given, but something has to give sooner or later, and Colangelo will play a huge role in fixing this mess.

7: Potential Landing Spots

A trade seems inevitable at this point, so let’s look at potential teams that could strike a deal with Philadelphia.

The Boston Celtics have been linked in trade talks with the Sixers going all the way back to the draft this past summer. Trade talks cooled after the teams nearly struck a deal at the Draft, and have since heated back up. Boston still makes a lot of sense for Noel. Despite being one of the better teams in the East, Boston lacks a rebounding and rim protective presence. Noel would bring exactly that. In return, Boston would likely send a player like Marcus Smart, James Young, Avery Bradley, a (likely protected) 1st round pick, or some combination of those assets.

Another team that makes sense is the Portland Trailblazers. A surprise playoff team last year, Portland has struggled in a major way on defense this year, allowing the 3rd most points per game in the NBA. Noel would help on defense and on the glass. For Portland, it comes down to whether the team wants to pursue a playoff run this year or mail it in and hope for a high pick in a deep draft class (as of right now, Portland would have the 9th pick). If Noel does get sent to Portland, the first round pick would likely be protected. In return the Sixers could get someone like Allen Crabbe, Moe Harkless, or C.J. McCollum (although that might be a pipe dream).

For now these are merely rumors, but a trade feels inevitable. Whether or not it happens this year will come down to how other teams do. If Boston feels they are a piece away from a serious playoff run, they might pony up and finally complete a trade. For Portland, I think they’re more likely to make a deal if their season turns around. Noel is young and could be part of a core going forward.

The trade deadline is February 23rd this year. For Nerlens Noel, that day can’t come soon enough.

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