For the first time in the Joel Embiid era, there’s reason to be more than indifferent about the Sixers’ options behind the star big man. It’s not that they have a proven commodity to relieve Embiid — such a player typically signs a lucrative deal to become a starter somewhere. Rather, they have different shapes and sizes behind him.
Here’s a look at what they can do.
Slightly under-sized, but proven to be adequate
Paul Reed heads into his third season as the ostensible favorite to win the job. Though, his warts are notable. When he does get the ball without being spoon-fed lobs, Reed tries to do too much and loses control too often, tossing up shots that have no chance of going in or committing turnovers. And when he isn’t doing that, Reed is struggling to pick the right spots to be physically aggressive, racking up fouls in a hurry.
But, those issues might resolve themselves with adequate opportunity. After all, it’s human nature to try to do too much when given opportunities that were previously non-existent. But, Doc Rivers extended Reed’s leash when he told reporters that he didn’t care if the young big man committed fouls during last season’s playoffs. He just wanted Reed to play freely.
And maybe those words relaxed Reed, because he was perfectly adequate. The Sixers were outscored by just 4 points with Reed on the court in the 2022 playoffs. That’s the best plus/minus figure of any backup big man to register at least 10 playoff games with the Sixers during the Embiid era. In fact, ‘perfectly adequate’ might not do it justice — he was historically adequate.
What Reed lacks in size at 6-foot-9, he makes up for in athleticism and strength. Reed has the physical tools to be a vertical spacer. He’s capable of sneaking behind lifted defenders to catch lobs for dunks. If he’s instead tasked with creating a shot within a few steps of the basket, he has the burst and upper body strength to get around matchups for finishes or muscle pockets of space at the basket out of nothing.
He simply has to learn to defend without fouling if he’s going to stay in the rotation. But, that’s more about staying disciplined. Reed has to keep his arms high and be in the right positions on time. When he does those things and learns to defend with size instead of contact, the foul numbers will drop.
Reed also has the fan equity on his side. The home crowd will react to his positive plays with more enthusiasm than they will to the same plays executed by the other options behind Embiid. So, Reed has the branding power to inject energy into the game just by being himself.
Regardless of his flaws, Reed was thrown into high-leverage games against physical, big opponents after receiving limited opportunities for the first two years of his career and largely held his own. That should hold significant weight in the backup center conversation.
Traditionally-sized, but very little experience
At 6-foot-11, Charles Bassey has two inches on Reed. But, Reed makes up for it in muscle mass. Bassey fits the mold of a rim-running, screen-and-dive big with the intuition to flash from the weak side to the strong side to protect the basket. The last time we saw him, Bassey’s primary detractor was that he couldn’t hold his own against the NBA’s physicality. He could get to the right positions or make the correct decisions at game speed, but he was constantly bumped off his spots and over-powered by interior presences. Beyond that, he has such little experience that it’s difficult to define his exact strengths and weaknesses.
Fair or not, that lack of experience has to work against him, especially with Reed having proven serviceable in his opportunities. All things equal, Bassey may not be a bad option. He might even warrant a look in some situations throughout the season. But, between Embiid, Reed, and the next option in the discussion, you run out of rotation minutes somewhere along the line. And when you’re divvying up those minutes and mixing and matching lineups, you’re just not going to have much of an argument in favor of a guy with 23 games under his belt.
Playing a 6-foot-5 37-year-old at center sounds like a recipe for disaster. But, there are merits to testing the waters with PJ Tucker at center.
In fact, there is a lot of positive data over the last 5 years indicating that he can play the part.
|Team||Traditional bigs off the court (Tucker on the court)||Net (per 100 possessions)||Minutes|
|Rockets||Nene, Capela, Black||+8.33||622|
|Rockets||Nene, Capela, Hartenstein||+0.93||758|
Now, the data isn’t perfect. These on/off player combinations don’t explicitly say that Tucker is serving as the center in those lineups. But given his limited athleticism and offensive game and history of being used as a power forward, it’s most conceivable that his role in any lineup lacking traditional size is going to be as a small-ball center. These numbers also don’t explicitly admit that Tucker was likely playing next to offensive forces like prime James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo. So, maybe those lineups without traditional bigs survived by simply outscoring the opposition.
Regardless of how you frame it, the underlying truth is that those numbers prove that lineups featuring Tucker in place of traditional size can be successful.
Beggars can’t be choosers when Embiid leaves the floor. It doesn’t matter whether the Sixers are simply outscoring the opposition or locking all windows and doors. The objective is to stay afloat. And lineups featuring Tucker as a small-ball center can tread water or even swim.
The other merit of giving Tucker some minutes as a small-ball big is more conceptual. Going small is a sharp stylistic contrast from what the Sixers’ other options behind Embiid offer. Tucker allows them to go 5-out on offense, dragging the opposing big man away from the rim to prevent Tucker from getting wide-open corner threes. That opens the driving and cutting lanes for everyone else on the court. They can play up-tempo or slow the pace down, depending on who is on the court with Tucker. They can lean heavily into a three-point diet. All of that is to say that there’s a lot of stylistic optionality on offense that comes with going small. Defensively, the Sixers will have to play more actively in the passing lanes. That will result in them either hemorrhaging points at the rim or allowing their halfcourt defense to spark their transition offense.
The strategic advantage of going small with Tucker is that it will be very difficult for opponents to counter by going smaller than 6-foot-5. At the end of the day, going small is a chess move. You’re forfeiting size for a distinct skillset or to force the opposition into physical disadvantages. What Tucker lacks in height, he makes up for with energy and physicality:
There are two reasons the Sixers haven’t already used some of their remaining space on a free agent big man.
One, they simply might not be interested in the options out there. Hassan Whiteside and DeMarcus Cousins are the only remotely interesting names left on the free agent market. That they’re still available would seem to indicate that no one else is interested in them or their prices were too high. Either way, making the league minimum is better than not making anything or, depending on how the player might feel, going overseas. It’s unlikely the Sixers would have to do much to sell one of them on coming to Philadelphia on a veteran minimum deal if they were interested in their services to begin with.
Second, the Sixers might want to maintain as much financial flexibility as possible for trades. This writer’s salary sheet says the Sixers have $4,734,368 of space below the tax apron. Using the Non-taxpayer Mid-Level and Bi-Annual exceptions hard-capped them. So, the Sixers cannot spend more than the space they currently have below the apron for the remainder of the new league year.
To prevent teams from favoring younger free agents over older veterans, all players with more than 2 years of experience signing minimum deals count just $1.719 million towards the cap. So, the Sixers could sign two veterans to minimum deals and stay below the apron if they wanted to.
Ultimately, the Sixers’ most sensible option is to roll with what they already have. Cycling through reputable free agent bigs every year is just going to push Reed and Bassey down the depth chart, further delaying the verdict on what they can bring to the team. The Sixers have youth and athleticism behind Embiid. That, by itself, should improve the defensive output when he’s resting.
But, perhaps as encouraging as anything is that there’s some versatility in the staff making up their depth at center. And for the first time in the Embiid era, they can toggle between playing styles to bring some unpredictability to their second unit.