After getting elective surgery on his knee in October, Nerlens Noel made his long-awaited debut in Sunday's blowout win over the Detroit Pistons. Unfortunately, it only lasted for a half as he sprained his left ankle and did not return in the second half of the game. Before that, however, Noel looked nothing like a player that had missed almost two months, scoring 10 points and providing his well-known activity and energy on defense and offense.
Noel missed Wednesday's game against the Toronto Raptors, but he seems on track to play against the Lakers on national television on Friday. This means that for the first time this season we will see Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, Noel and Richaun Holmes (all centers) healthy and on the active roster in the same game. We already saw some of what head coach Brett Brown will do to in order to try and find court time for all of these centers, and for the first time this season Embiid started alongside Okafor on Wednesday night against the Raptors. To this point, it's at least the third time (first against Atlanta in the third game of the season and second against Orlando on December 2) we have seen the pairing. While nothing is certainly set in stone, and Brown admittedly said he will be experimenting with what works and what doesn't, it's clear to me that the Okafor/Embiid pairing has been less than optimal even in its small sample size.
It hasn't been all bad in the 32 minutes Embiid and Okafor have played on the court together so far this season — there has been some nice high-low chemistry on offense between the two giants, and Okafor even put in good efforts on Wednesday. However, with Okafor's lack of extended range, Embiid has to play a pseudo-stretch four. This not only takes Embiid away from the painted area, where he draws fouls and more attention from an opposing defense, it also takes him away from the rim on defense, where he has had the most impact. The 111.0 defensive rating (not good) they have posted so far when the two are together in any lineup is evidence of this.
Can Embiid guard power forwards? Of course he can, but it's shades of Noel last season when he played Power Forward while sharing the floor with Okafor. All of Noel's defensive versatility is unlocked and used best when he plays the center spot, instead of covering the defensive flaws of a slower-footed and often out of position Okafor. The same thing implies to JoJo ten-fold, and not only on defense but also on offense, as mentioned earlier.
The gluttony of centers will also affect rotations, causing other players to play out of position. Dario Saric, for example, will mostly play the small-forward spot, even though his natural position is supposed to be at the Four. Also, with Simmons shooting free-throws on Wednesday without a walking boot, his possible return is coming up faster than we think, only adding to the big-man problem Brown is still trying to figure out.
It's a good problem for an organization to have, but it's also a tricky one to get a handle on, as the coaching staff balances minutes, the human element side of things and more importantly the development of players who will be a part of this young core long-term.