Will Backup Center Cost the Sixers Again in the Playoffs?

By Matt Gregan, Sports Talk Philly Staff Writer

Backup center issues are very familiar to fans of the Philadelphia 76ers. They have rarely had someone capable of playing solid minutes backing up superstar center Joel Embiid.

Remember the names of Greg Monroe, Amir Johnson, Trevor Booker and Kyle O'Quinn? Those are just some of the names the Sixers have floated out over the past couple seasons in an attempt to find a patchwork solution to a problem plaguing them the entirety of Embiid's career.

The backup center problems cost them in the playoffs in 2018-19, when they took the eventual champion Toronto Raptors down to the wire in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Monroe was the team's backup center, and he was an astronomical minus-9 in just two minutes on the court in the crucial Game 7. Embiid played 45 minutes in Game 7 and was a plus-10, but they struggled so badly that the two minutes he was on the bench proved to cost them that series.

Fast forward to this season. The Sixers briefly had Andre Drummond, who was doing a good job filling in as the backup center. He was included in the blockbuster deal bringing James Harden to Philadelphia at the trade deadline.

The Sixers recently signed veteran DeAndre Jordan and have been giving him the backup center minutes. The results have been mostly poor. He has looked a step slow defensively and has lost his touch around the rim. He has the best career field goal percentage (67.3) in NBA history, but is shooting just 45 percent in six games with the Sixers.

However, he is coming off his best game with the Sixers. He finished with eight points and seven rebounds in 13 minutes off the bench in the win over the Dallas Mavericks on Friday. He is developing a good chemistry with Harden, who spoke after the win about Jordan's role on the team.

"We played in Brooklyn for a little bit and he has one role," Harden jokingly said. "That is to set screens, roll to the basket, and finish and defensively, rebound the basketball, and block shots. I think his job is easy. I think for me, my job is to help him offensively and just try to find different scenarios to where he’s able to be successful."

Jordan was able to sneak by the defense and catch a couple of lobs from Harden against the Mavericks. Defenses are forced to make a decision when Harden drives to the basket to either step up and defend the drive or to sit back and prevent the potential lob over the top.

If they can get anywhere near the level of production they received from Jordan against the Mavericks on a consistent basis, their backup center issues would be patched up enough to not be a high level of concern heading into the playoffs. The problem remains Jordan has, more often than not so far in his Sixers tenure, been a net negative out on the court.

Head coach Doc Rivers has a pair of other options he could give a chance at backup center in the form of Paul Reed and Charles Bassey. Both have shown flashes when given the opportunity this season, but Rivers has elected to attempt to fill the role with more of a veteran presence.

Bassey, specifically, would be a perfect fit playing next to Harden. He is a rim-running big who is ultra athletic, and he has been good in the brief opportunities he has been given this season. In 7.3 minutes per game over 23 games, Bassey is averaging 3.0 points, 2.7 rebounds and 0.7 blocks while shooting 63.8 percent from the field. Over 36 minutes per game those numbers would translate to 14.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game. He has been tearing through the G League as well, averaging 15.7 points, 9.2 rebounds and 4.1 blocks per game for the Delaware Blue Coats this season.

The pick-and-roll with Harden and Bassey would in theory be a solid combination. Bassey has the athleticism and the length to be able to play well as the roll man in the pick-and-roll.

It is coaching malpractice that Rivers has not given Bassey a fair crack at filling the backup center minutes this season. It is understandable Rivers would prefer to go with more of a veteran presence and not rely on someone who is unproven to fill a crucial role for the Sixers, who have championship aspirations this season. However, Bassey can not be worse than what they currently have at backup center and it would definitely be worth giving him a full shot at winning the role.

Will the team's issues at filling the backup center spot in the rotation cost the Sixers in the playoffs? Whether or not they rely on Jordan (as is likely) or Bassey/Reed (unlikely given Rivers' failure to give either of them a legitimate shot at winning the role), it should be a major area of concern heading into this year's playoffs.

The one major difference between this year's team and prior versions of the Sixers is they have Harden, who has the capability of carrying and elevating the lineup at times when Embiid is off the floor. However, the team is once again skirting down a dangerous path come the playoffs since Jordan has mostly struggled and Bassey has not been given a fair opportunity to earn the role this season. Hopefully it does not come back to haunt them as it did against the Raptors back in the playoffs in 2018-19.

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