Sixers Facing Major Battle at Center After Joel Embiid’s Injury Return

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Getty Montrezl Harrell of the Philadelphia 76ers.

At the start of training camp, most eyes were focused on two Philadelphia 76ers players: James Harden and Joel Embiid. Both men were the unquestioned No. 1 and No. 2 players on offense. The Sixers’ season would predictably rise and fall on their play and availability. In short, if this was to be Philadelphia’s year, then it would necessarily need big performances from its two best players.

But another pairing is under the radar for those outside the City of Brotherly Love. When the Sixers signed Montrezl Harrell in September, it was expected that he, the former Sixth Man of the Year, would get the nod as Embiid’s backup. But after a wretched start from Harrell and an injury-plagued one from Embiid, it’s Paul Reed who’s been getting more looks at the position. And according to Rich Hofmann of The Athletic, even after Embiid’s reintegration into the lineup, it should be Reed who gets the lion’s share of backup minutes, not Harrell.

“The lesson here is that [Sixers head coach Doc] Rivers will need to live with the occasional ballhandling miscues because of [Paul Reed’s] defensive acumen and the methodical progress he’s making on offense,” Hofmann wrote in the November 28 story. “And to his credit, he has over the past few weeks. Reed played 15 straight minutes on Sunday.”

How Harrell’s Looked as Philadelphia’s Starter

With Embiid having missed four games in a row before returning November 27 against the Hawks, Harrell stepped in as Philadelphia’s starting center. Across those two games, Philadelphia went 2-2, with Harrell scoring 11.3 points per game on 48% shooting from the field. It was a solid uptick from the 4 points per game Harrell had averaged up to that point.

But Harrell continues to be a sieve on defense. His block rate (1.8%) and defensive rebound rate (13.3%) are laughable for a center. Fortunately, he’s played with De’Anthony Melton and Matisse Thybulle, two of Philadelphia’s better defensive players, who have helped mask Harrell’s defensive woes. But Melton and Thybulle are mainly perimeter threats; once a team penetrates the paint, it’s all on Harrell.

Harrell’s also been hearing those criticisms from fans. He even responded to one who heckled him from the sidelines of Philly’s game against Charlotte last week.

“It is what it is,” said Harrell of the heckler. “Fans got a lot to say, whether it’s in the arena or on social media, wherever it may be. People fail to realize the aspect of, you’re just a fan, bro. Stay in the nature. Stay in that element, bro. Don’t try to take it somewhere where it don’t gotta go because when you do that now, you’re going to get the retaliation from me .”

Paul Reed’s Future in Philadelphia Looks Bright

On the flip side is Paul Reed, Philadelphia’s young third-string center. As my colleague Sean Barnard noted, Reed affects the game in a way polar opposite to Harrell.

“The biggest area where Reed makes his presence known is on the defensive end. His ability to move his feet with smaller guards while standing up to big men makes him a capable defender in just about every matchup. Reed ranks third in the NBA in deflections per 36 minutes with 5.3 per game. He also leads the NBA in steals per 36 minutes at 3.9. His ability in pick-and-roll coverage has especially stood out compared to Embiid and Montrezl Harrell who have struggled in this role,” Barnard wrote.

In the coming months, expect the Sixers to continue experimenting with Reed and Harrell in the lineup. If one begins blowing the other out, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to include the other in a potential trade, especially with PJ Tucker capable of holding down the five in small-ball lineups.

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