Sixers Loss Sparks Backup Center Controversy

Paul Reed, Sixers

Getty Paul Reed #44 of the Philadelphia 76ers and Jarrett Allen #31 of the Cleveland Cavaliers challenge for the ball during the second quarter at Wells Fargo Center on October 05, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Death, Taxes, and inconsistent play from Philadelphia 76ers backup centers. These seem to be the only certainties of life in recent years. There have been a number of players who the team has rotated in to back up Joel Embiid, including Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan, Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe, and plenty more. None of these guys have been able to fill these shoes and keep the team afloat with the superstar off the court.

There seemed to be confidence surrounding the backup center position coming into the year. The Sixers signed P.J. Tucker and Montrezl Harrell in free agency and Paul Reed has continued to develop during his three seasons with the team. However, it may not be a question of their talent but the usage of these players that is a larger concern. These have been sparked due to the team’s previous two losses where this was especially put on display.

Montrezl Harrell vs Paul Reed

With Embiid missing his third consecutive game, Doc Rivers elected to give Harrell his first start with the Sixers. The former Sixth Man of the Year looked solid and had his best performance of the season thus far. He played 29 minutes and tallied 14 points, seven rebounds, an assist, and a steal. Harrell did a great job seeking out contact and spent plenty of time screaming at the crowd after big plays. However, the 28-year-old struggled on the defensive end. The 6’7″ center was ineffective in protecting the paint and this was a major reason for the 52 points in the paint that were allowed by Philadelphia.

In contrast, “Bball Paul” was everywhere on the defensive end. The former 58th overall pick received 18 minutes of playing time which was also a season-high. During this time he tallied two points, four rebounds, six steals, and two blocks. While he looked lost at times on offense, this was overshadowed by the production of players like Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, and Tobias Harris.

Rivers also experimented with both Reed and Harrell on the court toward the end of the game. From the 1:45-1:05 mark in the fourth quarter, both big men were in the game. Media members asked the Head Coach about this decision following the game. Rivers gave a window into his decision-making and stated, “Rebounding and size. We went over the play — Toppin had just made a 3 on Trez the play before — we told our guys not to get sucked in. We did…The biggest plays were those two threes, and then the turnover in the backcourt,” per Derek Bodner of The Daily Six Newsletter.

Where This Is A Problem

This issue has been further on display due to the early absence of Joel Embiid. The reigning MVP runner-up has missed four of the Sixers’ ten games thus far. While the small-ball lineup of Tucker at center showed early success, it simply is not sustainable throughout a full season. The 37-year-old has played over 30 minutes four times already and is averaging 28.7 minutes per game on the year. It also showed its limitations against the Wizards as Kristaps Porzingis’ 7’3″ frame proved too much for the 6’5″ Tucker.

The option to play a small-ball lineup is beneficial in small doses, but Harrell and Reed are the two main options at the backup center. The thought process makes sense as Harrell is considered to be a much more dominant offensive player while Reed makes his impact defensively. However, Harrell has not shown this level of offensive impact to start the season. Prior to the 14-point performance in the latest matchup, Harell has averaged just 2.9 points per game and shot 45.0% from the field.

Reed is still far from a finished product, but he has looked better offensively than Harrell has on the defensive side of the ball. The Sixers have struggled on defense to start this year, ranking 23rd in defensive efficiency, and a player capable of making such a strong defensive impact is a major asset.

It also is worth noting how a similar storyline played out with the Sixers just last year. Andre Drummond served as the team’s primary backup big man until the trade deadline when he was included in the deal for James Harden. The Sixers then signed DeAndre Jordan who clearly did not have anything left in the tank. After this became abundantly clear and a near mutiny occurred from Sixers fans, the backup role was finally handed to Reed. The DePaul product had some growing pains but overall was successful in his role during the postseason.

The style of play drastically changes in the NBA postseason. Each weakness is put on display and big men who cannot guard on the perimeter are oftentimes played off the court. Reed’s ability to move on the perimeter with guards makes him so valuable to the modern NBA. Rivers also has experience playing Harrell for far too long in the playoffs. This occurred during the 2020 playoffs. Rivers and the Clippers blew a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Semifinals with Harrell’s extended time being unable to hold up on the defensive end a major reason for the loss and the head coach’s firing.

It will be a difficult balancing act between Harrell’s short-term success and Reed’s long-term growth. However, if the time on the court from Harrell is not resulting in success the decision should be rather easy. It is a great sign of progress to see Reed get out of the mud and play 18 minutes in the matchup. However, the usage of these players will be one to monitor moving forward.

Read More