The NBA Trade Deadline is Feb. 23 at 3 p.m. ET, but according to multiple reports, Sixers center Jahlil Okafor will be dealt well before then.
Okafor was held out of Saturday’s game against Miami as trade rumors began to, ahem, heat up. Then, on Sunday, news broke that Okafor wasn’t traveling with the team to Charlotte for Monday’s game.
Denver, Portland, New Orleans and Chicago have been the teams most often linked with the Sixers. One of teams will end up with a pretty good player in the next few days, and the Sixers will finally rid themselves of the log jam at center, the most important move for the future development of the Sixers’ remaining roster.
Okafor, the third overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, is the one decision of the Sam Hinkie era (read: The Process) that has become too bad to Trust. The problem with Okafor isn’t that he can’t play NBA basketball — fans have been so frustrated with his game over we often look at him as a guy who should be in the D-League — it’s that he’s a terrible fit for how Brett Brown wants to play NBA basketball.
Okafor’s two biggest weaknesses are his woeful post defense and his reluctance to pass the ball on offense, two hallmark traits of how Brown wants the Sixers to play. So it’s not that Okafor is bad, per se, it’s that his skill set doesn’t fit with the Sixers’ style, or their other players.
He may be good, he’s just bad for the Sixers.
And yet, maybe he’s bad, at least for the way most big men have to play in today’s NBA. Okafor is a throwback to the ‘90s style big man, where the ball gets dumped into the post, everyone stands around for eight seconds while he makes a move to the hoop. That’s not how most teams play anymore.
A Fresh Start
In a better system for his skills, or with better players around him where he’s not saddled with the pressure of being the third pick in the draft who’s fast becoming a bust, Okafor might thrive. The problem is, most of the teams that could benefit from his skills already have similar players.
Picking Okafor was a panic move by the Sixers. Nobody was sure if Joel Embiid was ever going to play and Nerlens Noel had routinely shown his limitations as an offensive player. In retrospect, taking Kristaps Porzingis would have been the right move for Hinkie, but there was no chance the franchise was going to take another giant question mark of a player when they had been tanking for years to find the next great NBA big man. Doing nothing with Okafor’s draft rights was the worst mistake of Hinkie’s short-lived tenure with the Sixers.
Now Bryan Colangelo has to get what he can for the third overall pick without selling him for 60 cents on the dollar.
The problem is…what if Okafor is only worth 58 cents?
A week ago rumors got so hot the Sixers had a deal with New Orleans that reports indicated it was just a matter of figuring out lottery protection for the first-round pick the Pelicans were going to include. There was talk of Colangelo taking disgruntled center Alexis Ajinca or former Sixers guard Jrue Holiday back from New Orleans.
Both Denver and Portland were rumored to want Okafor too, but on Sunday those two teams traded big men with each other, which could mean both cooled on making a deal done with the Sixers, or one is shuffling players (and contracts) in order to get a deal done before the deadline.
Or are the Pelicans are the frontrunners again? Or are the Bulls?
People in Philly got excited when “news” broke of Okafor’s Twitter location being Chicago, but according to multiple people who track that kind of stuff on Twitter, it’s been that way for the Windy City native for a while. Plus, Okafor rarely tweets, so it’s not like he’d run to social media to passive-aggressively sneak out a trade announcement.
What the Sixers want seems clear. They want to redo the 2015 draft. They want a good first-round pick for Okafor, and if that means taking on salary to get it done, they have the room to do it. The Sixers need to make a move anyway, because they are nearly $8 million under the NBA salary floor. Taking on a short-term contract or grabbing an aging player and waiving him are things the Sixers are quite capable of doing it if means getting good return for Okafor.
But what do the Sixers need?
This is the one question nobody can answer, yet, because before they figure out what they need, it’s important to look at what they already have.
The Sixers have their own likely lottery selection again this year, as they have the fifth-worst record in the NBA. The Lakers have the third-worst, which is not good for the Sixers, considering they own the Lakers’ pick if it falls outside the top 3 this year, or unprotected next season.
The Sixers also have the right to swap picks with Sacramento, in addition to a 2019 first-rounder from the Kings, which means they have at least five first-round picks over the next three years, plus Oklahoma’s City’s heavily-protected pick in 2020, 2021 or 2022.
Do the Sixers really need another first-round draft pick, or is all this just to stockpile for a big-ticket deal down the road?
What the Sixers have
The Sixers have Embiid, who — when healthy –is the cornerstone of their franchise. They still have Noel, who is a restricted free agent after the team declined to extend him by October 31. Noel may want max money, but the Sixers will be foolish to match a team willing to overpay. They also have Richaun Holmes, who is under team control for a few more seasons.
Ersan Ilyasova is slated to become a free agent after the season. Dario Saric is in the first year of his rookie deal, while small forward Robert Covington can become a free agent after the 2018 season. Simmons, like Saric, is in the first year of his rookie deal. If we still consider him a forward.
Gerald Henderson is a nice veteran presence, but at $9 million per season with just one year after this, he’s certainly not in the long-term plans. Nik Stauskas has been better than anticipated this season, but he’s not the future either, and he’s a restricted free agent after 2018. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot may be more of a small forward, but he’s under contract for a while no matter where he plays.
In addition to the current roster, they also have 19-year old draft-and-stash shooting guard Furkan Korkmaz who Colangelo and company drafted this past season.
At point guard, T.J. McConnell has been a bright spot for the Sixers recently to the point where he has earned playing time the team never expected when they signed Sergio Rodriguez and brought in Jerryd Bayless. McConnell’s emergence also came around the the time Brown indicated he wants Simmons to play point guard role for the team.
So if Simmons is handling the ball, do the Sixers need another point guard? If Simmons is a power forward, do they need to resign Ilyasova? If Simmons is a small forward, can Covington move to guard, or does he become a defensive stopper and streak scorer off the bench?
Will Noel re-sign with the Sixers if Okafor is gone, or will a team overpay so the Sixers opt not to match, thereby losing him for nothing but a handshake and a thanks for putting up with all the tanking?
What the Sixers need
A shooter. Two shooters. As many shooters as they can find.
The Bulls have their own 2017 first rounder and Sacramento’s if it falls outside the top 10 (right now they have just about the 10th-worst record in the NBA.) Would the Sixers take a guy like Denzel Valentine and a first-rounder from the Bulls for Okafor, with a few other pieces swapping to make the money work?
Would Colangelo have to take Rondo, too?
This is the situation Colangelo finds himself as the deadline looms, where dumping Okafor is vital for the future of the franchise, but doing so could mean he’ll be forced to bring back another disgruntled center looking for playing time (Ajinca) or, maybe, the bloated contract of a malcontent like Rondo.
It’s not about trading Okafor for 60 cents on the dollar, it’s about trading him and having to pay an extra three bucks just to make a deal.
Can’t the Bulls just give up Jimmy Butler for Okafor, the Lakers’ pick and Sacramento’s 2019 first rounder? Can you just do that, please?
If Colangelo can pull off a deal like that, we’d all trust the trade process a little more this week.