Consider the logs unjammed, and Sixers fans aren’t happy. Nerlens Noel called the Sixers glut of centers a “logjam” earlier in the season, and while all the rumors leading up to NBA Trade Deadline day were focused on Jahlil Okafor, GM Bryan Colangelo instead dealt Noel. The soon-to-be restricted free agent is off to Dallas for Justin Anderson, Andrew Bogut (who they are buying out) and a heavily-protected first round pick. Unless Dallas falls out of the top 18 picks — nearly a mathematical impossibility — that first rounder will become two seconds. It’s a bad trade, only done because Colangelo clearly didn’t see Noel as part of the Sixers’ future.
Okafor probably isn’t part of the future either. And yet he’s still here.
The last (and worst) first round pick of the Sam Hinkie era — Hinkie made the moves to get the right to pick Ben Simmons, but Colangelo gets the credit for pulling the trigger on it — has to be dealt at some point, but it wasn’t today, as the deadline has passed with only Noel and Ersan Ilyasova, himself a restricted free agent this season, getting dealt.
With the two deals, the Sixers got back Tiago Splitter, who has been hurt all season and probably won’t ever play in Philly, Bogut’s contract, three second round picks — two this year and one next — and they have to swap second rounders with Atlanta, too. They got something for two guys who aren’t part of the future, yes, but they didn’t get much in terms of helping that future grow.
And so the question has to be asked…why trade Noel and not Okafor?!?!?
The simple, if unnerving, answer is this: They couldn’t.
Maybe trading Noel for 50 cents on the dollar when they’d get zero for him after the season was better than trading Okafor for 50 cents on the dollar when he’s still under team control for several years, and the market for him may open up after the season, especially with 26 games to showcase his offensive prowess.
Unless Okafor is only worth 30 cents on the dollar, and the Sixers are the only team that doesn’t see it.
Okafor has played in 91 games for the Sixers, appearing in 53 as a rookie before missing the end of his first season with a knee injury. He’s played in just 38 of the Sixers’ 52 contests this season, mostly due to being benched while the team tried to figure out how to handle the aforementioned logjam at center.
To start the season while Noel rehabbed his injury, Brett Brown was tasked with making Joel Embiid and Okafor fit together, sometimes on the court at the same time. While that sample size was limited, the returns were so poor there was no point in continuing the experiment.
When Noel returned, Brown stayed loyal to Okafor, benching the most defensive-minded of his three centers in lieu of the second-year player with a solid offensive game, but little ability to defend and, seemingly, even less desire. Finally, after Noel earned his way out of the dog house — coupled with injuries to both Embiid and Okafor — it was Okafor who was benched, and the instant results showed how much better the Sixers were for it. With Embiid and Noel rotating in the paint, the team finally had floor balance and a defensive mindset for the full 48 minutes. More than that, they had a positive mentality that actually started translating to winning games, something that hasn’t happened enough when Okafor is on the floor.
Over the last two seasons, the Sixers are a combined 31-107, as they resume their 82-game slate following 56 games before the All-Star break. In his 91 games for the Sixers, including 70 starts, Okafor has a record of 16-75.
The Sixers have a .225 winning percentage since Okafor has been in the league — tank you very much for that, Sam Hinkie — but in games he’s played, the rate drops to .176. In games Okafor hasn’t seen the floor over the last two seasons, the Sixers are 15-32, a .319 winning percentage.
Surely that rate isn’t bringing home any championships, but it does illustrate the major problem the Sixers have, and the biggest flaw in The Process: The team is nearly twice as good when Okafor doesn’t play.
The Sixers, by the numbers, are better in every statistical category when Okafor is off the court. Effective field goal percentage is -.049. Rebounding is -3.6. Assists are -10.2. Blocks are -3.0. Offensive rating is -7.4, 97.5 when he plays, while the opponent’s offensive rating is +7.4, currently at ridiculous 113.6 when he’s on the court.
That’s not to say Okafor, who averages 15 points and six rebounds per game, can’t be a good NBA player. But the team’s progress without him is just a simple fact, played out over nearly a season and two-thirds of basketball. The Sixers are clearly a better team without him.
So, with that, the whole notion of not wanting to sell Okafor for 50 cents on the dollar doesn’t hold up. If the Sixers are nearly twice as good without him, and they could have gotten 50 cents on the dollar back for him — draft picks, veteran shooters with hefty contracts, other disgruntled big men they can swap in the future — then wouldn’t that add up to almost full value? Sure, any GM wants to get the most he can for a player, an Colangelo is probably right to hold off until the summer and not trade both Noel and Okafor. But if just getting a guy off the floor helps your team as much as it has when Okafor is out, getting any value back at all would have been something of a bonus.
Colangelo is now left with trying to get that value in the off-season. And Sixers fans are left thinking about Noel playing somewhere else every time Okafor fails to protect the rim.