Why the Sixers are probably stuck with Jahlil Okafor (for now)

BY PAUL MANCANO—The NBA has nearly perfected the 12-month media cycle. October through July is jam-packed with the draft, the free agency frenzy, banana boats, and actual games. But August and September are the dead zones. Nothing happens in these two months.

This year the NBA has been bailed out by the Rio Olympics. Fans have been mildly appeased with the United States’ team of superstars squeaking out victories over inferior squads by embarrassingly small margins. But in terms of actual NBA news, August has been awfully quiet.

There’s a reason for that. Most teams, whether rightfully or not, are comfortable with their rosters at the moment. General managers have hopes of molding star players out of the new hunks of clay they selected in the draft. Other holes were plugged with monstrous contracts. These are the blissful days of summer, in which all rosters are perfect and everyone is undefeated.

Which is why it’s unlikely the 76ers will pull off a long-awaited blockbuster in the next few weeks. In fact, it might be months before Bryan Colangelo receives a fair offer for either Nerlens Noel or Jahlil Okafor. There simply aren’t many takers.

If one of the Sixers’ big men is dealt before the season starts, however, expect it to be taller, lankier one who moves cities.

Why? Because Okafor might bring back a larger return in a trade than Noel, but he is valuable to far fewer teams than Noel.

It’s no secret that Okafor’s biggest strengths are on the offensive side. When he entered the NBA a year ago, he brought with him terrific footwork, great touch around the rim, and an expanding range—all of which instantly made him one of the better offensive centers in the NBA. But that doesn’t make him particularly desirable.

Don’t get me wrong—numerous teams are looking for more offensive production. They just aren’t looking less and less frequently to big men for that production.

The phenomenon that is “small ball” is overhyped. Centers are not becoming extinct, nor are they unnecessary. But these days, big men are wanted more for rim protection than scoring. The growth of the three-point shot has allowed for higher levels of offensive production from guards and wings than in years past.

Centers provide the most value by converting layups, rebounding and blocking shots. Those are the biggest areas in which a player’s size advantage allows him to impact the game in a major way. If a center can shoot well from midrange and distance and block shots (Karl Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis), he’s treated like a god. If a center can’t knock down threes, rack up blocks, or grab rebounds at a high rate, he becomes one-dimensional.

Jahlil Okafor has become one dimensional. The offensive numbers he puts up, numbers that would make general managers of yesteryear drool, appear hollow, given his deficiencies in other areas. This hurts his trade value.

That’s not the only factor working against the former Duke phenom.

In order to maximize Okafor’s potential, he must be surrounded by good defenders and efficient three-point shooters who cover for his defensive issues and allow him space to operate on the block. How many teams already have a roster chockfull of three-and-D wings and guards? Maybe Portland, Charlotte, and Atlanta? One reason why the Celtics have been linked to Okafor for months is they own one of the few rosters in the league in which Okafor would fit without requiring a massive overhaul. Furthermore, the type of players that would complement Okafor the best are the exact type of players the Sixers would likely be asking for in a trade.

Which brings me to the final, most integral part of a potential Okafor deal: what would the Sixers want in return? As mentioned above, the asking price for Jah is probably higher than that of Noel, given he is younger, under contract for longer, and was the third overall pick just a year ago. What does Colangelo think is fair value?

It would be too risky to trade for a first-round pick in 2017 in the hopes of winning the lottery, given the uncertainty at this point of where teams will end up. Established veterans could help the team in the short team, but the Sixers would probably want a younger player with a high ceiling who fits their core better. Those players are hard to find on the trade market. There’s a reason the Sixers haven’t yet gotten a good enough offer for Okafor, even though they reportedly “tried like hell” to trade him.

In Noel, general managers could see a more versatile, more athletic option that comes with a smaller price tag. His defense makes him an easy fit with numerous teams around the league, as does his rebounding.

The trade deadline in February could be the next time the Sixers field major offers for either Okafor or Noel. That seems like years away to fans who have been inundated with trade rumors for months. If one of the two is moved before then, however, my money’s on it being the one with the flattop.


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