With the 76ers’ current logjam in the frontcourt, the rumors have continued to turn up in relation to a potential trade involving either Nerlens Noel or Jahlil Okafor — and Okafor should be the option of choice.
The rumors of the Philadelphia 76ers pursuing a trade for either Jahlil Okafor or Nerlens Noel have continued to turn up, as their crowded frontcourt could become notably more functional if one of them is taken out of the rotation in favor of a perimeter piece. With a lot of unknowns still plaguing the market in terms of looming free agency decisions, it’s tough to gauge where or when we might see a possible trade go through, if we do see one at all.
But there is one thing that I’m fairly certain of, and that is the fact that Jahlil Okafor should be the center that Philly attempts to move.
This is, by no means, a hit piece on Okafor. He’s an excellent young player with a scoring prowess on the low block that’s nearly impossible to find in players as young as he is. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be a starting center in the league once he hits his prime, but the Sixers simply don’t offer him the best fit with their logjam in the frontcourt, nor does he offer the team a piece that fits their roster in return.
In today’s NBA, we’ve seen the necessity of versatility in almost every facet first hand, with the playoffs being a prime example of it. The Cleveland Cavaliers’ ability to match the Golden State Warriors’ small ball lineup and unearth defensive rotations that maintained flexibility off the switch was crucial to their historic comeback in the Finals, and the Sixers’ rotation seems to be trending in a very similar direction.
Ben Simmons has spearheaded that shift for Philadelphia, as his ability to run the offense from either forward spot while retaining a vast range of defensive coverage ability makes him someone Brett Brown is capable of working into a myriad of rotations.
In addition, the likes of Dario Saric brings a mobile stretch four with playmaking ability of his own, while Noel and Joel Embiid provide more defensive and offensive versatility respectively at the five spot. This is a lengthy Sixers team with plenty of pieces that can move around the floor depending on team need, and Okafor is someone who just doesn’t mold well into that type of system as a starter. He’s an exceptional offensive spark when operating with his back to the basket, but doesn’t have much to offer outside of that, which overlaps in a major way with Noel’s limited offensive skill set and Embiid’s notable similarities.
Okafor’s back-to-the-basket offense isn’t the only problem, either. His defense, unlike Noel’s, is extremely limited. His awareness is lacking at times and he is a fairly unsuccessful shot blocker for someone with his size underneath the basket. He struggles covering quicker bigs on the perimeter as well, and is someone Philly is forced to hide rather than feature on that side of the ball.
Noel, while not being an elite perimeter defender by any stretch, is mobile enough to hold is own on the outside when required and is one of the league’s most prolific rim protectors, a promising sign from someone as young as he is. Okafor, in addition, doesn’t rebound the ball as well as Noel and is outdone is just about every facet of the game defensively.
Okafor’s noted attitude problems also worry me in terms of how well he fits into this culture, especially with the Sixers still a few years away from legitimate competitiveness at the moment. While Noel showed some flaws himself at times last season, Okafor’s problems seemed to be exploited far more on a national stage, and that doesn’t bode incredibly well for a Philadelphia organization that is attempting to completely shift the perception of the franchise both internally and externally from a cultural perspective.
Getting rid of Okafor isn’t necessarily an ideal scenario, but it’s what would put the team in a better position moving forwards. If Embiid had any trade value whatsoever, moving him for the sake of injury avoidance would be a more palatable transaction, but that’s not a viable scenario. Okafor is a solid NBA player who will likely have a successful long term career, even with his weaknesses in the modernized era of basketball, but Philadelphia doesn’t have much room for an offensive specialist on the low block.
In no manner whatsoever am I attempting to say that the Sixers should look to offload Okafor as quickly as possible without vetting all their possible trade options and jumping on the best one available. If they don’t receive an offer that packages together a sufficient return, Philadelphia should hold onto the former 3rd overall pick and live through the deficiencies of a bogged down frontcourt for another season, or until better deals are presented later on.
This is a process in which Philly needs to maximize their benefits rather than minimize their negatives, and that all hinges on their ability to attain a player that helps move the franchise in the right direction. There is a certain standard that much be reached for a trade that involves a young piece with the talent Okafor has displayed, but if said standard is indeed reached, there’s good reason for the Sixers to move on from their once-prized big man.