There's your Philadelphia 76ers season in a nutshell, huh? Nerlens Noel gets traded for an all-lemon pack of Starbursts, Ben Simmons' right foot is still apparently stuck in a beartrap, Joel Embiid can't get himself dismissed from the nurse's office, and Jahlil Okafor is forced back into +1 status after everyone else passed on going to the concert with Bryan Colangelo -- and the Ballers still go out and beat one of the best teams in the East in their first game back from the All-Star break. Nearly everything about the Sixers is depressing right now, except for the team themselves. They're cool.
Kudos to Brett Brown, man. The team is playing with such fluency and energy right now that it can withstand some losses in personnel without the drop-off being particularly dramatic -- at least for the moment. Replacing Embiid and Noel with Okafor and Holmes for as long as we'll have to do it will catch up with us in time, but for now, all you can do is marvel at the pace, cohesion and (with some mildly glaring moments of exception) discipline that Brown has the guys playing at the moment. I doubt there are five coaches in the league having a more impressive season than him right now.
But the players were pretty good in this one, too. Dario Saric had 20-11-4 in his first start in three weeks, continuing his unlikely Rookie of the Year surge with his third-straight double-double and fourth game of 20-plus in his last six games. The All-Star Break hasn't cooled Robert Covington's hot hand, as the shooter went 5-9 from deep last night and is now 17-31 on threes over his last four games, also posting a 20-10 night with his 25 points and 11 boards. (Also three assists and four steals, whatever.) Richaun Holmes dunked over some people and reminded a handful of fans why they've gotten way too excited about him at various points earlier in the year. Good times were had by all.
Games like last night's also just remind you how marginal the difference between winning and losing is. As they've been wont to do forever, the Sixers blew their considerable lead to the Wizards late in this one, which would've undoubtedly resulted in a tragic loss in years past. But these days, the leads are a little bigger going into the Sixers' fourth-quarter tailspins, and their defense is just a little tighter on critical possessions, and that's the difference between losing on a Bradley Beal buzzer-beater and hitting just enough free throws to squeak out a mildly secure 120-112 victory.
Anyway, after an impossibly discouraging week of Sixers happenings, it turns out some actual Sixers basketball is just what we needed. Hopefully their level of play will continue to get better as news of their off-court developments invariably keeps getting worse .
No, No, No: Every reason why the Sixers' trade of Nerlens Noel is unjustifiable
No, No, No: Every reason why the Sixers' trade of Nerlens Noel is unjustifiable
It's hard to know even where to start in breaking down just what a gross miscalculation this was on the Sixers' part. But let's examine the likely justifications, one at a time, that the Sixers will likely offer for this trade, and discuss why each of them are pretty solidly BS.
The Sixers weren't going to re-sign Nerlens anyway. OK... why not? The Sixers are solidly under the cap for the immediate future, and even with extensions coming up in a year or so's time for Embiid, Saric and Covington, there's so little long-term money on the books that it's impossible to believe they couldn't have found a way to make it work. Shed Jerryd Bayless if you have to. Don't try to find the next Ersan Ilyasova in free agency if it's too cap-clogging. Those players don't matter. Nerlens matters.
And even if keeping all four of those guys was untenable (and if they decided Nerlens was the lowest priority of all of them, a dicey presumption to begin with), a catastrophic injury is the only thing that would've kept Nerlens from being imminently tradeable at any point during his next contract. Even in today's big-stocked NBA, there will always be a market for potentially elite athletic bigs barely at the outset of their basketball primes. You think the cost would've prohibited Dallas from making this same deal two years from now? No chance.
OK, but you can't pay $15-20 million a year for a backup center. What the hell does that even mean? Until proven otherwise, there is no such thing as a "backup center" for Joel Embiid -- it'll be a small miracle if the dude even plays 50 games this year, and until we actually see him take the court 75 times in a season for over 30 minutes a night, we have to assume that he'll need extensive platooning for the course of his NBA tenure. I've made this point before, but consider the Cleveland Cavaliers, who had both frontcourt positions filled when it came time for Tristan Thompson's restricted free agency, but signed him to a near-max deal anyway because he was just too talented a player to give up. They won the title the next season, with Thompson as one of their three most valuable players. You never know.
What's more, who's to say that he couldn't have coexisted with Embiid for stretches? Nerlens spends most of his time in the halfcourt running around the perimeter -- switching, deflecting and generally causing havoc -- and to have him do that while Joel holds down the middle could've made the Sixers' defense borderline invincible. Maybe it wouldn't have worked on offense, hell, maybe it wouldn't have worked on defense, but wasn't it incumbent on us to at least try it out? The reason that Joel and Jahlil didn't work together (or that Nerlens and Jahlil didn't work together) isn't because you can't ever play two centers on the court at the same time under any circumstances ever -- it's because Jahlil was bad! Nerlens is good! It could've worked, and at the very least, JoJo and Nerlens deserved the opportunity to prove that it couldn't.
Well, but you had to trade one of these guys, right?
The wrongheadedness of this approach is totally inexcusable. I can't believe we have to still keep talking about this, but let's try it one more time for laughs:
THE SIXERS HAD TWO BIG MEN THAT MATTERED. THE THIRD GUY WAS IRRELEVANT. THEY COULD HAVE TRADED HIM OR KEPT HIM OR CUT HIM OR APPOINTED HIM VICE PRESIDENT IN CHARGE OF TOWEL RACKS AND WAWA ORDERS AND IT WOULD NOT HAVE MATTERED. THEY HAD JOEL EMBIID AND NERLENS NOEL AND ANOTHER TALL MAN WHOSE NAME AND PERSONAGE WERE OF ZERO CONSEQUENCE.
Does it suck that we drafted a guy with the No. 3 overall pick two summers ago that nobody (including us) currently wants? Does it suck that that same guy also plays the same position as the two other guys we drafted, who EVERYBODY wants? Yes! It's the worst thing Sam Hinkie ever did for us! So bad that most Sixers fans have constructed elaborate conspiracy theories for the decision placing the blame on anybody else but our Once and Always Dark Lord! It is a shame and a bummer and more of a burden than Perfectly Nice Guy Jahlil Okafor ever deserves.
BUT. It is done. It is a cost that is sunk. No backsies, no matter how often we call Magic Johnson to goad him into a D'Angelo Russell / Jahlil Okafor swap. To throw good players after bad by expunging Nerlens Noel in the name of well gee you just can't have three centers on the same team, howzzat gonna work is absolutely nauseating. They could've traded Jahlil for peanuts -- literal peanuts, even the unsalted kind -- and it would've been a better move than this. They could've traded Jahlil with peanuts -- the super-addictive honey-roasted kind -- and it STILL would've been a better move than this! Much better!
All right, but they got a first-rounder, and that's a pretty good return for a player about to hit free agency? Who says? What says? Why says? Would we seriously consider a top-18-protected first-round pick for Nerlens Noel a bountiful return? Again: Nerlens Noel is friggin' awesome! He's exceeded all expectations this year. The Sixers have a better record without Embiid on the court this season than they do without Nerlens! He's an historic defensive talent, and he's been unbelievably efficient and destructive on offense this year. Yes, he doesn't rebound as well as he should, no, he's not the best post defender, yes sometimes he tries to do too much on offense and the ball (or his ankles) end up in the third row. But he is an elite prospect, and he's still only 22. He's great.
To get a top-18-protected pick for him as the primary prize is beyond insulting -- oh and by the way, we're probably not even getting that pick anyway. Zach Lowe reports, and CSN confirmed, that the selection is top-18 protected this year, and then after that it turns into two second-rounders. The Mavs, currently 22-34, aren't getting a top-12 record this season unless they practically run the table from here on out -- which, better as they'll be with Nerlens, seems mildly unlikely. The Sixers will once again be hoarding second-rounders for the rest of eternity.
But you know what? I'm not even sure it makes that much of a difference, because even a mildly protected first-rounder that we actually got would've been at best a marginal asset for the Sixers in 2017. At what point do we start trading picks for players instead of players for picks? With our foundational piece finally in place with JoJo, another one likely on the bench in Simmons and who knows how many others on their way between our next two first-rounders, the Lakers pick and the '19 Kings pick, you'd think that time would've come by now. Nerlens could've been foundational too, y'know, if the team respected his talents and figured out how to maximize them. We'll never know for sure now.
...Justin Anderson, though? Look, I can't say I know much about Justin Anderson. I've liked him the couple times I've watched him, and it seems like he's an athletic wing that can do some things. He's not exactly giving the world peak Josh Howard flashbacks in Big D this season -- seven points and three boards in 14 minutes a game, with sub-par shooting numbers (40% FG, 30% 3PT) but decent defense and free-throw drawing. He sort of fits the profile of a Jae Crowder type, and Lowe and others have pointed out the potential parallels with Dallas' trade for Rajon Rondo, in which Crowder was perceived as a throw-in and ended up being the best player to change hands.
It's possible Anderson could blossom on this team, and I look forward to having him on our roster. But despite being just a second-year player, he's already 23 -- older than Noel -- and it's hard to believe that even at his best, he'll ever be more impactful than Noel already is. Not to mention that we already have a three-and-D guy on the roster in Robert Covington who's proven to be a high-level contributor, and who's cheaper than Anderson for this season and next. If he's the prize for the Sixers then that means the contest wasn't worth entering in the first place. And it wasn't.
Uhhh Bogut? Another trade maybe? Better hope so. It is possible that this is still the prelude to more wheeling and dealing to come, and that another trade -- potentially using Bogut's large expiring contract as a base to make salaries match -- will help put this one in a better context. If so, we'll deal with that when the time comes, and I look forward to eating (or at least reappropriating) some of my words here. In the meantime, Andrew Bogut will play as many meaningful minutes for the Philadelphia 76ers as Andrei Kirilenko and Danny Granger combined, and apparently we're already talking buyout. Say hello, wave goodbye.
Well, Nerlens was a malcontent anyway, good to get rid of him. Don't. You. Even. Nerlens had his moments of immaturity, like anyone under the age of 25 (or 35 or 75) does, but he was a great Sixer, and a true Processor. The fans loved him and he loved the fans, and both sides said as much repeatedly. He loved his teammates and his teammates loved him, and both sides said as much repeatedly. Watch this video and tell me with a not-entirely-crooked face that the Sixers needed to get rid of him.
Nerlens Noel and Richaun Holmes with CSN Philly's Molly Sullivan after tonight's win.
This trade, as it stands, is the least-defensible move I can remember the Sixers making in the post-Iverson era. The Elton Brand contract? He at least was that good in the not-that-recent past. The Bynum trade? Him too, and hell, the press conference was exciting. Drafting Jahlil? Well, a lot of other smart people seemed to think it was a good idea at the time. This is the only deal I can remember viewing like a cliff well off in the distance, with plenty of BRIDGE OUT signs clearly located along the way, wondering why the driver is still going, yelling at them to stop, and then watching hopelessly as they casually sail off the edge. Forget about trusting the process, why did we not trust common sense on this one?
Will the deal end up being particularly destructive to the Sixers? Maybe not. The Sixers are so strapped with assets right now that a semi-catastrophic move or two like this doesn't necessarily mean the end of the road in any meaningful way. But no team can afford to flub players like Nerlens without it becoming something of a problem, and if you burn off too many of them, that's how you become the Sacramento Kings, straight-up. We're more Vlade than Hinkie at the trade deadline today, and that is the single saddest sentence I hope I ever have to write as a Sixers blogger.
So the Sixers' trade deadline got off to an interesting early start last night, with Ersan Ilaysova -- power forward and arguable MVP of the Philadelphia 76ers' early season -- being traded to Atlanta for Tiago Splitter's expiring contract and two future second-rounders. The exchange was a strikingly bloodless one for the Colangelos, dealing a productive veteran in what amounted to a minor asset grab, and an opportunity to give extra minutes to Dario Saric, the rookie combo forward whose strong play of late arguably made Ilyasova expendable. Simply put, it was the kind of deal our Once and Always Dark Lord would've made.
That's cool, but I don't really care about that. Chicago's supposedly still interested in Jahlil Okafor, and that's cool, too. But I don't really care about that either. I only care about one thing this trade deadline -- that we don't blow it at the last second and trade Nerlens Noel.
This probably won't happen. Okafor has been the subject of roughly ten times the trade rumors of Noel, the latter having (hopefully) proven his worth over the last month or so as Jah has largely fallen out of the rotation. Even last night, the hot-off-the-presses discussion was mostly about the Chicago Bulls' continued interest in Okafor, with the main debate being whether or not the Sixers would take on Nikola Mirotic's moderate salary in a deal for our lottery big.
But this Facebook video the other day from NBA trade-deadline guru Adrian Wojnarowksi -- paraphrased below by the venerable Derek Bodner -- gave me serious heartburn:
Summary: Sixers prefer to trade Okafor, but may revisit Noel discussions if they can't get what they want. Sixers are valuing Okafor as the 3rd overall pick, teams are valuing him based on his NBA play.
Now, as anyone has followed the Sixers for long enough to see Robert Covington hoist a questionable three this season knows, this team has too many big men. It's tried to give minutes to all of them and it hasn't worked. The conventional thinking, as of season's beginning, was that one of the three -- four if you count Richaun Holmes, but we probably shouldn't and won't here anyway -- would have to be traded. This, we now know, is a foolish line of thinking. One of them has to be traded, but we know which one it is, and it's only that one. So let me say this one more time, as loudly and as unequivocally as I possibly can:
The Sixers do not have a big man problem. The Sixers have a Jahlil Okafor problem.
Not that even that is a particularly urgent issue. Okafor has been surprisingly pliable in his extended passages riding the pine, and has groused surprisingly little over his minutes-slashing; an impressive maturity for the 20-year-old big, even if the Marcus Hayeses of the world somehow interpret his cooperation as heartlessness. If he were to finish out the year on the roster behind Embiid and Noel -- and even at worst-case, he'd probably still get semi-regular minutes as one or more of those guys rested or sat with injury -- there's no real reason to believe he would fester on the bench, or would become a malcontent case of any particular distraction.
But let's be real here. The reason it behooves the 76ers to trade Okafor as soon as possible is because he's not very good, and the more he plays, the more potential trade partners ostensibly should be able to notice that. Which isn't to say he couldn't be sort of good, eventually, for another team -- though it's gonna take a doozy of a squad to put him in such a situtation -- but on this Sixers team, he clearly isn't the guy who's gonna win games for us holding down the middle. We've seen it, and it's not there. And that's fine, basically; can't win 'em all in the draft, and if the worst thing Sam Hinkie ever did was draft Jahlil Okafor, this season's events have ensured he's still coming out well on top.
This is all just to say that Okafor's role is not worth protecting, particularly if it comes with the slightest risk of losing Nerlens Noel in the process. Nerlens is a legitimately great basketball prospect having an early career year, with a PER at All-Star level (20.9), an absurdly high steals rate (2.7 per 36 minutes), and the highest offensive rating (119) on the Sixers. Consider that Noel, who was supposed to be the defensive ace while Okafor excelled on offense, is only scoring 1.5 fewer points per 36 mintues than Jah, and shooting 10 percent higher from the floor while doing so. Also consider that the team actually has a better record without Joel Embiid in the lineup (8-17) than they do without Nerlens (7-20).
Now again, I'm not saying all of this to insist that Nerlens somehow needs to remain a Sixer forever. He does play the same position as Joel -- though I'd still like to see them play together a little more before I rule out their ability to meaningfully co-exist -- and if the right trade came along for The Eraser, I don't think we need to turn it down on principle. But understand: The right trade doesn't mean trading Nerlens for rotation players and future draft considerations, but using him as the linchpin of a trade to get a superstar player like Jimmy Butler or Paul George. Such trades might not be available, and other teams might not value Nerlens quite as highly as those of us who get to watch him regularly do, but trading Nerlens -- a 22-year-old big with limitless defensive potential and emerging offensive effectiveness -- for less than a star at this point is just a mistake.
Truthfully, Okafor shouldn't even consider into this discussion. He's small potatoes: Trade him now, cut him later, hoard him forever -- it matters little. If the Colangelos decided they absolutely had to get rid of one of our bigs, and Okafor's trade market was literally nil, they'd still be better off releasing Jahlil for literally nothing than they would trading Nerlens for 65 cents on the dollar. The signs point to Sixers brass having the fortitude to not resort to the latter this season, but I won't feel safe until we're comfortably out of the 3:00 range today. A needless Nerlens trade could be the most damaging thing to process-trust since we drafted Jah in the first place.