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.