As hot as the 76ers were in January, this is not the season for them to be good. It’s the season to develop their good young players (Joel Embiid, maybe Ben Simmons) and to see about trading those who are expendable for their future (uh, just about everyone else). Well, Embiid and Simmons are hurt—with strangely unclear recovery timetables—and despite doubling their win total from this time last year, Philly is still just 21-34 and should go back to doing the obvious and trying making a trade. That appears to be going poorly.
On Saturday, center Jahlil Okafor was held out of the game against the Heat, as the Sixers were rumored to be deep in talks with a number of other teams, including New Orleans, Portland, Denver, and Chicago. This is normal procedure; teams don’t want to risk injuries to players who seem bound to get moved. But no trade materialized. Okafor did not travel with the team to Charlotte for Monday’s game, and still, no trade.
And then we get today’s news: Okafor is flying by himself to rejoin the team for its game in Boston tonight, and will come off the bench. This is especially odd because it’s the Sixers’ final game before a nine-day All-Star break, and the final game before the trade deadline. What is to be gained by bringing him back for one game, even if no trade gets done?
Derek Bodner, who is fed up, runs through some potential scenarios, and none of them are immediately reassuring.
So what happened? Did Colangelo try to use the threat of an imminent trade to pull last minute suitors out of the woodwork? Did he misjudge how imminent the trade talks actually were? Is he getting cold feet over not making a bad deal? Did he come to a sudden realization that demand could go up the closer he gets to February 23rd’s trade deadline, that whatever trade is on the table now isn’t likely to disappear over the next week?
The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor cites sources who believe the Sixers hoped, by holding Okafor out, to entice teams to make their best offers. Which would be an incredibly silly gambit, because holding a player out signals that he’s already all but off the market.
That market for Okafor, never strong to begin with, appears to be drying up. The Nuggets and Trail Blazers made a deal with each other, potentially removing them from the running. The Pelicans’ deal, by all accounts, would revolve around a protected pick and a center with a bad contract. The Bulls aren’t giving up Jimmy Butler.
Okafor, the 2015 third-overall pick, is a strange case. He does one thing—score in the low post—and he does it very well, but he’s below average at just about everything else. That kind of player has no obvious comparisons in recent NBA history, but it’s really not promising. The reported offer for Okafor would seem to indicate that the rest of the league isn’t enthused about his chances of succeeding.
But he’s 21 years old and he can score! That’s not nothing. They’re obviously different players, but Okafor’s surface numbers in his rookie year weren’t far off those of Kristaps Porzingis, who was taken one pick later (he refused to work out for the Sixers). Porzingis has an entirely different skillset, which is the important thing here: Okafor needs to develop a secondary skill. And he’s young enough that it’s not insane to think he could, at least in the right situation. Is Philly that situation?
Given all the other weird shit going on under Bryan Colangelo’s reign as GM, there’s no reason to think so. But what are the Sixers supposed to do if the league’s buyers don’t want what they’re selling? This was always the danger of stockpiling more big men than they could reasonably play. Of Embiid, Okafor, and Nerlens Noel, Philly expected to be able to move the center it wanted least. The counter is that all the other teams also know the Sixers are desperate to make a deal, because getting a mediocre trade haul is better than getting nothing and keeping a guy they can’t use and don’t want.