Somebody alert the media (consider me alerted), because the Philadelphia 76ers have looked like a professional basketball team the last two games. Following their second win of the season Saturday night in Phoenix, the Sixers also led the Jazz Monday night with inside of a minute left before having their game-tying shot just miss in the closing seconds. While the clearest reason for this brief resurgence has been the arrival of point guard Ish Smith, the more cynical members of the fan base would also point out that the win (and near-win) came with Jahlil Okafor sidelined with a minor knee injury.
From the second after he was selected third overall in last June’s draft, people have wondered how viable Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel were together as a frontcourt pairing. The first half of the season has done nothing to alleviate those concerns, as the Sixers have struggled (to put it lightly, 2-31 after all). And each one of those players and the team has performed better with only one of the two on the court. During the last two games, Noel has looked like the guy many people argued could have won Rookie of the Year last season, averaging 16.0 points on a combined 14-16 from the field, 8.5 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks.
Naturally, the topic has come up that one of the two big men has to go before the franchise can successfully move forward. While Noel has looked tremendous in recent games, critics look at Okafor and notice he’s dead last in the league in ESPN’s real plus-minus statistic. That measures on-court impact while supposedly taking into account teammates, opponents and additional factors. Despite his glitzy 17.6 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, based on the ever-infallible eye test, the Sixers simply look more fluid without having to wait for Okafor to plod up the court and use half the shot clock fighting for post position.
Let me first say that nothing is, or should be, imminent as far as trading Okafor. With Smith around to penetrate defenses and help feed easy buckets to the big men, it’s only fair to see what he can do with Okafor, who is unquestionably head and shoulders more talented offensively than Noel.
However, similar to how the Sixers traded Michael Carter-Williams, getting rid of a guy who the team had internally moved on from but the league still highly valued, it’s conceivable we could see Okafor dealt in the not-too-distant future. If so, what would such a trade look like?
Given the rookie salary scale and the fact that teams have players they drafted under team control for effectively seven years, it’s understandably very rare for young players to be traded. While we do occasionally see instances such as Andrew Wiggins, LaMarcus Aldridge, or Pau Gasol, where a player is traded on draft night, it’s even rarer for a high draft pick to be sent away in the middle of his rookie season. A couple of recent instances do come to mind, though.
In February of 2011, the Nets traded 2010 third overall pick Derrick Favors, Devin Harris, two first-round draft picks and $3 million to the Jazz for superstar (at the time) Deron Williams. The Nets had just whiffed on acquiring Carmelo Anthony and badly wanted a franchise player. So they gave up a guy who would arguably have been an all-star at this point if the Western Conference wasn’t so crowded with talent. This situation is fairly similar to that of the Sixers, given that it’s a big man picked third overall. Although a veteran star wouldn’t make sense for Philadelphia, they could package Okafor, the Lakers first-round pick, and Robert Covington (with Carl Landry for contract ballast) for a young, seemingly disgruntled star like Jimmy Butler. It’s an interesting thought.
The other recent example involves a guy who has actually played for the Sixers, Thomas Robinson. T-Rob was the 5th overall pick by the Kings in the 2012 draft and then traded in February of his rookie year along with Francisco Garcia and Tyler Honeycutt to the Rockets for Patrick Patterson, Cole Aldrich, Toney Douglas, and $1 million.
The Kings were in the process of being sold by a financially-embattled Maloof family, and this deal was primarily about saving them over $3 million in payroll. Robinson also hadn’t shown anywhere near the potential at the professional level that Okafor has to this point. It’s nearly impossible to imagine something like this happening now in Philadelphia.
Trading a rookie who is leading his class in scoring would just be a nearly unprecedented move. By far the likeliest scenario is that the Sixers continue to try and make it work through the rest of this season. After all, if trying to play Okafor and Noel together costs them a couple wins, it can only help keep them below the Lakers in the standings. I’d wager Philadelphia waits until after the lottery to see where their draft picks shake out, re-evaluate Joel Embiid’s recovery, and see if Dario Saric is as good as his word about coming over next year. Then, we’ll see the fireworks come June.