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Should Jahlil Okafor Prefer the Lakers?

The Minnesota Timberwolves won the lottery—well at least they did unless you think that the Lakers won the lottery because they get the second pick and no one wants to go to Minnesota.

How do such outlandish narratives even come about? I was curious so I started prodding around trying to find the root of it all.

The Telephone Game

Not long after the lottery, Jonathan Givony of Draft  Express wrote:

If Okafor indeed has his heart set on being a Laker like persistent rumors have indicated for some time now, it will be interesting to see if his agent Bill Duffy (a college friend of Flip Saunders at Minnesota) sends him in for a workout to play hardball. It’s tough to pass on the opportunity to be the #1 pick in the draft, and there are really no guarantees he’ll be selected #2 at this stage.

Now, let me say that Givony is a very responsible writer, and I have no problems with what he said. He’s referencing general rumors and makes it clear that he’s just stating speculation. He qualifies the whole thing by saying “If Okafor indeed has his heart set…like persistent rumors have indicated…..” If is a conditional word with a logical meaning. It means it’s possible that the rumors are not true and in such a case, nothing that follows the “if” matters.

But people love to dismiss ifs second-hand.

Not long after that, Chuck Myron of Hoops Rumors picked up the “story” and repeated it on his blog, saying:

Persistent rumors indicate that Jahlil Okafor has his heart set on becoming a Laker, according to Givony, who wonders if agent Bill Duffy, who also represents Andrew Wiggins and who is college buddies with Saunders, will let Okafor work out for the Wolves.

Not much got changed, but the words, “If Okafor indeed…” were left off of Myron’s report. That gives it a different flavor. It suggests that the rumors are actually true.

Then Josh Hill of Fansided wrote on May 21 that, “Okafor is expected to be a Top 3 pick this year in the NBA Draft, but he doesn’t really want to go from playing for the National Champions to playing in the basketball boneyard of Minnesota.” And to support his claim, he linked to Myron.

Not long after that, it was all over the web. Okafor didn’t want to go Minnesota, and everyone was linking to Hill’s article. It happened here, here, here and here. Here the title even reads, “AND IT BEGINS Jahlil Okafor will ask Timberwolves not to draft him, eyeing Lakers move.”

And that’s how you go from one person making a heavily qualified, purely speculative comment that a player might want to play for the Lakers to a definitive declaration that the player refuses to play for the Timberwolves.

It’s the Internet version of the telephone game. And it’s all based on the flawed notion that somehow it’s preferable to play for the Lakers.

Why Minnesota is a Great Option

The days that there are advantages to playing for large market teams are over. Endorsements and the like are no longer tied to market size. Between a significant chunk of games being nationally televised and the advent of league pass, players can rack up millions, even if they play for a small-market team.

Nor does it matter in regards to where players go in free agency. In today’s NBA, it doesn’t matter where you play. Players just want to play for a winner, regardless of whether that’s Miami with LeBron James or Cleveland with LeBron James.

Feb. 9, 2015 - Minneapolis, MN, USA - Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins (22) is fouled from behind by Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford (15) as he takes a first quarter shot on Monday, Feb. 9, 2015, at the Target Center in Minneapolis

Okafor should want to join forces with Andrew Wiggins in Minnesota.

And finally, it doesn’t matter who you play for. All that matters is who you play with.  Chris Paul is just as content playing for the once-lowly Los Angeles Clippers as he would have been for the since-humbled Lakers.

Only two things seem to influence where players want to go these days: money (Carmelo Anthony) and winning (LeBron James). Some players, particularly those on their third contracts, are willing to sacrifice the former for the latter.

And that’s where you have to look at the whole notion of whether Okafor even would want to play for the Lakers instead of Minnesota. There are a lot of reasons to believe he’d prefer to be drafted No. 1.

First, along with the prestige that goes with being the top pick, he’d get $20.7 million over his first four years with the Wolves compared to $18.5 million with the Lakers. That a difference of $2.2 million in salary. And we’re not talking about a player who has already made his millions, so that is not chump change.

And, while some would argue that Okafor could easily make up that difference in endorsements by signing with the Lakers, that’s presumptuous. Andrew Wiggins got a deal for between $10-12 million from Nike before he ever played a game. Being the No. 1 overall pick has value too, arguably more than playing for the worst Lakers team ever.

So financially, it’s in Okafor’s best interest to want to go to Minnesota.

And what about winning? Minnesota is ahead of the Lakers in terms of building a contender, as well. The Wolves’ roster is stocked with young superstar-level talent. Their coach, Flip Saunders, puts it in perspective when asked about trading away the No. 1 pick, per Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe:

When you talk about trading the pick, it would have to be a huge-type situation because I feel like there’s three or four players that will be All-Star, All-Pro-type players. You’re just not going to give somebody like that away. The positive from our standpoint getting the top pick — we’ve got two great 19-year-olds last year, we got [Adreian] Payne, and we’re waiting to see if [Anthony] Bennett can get healthy and Bennett can develop.

They’re all going to be able to kind of mature together. Really similar to the situation Oklahoma City had. We’ve talked about what they’ve been able to do. They’ve been lucky and gotten the right players, and they were able to develop those players, so we’re hoping to follow suit.

Saunders elaborates on who those players are later in Washburn’s piece.

 Because of the youth of our team and having two 19-year-olds from last year, we’re not going to mortgage our future to facilitate that development. Right now Wiggins is that development. LaVine is that development. [Shabazz] Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng, too, so I would never say never but I don’t see us trading [the No. 1 pick] because all these guys we’re going to have an opportunity to look at, three or four of these guys are going to be All-Star, All-Pro-type players. Those are guys you don’t want to give up on.

LaVine had a tremendous close to the season, averaging 19.6 points, 5.7 assists and 5.1 rebounds over his last 15 games. He wowed in the dunk contest. He’s going to be a star.

Dieng averaged 11.7 points and 10.0 rebounds per 36 minutes on the season. Kevin Garnett’s influence is already apparent, and if the greatest Timberwolf ever sticks around, he’d be a great impact on Dieng’s development.

Muhammad averaged 17.7 points on 49.5 percent shooting and 42.1 percent from three in the 20 games before his season got unglued because of injuries. His low-post game is as good as any young wing in the league. That, combined with his deep shooting, bodes well for a highly efficient scorer.

And that’s to say nothing about the 2013 No. 1 overall pick, Anthony Bennett, who has been making great progress according to his trainer, Drew Hanlen:

The Wolves starting five could be LaVine, Wiggins, Muhammed, Dieng and Okafor[1]. That has the potential to be ridiculously good.

The Wolves also have Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic, who may be part of the team’s future, or just excellent trade assets. Either way, Minnesota is flush with young talent and the ability to get better. They also have around $8 million in cap space.

The only draft choice they owe in the next three years is top-12 protected in 2016. That means if they lose it, they’re already contending for the playoffs in the Western Conference.

The Lakers Are Not a Good Option

Compare that with what the Lakers have. Kobe Bryant is one of the greatest players ever, but he’s not at the tail end of his career—he’s past it. Yet, he’s still absorbing a massive amount of the budget.

They have Julius Randle, who has 14 minutes and two points in his NBA career. He was taken with the No. 7 pick of the 2014 draft. How he pans out is still more speculation than anything. If he’s going to be a star, it’s going to be at least two years away. It’s not unprecedented for a player to miss his rookie season due to injury and then come out and make a difference. Blake Griffin did it. But it’s rare.

Nov. 4, 2014 - Los Angeles, California, U.S - Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers during their NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California on Tuesday, November 4, 2014. The Phoenix Suns defeats the L.A. Lakers, 112-106

Playing for the intense Kobe Bryant, specifically at his age and skill level, isn’t necessarily a good thing.

The Lakers will have their pick this year. They’ll also have their pick later on in the draft. And they have some cap room. That spending money doesn’t have as great a value as you might think. Having loot to spend on players only counts if you have players wanting to take it.

Most players with options aren’t going to be shopping for new teams this year because in 2016 the cap is going to balloon—possibly all the way up to $90 million. That is going to make the max contracts go way up—like in the neighborhood of $120-150 million.

That is going to reduce the field a lot. Kevin Love’s not going to opt out of his contract this year for the simple reason he can make so much more money by putting it off.

That means only the teams without options will genuinely be free agents. But even a good number of those are restricted. A max contract to Jimmy Butler is going to be below market value a year from now, and even the cost-conscious (okay, cheap) Jerry Reinsdorf knows that. The Bulls will match any offers which come his way if they don’t reach a deal with him before he even talks to anyone. And don’t expect the Golden State Warriors to let Draymond Green walk away either.

There are a smattering of big men who are unrestricted free agents. But adding them to the young duo of Okafor/Towns and Julius Randle the Lakers are trying to build around makes no sense. So DeAndre Jordan, Greg Monroe et al aren’t going to be signing big contracts with LA.

The best the Lakers can hope for is someone like Wesley Matthews, who is coming off injury. Or maybe they can give Rajon Rondo a chance to restore his career. In short, their best chance is to gamble. Which means that if Okafor is really pushing to get to the Lakers, he’s gambling on a gamble.

And what would be the point of that? Because of Kobe Bryant?

Bryant had a usage percentage of 34.9 and a PER of 17.6. Per Basketball-Reference and a little math, that disparity of 17.3 is the highest in NBA history. In other words, if you describe a “ball-hog” as someone with high usage and low efficiency, Bryant just had quantifiably the biggest ball-hog season ever.

top 10 ballhog seasons everAnd why would a youngster, whose star potential is based on his offense want to play with that? So he can “learn to win?”

Bryant never “led” a team to a championship, per se. He dragged them a couple of times, through sheer skill, athleticism and determination. He forced his team to win. Which, hey, that has its own merit.

He no longer has the ability to do that, though. Nor does he have the means to do what Tim Duncan has done with the Spurs, which is to adapt himself so he can gird a team to a championship. That requires humility, restraint and temperament—none of which are strengths of Bryant.

Rather, the exact opposite was on display this year, whether it was showing disdain for his teammates celebrating winning, demanding that they stay out of his way (NSFW) or generally just showing up sporadically to practice to yell profanities (more NSFW) at his younger teammates. He seems to want to still drag and his teammates don’t appear to like it.

The problem is when you don’t have the ability to drag your team to wins anymore, and you still try to do so, you only drag them down to where you are. Bryant still insists on being the focal point on the team, even if he’s not the best player. And that, along with his cap-gobbling contract, makes Bryant more of a deterrent than an attraction.

Then you factor in that after this year, the Lakers owe two of their next three first-round picks and it begs the question: How are they going to improve?

Sure there’s cap space in 2016. But then everyone has cap space. So players are going to be looking at teams where they can win immediately. And that won’t be the Lakers. It is not at all hard to see the Lakers out of the playoffs for the next five years.

If I’m Jahlil Okafor, I’m doing everything in my power to get Minnesota to pick me. He gets more money there, he has a better chance to win there. And as a member of a winning team, there’s greater opportunity for glory there. The Lakers, not the Wolves, are the team to avoid.

[1] There are some who would argue that Karl-Anthony Towns would fit better, and I agree. But that’s moot since the article is about Okafor.

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