From beginning to end, Okafor was a lost cause
PHILADELPHIA » The 20142015 76ers lost their first game, their second, and the next 15 after that, stumbling around at both ends of the court, rarely looking professional.
They had one purpose in mind.
They wanted Jahlil Okafor, the big freshman from Duke, the scoring savant, the next NBA superstar. And if losing could make that happen, who were they to worry that entire rows of Wells Fargo Center seats were going for a buck in the secondary market?
Losing games for Okafor? Deal. Losing dignity for Okafor? Deal. Losing fans for Okafor? Sign right here. The Sixers wanted Jahlil Okafor more than they wanted anyone or anything else. And with Sam Hinkie projecting a know-itall smirk with every turnover, flubbed freethrow or imported minor-league talent, they wouldn’t just roll into the lottery, they would do so with legendary precision.
Their last 10? They lost ‘em all.
“To coach gypsies, to have to coach a revolving door,” Brett Brown would say, as the misery subsided, “that’s not what I’m looking for.”
By then, their process was rolling. They’d already acquired Nerlens Noel, once projected as a No. 1 pick in a draft, and Joel Embiid, once projected as a No. 1 pick in a draft. And all their losing would yield the NBA’s third-lousiest record and a good chance at landing the next No. 1 pick.
As lottery results would unfold, they would wind up with Pick No. 3. That was fine with Hinkie, who would insist that, conveniently enough, there were at least three players able to rationalize all that losing. By then, the consensus had begun to shift, with the draft-a-razzi deciding that Karl-Anthony Towns should be the No. 1 pick. Teams interested in guards, and the Sixers were at least curious, were favoring D’Angelo Russell. But no matter how it would unfold, Okafor would be in the trifecta box. The Sixers didn’t mind. All along, he was their target. And when they drafted him, they all but spilled open the bags of party hats.
Okafor was not the player he seemed while dazzling at Duke, where he’d show his many splendid inside moves, demonstrating a mystical ability, as they say in the industry, to put the ball in the basket. A knee injury didn’t help. But it was more. He couldn’t defend at the NBA level. And because of that, he would be unable to play anywhere but center. But with Embiid in that spot, anyway, Okafor was doomed to a depth-chart plunge, from All-Rookie team, to backup, to little-used deep sub to, in recent days, a player not even worthy of being in uniform on game nights.
By Thursday, in something of a relief for all involved, the plunge ended, and there was Okafor, on his way to Brooklyn with Nik Stauskas and a second-round pick for Trevor Booker, a 30-year-old man on an expiring contract. And, no, there was no instant value in that salary exchange. “A wash,” president Bryan Colangelo said. Basically, then, the Sixers gave away Okafor for a player Brown said before a game against the Lakers Thursday would be unlikely to play his way into the Sixers’ nine-man rotation.
“I wouldn’t say there are regrets,” Brown said. “I’d say there was human disappointment. You’d wished it did (work out better), because he is fantastic people. And we all went through a lot together when he was here. And so, when you remove my coaching hat and just put your ‘human’ hat on, we care about what goes on in his life and his future. So from that side, you’re disappointed you are not able to still coach him. From a reality standpoint, I’m the coach, I made the decisions that I made. And I wish him well.”
Draft mistakes happen. That one happened, in some measure, because when Okafor was drafted the Sixers still were unsure if the injured Embiid would be a durable pro. For that, they were willing, if not obligated, to overstock centers.
Moving Okafor for Booker, a power forward, eases that five-spot jam. It should make the Sixers better suited for the playoffs, should they be involved. But it doesn’t give them what a No. 3 overall, 2015 pick promised: Depth of superstars. Already Noel, a No. 6 overall pick, is gone, as is Okafor, as is Stauskas, a No. 8 overall pick, a player Hinkie always coveted. For all of that, the Sixers essentially have Booker and Justin Anderson, a couple of substitute forwards.
“There was a declining value over time,” Colangelo said. “We were cognizant of that. We adjusted our discussions with teams according to that declining value. We were always realistic. It’s not easy to take a player who was taken third in the draft, after all the pain and strife that this organization and the fan base went through and just move away. At this point, this was the moment that a deal was available that made sense.
“And we are going to move forward with it.”
They’ll try to forget about all that losing, the losing of games, the losing of professionalism, all to acquire Jahlil Okafor.
They shouldn’t be allowed to forget.
To contact Jack McCaffery, email him at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @JackMcCaffery
Former 76ers Nerlens Noel, left, and Jahil Okafor are seen on the bench during a game against Cleveland in November 2015. It was a slow, humiliating process, but Okafor has finally been traded to join Noel on the organizational outs list.