May 27, 2016
With just under a month remaining before the Philadelphia 76ers officially make the first overall pick in NBA Draft, rumors continue to swirl around their already crowded frontcourt, one that could become more crowded if they take LSU forward Ben Simmons.
The latest rumor comes via two pretty reliable sources -- ESPN's Marc Stein and Chad Ford -- and involves the two best big men (to have actually played an NBA game) on the Sixers roster: Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel. According to ESPN, Bryan Colangelo and Co. have begun to explore the trade market and gauge interest in their two most coveted players.
Sources told ESPN that the Sixers are determined to gauge the trade market for both Okafor and Noel and are increasingly likely to move at least one of them in conjunction with the draft, in which Philadelphia holds the No. 1 overall selection for the first time since selecting Allen Iverson in 1996.
In recent weeks, rival executives have been forecasting Philadelphia to be one of the most active teams this offseason in terms of pursuing trades, with new personnel boss Bryan Colangelo known to be aggressive and openly determined to speed Philadelphia's return to playoff contention. [ESPN.com]
On Thursday, Ford was on 97.3 ESPN Radio in South Jersey and said that Okafor was the most likely to go because he would likely fetch a greater return, but he was presenting that as his opinion and as not sourced information.
"I think that there's a very high likelihood, that whether it's to move up in the draft or use them to grab a free agent in a sign and trade or just to a trade, that you will not see the Nerlens Noel-Jahlil Okafor pairing at the start of next season. I think that they'll gauge the interest of both players. I think that there might be a slight preference for Noel, to keep him around with the Sixers, and I think you might be right, there might be a slight, better value for Okafor out on the market, but I think everyone agrees that that combination of those two players doesn't necessarily work." [h/t to CSNPhilly.com's Andrew Kulp for transcribing]
As you can see, Ford used the word "think" five times in three (rather long) sentences, which was likely intentional. Maybe he just wasn't ready to report that information. Or maybe, because he is well-informed and has plenty of NBA sources, Ford's "thinking" was influenced by off-the-record conversations with some of those sources.
Either way, Friday's ESPN.com story from Ford and Stein made it quite clear.
Sources describe Okafor, at this early juncture, as the most likely of the two to be moved in the wake of his rocky rookie season off the floor.
But the Sixers are known to be considering a wide range of possibilities, given the prospect of fellow lottery picks Embiid and Saric finally making their Philadelphia debuts next season to add to the Sixers' deep frontcourt and the well-chronicled concerns about whether Okafor and Noel can play together. [ESPN.com]
Whether or not the Sixers pull the trigger and deal one of their bigs prior to the draft -- a move that could suggest they'll use the top pick on Simmons and not Duke forward Brandon Ingram -- remains to be seen.
But it's not so simple. At least it shouldn't be.
The Sixers have quite a bit of "optionality," which is, in large part, an intentional byproduct of The Process™ that led to Sam Hinkie's resignation.
If the team truly believes that Noel and Okafor can't coexist, then trading one for a top-10 draft pick seems logical, but it's only wise if the return is worth the cost. For example, the Celtics, who have the No. 3 pick in next month's draft, could be a potential trade partner, but given the question marks beyond the top two picks, there's no guarantee that the player drafted with that pick will pan out.
In fact, the Sixers may be better served waiting until the 2017 draft -- which, coincidentally, is also the glass-half-full way of looking at the protected Lakers pick they missed out on again in this year's lottery.
That, however, doesn't help you decide which player to deal. The market will likely help determine that, but there are arguments to be made for keeping both players. While Noel seems like an easier player to build around, centers with the offensive game of Okafor, who was recently named to the NBA All-Rookie First Team, don't come around very often.
Unfortunately for those who aren't yet ready to see the young center shipped out of town for another asset, the Sixers already have a potentially transcendent center in Joel Embiid -- pending his health, of course. But that's a big (read: enormous) question mark given that he's missed each of his first two seasons with injuries. And his presence is just another factor complicating this decision.
Unless the Sixers are 100 percent sure that the third overall pick from 2014 will be ready to take the court (and stay on the court), then it seems somewhat unnecessary and premature to deal one of their other two big men. Furthermore, having Okafor would allow coach Brett Brown to keep Embiid's minutes down without really changing too much from a style standpoint until he's had time to get back up to speed -- don't forget he hasn't played in more than two years and only has half a season's worth of college ball under his belt. There's going to be a big-tim adjustment period.
And during that time, wouldn't it be nice to allow Okafor and Noel a little longer to work on their spacing and learn how to coexist?
Ultimately, the price opposing GMs are willing to pay in order to acquire either Okafor or Noel could (and probably should) trump all of these concerns. But, given that they’re still a few years from competing, there’s no need for the Sixers to force something, especially if the price isn’t right.
Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin