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February 23, 2017

Why Sixers traded Noel instead of Okafor – and what it means for rest of team

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The 2017 NBA Trade Deadline has officially passed. And that can only mean one thing – it's time to start analyzing, critiquing and grading the moves made around the league. 

For the most part, teams wind up in one of two categories following a trade: the winners and the losers. But in the case of some teams, specifically the Sixers, those distinctions are more difficult to identify, largely because the moves made by Bryan Colangelo won't have an immediate impact on the team in the way many expected.

In an M. Night Shyamalan twist, Colangelo channeled his inner-Sam Hinkie ahead of his first NBA Trade Deadline with the Sixers by shipping off a pair of contributing players on expiring contracts for a slew of second-round draft picks and bunch of guys who are likely to be waived or bought out before ever donning a Sixers uniform.

For a team that has repeatedly said they are focused on winning basketball games going forward, this sure makes it look like they're still tanking. At least on the surface.

SIXERS-HAWKS TRADE

SIXERS RECEIVEHAWKS RECEIVE
Tiago Splitter
 
Second-round pick
(via Miami Heat)
Ersan Ilyasova
Pick swap rights
(on another second-round pick)
 

SIXERS-MAVERICKS TRADE

SIXERS RECEIVEMAVS RECEIVE
 Justin Anderson
Andrew BogutNerlens Noel
First-round pick
(top-18 protected)
 

Last week, I wrote that Colangelo had failed to prove he's any better than Hinkie at running the Sixers. And in the 10 days since, he's done very little to prove me wrong.

But the moves he made in the 24 hours leading up to Thursday's deadline are the same kind that used to be embraced by Process-trusters under Hinkie. 

Now, however, under Colangelo, those moves are coming under heavy fire from Sixers fans.

While the trades are far from perfect, there's a good chance some of the animosity directed at Colangelo has little to do with these moves and everything to do with the way he handled the news of Ben Simmons' CT scan and Joel Embiid's knee injuries. Hell, even Embiid voiced his disappointment over how the team went about informing fans of his status.

And when you examine them from a different perspective – the one that examines the "why" rather than just the "what" – you begin to see that there's sound reasoning behind both, even if that means another spring without much winning for Sixers fans.

WHY NOEL – AND NOT OKAFOR?

In short? Time. Pressure, and time.

Neither Noel nor Okafor are "Colangelo guys." They were both drafted under Hinkie and, because of that, the current front office probably has less of an attachment to them than they will with the guys they draft going forward. But that might not have played as big of a role in the decision to trade Noel – and it certainly doesn't help us determine why it was him and not Okafor, the guy at the center of the majority of recent trade rumors.

That, more likely, has to do with the amount of time each had left on their current contracts. 

A day earlier, the Sixers traded Ilyasova to the Hawks. And unlike Noel, he was one of the few players contributing this season who was added in the 10-plus months since Colangelo took the reigns. And the reasons behind that trade were simple, just as they were for Noel.

Both Noel and Ilyasova will be free agents following this season, and at this point it's become quite obvious that neither were part of the Sixers long-term agenda. If that's indeed the case, then it makes all the sense in the world to trade them now rather than milk 26 more meaningless games out of them and then allow both to walk this summer without getting anything in return.

Was the return less than desirable? Yes. 

However, Colangelo was able to accomplish one of his main objectives at the deadline: clearing out some of the logjam in the Sixers frontcourt.

At the risk of giving him too much credit for a move that grades out as simply average (read: C/C+ range), Colangelo was also able to avoid the pitfalls of forcing an Okafor deal. The pressure to move at least one of the two young centers not named Joel Embiid was great, but after seeing what the Kings were able to get back for DeMarcus Cousins, it became apparent that the Sixers weren't going to get the kind of return they sought for Okafor. 

At that point, and with the team in no position to contend in 2017, it just made more sense to be patient.

Had Colangelo forced a move for Okafor, and received a package similar to what he got for Noel, fans still wouldn't be thrilled. Now imagine a scenario where they do that AND let Noel walk for nothing at the end of the season. If that were to happen, the Sixers would essentially have gotten Justin Anderson and the Mavs protected first-round pick to replace two former lottery picks with just five years of combined experience.

Talk about poor optics. 

Instead, Colangelo made sure to get something back in return for Noel, alleviated some of the pressure resulting from a crowded frontcourt, and allowed himself more time to find a suitor for Okafor, who won't be a free agent until the summer of 2018. (Hey, if he can't find one on draft day, we might get to do this all over again at next year's deadline.)

Just as important as any of those things, however, is the trickle-down effect these deadline moves will have on the rest of the players who remained on the Sixers roster when the clock struck 3 p.m. on Thursday.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE SIXERS

There are a few young Sixers players who are going to benefit greatly from the absences of Noel and Ilyasova. But perhaps the two players with the most to gain are Dario Saric and Richaun Holmes.

Saric will take a lot of the minutes left behind by Ilyasova, and although the Turkish forward performed admirably for the Sixers, the rookie from Croatia has proven in recent weeks that he's ready to take that next step.

It appears the transition had already been happening before the Sixers dealt Ilyasova, and in all honesty, it was only a matter of time before Saric was the starter, especially with Ilyasova set to hit the open market. I mean, Colangelo essentially got two second-round picks and potentially a 2020 first-rounder – that's the top-20 protected pick that came from the Thunder along with Ilyasova – for Jerami Grant. At least that's what it'll look like when the dust settles.

That's pretty good value, especially if it opens things up for Saric.

As for Holmes, he's a guy we've seen flashes from but has yet to show the kind of consistency you want from a regular rotation player. With Noel gone and Embiid out for at least another four games, Holmes will play an increased role, one that could help him stick in Philly moving forward. The 37th-overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, Holmes is averaging 6.6 points (on 53 percent shooting) and 4.8 rebounds in just 15.9 minutes per game (or 20.3 points and 13.1 rebounds per 100 possessions). 

He's extremely athletic, a great finisher around the rim, and possess a similar ability to protect the rim. Now, he'll likely see an increase in his minutes and could turn some heads. Will that translate into a future role as the team's backup center behind Embiid? We'll have to wait and see.

WHY SO MUCH ANGER?

I'll keep this short, but I think I've figured out why no one seems happy with the deadline deals Colangelo made this week. Basically, Sixers fans can be broken up into two categories, those who trusted the process and those who didn't. 

And this week, both felt betrayed...

1. All Sixers fans were already fed up with Colangelo over the way he handled recent medical updated for Simmons and Embiid, so any benefit of the doubt he may have received can be thrown out the window.

2. Process-haters looked to Colangelo to be the anti-Hinkie. The end of the tanking. The beginning of the winning. These moves – trading actual players for future second-round picks – looked a hell of a lot like the kind they hated under the previous regime. Naturally, they feel betrayed.

3. Process-trusters likely see this as a big middle-finger from Colangelo, a way to show them that their beloved GM's plan was destined to fail all along. Not only were they mad to see Noel go, but also to see him go in the way he did. After all, why did Hinkie have to go if Colangelo was essentially going to make similar types of moves?

There's just no way they could give Colangelo credit.

One just can't help but wonder how these moves would've been received if the executive making them was Hinkie instead. 

It truly is all about the optics. 


Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin

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