Over the past year, it has seemed as though both the 76ers organization and fan base were onboard with trading Nerlens Noel and keeping Jahlil Okafor. Nerlens has been clear since media day that he is not happy with this situation and would like it resolved as soon as possible. That did not sit well with some, and there is no doubt he could have handled his frustrations in a more professional manner, but it is hard to blame him for for being upset with the situation he currently finds himself in.
No player wants to ride the bench during a contract year, especially after seeing centers in which Noel compares favorably to such as Timofey Mozgov ( $65M), Bismack Biyombo ($68M) , and Ian Mahinmi ($64M) cash in on monster contracts. With the salary cap set to increase again this summer, and projected to go as high as $120M by 2020, Noel wants to maximize his earning potential. Even though at times it has seemed to be a forgone conclusion, trading Noel might not be the best course of action for Bryan Colangelo and Brett Brown.
In a two week period Brett Brown seems to have gone full circle with his handling of Nerlens. After publicly announcing Noel would be out of his rotation for the foreseeable future, Brown apparently changed his mind saying “I think we are going to see him on the court more and more.” Why such a drastic change less than two weeks after condemning him to the bench?
Jahlil Okafor. It doesn’t take a genius to realize the Embiid/Okafor pairing is failing miserably. The Sixers are clearly building this team around Joel Embiid so why do anything to minimize his talents and potential? That is exactly what they are doing by pairing him alongside Okafor. He is forced to play the four because Jahlil struggles outside the paint on the defensive end, and is ineffective outside the paint on the other end. This pulls Embiid away from the basket on D, which is a big mistake. He is holding opponents to under 42% shooting at the rim which is good for top 3 in all of the NBA. He is a true game changer already.
Okafor’s rim protection is similar to what you see when you arrive at Wells Fargo Center about an hour before tip; a layup line. Granted, Okafor has been more effective on the offensive end while the opposition is focusing on guarding Embiid. It doesn’t seem like Joel is too happy about playing on the perimeter while Okafor’s positioned on the block. He even went as far as saying this has been the only time in his career he has not trusted the process. These are strong words coming from someone who appointed themselves as “The Process”. Joel’s success and the Sixers success go hand in hand so it is vital for Brett to fully utilize his young star’s talents which is unfortunate for Jahlil.
The numbers do not lie. Statistically over the past two season the Sixers are at their worst with Okafor on the court. Last season Jahlil finished #471 (-495) out of 476 players in total plus/minus (if he played the full season he would have finished dead last). This year he is a minus 158, good for #439 out of the 445 players that qualified. Even though Okafor clearly has an advantage over Noel when it comes to offensive abilities, the results have not translated.
In 2015-16, the two had identical Per 100 Possessions Offensive Rating Statistics, with each posting a 99. However the defensive numbers are not identical. With Okafor on the court the Sixers gave up 110 points per 100 possessions, compared to the 103 points per 100 possessions while Noel was on the court.
Brett has stated numerous times his desire to build a defensive minded team that runs the floor whenever possible. Noel is the ideal big man for that style. Defend, rebound, run, catch oops. We saw glimpses of Noel’s above the rim ability when paired with Ish Smith last year. Subtract Ish, add Ben, and imagine the possibilities.
There is no doubt Okafor’s offensive ability is far superior to Nerlens, but he does not fit the style Brown wants to play and his weaknesses have far outweighed his strengths thus far. It seems the Sixers are arriving at that conclusion. They will fulfill their due diligence by continuing to trot out the Okafor/Embiid combination for the remainder of the road trip but I expect to see Noel paired with Embiid in the near future.
Similarly to Okafor, Nerlens is at his best while playing in the paint, however, he gives Brown much more flexibility since he is capable of playing the 4.
If Noel and Embiid can prove to be an effective pairing, even for only 10-15 minutes per game, the Sixers should strongly consider keeping Noel. The idea of having a superior rim protector on the floor at all times gives Brett Brown a solid luxury most teams do not have, while also giving Bryan Colangelo something to build around. It is important for him to begin shaping this team, and trading Jahlil Okafor is a step in that direction.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports