Having your name surface in trade rumors is part of the job as a professional athlete. Unless you’ve reached the top tier of your sport, a la LeBron James, most players are thrown into the rumor mill at one point or another.
Jahlil Okafor, like any other player surrounded by trade rumors, is expected to keep his head down and wait for the smoke to clear. But the circumstances surrounding his (likely) departure are unique, and he deserves an end to this lengthy process sooner rather than later.
You can trot out a series of tired responses to the idea that a highly-paid athlete “deserves” something from a franchise. Sure, he’s getting compensated just fine to lurk in the background and not rattle any cages, and being a good citizen isn’t exactly a big ask. The Sixers have been a better basketball team without him on the floor, and their obligation is absolutely to get the best deal, even if it means keeping him in limbo.
Still, Okafor’s case is unique even among players who know the writing is on the wall. He has spent most of the last two months jumping between starter’s minutes and riding the pine, having to fill in only when the franchise player is injured. He has been effectively phased out except for when the team needs him to absorb minutes, just 20 months clear of being selected with a top-three pick.
Despite this, he has not complained. His public comments have been in support of his teammates, including the very guys who block him from playing. There haven’t been stories of he or his “camp” going behind anyone’s back to leak unsavory comments to a local reporter, or whispers of discontent in the locker room. While his stoicism has often been a point of frustration for some, it is appreciated now.
As it became clearer he was the odd-man out, trade rumors have picked up steam and the circumstances grow ever weirder. The Sixers have been reported to be in advanced talks to trade him about 57 times in a week, and talks hit such a fever pitch over the weekend that Philadelphia elected not just to hold him out from playing, but to keep him home from last night’s trip to Charlotte.
Okafor was spotted shaking a lot of hands at Saturday night’s game against Miami, and Liberty Ballers learned the young center communicated to teammates he expected a deal to be done soon. Yet here we sit on Tuesday morning, with no completion of the deal in sight.
Typically, a player saying goodbye happens as the player is on the verge of being dealt or after a trade has already been completed. We’ve even seen some up close in Philadelphia; Dion Waiters and other Cavs reserves said their goodbyes shortly before a 2015 road loss to the Sixers, a process which Tristian Thompson described after the game:
We didn't find out until it was time to go out there for the jump ball. So we said our 'see you laters,’ not goodbye because you're going to see them down the road. So, see you later and wished them all the best, but we know we got a game to play and we can't stop. We got to keep pushing. We got to keep moving forward.
That is what standard operating procedure looks like. The Sixers, on the other hand, have had Okafor’s trade negotiations playing out through the media and the subject of said rumors told to stay home. We can have a spirited conversation about whether the public nature of these trade discussions helps or hurts the franchise — most of you know where this blog stands on the value of radio silence — but all I can think about right now is the how it impacts one person.
Regardless of what you think of him as a basketball player and as a fit for what the Sixers program is building, Jahlil Okafor is a human being. The organization’s expectations for him have swung wildly from month-to-month during his time here, and these days the roller-coasting is sharper than ever. Whether he is what people expected him to be when he was selected is irrelevant to how he should be treated as a member of the team while he’s still here.
Okafor deserves better than this, and if a deal wasn’t actually close he shouldn’t have been put in a position of isolation to begin with. There is no pressure to play him — he was an infrequent member of the rotation long before the rumors took off — yet the Sixers look content to let him linger in the background until the issue is resolved. Brett Brown has even gone so far as to say he is not under a regimented training schedule during this period of awkward tension.
At a minimum, the Sixers could treat him like part of the team until they’re actually able to put a deal through. For the time being he’s still one of their guys, and there’s no reason to keep him on the outside looking in if that fact hasn’t changed. He deserves to stand alongside the men he calls his teammates, not treated like a leper, even if he’s only in Philadelphia for a little bit longer.