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Sixers, Jahlil Okafor look to find way to navigate a strange situation

Sixers GM Bryan Colangelo and center Jahlil Okafor will try to focus on what they can do rather than what they can’t.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Trading one of the big men on the Sixers roster was inevitable, and yesterday’s Nerlens Noel deal was precluded by months and months of speculation, debate, and concern over which player the franchise would send packing. The Sixers went so far as to hold Jahlil Okafor in Philadelphia when the team went on a road trip to Charlotte almost two weeks ago, only to end up trading Noel on deadline day.

I went to Bryan Colangelo’s media availability this morning with a simple question — how did we get here?

Pressed on whether trading Noel was a backup plan after negotiations appeared to fall through with several different teams, Colangelo insisted the value they were seeking was never there in any proposed Okafor swaps.

“With respect to the interest in Jahlil,” Colangelo said, “because of his rookie-scale contract, because of the value of having two more years versus being a restricted free agent, the market was much more broad and arguably more conducive to doing something. But the right deal did not present itself, so we did not make that deal.”

Had a team offered a high-value first or an intriguing young talent better suited to play alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the Sixers probably would have jumped at the opportunity. Regardless of what they think of Okafor, they will face the same question of resource investment they just stared down with Noel at some point down the line. He’s a backup to Embiid in a perfect world for this organization.

Despite his assertion the right deal didn’t come along, Colangelo did offer a rather frank assessment of Okafor’s long-term staying power in Philadelphia. The GM claims he spoke with Okafor and agent Bill Duffy about finding a new landing spot for a player who has spent a lot of time riding the pine.

“There was a lot of behind the scenes discussion and talk about finding an amicable solution,” said Colangelo, “because quite frankly Jahlil has the same issue Nerlens has.”

“He wants to play somewhere, he wants to start, he wants to see an opportunity, and at the end of the day I’m hopeful that at some point he can find that and we can find that. But for now, he’s a valuable part of what we’re doing, he’s a nice, talented player brought in here for a reason, he was a high draft pick, and he retains a market as a contributing NBA player.

Reading between the lines, the implication from the organization is that if Embiid is never able to live up to his potential (or stay healthy enough to realize it), none of the centers standing behind him represent insurance policies in the event things go sideways. Fair enough — we might not agree on the specific valuation of the players involved, but Embiid’s impact is not going to be duplicated by any big man who was on the roster pre-deadline.

Beyond that, Colangelo ensured the team’s public stance on the second-year center remained intact. The message is clear: Okafor is very much still available for the right price, and both parties appear to have interest in moving on should their conditions to deal be met.

On that front, Sixers fans will rightfully wonder if Colangelo will internalize the eventual Noel return as a cautionary tale. There were rumors of a number of offers for both he and Okafor from the start of Colangelo’s tenure until now, and sticking too hard to your valuation can artificially depress the market if teams feel you aren’t a reasonable negotiator. There’s probably a middle ground to be found here, and projecting strength doesn’t mean you can’t concede ground if it helps facilitate a favorable deal.

“We just lost a great friend, a great teammate, and a great player... myself and everybody, we’re all happy for Nerlens because he’s going to a great situation for him. But from a personal standpoint, I was disappointed to see him leave.”

Those were the first public words from Okafor post-deadline, when asked to react to Noel’s departure and what it meant for the team. Finally in position to lay claim to a semi-major role with the team, he made sure to compliment the player whose presence had marginalized his involvement to begin with.

Okafor the basketball player has taken a lot of heat on this site and elsewhere, but he has soldiered on with nary a complaint during a tremendously confusing time. He has been in foreign territory the last couple years, first as part of a losing combination that forced him (and Noel) to accommodate an ill-fitting partner in the frontcourt, later as a spectator as the team came into their own without him in the lineup.

That’s a lot to ask for someone who has been the center of attention for the vast majority of his basketball-playing life. His professional misfires represent the first real challenges he’s ever faced as an athlete; he dominated in high school like any big-time recruit is expected to, and he crushed at Duke (underlying red flags aside) flanked by college hoops royalty. Being asked to go from that to starring as a lead face for a basketball science experiment would jolt anyone’s system.

After all this, after a trade appeared to be all but completed, Okafor was left to contemplate what comes next.

“Everybody’s playing for their future,” he said. “That’s something I think a lot of NBA players have to deal with, is trade rumors. All basketball players want to play well for ourselves and our team. Whatever happens in a few months, we’ll see what happens then, but right now I’m worried about playing these last 27 games, playing well for the city, and playing well for the team.”

There’s a lesson in those words for Okafor’s teammates, the franchise, and the fans. An exorbitant amount of time is spent focusing on what’s to come years down the line, be it how Simmons’ jump shot affects his chances of being a star, or wherever the 2019 Sacramento Kings pick will fall in the first round. There’s good reason to keep an eye on the big-picture, but that has to coincide with the team meeting their day-to-day goals and winning the battles directly in front of them.

Okafor will face a steep challenge in the final months of this season, stepping back into a regular starting role with Embiid on the mend. Barring a dramatic turnaround, he might not win over critics or change what his value is around the league.

But Okafor’s professionalism and insistence on putting one foot in front of the other, no more and no less, is something to be admired even by those who’d rather see him sent packing.

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