When the Sixers opted to move Nerlens Noel instead of Jahlil Okafor at the trade deadline in February, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to showcase the former third overall pick for a future trade.
With Joel Embiid out for the season and Noel onto greener pastures in Dallas, Okafor was given the opportunity to log heavy minutes as the starting center in an attempt to prove his worth to the Sixers or the league’s 29 other teams.
The only thing that could possibly hold him back was his health, the most obvious barrier to success when you’re a Sixer.
Well, Okafor has missed five of a possible 14 games thus far in March, all due to soreness in his surgically repaired right knee. He did not appear in back-to-back games against the Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks at the beginning of the month, and after returning for five straight games of unabated action, Okafor was ruled out for the remainder of the Sixers’ contest against the Boston Celtics on March 19th after just 12 minutes. The team then opted to sit him against the Orlando Magic the following evening, but allowed him to play 17 minutes against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday. He was then ruled out for Friday’s game against the Chicago Bulls, and Sunday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Okafor is currently averaging just 21.3 minutes per game in March, which is less than his season average of 22.7. It’s also the lowest minutes per game average of any month where he’s played in at least five games over the course of his two-year career.
So much for that showcase.
When asked about the status of Okafor’s seemingly unhealthy knee, Brett Brown had this (unintentionally) funny comment to say, courtesy of Keith Pompey.
“I’m a complete prisoner to his body and medical news,” coach Brett Brown said of Okafor. “We will react when the medical people tell me.”
Although this quote paints a pretty hysterical image in one’s head, he’s not necessarily wrong. Bryan Colangelo has handcuffed Brown to Okafor because he was unwilling to move him for pennies on the dollar, and believed the cleared logjam would allow Okafor to better display his talent, subsequently resulting in a better trade return. So Brown has now been forced to try and put the 21-year-old in the spotlight, regardless of its adverse affect on the team’s play as a whole. But now that Okafor is struggling to get on the floor, it’s certainly not going to increase his value, leaving the looming possibility that Colangelo may not be able to find a suitable trade partner this summer.
There’s a beautiful irony to this ordeal that helps highlight Colangelo’s incompetency, his penchant for lying, or quite possibly his general dislike of Noel. When Colangelo forced Brown to enter the season with four centers on the active roster, part of his justification was that injuries made it impossible for the team to make a trade.
“...I don’t think at any point we’ve been in a position as an organization to actively pursue a trade of any of the centers given the fact that there was so much uncertainty with respect to their health and their availability.”
Despite vocalizing that rationale in December, he opted to trade Noel two months later although Embiid and Okafor were both dealing with knee ailments. The team ruled Embiid out for the season six days after the Noel deal went down, and Okafor hasn’t been able to log consistent minutes since.
Now, the Sixers are starting Richaun Holmes, and giving undrafted rookie free agent Shawn Long (who is now signed for the rest of the season) more and more playing time. They also decided to call up Tiago Splitter from a rehab assignment with the Delaware 87ers, and he now looks like he could quite possibly play this year. That doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence in Okafor’s ability to get/stay on the floor as the season winds down.
Add the team’s re-occurring injury woes to the fact that they didn’t receive a great package for Noel, and it seems as though keeping him would’ve been the right decision. If only Colangelo actually believed in the things he was saying.
Okafor had this to say about his ailing knee on Sunday:
“If we were like on the verge of trying to get a playoff spot or something like that, I could go out there and play,” Okafor said Friday. “But Coach Brown and all of our people behind the scenes don’t believe it’s necessary for me to play if my knee is feeling sore and stuff like that.
“It’s pretty much how they’ve been since I’ve been a Sixer. They’ve been super cautious.”
Considering the Sixers track record of improperly diagnosing, treating and sharing information regarding injuries, it’s hard to take anyone at their word these days. Maybe the Sixers are indeed being overly cautious with Okafor, but they no longer deserve the benefit of the doubt in these situations.
Using Colangelo’s own logic against him, every game Okafor misses over the remainder of the season makes the decision to move on from Noel look that much worse, and the chance he gets traded for anything worthwhile even slimmer.