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Why the Sixers did not Cut Jahlil Okafor

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NBA: Utah Jazz at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Although fans are rightly excited about the addition of Turkish Thunder Ersan Ilyasova, there has been one note of discord. Given that we ended up having to drop Trevor Booker in order to create a roster spot for Ersan, and given that Booker, with his lane-clogging ways, never seemed to fit very well in our offense, why did we sacrifice a second-round pick to obtain him? After all, we could have simply cut Jah, or perhaps saved a little money by buying him out. Then we could have picked up someone to fill the roster spot; that someone would not have been as good a player as Booker but he would have been a better fit, so perhaps similarly valuable to our team. And then that fill-in would have been cut for Ersan. In the end, the argument goes, we’d be in the same place, except we’d be in possession of one additional second-round pick. Since the path we chose is, by this reasoning, clearly worse, this has become the latest exhibit for the Bryan Colangelo Firing Squad.

I think this argument -- which, I should say, has been made by some the very best Sixer commenters (e.g. on RTRS this weekend), is mistaken. It leaves out several crucial factors about how the NBA and its salary cap works, but more important it misses fundamental facts about how the world works, in particular the central role of optionality in good decision-making, and the need to focus on process over results (shout out to Sam Hinkie!) when evaluating past decisions.

Suppose the Sixers had cut Jah and Nik, instead of trading them along with a second-rounder to obtain Booker. The good news is, we’re up a second compared to what actually happened. And as noted, many would say that there’s no downside, as Booker didn’t help us that much anyway and was eventually cut.

But here’s the thing: Jah and Nik made about $9M combined, Booker around the same of course, which is why the deal was kosher. If we cut them, that money is irrevocably gone. Gone, gone away. Never to return.

What’s the difference, you ask? Well, back in the Fall I argued forcefully that what the Sixers really needed was a solid veteran 3-and-D wing on an expiring contract (yes, I know, everyone said that, not just me, but bear with me). I scoured the player ratings and concluded there was one possible addition that stood far above all others in terms of talent, fit, contract, and likely availability: Thabo Sefolosha. He was on a $5M deal with a team option for next year; i.e. we could cut him to make room for LeBron or keep him for another reasonably-priced year. He was on a Utah team that seemed likely to want to rev up the tank soon. He had terrific on-off numbers last year and this both, as well as impressive traditional stats. He was in his 30s so shouldn’t cost a lot in trade. I suggested we offer two seconds and cap filler for him.

It didn’t happen. First, Thabo went out for the year with a serious injury. Moreover with the return of Gobert and the emergence of Donovan, Utah began making a playoff push. So, no Thabo for us.

But here’s the point: if we had cut Jah and Nik, you can’t even think about a deal like that. Receiving Thabo would have pushed us $5M over the cap. We’d have had to lose perhaps three young players of the Richaun-TJ-Justin variety to create $5M of cap space. Of course you could try to work in Bayless instead, but since Bayless, unlike Booker, is neither expiring nor decent at basketball these days, that’s a much harder row to hoe.

Whereas if you have Trevor Booker, you can make a trade. Booker and Thabo are not a match, so we’d have needed cap filler from Utah, and maybe there wouldn’t have been a deal to be struck. But the point is, with Trevor Booker, who a) has a real, live NBA contract and b) is a useful player to boot, you can try to work something. Maybe the player who becomes available in a trade makes $9M and it’s Booker and a second for someone who’s a slightly better player than Booker and a much better fit. Maybe it’s Booker and Bayless and valuable picks for Kemba Walker. Maybe anything. If you have Booker, you can trade him. If you have Okafor and Stauskas, you can trade them. But if you just cut those guys, you have nothing on the roster and you have lost the cap space and can’t make trades.

Now, some may be thinking that a buyout, rather than cut, would change this analysis. But there’s no fundamental change. I mean, sure, if Jah would agree to be bought out for pennies, then that’s great. But he wouldn’t, he’d have wanted perhaps 80% or more of his salary in the buyout. In which case you’ve saved only around $1M for future flexibility, the rest is gone just as if you’d cut him. Honestly, a cut or high-percentage buyout would have been absolute GM malpractice, a firing offense. I’m absolutely amazed at how many smart people called for it. It would have murdered our chances at a dozen different types of possible moves. The fact that in the end those moves didn’t get made is not relevant -- process over results, people! We’re happy to have Ersan, right? And it’s great that BC correctly read the tea leaves and recognized that it didn’t make sense to trade for him because he was a likely buyout candidate and likely to join us post-buyout. But suppose the tea leaves had been different. Suppose ATL had made it clear that they weren’t going to buy out Ersan, but that they’d trade him for a swap of seconds and a cap match of expirings. Well, again, that would have been impossible with a Jah-Nik buyout. In that particular case, perhaps buying out Jah and holding Nik would have worked. The point is, you can’ anticipate what opportunities will arise, so you have to keep your flexibility. That’s why you almost never see a high-percentage buyout until after the trade deadline, because doing one earlier is insane.

Now, that should really be enough to end this discussion for good. But there’s another factor: we might have needed Trevor Booker! There are two ways that could have happened.

1) Booker might have fit in better than he did. Now, don’t get me wrong; lots of folks thought he wouldn’t fit, and those people were correct. But some of those same people were wrong about other fit issues in the past. Some of those people thought Ben and Dario couldn’t be on the court together, or that Ben and TJ couldn’t. Some of them thought Wade and LeBron would be great together in Cleveland. Guessing who will fit is not easy. If you thought Booker wouldn’t fit, kudos to you. If you thought there was a 100% chance Booker wouldn’t fit, you are guilty of hubris. Especially because, although Booker truly didn’t fit very well, it’s not as though we’d have been better off without him! He played 15 minutes a night for us backing up Dario; would we have more wins if we’d given those minutes to TLC?

But, fine, he didn’t fit, I’m not going to make a federal case out of the fact that he might have. The bigger issue is this:

2) We might have had injuries to our big men. Remember way back when, when folks thought it would be a miracle if Joel played 60 games? Remember when people thought Amir Johnson would be incapable of playing more than 8 minutes a night without breaking down? Once it became clear that Jahlil was useless and Richaun had not yet made the leap, it was an absolute necessity that we add some big-man depth. Then, we got lucky -- both Joel and Amir have had good health luck -- knock wood! And so we haven’t had a desperate need for a banger like Booker. But we might have!

This ties to another, bigger-picture erroneous critique of BC. Like most teams , the Sixers came into this season lacking great deep depth. That’s natural in a salary-cap world. But we were well prepared to handle one or two injuries each at either wing or big, as long as Joel didn’t go down of course. It was a reasonably balanced roster. What then happened was, we had perhaps the average number of catastrophes for an NBA team or a bit more. Bummer, but not a tragedy. Except that 100% of those catastrophes happened at the wing positions!

1) Markelle Fultz has basically not played due to injury/whatever

2) After decent early play, Jerryd Bayless re-injured his wrist and since then has been unplayably bad

3) Furkan Korkmaz went out for the year with a Lisfranc injury

4) Justin Anderson has missed most of the season with shin splints and other injuries

Arguably our numbers 1, 2 and 3 backup wings went out for the year -- yikes! This despite the fact that all six of our backup wings (those three plus TLC, Justin and NIK) are either young or prime-age. Meanwhile our corps of bigs, despite including two players known for their injuries or age (Joel and Amir) has been healthy all year. You win some, you lose some. But it’s awfully tough to predict where those wins and losses will fall. Under such circumstances it seems way off base to me for folks to say Sixers brass is stupid for not adding more wings in the offseason. We added one, JJ Redick, and he’s doing well. We had a lot of depth but unfortunately the best of them got hurt and the others haven’t stepped up. Stuff happens!

A more plausible argument is to say that by the time of the Jah deal we knew about Markelle’s problems and so we should have gotten a wing in that deal instead of Booker. Unlike the “buy out Jah” view, this is not a ludicrous position to hold. At that point we needed depth at both wing and big, but if you knew for sure that Markelle was not coming back, you’d have said wing was the greater need. How obvious the seriousness of the Markelle issue was at that time I cannot say. But, there’s also this: it takes two to tango! It would have been great if the Nets had been kind enough to give us Joe Harris or Caris Levert, but my guess is that they didn’t want to! Maybe BC moved too soon and should have looked around longer, but that wasn’t what everyone was saying at the time. At the time what everyone was saying was that every day Jah stayed a Sixer was killing our reputation with players and agents around the league, because we were depriving this exciting young prospect of the opportunity to show his stuff and develop his talent. Funny, you don’t hear about that as much anymore! But at the time, there was enormous pressure to close a deal quick from, in many cases, exactly the same critics who now say BC should have held out for a different kind of player than Trevor Booker.

I suppose while we’re here we should talk about the question of whether we should have traded Okafor last year or during the offseason. With the benefit of hindsight, sure, we should have taken whatever we could get, a second-rounder or whatever. Knowing what we know now, I think it’s pretty obvious no NBA team was willing to give that much. So what’s happened is, a whole lot of fans thought, correctly in my opinion, that we should keep Jah rather than trade him for a second, because although he was bad, he had potential to become good before his rights expired. Say they thought he was 50% likely to be useless forever, 30% likely to be a useful role player, and 15% likely to be a quality starter, and 5% likely to turn it all the way around and be a star. You wouldn’t give that up for a second! Then, no great surprise, he played so badly it looked like the 50% was going to hit. Hey, sometimes the coin comes up tails! And as soon as that happened, some of the people who didn’t want to trade him for a second began thinking “why didn’t we trade him for a second?”! But that’s just how it works. Someone offers to buy your house for $250K. You say no, you think someone will pay 300. Then there’s a stock crash/financial crisis and cash is tight. You call that $250K guy but he’s no longer interested. You end up settling for $210K, barely enough to repay the bank on your mortgage. Were you an idiot for turning down the initial offer? No! You made a reasonable call at the time, and then the world changed, and you can’t go back and get that deal. That’s what happened with Jah. Now of course if you thought we should trade Jah for basically anything 14 months ago, then, fine, you can say BC should have followed your advice. But almost no one thought that, and you should seriously consider the possibility that you are wrongly remembering that you thought that!

Putting it all together, I’d say this: as things turned out, it would have been better if we could have added a $9M halfway-decent veteran wing on an expiring, instead of a $9M halfway-decent veteran big on an expiring. But either that deal wasn’t available, or it was available and we went a different way because Sixers management thought Markelle would be back and JA’s shins wouldn’t splint. There’s somewhere between “zero” and “very little” to criticize here. The process was sound, even if the result was that we didn’t need to make a trade in order to add the veteran we needed, Ersan Ilyasova. People who suggest that we should have given up all our optionality, and that the proof is in the fact that, as things developed, we didn’t require that optionality, should rethink. Because that way of seeing the world is going to lead to a whole lot of bad decisions.