Bryan Colangelo admitted this week that he may have to trade one of Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, and Joel Embiid to ease the 76ers’ crowded frontcourt. There isn’t enough playing time in Philadelphia for all three young big men, especially after factoring in the additions of Ben Simmons and Dario Saric. The Sixers have one of the most imbalanced rosters in the league, and their top prospects would make each other worse rather than better if they all played together. Sam Hinkie collected a bunch of assets. Colangelo has to turn them into a coherent basketball team.
In all likelihood, Okafor is the odd man out. Not only does Embiid have the most upside, but also no team would give up much for a guy who hasn’t played competitive basketball in two years. And while Noel would probably fetch the most in a trade, his athleticism and defensive potential is a much better fit with the rest of the roster. Okafor is exactly the opposite of the type of big man you want around Simmons, who needs to be protected on defense and is best operating in a spread floor with a pick-and-roll partner who can play above the rim. Playing Okafor and Simmons together would be a disaster, as neither is capable of shooting from distance or protecting the paint.
The 76ers would be trading Okafor from a position of weakness, but it’s not like their haul would get any better over the course of the season. Okafor will likely see his playing time cut significantly, assuming they enter the season with the frontline rotation they currently have. What’s almost impossible to figure from the outside is what he would bring back in a trade. For all his struggles as a rookie, he averaged 17.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks on 50.8 percent shooting on a roster that didn’t complement his skill set. He’s going to put up numbers wherever he goes, and if the light ever turns on for him on defense, he could be one of the best big men in the NBA.
Okafor, with his very specific strengths and weaknesses, would shape the identity of any team he is on. This makes finding a trade partner tricky. The good news is that his rookie salary, as well as the exploding salary cap that opened up space for every team in the league, means the mechanics of making the trade wouldn’t be difficult. Colangelo will probably have to sell Okafor to a team first, and then find a few young perimeter players on that team’s roster it wouldn’t mind giving up. Here’s a look at a pitch he could make to five teams, and what he might be able to expect in return for his polarizing young big man.
New York Knicks
Phil Jackson was heavily linked to Okafor before last year’s draft, and acquiring a low-post center with his skills would allow the Knicks to ascend to Triangle Heaven. Kristaps Porzingis is a better fit as a 5 in a modern NBA offense, but Phil seems determined to play him as an oversize 4 next to another traditional big man. Porzingis and Okafor could form a devastating high-low combo; Porzingis’s ability to shoot 3s and protect the rim could cover the two biggest holes in Okafor’s game. The Knicks could ease Okafor into a role behind Joakim Noah, and he would completely dismantle smaller big men on opposing second units. They don’t have much in the way of assets for the 76ers to acquire, but they could send Kyle O’Quinn to make the trade’s salary numbers work and give up a future first-round pick.
The Knicks might be the one team that would immediately jump on an Okafor trade, but they also figure to offer the smallest possible return for him. If the Sixers want more, they could turn to Okafor’s hometown team, which has many young pieces it could move. Okafor wouldn’t be a great fit with the Bulls’ collection of older, ball-dominant guards who can’t space the floor, but he would be the final piece in a lineup guaranteed to drive Fred Hoiberg insane.
More importantly (and reasonably), his pairing with Bobby Portis would make for an interesting frontcourt, together forming solid building blocks for a team going nowhere fast. The 76ers could ask for Denzel Valentine and Doug McDermott, two young, high-IQ shooters who would space the floor for Simmons.
New Orleans Pelicans
If the Sixers are looking for a team that could maximize Okafor’s game, that means shopping him to everyone with a “unicorn” big man who can do a bit of everything. A frontcourt of Okafor and Anthony Davis would be one of the most talented in the NBA, and the two Chicago natives would give the Pelicans an identity they could build around. Acquiring Okafor would be a long-term play, but everything in New Orleans should be aimed at keeping Davis when he hits unrestricted free agency in 2021; by then, Okafor would be 26 and entering his prime. Would the Pelicans be willing to part with lottery pick Buddy Hield, who is two years older than Okafor and doesn’t have anywhere near his upside?
The Wolves are an interesting trade partner for the 76ers. They have a tantalizing collection of young assets, and Karl-Anthony Towns might be the ultimate unicorn in the NBA. Minnesota doesn’t have the same win-now mandate that exists in New Orleans, which affords the Wolves the chance to continue acquiring and developing high-upside talent. Towns’s ability to pass and shoot from 20-plus feet would make Okafor nearly unguardable around the rim. Whether it’s Zach LaVine or Kris Dunn straight up, or some combination of Tyus Jones, Shabazz Muhammad, Gorgui Dieng, and Adreian Payne, it would not be hard for the Wolves to come up with a trade package. As for those who say Tom Thibodeau would never work with a defensively limited big man like Okafor, remember that Carlos Boozer had some of the best years of his career under him.
The Celtics have been linked to Okafor almost since he was drafted, and they have always been his most likely destination. Boston has to consolidate some of its young talent in a trade, and Al Horford might be the best possible veteran big man to put around Okafor. At only 6-foot-10, he’s not big enough to be a full-fledged unicorn, but he’s a capable shooter and passer who can defend on the perimeter and at the rim. The Celtics need star power and scoring punch upfront, and they have the defensive personnel on the perimeter to mitigate Okafor’s lack of rim protection. With their vast collection of assets, the Celtics would be able to piece together an attractive package without sacrificing Jaylen Brown, their pick swap with the Nets next season, or the 2018 first-rounder Brooklyn will be sending them. There’s a lot for the Sixers to choose from: Terry Rozier, Demetrius Jackson, James Young, R.J. Hunter, Marcus Thornton, Guerschon Yabusele, Ben Bentil, Jordan Mickey, Ante Zizic, and future picks. The Celtics are as well positioned as anyone to take a gamble on Okafor without jeopardizing their present or their future.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the New York Knicks would be able to trade their 2017 first-round pick.