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The Sixers Traded the Wrong Big Man and Derailed the Process

Keeping Jahlil Okafor over Nerlens Noel was a mistake. This is the confession of a Sixers fan who wanted to trust Sam Hinkie and his grand experiment.

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Eleven days ago, it looked like first-year Sixers GM Bryan Colangelo was on the verge of clearing the frontcourt logjam he’d inherited from his predecessor, Sam Hinkie. Jahlil Okafor, a steam-powered industrial installation that converts opposing post-ups to points, was supposedly on the way to Portland, before the Blazers traded for Jusuf Nurkic; then to New Orleans, before the Pelicans traded for DeMarcus Cousins; then to parts unknown in a three-way deal that would have sent Paul George or Jimmy Butler to Boston, before Danny Ainge decided he could get more PR juice out of leaking all the trades he could have made than actually making a trade. In anticipation of one of those deals coming to fruition, the Sixers sent Okafor home, then recalled him and presumably presented him with a “We Don’t Want You But Please Play Hard” sign at the airport.

Meanwhile, Colangelo dropped his peavey hook and leaped into the river, where the frigid depths called him home for eternity. That’s what trading Nerlens Noel, a rim-protecting 22-year-old who will be well worth whatever he makes in restricted free agency, and incidentally one of the most popular players on the Sixers, is like. For this defensive stalwart and rim-running gazelle of a man, Colangelo got back Pizzagate truther Andrew Bogut (who is set to be bought out), Justin Anderson, and what will almost certainly be two second-round picks. Colangelo could not have more obviously unjammed the wrong log, and my greatest regret in all of this is that I didn’t drown in that river with him.

It’s a bad trade, but in a vacuum, it isn’t that big a deal — the Sixers had too many centers, and this team will succeed or fail on the backs of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, not Noel and Okafor. But basketball isn’t played in a vacuum. The Sixers didn’t need to just clear up minutes at the deadline, they needed to get rid of Okafor specifically.

To understand why, you have to understand Process Trusters, which can be difficult. The long version is worth telling, but the short version is this: In 2013, a generation of Sixers fans had known only one interesting figure: Allen Iverson. That changed when Hinkie took over a team with no direction and no aspirations beyond a first-round playoff exit, traded All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday for draft picks, and set out to find the next Iverson no matter how many meaningless games were lost in the meantime. When Hinkie undertook his grand experiment — marked by a defiant aloofness to a reactionary local media — fans flocked to his banner in droves and clung to that banner with the tenacity of zealots.

I’m one of those zealots. Last year I went to Houston’s Toyota Center alone to watch the Sixers extend their losing streak to a record 27 games; it was a cleansing experience, spiritually, like wearing a hairshirt. Six months later, I flew cross-country to attend the Rights to Ricky Sanchez (a Sixers podcast for Process Trusters) Lottery Party at Xfinity Live, an Epcot-like shopping mall of bars with all the character of a venue named after a cable company. When the Sixers finally got the no. 1 pick, the thousands of us in attendance celebrated like World War II had just ended. Not for a game, or for the draft, but for the draft lottery.

Enduring the Okafor Experience, therefore, has been viscerally personal. He’s got a worse career rebounding rate than Anthony Bennett, and he ranks no. 449 out of 450 in real plus/minus this year, but that doesn’t completely capture Okafor. You need to know how the Process changed when Hinkie drafted Okafor. In his first two drafts, Hinkie had taken big swings, selecting the injured Nerlens Noel in 2013 (acquired through a trade) and Joel Embiid in 2014, plus Dario Saric, who was marooned in Turkey until this year. Hinkie was aggressive, creative, and fearless, and surely the 2015 draft would produce D’Angelo Russell, or when he went off the board, Kristaps Porzingis, or maybe Mario Hezonja, who was at least fun.

Instead, we got Okafor, who was slow, wouldn’t pass, couldn’t play defense, and couldn’t shoot more than 10 feet from the basket. When Okafor did shoot, he had to first set up a 14-step Dad Mode post routine that looked like something out of Torvill and Dean. Suddenly the Sixers had a logjam at center with Noel and Embiid, but above all else, Okafor was boring. He was like Evan Turner, only bigger and with a cooler haircut. We waited for the other shoe to drop, hoping for another shocking draft-night master stroke of a trade, like the ones Hinkie had engineered with New Orleans in 2013 and Orlando in 2014, but it never came. For the first time, Hinkie made an obvious error, and the Process was just a little less trustworthy.

Nothing Okafor has done since then assuaged those fears. And I’m not even talking about his race against Aroldis Chapman’s fastball over the Ben Franklin Bridge or the time he cold-cocked a mouthy Bostonian. Or the times his father, like the Little League dad who has to go watch the game from his car, heckled Sixers coach Brett Brown and threatened a Sixers blogger on Twitter. Before Okafor, the Sixers were godawful, but they were a fun, tight-knit, fast-paced ballclub with a switch-everything defense and a never-say-die attitude. Okafor slowed them down. He watered down their defensive pressure, opened up a sinkhole under the rim, and frequently couldn’t even be bothered to go into “I’m gonna get mine” mode. It was embarrassment after fiasco after ignominy. The least Hinkieish transaction of all ended up creating a public relations disaster that cost Hinkie his job.

It’s little better now that Hinkie’s gone. Colangelo’s Sixers have tried harder to make Okafor and Embiid work together than Okafor has ever tried on defense, and they’ve failed just as comprehensively. Meanwhile, Noel was an afterthought, and Colangelo never even entertained the idea that an athlete of his caliber might be able to work with Embiid, or that a player of his talent might be worth a max RFA contract.

The Sixers are no stranger to whiffing on big men — in the past five years they’ve bet the house on a remaindered copy of Andrew Bynum and waited two full seasons for Embiid to become to the third interesting Sixers figure of the past 20 years. But at least Bynum and (at the time) Embiid didn’t show up at all; Okafor proved conclusively that there are worse things a big man can do than sit on the bench in street clothes. The only good thing about Okafor’s tenure is now we no longer have to wonder what Bob Pettit would look like in today’s NBA if you made him play in combat boots.

But the very public failure to consummate an Okafor trade, followed by dumping Noel to Dallas, where life is cheap and apparently so are 22-year-old elite rim protectors, represent Colangelo’s greatest sin on a scale both intimate and galactic. It represents the kind of despair that can be born only out of the promise that one day the Sixers might escape the boring, retrograde, just-under-.500 basketball to which they’ve been chained for a generation. Unloading Noel, an athletic center whose ability to run and defend guards makes him perfect for the modern NBA, and not Okafor, a ball-stopping throwback, is a specific step away from that end. Moreover, while Hinkie was notoriously patient and talked no game at all, Colangelo not only made big promises, he missed his moment and made a panic trade to give himself cover. This is the first real evidence that when it’s time to make a big decision, Colangelo will scurry back into the comforting darkness of Plato’s cave.

Okafor, who for as mercilessly as I’ve trashed him here, and as much as he’ll go down as the most hated Sixer of the Process era, deserves better. He’s still only 21, with his whole career ahead of him, and unlike anyone else involved in the debacle of the past two weeks, has handled these humiliating events with maturity and equanimity. He deserves a second chance in a place where he won’t be overshadowed by Embiid while simultaneously pressed with the burden of a no. 3 overall pick’s expectations. I hope Sixers fans deserve better, too, but after a lifetime of boredom and management by cowardice, punctuated only by just enough points of light to keep us from checking out entirely, I’m starting to think we don’t.