Winners, Losers and Takeaways from 76ers-Nets Trade for Jahlil Okafor
Were you tired of Jahlil Okafor sitting on the Philadelphia 76ers' bench and waiting to be traded?
Good news! It finally happened!
Per an official release from the NBA, "The Brooklyn Nets have acquired center Jahlil Okafor, guard Nik Stauskas and a 2019 second round draft pick from the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for forward/center Trevor Booker. In a subsequent move, the Nets have requested waivers on guard Sean Kilpatrick."
The Milwaukee Bucks can scratch the big man off their list. The Boston Celtics can stop thinking there's even the slightest possibility Okafor is an option on the buyout market. Fans can cease dreaming about what might happen if the former Blue Devil somehow wound up on the San Antonio Spurs and received tutelage from head coach Gregg Popovich.
Okafor has officially been freed, and almost everyone seems to be coming out of this situation in better shape.
Quick Hits on Winners
This couldn't be any more obvious, since Jahlil Okafor was inextricably tethered to the Philadelphia 76ers' bench before the Brooklyn Nets played Heracles to his Theseus (fortunately, no Peirithous exists in this mythological analogy). He'd suited up only twice during the 2017-18 campaign, as head coach Brett Brown decided not to play him in garbage-time situations "out of respect," per ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski.
Jah has been freed. Rejoice.
The shooting guard's situation may not have been nearly as dire, but he kept seeing his role diminished while he remained on the Philadelphia roster.
During Nik Stauskas' first season with the Sixers, he played 24.8 minutes per game, and that number actually swelled to 27.4 in 2016-17. But this year, he's logged 7.5 minutes per contest and only made a half-dozen appearances. He just wasn't a part of the rotation with J.J. Redick aboard and the Sixers making a push for inclusion in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
But now he, like Okafor, gets a fresh start. He'll have to compete for minutes with Allen Crabbe, Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, D'Angelo Russell and Joe Harris, but at least he gets to start over and make a first impression on the Nets.
Three players changed hands in this deal. Let's take a quick gander at their scores in ESPN.com's real plus/minus:
So maybe Booker doesn't have a positive mark, and his score has dropped drastically since last year's minus-0.29 RPM. But he's still the most established option of the bunch, and he's earned his figure by filling an actual role in Brooklyn. The veteran power forward was playing 21.9 minutes per game while calling the Barclays Center home.
Whereas Okafor and Stauskas were confined to the pine for sweeping swathes of the season, Booker is a legitimate threat to earn rotation minutes. He'll help Philadelphia's playoff push with his veteran wiles and enduring toughness, and getting a player of his caliber for a package centered around the disgruntled big man previously seemed impossible.
The Nets owe their first-round pick to the Boston Celtics in unprotected fashion, and the C's decided to trade that selection to the Cleveland Cavaliers in their offseason deal for Kyrie Irving. So through the transitive property, LeBron James' current team is probably thrilled with what just transpired.
Maybe this will work out well for Brooklyn, as Okafor and Stauskas could break out in a new location. But that's far from guaranteed, and the front office parted with a useful veteran talent for two draft busts who shouldn't be viewed as anything more than fliers. Plus, the plodding center could struggle to fit in with a team that's currently operating at the NBA's third-fastest pace.
Booker, meanwhile, is on an expiring deal. He's 30 years old. He's clearly declining and isn't the same player he was last season. But he was still a valuable presence for the Nets, who have seen their net rating jump from minus-6.5 to 3.2 when he's on the floor.
If they experience even a marginal decline and sink closer to the bottom of the Eastern Conference, the increased lottery odds will fill Cleveland hearts with unmitigated joy. Every (possibly) improved chance at Luka Doncic, Marvin Bagley, DeAndre Ayton and the other top prospects in this upcoming draft class should be treated as positive news.
Quick Hits on Losers
Revisit this in a month, and Sean Kilpatrick could end up a winner. But for now, he's looking for work with no guarantees.
The 27-year-old shooting guard wasn't playing much for the Brooklyn Nets in 2017-18, seeing his minutes fall from 25.1 per game to a meager 11.4. He wasn't finding success, either. Shooting no better than 29.1 percent from the field and 26.2 percent from beyond the arc, he was throwing up bricks so frequently that the Nets almost had no choice but to look in other internal directions.
Nonetheless, Kilpatrick was on an NBA roster, and that can't be taken for granted by bench players. Now, he's a roster casualty for a team that needed to make space in a one-for-two swap, and he might remain on the open market for a while before another organization takes a chance on his cringe-inducing percentages.
Kenny Atkinson has done nothing but impress as Brooklyn's head coach. He's facilitated emergences from a number of different players—Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie chief among them—and has made the Nets a team that can't be completely glossed over on the upcoming schedule.
Considering the lack of top-tier talent on this roster, sitting outside the bottom 10 in offensive rating is a distinct achievement. But now, he has a different challenge.
He's led the charge for a team operating with the NBA's No. 3 pace; only the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns have played faster. And yet, his front office acquired an inconsistent (alleged) shooting specialist and a slow-footed center who's at his best working with a molasses pace and deliberately operating from the post in the half-court set.
Atkinson doesn't have experience running the show for someone quite like this, as even Brook Lopez could adapt to a modern style with his developing three-point stroke. Just when everything was trending in the right direction, a 6'11" wrench is getting thrown into the mix.
Amir Johnson and Richaun Holmes
The 76ers might be more excited to get rid of Okafor than they are to get their hands on Booker, though that's pure speculation. And yet, they're still going to play the incoming power forward. He's too talented to rot on the bench, and his experience and toughness could both aid the playoff push (more on that shortly).
But those minutes are likely to come at the expense of Amir Johnson and Richaun Holmes since Philly is adding a legitimate rotation member without taking one away.
Better start practicing, big guys!
What It Means for the Philadelphia 76ers' Playoff Contention
The beauty of this move is the complete absence of downside for the Philadelphia 76ers.
What's the worst-case scenario? If Jahlil Okafor and Nik Stauskas become All-Stars for the Brooklyn Nets, the Sixers can live with a development that never would've taken place in the City of Brotherly Love. If Trevor Booker is unhappy in his new situation and becomes completely ineffective, it's not like they gave up any key rotation pieces to acquire him.
Only upside exists.
Last year, Booker was a valuable piece for the Nets, thriving on defense with his toughness and physical tools. He's still been a plus on the stopping end during the 2017-18 campaign, but the springiness isn't quite there during his 21.9 minutes per game. Whether that's due to nagging injuries (back and ankle troubles have hindered him) or the ill effects of Father Time remains to be seen, but the Sixers will happily find out.
Right now, the frontcourt rotation is already a positive one. Joel Embiid has become one of the NBA's best centers, and he's joined by a deep cast of supporting talents. Between Richaun Holmes, Amir Johnson, Dario Saric, Robert Covington and Justin Anderson, the 76ers haven't exactly been lacking production and quality minutes at the biggest positions.
Now, they get even deeper, which matters most on back-to-backs that see Embiid sit out for maintenance reasons. The Sixers can treat him even more carefully, preserving their star center for the biggest moments because Booker can factor into the frontcourt pecking order and ensure even more depth.
And that's the floor.
Philadelphia, sitting pretty at 13-10 despite playing the Association's toughest schedule, is already in phenomenal shape for the postseason push. It's decidedly ahead of schedule, thanks in large part to the unexpectedly excellent two-way play of rookie phenom Ben Simmons.
This move can only help, since Booker will serve as a top-tier insurance policy, thrive in fewer minutes with his new running mates or flop in a different location and fall out of the rotation before his contract expires in a matter of months. Even if the worst-case possibility turns into reality, the Eastern Conference up-and-comers will still be up and coming.
What It Means for the Brooklyn Nets Going Forward
As Jeremy Woo explained for Sports Illustrated while giving the Brooklyn Nets an "A" for their return in this trade, the organization can't really mess this up:
"This is a no-risk deal for the Nets. There's really nothing bad about it for Brooklyn. While it feels like an eternity since he led Duke to a national title, Okafor turns 22 years old next week and remains one of the league's more talented post scorers. ...
"So, the Nets, who, yes, are still waiting to own their own first-round picks after the disastrous Celtics trade, effectively add one with this deal (technically two, counting Stauskas). Okafor should slot into their rotation immediately and give them a legitimate offensive focal point. While his prospects long-term may no longer be starry, there's room to generate a return as the Nets focus on his development and figure out how they might use him best."
But a lack of downside doesn't make it any easier to predict what's actually going to happen next.
Okafor should immediately start to earn big minutes for the Nets, whose incumbent options at center include a raw Jarrett Allen, Tyler Zeller and the monumentally disappointing Timofey Mozgov. Maybe he won't jump right into the opening quintet, but he'll factor into the rotation and get a chance to show off his skills on the block.
Stauskas' role is a bit uncertain, given the wealth of options the Nets already have on the wings and the 24-year-old's absence of proven calling cards. Whereas we know Okafor can put up points with his interior touch, we don't yet know that the shooting specialist can actually, well, shoot. He's connected on only 34.3 percent of his career triples, made just 36.8 percent in 2016-17 and has misfired on his only attempt this season.
Maybe the Nets will get a sudden infusion of talent and ascend up the Eastern Conference hierarchy. Their total of Pythagorean wins, which are based solely on margin of victory and strength of schedule, implies they've already been better than their 9-14 record suggests, and Okafor's ability to function as a go-to scorer could help the offense keep improving.
But they could also prove poor fits in the uptempo system and find themselves buried on a different bench. If that's the case, they're both operating on expiring deals and will be looking for new homes during the 2018 offseason, leaving the Nets with a second-round selection and failed experiments in exchange for Booker's services. And that's fine. It's not ideal, but it's fine.
Brooklyn deserves high marks for this swap, thanks largely to the dearth of downside. Just don't mistake the impressive grades you'll see all over the interwebs for clear-cut indications they've found players about to break out, since that's far from guaranteed.
What It Means for Jahlil Okafor
Jahlil Okafor gets a chance.
That can't be spun as bad news, even if the high-speed Brooklyn offense isn't the best fit for his grind-it-out talents. He was never going to get another shot with the Philadelphia 76ers, and he now receives a chance to strut his stuff in an actual role before either re-signing with the Nets or finding a new home during the free-agency period. And if he does look for work elsewhere, he'll at least be able to show off some semblance of production that doesn't involve highlight reels of him cheering from the sidelines while wearing street clothes or warm-ups.
But the pace concerns remain legitimate.
Thus far in 2017-18, the Nets have been slowest with Jacob Wiley on the court. During that 32-minute sample, they've used 100.82 possessions per 48 minutes. The next slowest? With Spencer Dinwiddie, the pace has slowed to 101.51, which would still rank No. 9 throughout the league.
On the flip side, Okafor's 76ers had a 98.93 pace last year when he played. Only Hollis Thompson and Jerryd Bayless had lower numbers while on the floor, and both were the products of far smaller samples. During his rookie season, his on-court figure was a mere 97.39 possessions per 48 minutes—by far the team's lowest mark.
Saying he likes to slow down the proceedings isn't some meaningless drivel. We have tangible evidence the Sixers tried to gum up games and let him operate within his comfort zone whenever they handed him minutes, and that'll mean a significant change either for him or the Nets in this new location. Someone is going to compromise, and stylistic shifts are hard in the middle of a season.
Either way, Brooklyn and Okafor should both want to make this work—the former due to the latent upside of a top pick, and the latter because of his impending free agency and the accompanying desire to earn extra commas on his next contract. The Duke product will inevitably receive opportunities to operate from the elbows and blocks.
"His production is undeniable—the kid can flat-out score," Adam Spinella wrote for NBA Math in late September while breaking down the strengths and weaknesses of the big man's game. "Even if defenses know what he’s trying to do, Okafor is like a gazelle prancing through, around and over defenders to score at the rim. That skill will always have value, and some team should give him a shot at proving he can be a reliable top scoring threat."
The Nets took the first step by trading for him. The shot to prove himself as a bona fide scoring threat, no matter how many stylistic compromises must be made, comes next.