Jahlil Okafor-76ers status update: It’s complicated

Chris Mannix
The Vertical
Jahlil Okafor simply doesn’t have a role with the 76ers. (AP)

BOSTON — The Sixers’ decision not to pick up the fourth-year option on Jahlil Okafor’s contract effectively ends one of the most disappointing high lottery-pick runs in recent history. The third pick in 2015 — one slot ahead of Kristaps Porzingis — Okafor has shown flashes of offensive brilliance (17.5 points per game as a rookie) mixed with mediocre rebounding, porous defense and questionable effort. Philadelphia once sought lottery-pick value for Okafor; now, the Sixers appear satisfied just to be rid of him.

It won’t be that simple. Philadelphia is resisting a buyout, league sources told Yahoo Sports, if for no other reason than it wants someone else to assume the $5 million Okafor has left on his contract. The Sixers understand the market has cratered — declining the option and positioning Okafor to be an unrestricted free agent next summer didn’t help — but at this point are unwilling to just let him walk away.

They will split eventually — a couple of second-round picks, a salary filler and/or a stashed mid-level European prospect feels like something an interested team might give up — and then Okafor will have to begin the process of rebuilding. At 21, Okafor can start over. But where? To many teams, Okafor is a basketball dinosaur, a post player with minimal range, an overpowering college scorer who has looked more comfortable facing up opponents than backing them down as a pro.

Conversations with rival executives revealed similar sentiments. Getting out of Philly will help (“That was a bad fit for him from the start,” a Western Conference executive told Yahoo Sports), as will going to a team not overloaded at his position. Okafor and Joel Embiid are both centers, and attempts to play them together led to some cartoonish defensive results.

And while Okafor has been out of the Sixers’ rotation, teams have noted the changes Okafor made to his diet and the tremendous shape in which he came to camp. “I respect all the work he put in this summer,” said an Eastern Conference exec. “He’s had a rough couple of years, and he knew he wasn’t going to play for them. But he still showed up ready.”

Finding the right fit could be tricky. He’s better as a starter — bench bigs have trended toward the more springy, athletic types who can space the floor in recent years — and the number of teams that need a player like Okafor is limited. Dallas is interesting; the Mavericks are off to a slow start and respect for Dirk Nowitzki requires the team to pursue any upgrades, and Okafor offers more offense than ex-teammate Nerlens Noel. The Bulls — the NBA’s least efficient offensive team — could be in the mix.

A fascinating possibility: Boston. The Celtics won’t trade for Okafor, and the team would like to hang on to the $8.4 million disabled player exception it secured in the aftermath of Gordon Hayward’s season-ending injury for, among other things, the late February buyout period. But Boston brass has a good relationship with Okafor’s agent, Bill Duffy, and interior scoring is certainly something the team could use more of. The Celtics have a nice rhythm going — Daniel Theis, a midsummer signing, has become a staple in Boston’s frontcourt rotation, posting his first double-double of the season on Wednesday — but Okafor would bring a totally different skill set to the table.

On to your emails …

What type of precedent is there for leaving a player like Eric Bledsoe to sit on his couch while the team searches for a trade? What type of recourse does Bledsoe/Klutch Sports have to exercise? Is there a breaking point where this gets messy?

— Alexander Daniel

Bledsoe doesn’t have much leverage. He’s getting paid — $177,000 per game, per ESPN’s Bobby Marks — and as long as the Suns don’t suspend him, he’s stuck. In theory, Bledsoe could get the players union involved, but the Suns could respond by simply bringing him back and deactivating him — which doesn’t do much for anybody. Phoenix has not shown any urgency in dealing Bledsoe, and several rival executives told Yahoo Sports they believe the Suns could hold onto Bledsoe until mid-December, when players signed this past offseason become eligible to be traded. Regardless, Bledsoe’s chances of playing for the Suns again are zero.

Kristaps Porzingis has been brilliant offensively this season. (Getty Images)

Is it time to start re-evaluating the preseason consensus that Karl-Anthony Towns is a better young prospect than Kristaps Porzingis? KP looks just as good if not better on offense and much better on defense.

— Ilya Slavinski

You’re talking to the wrong guy here. I’ve long put Porzingis atop my list of big men I’d build around. That’s not a knock on Towns, who has perennial All-Star/regular MVP candidate written all over him. But I’ve frequently said that Porzingis has the ability to reinvent the center position in the same way Dirk Nowtizki changed the power-forward spot.

Eventually, he will. For now, he’s out there murdering opposing power forwards with a blend of post-ups, transition buckets and more threes (5.1 per game, hitting 33.3 percent) than he has in his career. The trade of Carmelo Anthony has had a desired effect; Porzingis has become the offensive focal point, and he has taken ownership of the team. The result: Five 30-point-plus games to start the season and an avalanche of praise from opponents struggling to stop him.

Look, the under-25 big-man group is pick your poison. Towns is great, Porzingis, too; Giannis Antetokounmpo is an early-season MVP candidate and Joel Embiid could be better than all of them. But Porzingis is special, and as his game matures and his body fills out, he could be an unstoppable two-way force.

I’m a Kings fan, and I know we’re going to be terrible this season. But is there a light at the end of this tunnel? On one hand, DeMarcus Cousins is gone, and everyone can move on. On the other, Cousins was the only thing making Sacramento relevant. What’s the future look like?

— Mark Espinoza

Good timing, Mark. Caught my first Kings game live last night and — Breaking! — they are bad. It’s a disjointed roster that has yet to find an offensive identity. Sacramento has the horses to be a pretty good up-tempo team, but when 40 percent of the starting lineup (George Hill and Zach Randolph) is more half-court-oriented, playing that way consistently is tough.

The Kings knew they were going to be awful this season, though. That makes the 2018 draft one of the most pivotal moments in the history of the franchise. Sacramento will have a top-five pick. Already, scouts are gushing about how front-loaded the draft is, with Michael Porter, Marvin Bagley, Mohamed Bamba, Luka Doncic and DeAndre Ayton all touted as potential franchise players. The Kings have to get this one right. They need the Porzingis of this draft, and they sure can’t get stuck with the Okafor. I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say the future of the franchise is literally at stake.

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