Trying to figure out the 76ers organization is probably somewhere in the same range of difficulty of discovering gravitational waves: they have a plan, but nobody including themselves seems to know where their blueprint is taking them. Getting inside the head of Sam Hinkie requires nothing short of being his actual brain. But if there's anybody who comes close, it's our fantastic friends over at Liberty Ballers and Sixers extraordinaire Jake Pavorsky, their managing editor.
Philadelphia and Boston have had a deep connection over the years. No two teams have met for more NBA playoff series, and they've both been rebuilding for roughly the same amount of time (since 2013). Here in 2016 they've found themselves traveling down two very different avenues of team building. Philadelphia has circled assets in and out while tanking hard for three straight seasons in hopes of running into the perfect situation, while Boston differed from that road, compiling a scrappy roster in 2014-15 that has identity and heart while heading towards their second straight playoff appearance a year later.
So while the Sixers are headed back to the lottery, the C's (thanks in large part to the Nets pick) have plenty of leeway to see how well they compete with the east in year two of the "Celtics Hustle Era." Naturally, Boston was looking to upgrade at the deadline with their Brooklyn pick in hand to use should they run into a deal that could substantially push their roster above where it is now. Veterans from Dwight Howard to Al Horford were discussed by the media, but reportedly behind the scenes Danny Ainge was having a real conversation with just one team: Philadelphia.
Trade talks centered around rookie center Jahlil Okafor and Boston's 2016 Brooklyn pick were real, according to Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald, but ultimately Philadelphia backed out and decided to hold on to their 20-year-old big man. The deal would've been logical from the C's standpoint, Ainge was effectively "using" the Brooklyn pick now on a player he felt could grow within Boston's current winning situation as their future centerpiece while impacting them now. That's a situation I didn't even consider beforehand, but it makes all the sense in the world as a concept whether you like Okafor's game or not.
Boston stuck around at the door until 3:00 p.m. hoping talks would pick up again, but they never did. So what's the deal? Was it a discussion that could pick up again? Why was Philadelphia hanging another player they just drafted on the market anyways? I chatted with Pavorsky at length on the whole situation that speaks volumes of the two drastically different approaches Boston and Philly are taking to rebuilding.
Bobby Manning: So first off, from a Sixers' perspective, why do think the team was floating out another top draft pick on the trade market? Especially this one they drafted less than a year ago?
Jake Pavorsky: I don't think they were outwardly shopping him, but they'll take calls about anyone on that roster. There's no good reason not to listen. Some teams can be a little less enticing than others, but Boston has some assets that made a serious conversation worth having. I believe the Sixers still like Jahlil Okafor a lot, and talking to other teams doesn't mean they don't. However, it feels inevitable that one of the Sixers big men is gonna have to go, and it's nice to know that there's a potential destination willing to pay a pretty high price for one of them.
B.M.: It sounds like, from the Bullpett report, that there was some interest on Philly's side before they pulled back and the deal died before talks could start again. Ainge was all in, and the word was that he was going to use the Brooklyn pick (which probably projects top 5 or so, barring disaster). Did Philly backing out have more to do with that pick alone not being enough or unwillingness to move the player?
J.P.: I can't imagine they were just offering the Brooklyn pick straight up to begin with. This draft stinks, and I would take Jahlil Okafor over anyone not named Brandon Ingram or Ben Simmons. There's no assurance the Brooklyn pick is gonna be top two. Philadelphia's still waiting to learn about the health of Joel Embiid, so there's no point in moving on from Okafor until you know if he can play or not anyway.
B.M.: There seemed to be some indication that talks could begin again later. From Ainge's aggressiveness you'd have to think he likes Okafor more than this draft himself. What do you think it would take from Boston's end to move Okafor in June? With the BKN pick, there's the wild possibility that PHI could end up with 3 picks in the top five, which has to be unprecedented.
J.P.: If the Brooklyn pick is top two, then yeah, I make the trade. Personally, not going to be much interested otherwise. Maybe Philly would be interested in the Brooklyn pick, Marcus Smart and other filler, but that doesn't appeal to me.
B.M.: Big men are usually so raw out of college, and Okafor is just 20. Celtics fans I've talked to don't seem to be too impressed with what he's done this year, but they did vote pretty overwhelmingly they'd give up the BKN pick for him. What parts of his game does he need to work on to become a player you can win games around, and do you see it happening? How have he and Nerlons Noel come together as a big duo this year?
J.P.: He needs to work on his pick-and-roll defense, as well as his dropping some of his iso-heavy tendencies. Okafor doesn't move too well, so a lot of teams effectively pick on him in P&R situations. He's also a tough guy to fit in offensively. The Sixers are a team that tries to get out and run and Okafor inhibits that. In half-court situations, the team seems to struggle because Okafor requires so much space to try and score. He usually has tunnel vision for the rim and misses some open passes. Him and Noel haven't done too much to coexist, but things are much easier when Noel is playing at the 5 and Okafor at the 4. Okafor has the shooting range, and Noel is a decent threat around the rim and a good shot blocker. They're still trying to figure out how to make things work.
B.M.: Brad Stevens' continued emphasis on pace-and-space, along with a team defensive system that ultimately sent David Lee packing because of his inability to get in on it, have driven the Celtics up with the top teams in the East over 50 games in. At this moment I would say Okafor doesn't fit the bill for what their current team is doing, but since he's signed multiple years with the upside of a young big man, it is a good fit for giving up the Brooklyn pick. I didn't want to see it go off the boards for a marginal talent like Horford, Howard, or Gallinari even though they'd help. I either wanted to see it used as part of a package for a guy who'd push them above where they are right now or just use it. But Okafor would be similar to just simply using the pick in my eyes, so it was close enough. In your mind, why do you think Ainge was ready to let his best asset go for Okafor?
J.P.: Because this draft isn't that good this year, and uncertainty of where the pick will end up makes them more willing to move it now for a guy like Okafor. Personally, I don't get the possible fit. I think Boston is trying to rise quickly, and I believe Okafor is going to progress a little slower then what Boston would like. He's a bit of an offense-clogger, and you've got to adjust your offense to fit his needs if you want to get the most out of him.
B.M.: What's the thinking behind moving on from a player you've committed to not too long ago? It's not something we've seen Boston do since their rebuild began, but Philly has now abandoned Michael Carter-Williams and apparently came close on others. Also, before we wrap this up, could the (potential!) return of Embiid for next season change anything in terms of Okafor talks if they begin again between BOS/PHI at some point this summer?
J.P.: I don't know. It's not like he's a lock to move, whatever Boston had to offer made the conversation worth happening. If they wanted to talk about Noel, I'm sure they could've done that too. If Embiid can prove himself to stay healthy over the course of next season, I think then you really talking about moving one of their big three.
B.M.: A big question among C's people has been just how valuable Boston's assets are. They of course have BKN this year, a swap next year, and then own BKN's again in '18. Plus, this year they have their own and Dallas' plus two of the current projected top 5 2nd-round picks. Boston has all that, plus four young guys (Rozier, Hunter, Young, and Mickey) who haven't really seen the NBA court all too much. The talk around here is always how great of an asset pile Ainge has, but we've seen little movement of them since they began to come together in 2014. The Hornets took Frank Kaminsky in last year's draft rather than 4 first-round picks from Ainge. As an outsider, do you see the C's asset pool as overrated?
J.P.: I think it's okay. The Brooklyn picks for this year and the pick swap give them some hope. But I don't think any of the four players you mentioned are all that special or should be of any real value in an Okafor trade. Boston would have to overwhelm me with an offer to make me want to really consider trading him there.
Thanks again to Jake Pavorsky for joining me for this piece, his work at SB Nation's Liberty Ballers can be found here.