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Jahlil Okafor is still available. Is it the right time for the Celtics?

Danny Ainge has been fascinated with the 76er big man for years, but the winds don’t feel right for a trade.

Philadelphia 76ers v Indiana Pacers
Jahlil Okafor
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Jahlil Okafor is available for trade. Philadelphia has been not so secretly shopping the 21-year-old big man for over a year, but GM Bryan Colangelo still hasn’t found a dance partner. Yet here we are again, with Philadelphia “seeing what’s out there” for Okafor. In other words, the free agency dust has settled, and Philadelphia is fishing around for a team worried about their big man depth weeks before the season.

Valuation is the sole reason why Okafor hasn’t been moved yet. Plenty of teams would love to take a flier on Okafor. He’s a former top lottery pick who led his Duke team to a National Championship in his only NCAA season. Teams in Philadelphia’s position seldom give up on a project this early, so there has to be interest around the league.

But at this point Philadelphia has beaten Okafor’s market value to a pulp. It’s only a matter of time before Colangelo knows that the big man’s value will never return to where it was in July of 2016. Philadelphia sells Okafor as a 21-year-old growing star with unique and uncommon post up skills. As someone who merits equivalent trade value to his #3 draft spot.

Opposing GMs likely worry about whether Okafor’s slothful style is a pre-requisite for his interior scoring, and if he can develop into a facilitator from the post. They may see a player who lacks defensive enthusiasm and offers a passé back-to-the-basket repertoire, the likes of which are becoming extinct. For some, Okafor’s interior scoring talent is a desirable thing of beauty. For others, Okafor’s post up scoring makes him a starting center in 1987. I fall into the latter group.

Okafor has intrigued Danny Ainge for a while. Prior to the 2015 draft, ESPN reported that the Celtics were prepared to unload a Marcus Smart super package to move up from 16th pick with targets locked on Okafor at the top of the lottery. Ainge stood pat and selected Terry Rozier, but the Okafor rumors have remained pervasive, sprinkled into the Celtics regular season narrative each of the past two years. Last summer, Boston was rumored to be close on an exchange for Okafor involving the 2016 third overall pick. In retrospect, most fans are thankful to have Jaylen Brown instead. But for all of the flirtation, Ainge ultimately didn’t sacrifice any Brooklyn picks for Okafor. He had the foresight to know that the assets could lead to something bigger down the line. HoopsHype has a complete historic log of all of the reports linking Okafor with the Celtics.

If there’s one thing to covet about Okafor, it’s his isolation scoring. Okafor is a brilliant post-up scorer on the low block. He has textbook footwork and maximizes his length and girth to carve out space against post defenders. Okafor’s arsenal has everything; baby hooks, jump hooks, up and unders, shoulder shakes, spin moves, floaters, face ups, and more. He routinely punishes defenders with precision pump fakes and a deft and ambidextrous scoring touch. Per Synergy Sports, Okafor went from the 63rd percentile in isolation offensive efficiency in 2015 to the 76th percentile in 2016, an impressive feat when put into the context of Joel Embiid’s 31-game emergence. Simply put, Okafor knows how to get a bucket and he may have even more room to grow. That’s a rarified combination to find on the trade block.

While the Celtics still have concerns about their big man depth, Okafor doesn’t offer much outside of interior scoring. Boston lacks an elite rebounder and rim protector, but Okafor is not the savior. He ranked 164th last season amongst all NBA players in total rebounding percentage at 11.7%, finishing below Kelly Olynyk (13.1%) and Amir Johnson (12.7%), both of whom struggled on the glass. Okafor’s isn’t much of a rim protector either, sporting a block percentage of 3.4% last season, a tick higher than Tyler Zeller (3.3%) and Al Horford (3.2%), per basketball-reference. Thus, outside of Okafor’s bruising scoring aptitude, he isn’t a weapon in any of the traditional big man categories. Pair that with a non-existent passing game (1.2 APG), limited shooting range (12 attempts outside of 17 feet last season), and uninspiring defensive versatility, and Okafor feels like a one-trick pony in a league that caters to multi-talented athletes.

Okafor apologists (a.k.a 76er fans and Duke alums trying to right the ship) defend him by pointing to the headache of having to fight for minutes with Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid. They’ll say that Okafor can flourish if he’s given more opportunities in a new system. And that’s a fair assessment. During Okafor’s two seasons, the Sixers have been explicit implicit about their desire to lose games and build for the long-term. They’ve clearly prioritized other draftees over him, and any experimental opportunity at power forward is halted by the development of Ben Simmons and Dario Saric. The fit in Philadelphia is untenable.

But it doesn’t feel like a good fit in Boston either. The Brad Stevens era Celtics have built a reputation on utilizing five playmakers who can move the ball quickly and create imbalances in shifting defenses. Okafor isn’t that.

He’s a ball stopper, who necessitates post catches, looks to score at will, and doesn’t consistently make kick out passes to create open shots. He loves palm the ball, look over his shoulder to scan the defense for a few moments, and once he’s ready, then he goes into his move. It takes forever and it grinds the off ball movement to a stop. The Celtics have been allergic to acquiring those kinds of players lately. Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum bring their own concerns about playing in a heavy ball movement scheme. The Celtics aren’t going to abandon their modern system when Okafor is on the floor, and Okafor has shown no appetite for transforming his game either.

Then there are the financial obstacles. Boston is already dangerously close to reaching the luxury tax threshold, and matching Okafor’s salary won’t be easy. He’s due $5 million this season, and bumps up to $6.3 million next season before he reaches his qualifying offer in 2019. Looking at Spotrac’s salary breakdown, here are the players Boston could financially use in an Okafor deal.

Ignore the players in the upper third of that chart. Those guys would be off limits in any Okafor deal. Masslive.com’s Jay King of floated the possibility of packaging Guerschon Yabusele, Abdel Nader, and Shane Larkin, which may sound reasonable to you, but that specific deal would have to wait. Larkin and fellow veteran signee Aron Baynes cannot be traded until December 14. Additionally, two-way salaries don’t count against cap allocations, so Kadeem Allen and Jabari Bird have no practical use in this exercise either.

So if you’re in favor of an Okafor trade right now, a package of Yabusele and Semi Ojeleye would get it done, per the ESPN trade machine. Admittedly, that ignores any draft pick or cash compensation, but at this point, Ainge should be uncomfortable sacrificing more wing depth after losing Jae Crowder. One of Yabusele or Ojeleye is likely to carve out a significant rotational role this season, and having a talented group of switchable 3 and D players along the wing is enormously important in this NBA atmosphere. In general, it’s more advantageous to have players who offer position versatility than someone like Okafor who is tied to one position.

The problem with formulating a trade package for Okafor is that this Celtics bench rotation is wide open. Fans are rightfully curious about Terry Rozier’s potential growth, or Daniel Theis’ chances of providing unrelenting energy for short stints. From a salary perspective, those are the contracts that would need to be included in a two or three player package to acquire Okafor. It feels like a lot.

It’s not as if there isn’t a place for post up centers in the league. Greg Monroe and Zach Randolph have found impactful 6th man roles, with the Bucks and Grizzlies running their bench offenses through their veteran big men. But in Boston, the second unit offense will try to mimic the first team, with Smart or Rozier quarterbacking a fast paced scheme that emphasizes playmaking and creating spot up jumpers. Okafor isn’t conducive for that kind of system. And if the Celtics truly want to create a go-to bench scorer, then those reps should go to Tatum.

Okafor is a leftover weight from the Sam Hinkie era, which provides a convenient scapegoat if he’s ultimately moved for less than what Philadelphians perceive as market value. The Celtics interest in Okafor probably peaked a while ago. They haven’t been publicly connected to him in six months, so maybe Ainge’s infatuation has grown cold.

Ignoring specific compensation, what do you think of Okafor?

Poll

Do you like the idea of the Celtics reigniting their interest in Jahlil Okafor?

This poll is closed

  • 34%
    Yes. He needs a fresh start, and Stevens could maximize his talent.
    (1620 votes)
  • 26%
    I’m open to mid-season trade discussions.
    (1257 votes)
  • 38%
    No. Okafor will never fit here.
    (1807 votes)
4684 votes total Vote Now