They say when it rains, it pours, but the Philadelphia 76ers are dealing with a deluge unmatched since Noah began gathering all the gopher wood in the area. As if a 9-56 season wasn’t bad enough, the team released the news yesterday that Jahlil Okafor has a torn meniscus in his right knee and will miss the rest of the 2015-16 season. The rookie center will undergo a minor arthroscopic procedure sometime in the near future and should return to basketball activities within six weeks.
For the team, this latest injury continues a string of uncommonly bad luck when it comes to big men, starting with Andrew Bynum, through the multiple setbacks of Joel Embiid, and now Okafor. I’d be surprised if the Sixers haven’t looked into the legalities of sending Nerlens Noel out onto the court each night in a giant, inflatable human hamster ball.
For a certain segment of the population outside the Sixers organization and fanbase, I would imagine there’s a degree of schadenfreude involved with seeing this bad luck befall them. Many people still believe the Sixers have “disgraced the game” by tanking over such a long period of time; this misfortune is karma’s way of striking them down for trying to game the system. As a person with a vested interest in the future success of the franchise, I can only hope the team’s luck eventually balances out, whether it’s via lottery balls this May or Embiid’s navicular bone remaining intact moving forward.
As of Okafor himself, the big man out of Duke will finish his rookie season with averages of 17.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game, while shooting 50.8% from the field and a better-than-expected 68.6% from the foul line. Aside from a tendency to have the ball stick in his hands and some difficulty passing out of double teams, Okafor’s work on the offensive end matched, if not exceeded, all reasonable expectations heading into the year.
Of course, there are two ends of the court, and concerns about his defensive prowess were fully borne out throughout the season. Okafor was sub-par as a rebounder and exhibited molasses-slow reaction times in defensive rotations. Certainly, he’s still 20 years old and there’s plenty of potential for improvement both in terms of increased experience and being surrounded by a better supporting cast. But doubts definitely exist that he can ever be the focal point for a team in a league that generally requires a center to be an elite rim protector.
Thus, this injury begs the question as to whether we’ve seen the last of Jahlil Okafor in a Sixers uniform. Given his incongruous fit alongside Nerlens Noel, and potentially Embiid and Dario Saric beginning next year, it’s not unreasonable to expect he will be traded this offseason, despite a rookie year that was very successful by most measures. Whether there was truth to it or not, the rumor that Boston was ready to deal the Brooklyn pick for Okafor at the NBA trade deadline at least shows that his name is being thrown into discussions.
Even apart from whether or not I think it would be the right move from a basketball standpoint, part of me wants to see Okafor traded just to see how the Sixers fanbase would react. There is a sizable portion of the fanbase that revolted when 2013-14 Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams was traded at the following trade deadline. The team was absolutely proven right in its decision to move him. The Bucks went on to bench Carter-Williams and then couldn’t even get so much as a second-round pick when shopping him at the trade deadline; he’s now out for the season after undergoing hip surgery. Still, many people are still upset with the organization over the move.
So for a player in Okafor who was most more highly regarded as a talent coming out of college, and has experienced more success thus far at the NBA level, I can only imagine the furor and amount of “hot takes” that would follow trading him away from Philadelphia. There’s already a schism between “Team Jah” and “Team Nerlens” in the Sixers fanbase; would an Okafor trade cause an irrecoverable divide between the two sides?
I would say no. In the end, people root for laundry. They say time heals all wounds, but in sports, it’s winning that solves everything. So if Philadelphia trades away Jahlil Okafor, and it eventually results in the team winning, everyone will get back on board. Unfortunately, right now, the idea of the Sixers winning seems as torn from reality as Okafor’s right meniscus.