Feb 24 2016

JaKarr Sampson and the Sixers’ Impending Roster Crunch

Thanks to the Detroit Pistons’ decision to void the three-team trade that sent a second-round pick to Philadelphia at the trade deadline, the 76ers effectively waived JaKarr Sampson for no reason.

There’s no sugarcoating it: That sucks.

But with an impending roster crunch, Sampson’s time in Philadelphia was almost certain to come to an end this summer one way or another. His diminishing role in the last month should’ve been a warning to us all that the end of the Point JaKarr era was near.

Barring any trades, the Sixers already have eight spots almost certainly accounted for next season: Joel Embiid, Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel, Nik Stauskas, Richaun Holmes, Robert Covington, Jerami Grant and Carl Landry. Assuming Dario Saric comes over from Europe — both he and his father have indicated that’s the plan, despite the financial ramifications of him being locked into a rookie-scale contract — that’s a ninth roster spot taken up before factoring in draft considerations and those signed to nonguaranteed deals.

The Sixers also figure to have three, if not four, first-round picks this June (their own and those from the Heat, Thunder and perhaps the Lakers). Even if the Lakers pick doesn’t convey and they use the Miami or Oklahoma City first-rounder on a draft-and-stash, that adds two more players to their roster total, bumping it up to 11. Kendall Marshall, Hollis Thompson, Isaiah Canaan and T.J. McConnell, meanwhile, are all signed to team-friendly nonguaranteed deals through the 2016-17 season. The odds of all four being on the team heading into opening night in October are slim to none, but that’s precisely the point: With those four factored in, the Sixers would already be capped out in terms of the roster limit.

Hinkie can free up a roster spot this summer by waiving Landry and agreeing to swallow his $6.5 million guaranteed salary. On the off chance he takes the same approach to free agency he has the past three summers — i.e., staying firmly on the sidelines and signing no one of particular import — that would leave the Sixers with one roster spot, which they’d presumably use to attempt re-signing Ish Smith.

To steal a phrase from Hinkie, the Sixers’ quest to “build an orchard” is set to enter its next phase this offseason. The hiring of Jerry Colangelo as chairman of basketball operations/dictator/demigod signaled the start of Phase 2. After staying dormant during free agency for the past three summers, the Sixers are poised to begin rounding out their roster to complement their plethora of young bigs.

To start, they’ll need an infusion of reinforcements in the backcourt. As much as we’ve grown to love Smith for helping salvage an otherwise lost season — and particularly for saving Nerlens from going crazy and driving off the Ben Franklin Bridge during the All-Star break — there’s a reason he’s played on nine teams since joining the league in 2010. He’s the definition of a journeyman point guard — a fine one at that, but at 27 years old already, he’s not going to evolve into a title-caliber starting floor general. If the Sixers are serious about building around a Twin Towers frontcourt — whether that’s Okafor-Noel, Embiid-Noel or Embiid-Okafor — they’ll desperately need reliable floor-spacers at the other three positions in their starting lineup. Ish doesn’t fit that bill.

Considering Okafor’s defensive concerns, particularly in pick-and-roll coverage, they’ll also need at least one lockdown wing defender. Covington could grow into that role — according to Vantage Sports, he’s been one of the league’s top perimeter disruptors this season — and with LeBron James, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony looming as potential playoff opponents in the coming years, having a wing stopper will be crucial to the Sixers’ hopes of advancing deep into the bracket. Teams can never have enough three-and-D players, though, so Hinkie may decide that’s another area of need.

They’ll have plenty of avenues to improve their roster this summer, whether it’s through trades or free agency. According to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer — as with all transaction rumors, take this with a grain of salt — the Sixers offered “some combination” of Stauskas, Smith and a 2016 first-round pick to the Atlanta Hawks for Dennis Schroder prior to the trade deadline. They also reportedly “considered adding a player with an expiring contract” — who Pompey identified as Sampson — but the Hawks “ultimately decided to keep Schroder.” That said, Pompey’s source “said he expects the Sixers and Hawks to revisit trade talks for [Schroder] during the NBA draft on June 23.”

According to the Boston Herald‘s Steve Bulpett, Okafor almost made his way to the Boston Celtics at the trade deadline, too. (Danny Ainge at least reportedly had interest in the rookie center). It’s unclear what the Celtics offered for Okafor—all Bulpett revealed was “the deal was dead on Wednesday and that the other club pulled the plug” — but once the pingpong balls fall into place at May’s lottery, there’s reason to believe the two sides could rekindle discussions, particularly if the Brooklyn first-rounder that the Celtics own doesn’t fall within the top two selections.

While this year’s free-agent class quickly goes from stunning to depressing once you move outside the top 20 or so players — HoopsHype has Philadelphia favorite Evan Turner listed as its 25th-best free agent — the Sixers could emulate what Portland did this past offseason, investing larger-than-expected deals in young, unheralded players on the same developmental curve as their franchise pieces. While guys such as Kevin Durant, Mike Conley and Nicolas Batum aren’t likely to give Hinkie the time of day, the Sixers could sign, say, Allen Crabbe, E’Twaun Moore, Kent Bazemore and/or former Sixer Moe Harkless to cobble together a vastly improved perimeter rotation.

Assuming Pompey’s sources are correct, it appears as though Hinkie and Colangelo approached the trade deadline with one eye toward the offseason. The former’s comments following the deadline certainly implied such, as he told reporters (via Derek Bodner of Philly Mag), “If I’m not thinking about the future, who is?” That three-for-one offer would have helped the Sixers consolidate their talent and beef up their point guard rotation while freeing up two roster spots, effectively killing two birds with one stone.

So, yes, waiving Sampson and not receiving the expected second-round pick is unfortunate. That said, given Donatas Motiejunas’ back issues this season — the fourth-year big man had suited up just 14 times for the Rockets prior to the trade deadline — the Sixers had to have known him failing Detroit’s physical was within the realm of possibility. Could they have waived Elton Brand rather than Sampson, assuming the demand for a moderately productive 22-year-old would be greater than that for a 36-year-old who hasn’t suited up once this season? Certainly. But Sampson also cleared waivers at 6 p.m. ET Sunday, meaning the Sixers at least could have attempted to bring him back if so desired. (He instead signed a two-year deal with the Denver Nuggets on Monday, with the second year nonguaranteed.)

Many of us grew attached to Sampson over the past year-and-a-half because he was a human embodiment of the Process. He was an undrafted nobody who forged a decent NBA career out of nowhere. Whether he continues his journey in Denver, Philadelphia or elsewhere, Sixers fans should root for him to remain productive.

Let’s not pretend his loss is a devastating setback for the overarching goal of constructing a title-caliber team, though. Given the roster-space crunch that the Sixers will face this summer— and his diminishing role on an historically bad NBA team — Sampson’s departure was less a matter of if than a matter of when.

Feb 18 2016

For a Change, the Sixers Stay Relatively Quiet on Deadline Day

Since Sam Hinkie took over as the Philadelphia 76ers’ general manager in May 2013, the day of the trade deadline has been a national holiday for Sixers fans.

In 2014, he shipped out Lavoy Allen, Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes for a half-dozen second-round picks and some roster flotsam. (No offense, Henry Sims.) Last year, Hinkie flexed his trade-deadline muscles, acquiring an Oklahoma City Thunder first-round pick in a salary dump involving JaVale McGee before shipping out K.J. McDaniels and Michael Carter-Williams at the buzzer for Isaiah Canaan, a second-round pick that would become Richaun Holmes, and the lightly protected Los Angeles Lakers first-round pick that continues to haunt us all.

This year, with Jerry Colangelo in the front-office mix, the Sixers remained largely on the sidelines on deadline day.

In true Sixers fashion, 18 minutes after the 3 p.m. ET deadline passed, Yahoo Sports’ Marc J. Spears reported Joel Anthony was heading to Philadelphia:

According to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, the Sixers will receive a 2017 Denver Nuggets second-round pick in exchange for taking on Anthony’s contract. They also sent the rights to Chukwudiebere Maduabum back to Houston, per Derek Bodner of Philly Mag. The move leaves them with 16 players on the roster, although per Bodner, there’s “no word yet on the corresponding roster move.” They’re going to waive Anthony, who’s earning $2.5 million this year and has a non-guaranteed $2.5 million salary next season, but as Bodner noted, teams can’t waive incoming players before they occupy a roster spot. So, they’ll have to waive at least one additional player to free up a roster spot for Anthony.

Prior to the Anthony acquisition, the Sixers were roughly $2.6 million below the $63 million salary floor, so this move puts them roughly $13,000 shy of it. If they’re intent on meeting the floor, that’s nothing a few 10-day signings can’t rectify. Waiving the yet-to-be-determined player — Kendall Marshall or JaKarr Sampson, perhaps? — will create a roster spot, helping facilitate 10-day signings.

[Update, 2/23: The Anthony acquisition wound up being part of a three-team deal with the Detroit Pistons… one which fell apart Monday after Donatas Motiejunas failed Detroit’s physical due to back problems. So, the Sixers wound up waiving Sampson and not receiving anything in return.]

Compared to their trade-deadline splashes in years past, acquiring Anthony and a 2017 second-rounder hardly qualifies as major fireworks. As Xylon wrote earlier this week, though, the Sixers’ inertia on deadline day shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. It’s also not as though Hinkie and Co. weren’t laying the foundation of future moves during the days leading up to the deadline.

According to Tom Moore of Calkins Media, Hinkie was “gauging interest in [Jahlil] Okafor” around the league, but no concrete trade rumor (much less an actual deal) ever materialized. Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported the Sixers “contacted the Atlanta Hawks about their desire to trade point guard Jeff Teague or backup Dennis Schroder,” but the Hawks elected to stand pat with both. They also “had discussions” with the Los Angeles Clippers about Blake Griffin, according to Sam Amico of Fox Sports Ohio, but those likewise went nowhere.

The Sixers had nearly $10 million in cap space heading into Thursday, but few teams were intent on making major salary dumps with the salary cap set to explode this summer. Anderson Varejao, who the Cleveland Cavaliers sent to the Portland Trail Blazers in a three-team trade along with a protected 2018 first-rounder, wouldn’t have fit into the Sixers’ cap space without them sending out something—even as unsubstantial as Sampson—in return. After seeing Hinkie use cap space as a weapon at the deadline last February, in particular, the relative lack of activity qualifies as a mild disappointment, but the Sixers already won’t be able to use their full haul of first- and second-round picks over next few seasons. At this point, figuring out whether the combo of Okafor and Nerlens Noel is feasible over the long haul is the team’s No. 1 priority.

You’ve heard it 10,000 times before, but Joel Embiid remains the linchpin to any significant roster move. Until the Sixers are certain he’ll be able to contribute next season in any capacity, they’ll be rightfully reluctant to trade either of their two sure things in Okafor and Noel. (Embiid is reportedly in Qatar at the moment, per Moore, “kick-starting” the next phase of his rehab at “the world’s leading specialized orthopedic and sports medicine hospital.”)

The uncertainty regarding Dario Saric’s status also isn’t helping matters. Though he’s reportedly headed stateside for the 2016-17 season, until the Sixers have him put pen to paper, he could always chance course and stay abroad for one more season. Doing so would allow him to escape the confinement of the rookie scale, which makes significant financial sense on his end.

In a best-case scenario, Saric will join the Sixers this summer and Embiid will overcome his navicular issues to become the franchise-changing big man we all hope he can be. If or when that happens, Hinkie, Colangelo and Co. can reassess their options at the time and begin working on ways of resolving their frontcourt glut. With so many teams swimming in cap space this summer—most of whom will inevitably be left on the altar once the top-tier free agents head elsewhere—the trade market could be especially lively come July.

For a change, the Sixers were in no rush to make major deals at the trade deadline. They simply did their due diligence by sniffing around the asking prices of Atlanta’s point guards, Griffin and Okafor, among others, and landed a second-round pick in a minor salary dump. Come this summer, the legwork they did over the past few weeks could give them a head start on any trade discussions. Until the days leading up to the draft, however, it should be all quiet on the trade front in Philly.

Feb 14 2016

Your Yeezy Trade Deadline Season Preview

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It may be Yeezy Season everywhere else in the world right now, but in Philadelphia this week it’s Hinkie Season — otherwise known as the NBA Trade Deadline. Last year’s deadline was so insane that it nearly broke the Trade Machine himself. Let’s get to the major talking points leading up to Thursday:

Let’s cool our jets with the trade machine

Tweeting out your hypothetical deal that ships Jahlil Okafor to some far-off land seems to be all the rage among the kids these days (myself included!). But perhaps we’ve taken the trade machine a bit too far this year — this isn’t Bill Simmons’ Fantasy World where superstars are changing locations every other day.

Even more so is that the appeal of the Sixers’ assets lie in the future rather than immediately. Okafor and Nerlens Noel have potential to be great players, but they’re not the final piece that gets the Clippers over the hump this year. So even in the event that the Clips are looking to expedite Blake Griffin from Los Angeles come Thursday, a third team would need to get involved to facilitate a Blake-to-Philly move — and by that point, the said hypothetical third team may as well package together its own offer for Blake. Expect Jah, Noel, et al. to stay put for now.

And yes, you’re right, I don’t get invited to too many parties.

But the frontcourt needs to be addressed. Soon. 

Calling this situation a logjam would be generous. Forget the awkward (yet improving!) fit between Noel and Okafor: Ben Simmons, likely best utilized at the four, may find his way here next season; we are still expecting Dario Saric by October 2016 at the time of this writing; and you should probably start getting excited about Joel Embiid again.

This is all before considering the B Team, featuring Jerami Grant, Robert Covington, and Richaun Holmes. Rich Holmsie Quan is already struggling to hit the hardwood for an eight-win squad, Nylon Calculus shows the Sixers play 17.1 points better per 100 possessions better when Lord Cov plays the four over the three, and Jerami Grant’s newfound playmaking ability may make him three years and a workable jumper away from being one of the biggest second-round heists in recent history.

This is where drafting BPA (best player available) may come to rear its ugly head: only 96 minutes exist between the center and forward positions, and the Sixers can’t feasibly carry this entire core into next season. But this also means that any deal to clear the frontcourt may be made in haste, which could put the Sixers in a position of weakness. The value looks nice on paper, but the market is an entirely different beast. (Having competing bidders, however, would alleviate some of those concerns).

Let’s remember that Sam Hinkie doesn’t always win these things

In case you missed it (I’m sure you didn’t), the Bucks are apparently already over the MCW show. The 2014 ROTY award may well be the peak of our old friend’s career, and Hinkie flipping him for what could possibly be a top-four pick this summer is nothing short of a modern masterpiece.

But outside of fleecing Milwaukee nearly as savagely as the Bucks’ own owners, Hinkie’s deadline resumé has been murky. I’ve already voiced my discontent with the K.J. deal — Isaiah Canaan would obviously be preferred over McDaniel’s 62 minutes logged in Houston this year, but K.J.’s potential over the lifetime of his three-year deal may yet be more intriguing than that of an undersized chucker.

But a possibly more questionable February flop of Hinkie remains acquiring the rights to Danny Granger’s retirement and a Warriors’ second-rounder for Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen two season ago. Granger would never suit up for Philly and ultimately be bought out, per expectations. That second-rounder amounted to the 60th pick last June: Luka Mtrović, otherwise known as the token asset given up this summer for Nik Stauskas and company.

Turner and Allen were far from perfect in Philadelphia: ET was widely considered a laughing-stock as a draft bust, while Lavoy was a remnant of Doug Collins’ drab, inefficient Sixers hoops. Both have become integral pieces of Eastern Conference playoff teams — not a particularly flashy title, but one that’s certainly worth far more than trade fodder and a buyout.

The Sixers have been linked to some weird names

They’re no Blake Griffin, but the Sixers have recently been linked to talks concerning Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroeder, as well as maybe even Dwight Howard.

Outside of the Sixers still being in search for its point guard of the future, Teague and Schroeder make little sense. Teague is a nice player, but is likely worth more to Atlanta than he is to the Sixers. His cheap deal expires at next season’s end, and may not be worth the inflated deal that he’ll ultimately net in a $109 million salary cap economy. And having sniffed 60-win success last season, Teague may lean more toward signing up with a contender in 2017 rather than carrying the Sixers youngins through his early 30s.

Schroeder on the other hand is young and on a cheap deal through 2018, but is a nightmare fit with the Sixers’ roster — the worst pairing with Okafor is an overconfident, ball-dominant guard who doesn’t space the floor and oops I accidentally might’ve just described Ish Smith.

Dwight makes complete sense here if the Sixers are shooting for an all-center lineup next season, which sounds like Vivek Ranadivé’s Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

In other words, there’s probably the lowest possible non-zero chance that the Sixers have started real talks about these players. And if they actually have, it may just be a matter of Old Man Colangelo keeping up appearances — at least that is my blind speculation that you should in no way listen to.

Expect a quieter deadline this year

Unlike previous seasons, the Sixers have no immediate contributors nor contract conflicts to sort out this deadline. Ish Smith could conceivably help a playoff contender — New Orleans, anybody? — but shipping him off for a second time might actually kill Nerlens. Carl Landry is literally an NBA veteran who can play basketball, but his seven DNP-CDs over the last 10 games probably don’t scream “value” to the trade market. And we drool over Covington’s contract as the Magnum Opus of the Hinkie Special, but his up-and-down play this season would probably be a low sell on his value at this juncture.

The Sixers will however be, as always, prime contenders as the salary-dump-third-team in any and every deal. Philly sits roughly $2.7 million below the salary floor — no, it still doesn’t actually matter — but are also set to clear nearly $22 million in cap room this summer as the waived contracts of Gerald Wallace, JaVale McGee, Tony Wroten, and Furkan Aldemir are wiped from the books. With the cap booming to an estimated $89 million this summer, the Sixers could potentially be looking at $50 million in cap room next season.

I hope David Lee likes cheesesteaks and bad football.

Jan 28 2016

Sam Hinkie’s Second-Round Success Rate Is Pedestrian, And That’s OK

Sam Hinkie’s insatiable thirst for second-round picks has been a defining characteristic of his tenure as Philadelphia 76ers general manager, and rightfully so.

In three drafts, he’s already been on the clock 12 times in the second round, and he acquired six second-rounders at the 2014 trade deadline alone (see below).

Incoming Outgoing
2/20/2014 Byron Mullens
2018 2nd (LAC)
2014 2nd (protected 31-40 and 46-60)
2/20/2014 Danny Granger
2015 2nd (GSW via IND)
Evan Turner
Lavoy Allen
2/20/2014 Eric Maynor
2015 2nd (WAS)
2016 2nd (DEN)
2014 2nd (protected 31-45 and 51-60)
2/20/2014 Earl Clark
Henry Sims
2014 2nd (CLE)
2014 2nd (MEM via CLE)
Spencer Hawes

That was just the start. Within the 2014 calendar year, Hinkie acquired an additional six second-round picks and two second-round pick swaps spread out over the next half-decade, all the while surrendering little in terms of long-term assets. It was a master class in using cap space to absorb unwanted contracts, gaining valuable assets in return.

Here’s a look at how each of those deals played out:

Incoming Outgoing
6/26/2014 Jordan McRae (No. 58)
Cory Jefferson (No. 60)
Nemanja Dangubic (No. 54)
6/26/2014 Dario Saric (No. 12)
2015 2nd (ORL)
2017 1st (PHI via ORL)
Elfrid Payton (No. 10)
9/27/2014 Keith Bogans
2018 2nd (CLE)
2015 2nd (protected 31-50, 56-60)
10/24/2014 Marquis Teague
2019 2nd (more favorable of MIL/SAC)
Casper Ware
10/27/2014 Travis Outlaw
2018 2nd swap w/ NYK
2019 2nd (NYK)
Arnett Moultrie
12/11/2014 Andrei Kirilenko
Jorge Gutierrez
2018 2nd swap w/ BKN
2020 2nd (BKN)
Brandon Davies
12/23/2014 Ronny Turiaf
Rights to Sergei Lishouk
2014 2nd (HOU)
Alexey Shved

The TL;DR version: Hinkie acquired TWELVE second-rounders and two second-round pick swaps in a 10-month span, and then one more (No. 37, 2015) in the K.J. McDaniels-Isaiah Canaan exchange.

Acquiring a preposterous number of second-round picks is helpful, albeit not difficult to do when disregarding wins. But turning those picks into productive pieces is another matter entirely.

Hinkie’s second-round results have been mixed. Just two of his 12 picks —Jerami Grant (No. 39 in 2014) and Richaun Holmes (No. 37 in 2015)—remain on the roster. Five of the 12 were international prospects who haven’t yet come to the NBA, although Hinkie proceeded to trade four of those five, leaving just the rights to Vasilije Micic (No. 52 in 2014) under the Sixers’ control.

In one sense, having just two players remaining after 12 second-round picks within the past three drafts isn’t a ringing endorsement of this strategy. Then again, considering the bust rate of second-rounders—according to analysis Roland Beech did for 82games.com, only one pick outside the top 30 has greater than a 15 percent chance of even being a “solid” player—Hinkie’s batting average of 16.7 percent is right around as expected.

Among all of the second-round picks drafted across the league since 2013, Grant and Holmes rank 10th and 12th, respectively, in terms of career win shares. Both are on track to surpass the amount of win shares expected from players in their draft slots over their first four seasons, according to a 2009 analysis which Justin Kubatko posted on Basketball-Reference. Players selected 39th overall average 3.4 win shares through their first four seasons, while those selected 37th average 3.8. Through a season-and-a-half, Grant has accrued 2.2 win shares, while Holmes is already up to 1.4 halfway through his rookie campaign.

Though the win shares totals of all Sixers second-rounders are inflated based on the comparably large amount of playing time they receive, both Grant and Holmes look like legitimate long-term NBA contributors. Neither may be much more than a role player off the bench for a contender, but having those guys locked up on dirt-cheap four-year deals (the so-called “Hinkie Special”) gives the Sixers additional financial flexibility when they begin to discuss extensions for their prized lottery picks and/or dip their toes into the free-agent market.

Those second-rounders aren’t just conduits to gamble on potential draft-day steals, however. They represent valuable currency on the trade market, too. The Sixers moved the 2016 second-rounder they acquired from Denver two seasons ago as part of the package to reacquire Ish Smith on Christmas Eve. They likewise included two of their second-round picks from this past June, Arturas Gudaitis and Luka Mitrovic, in the deal with Sacramento that netted them Nik Stauskas, two possible first-round pick swaps in 2016 and 2017 and the Kings’ top-10-protected first-round pick in 2018. Accruing such a bountiful treasure trove of second-rounders gives Hinkie and Co. optionality on the trade market, which has already paid off in dividends in the form of Smith.

Draft Pick  Selected Status
2013, No. 35 Glen Rice Traded to WAS
2013, No. 42 Pierre Jackson Traded to NOP; waived
2014, No. 32 K.J. McDaniels Traded to HOU
2014, No. 39 Jerami Grant On Sixers
2014, No. 47 Russ Smith Traded to NOP
2014, No. 52 Vasilije Micic Abroad – PHI rights
2014, No. 54 Nemanja Dangubic Abroad – traded to SAS
2015, No. 35 Willy Hernangomez Abroad – traded to NYK
2015, No. 37 Richaun Holmes On Sixers
2015, No. 47 Arturas Gudaitis Abroad – Traded to SAC
2015, No. 58 J.P. Tokoto Waived
2015, No. 60 Luka Mitrovic Abroad – Traded to SAC

Ultimately, optionality is what the “Process” is all about. Acquiring a number of first- and second-round picks decreases the pressure to hit a home run with each one. If Jahlil Okafor proves to be a solid double rather than a grand slam (like Kristaps Porzingis appears to be), so be it. If Joel Embiid never plays a minute for the Sixers, it will represent an undeniable setback for the rebuild, but it won’t be the franchise-crippling abomination that the Andrew Bynum trade wound up becoming. Between the first-round picks owed to them from the Lakers, Heat, Thunder and Kings and the preposterous number of second-round picks headed their way through the early 2020s, the Sixers have no shortage of assets to dangle in front of potential trade partners over the coming seasons.

Much like the overall organizational strategy, it’s simply too early to cast definitive judgment on Hinkie’s track record with second-round picks. Those who criticize him for finding just two keepers among 12 chances are willfully ignoring how many of those other selections he flipped in later deals. Those praising him for unearthing diamonds in the rough such as McDaniels, Grant and Holmes can’t turn a blind eye to some of the productive players he overlooked (Jeff Withey, Nikola Jokic, Dwight Powell and Jordan Clarkson, in particular).

Considering how little Hinkie has given up to acquire such a wealth of second-rounders, it’s difficult to find fault with his approach. The verdict simply remains out on his success rate in the second round, especially since he has yet to make use of a majority of the picks he’s acquired in the past two-and-a-half years.

Jan 19 2016

A Chat (With Myself) On Jahlil Okafor’s Defense

The Jahlil Okafor draft pick has been nothing short of controversial since the moment Adam Silver announced it. Not only are Sixers fans stuck wondering whether Okafor could fit alongside incumbent center Nerlens Noel, but even more so if a ground-bound Jahlil would fit in a modern NBA defense. The pair got off to a disastrous start, but has meshed well as of late. The following is a brief conversation I had with myself — I swear it actually happened — about Okafor’s defense, his fit with Nerlens, and more:

So, how has Jahlil Okafor’s defense been so far?

Really? Just like that? No “hi?” Well, let’s get right to it then.

In short, it hasn’t been great. Last season, to the surprise of many, the Sixers posted a gosh-darn respectable 102.1 defensive rating with Nerlens Noel leading the pack. With Okafor, that number has taken a turn for the worse this season, dropping down to a 21st-ranked 104.9.

Yeah, that doesn’t sound good. But that’s not all on him, right?

Of course not. When you replace lanky wing defenders like Michael Carter-Williams and K.J. McDaniels with T.J. McConnell, Isaiah Canaan, and Nik Stauskas, a smoother path to the rim is to be expected. But in adding Okafor and thus moving Noel to power forward, the Sixers also moved one of the league’s best rim protectors in the Nerlen Wall (copyright: Alaa Abdelnaby) away from the goal.

So how do Jah’s numbers stack up against the rest of the Association?

Better than you’d expect, actually! He’s allowing opponents to convert just 47.5 percent of shots against him at the rim, which doesn’t exactly sound all that good until you realize that number either tops or is on par with alleged defensive studs such as Dwight Howard, Roy Hibbert, Clint Capela, and — weird — Nerlens Noel. That may be in part because Okafor has held his own down low. Nobody has defended a higher volume of attempts in the post than Jah this season, who has allowed 48.4 percent shooting on such looks — an honorable number for any rookie who could be easily taken advantage of by savvy veteran footwork and pump fakes.

Okafor may not have the vertical lift of a Hassan Whiteside or Andre Drummond, but he uses his combination of a stocky build and 7-5 wingspan to shut down the paint. Jahlil is already a prodigy when it comes to the ever-so-glamorous art of bodying post behemoths and keeping those hands up:

 

Per Vantage Sports (as of Jan. 19), Jah’s 57.83 Contest+ rate (the percentage of shots defended where he blocks to possession, blocks to opponents’ possession, alters or contests) ranks 15th in the league. In situations where Okafor is going mano a mano and doesn’t have to cover a lot of ground, he has impeccable timing when swatting shots away:

 

The problem is that in the pick-and-roll-heavy direction the league is going (it’s already there), the best kind of player for Okafor to defend would be himself — a withering breed of bigs who feast in the post. On the 35 pick-and-roll plays that have ended in a shot, turnover, or foul against Jah, he’s allowing a score on a fifth-worst 52.4 percent of them. When it comes to keeping up with some of the rangier bigs of today’s game, Okafor lacks both the lateral quickness and reflexes to keep up:

 

 

He doesn’t make much of an effort to get the ball back, either — that’s fine, baby steps — ranking in the bottom 25 in Vantage’s TO Forced per Chance, Deflections per 100 Chances, and Passes Denied per 100 Chances categories.

And this is considering that the Sixers have already simplified the defensive scheme in a way that adheres to Okafor’s lack of mobility, having him drop back on pick-and-rolls. This method is increasingly popular around the NBA with its motive to concede more long 2s, but when ball handlers decide to catch a screen far behind the arc, just as Kyrie Irving does in the below clip, Jah has little choice but to step up to the perimeter:

 

But the Sixers seemingly prefer this to the alternative: Per Vantage, Jah switches on just 9.68 percent of pick-and-rolls and hedges a minuscule .92 percent of the time — bottom-75 and -15 rankings, respectively. And when he finds himself in a switch, or if a perimeter defender catches a hard pick, a dawdling Okafor can get scorched in a hurry:

 

 

But he’s only 20! He’ll get better at that, right?

No kidding!? I could’ve sworn he was at least in his 30s!

Of course he can get better, but it’s important to keep in mind that, even going back as far as high school, defense has never exactly been Jahlil’s forte. He would be an easier fix if physical limitations were the only issue, but his conditioning, attention to detail, and effort have all come into question on the defensive end to drag down his otherwise already illustrious career.

Well it seems like he has a far way to go, but that doesn’t mean he can’t do it. Similarly lumbering big dudes like Tim Duncan, Zaza Pachulia, and Andrew Bogut have all operated as plus defenders despite their vertical deficiencies.

That’s fair, but we should slam the brakes before mentioning Okafor in the same sentence as Duncan — possibly the best defender of his generation who left college as an expected two-way star. And while Pachulia and Bogut are much more realistic projections, it’s also important to keep in mind that they’ve never carried close to the same offensive onus that Okafor will in his NBA career. I can’t imagine Pachulia worries too much about polishing his post moves, but rather hones his focus on fitting the role as an offensively low-usage, defensive authority that Dallas has laid out for him.

Now that obviously doesn’t mean that Okafor can’t put in the same work to improve his defense and become a two-way force, but we should wait to see it to believe it. Players like Bogut have certainly done it (although he willingly limited his offensive role to an extent in Golden State) as well as Marc Gasol — formerly thought of as a defensive liability, but now an effective two-way player for the Grizzlies. To echo a point recently made by Derek Bodner, defense has probably never been a major coaching objective at any point in Jahlil’s basketball career to this point. And Jah has already made great strides in the departments of effort and patience in the pick-and-roll since the turn of the calendar year:

 

This is a far cry from the guy who almost literally looked like he was running away from rim protection a little over a month ago, and the average shot against him sits neatly below league average at .95 points per attempt, according to Vantage. But Okafor is still suffering from some of his routine mental lapses and lagging reflexes, which is felt from the center position more than anywhere else on the floor:

 

(Hint: If Tristan Thompson is any farther away than five feet from the hoop, you can probably ignore him.)

 

And when Jah decides not to go full throttle, he doesn’t possess the explosiveness required to make up for blah effort:

 

Say Jah never figures it out on this end. What happens then?

That’s where things can get tricky, because it’s no secret that intimidating NBA defense starts with elite rim protection. The Jazz replacing the offensively-good-yet-offensively-bad-on-defense Enes Kanter with the Stifle Tower led to historic defensive numbers, and what was the league’s second-best defense last season in Milwaukee has been anything but since the Bucks replaced Pachulia with the sluggish Greg Monroe.

The Sixers could hide Jahlil’s defense in a couple ways, the first being to throw all its eggs into transition defense as other teams have done over the years. The objective is simple: The fewer guys you have chasing rebounds, the more guys up the floor to stop a fast break, leaving more time for the defense to set and for Okafor to make his way up the court. Such a strategy comes with its costs, of course, as it essentially abandons a high-efficiency shot in the form of second-chance buckets.

Another option the Sixers have is probably also the key to unlocking the strengths of the Okafor-Noel pairing: play Jah at power forward. Even if Okafor caps out as a good defender, we have a year’s worth of evidence that Noel is an elite rim protector — and not just for a rookie, he was the linchpin of that 12th-ranked defense last season. This scenario presents the obvious worry of Okafor being eviscerated by the Paul Georges of the league, but in certain matchups — say, for instance, Orlando’s plodding frontcourt duo of Channing Frye and Nikola Vucevic — Jah may thrive. Shooters that take Okafor away from the paint put him in a tight spot, forcing him to quickly help and recover to the lane:

 

Jahlil’s Effective Help Rate — the percentage of help attempts where no score, assist, or open shot occurs, per Vantage — of 38.71 is good for the sixth-worst ranking in the league. Planting him on stationary spot-up 4s could potentially save Okafor some much-needed juice for the other end while not sacrificing much defensively, but this stone kills another bird as well: moving Nerlens back to his natural position at center. Noel the power forward and Noel the center are two entirely different entities: Per Nylon Calculus, Nerlens’ net rating per 48 minutes drops a meaty 6.7 points when shoehorned into the four, with his DRE (Daily Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus) plummeting from plus-3.0 down to minus-2.4.

Additionally, altering the pairing this way may help solve Okafor’s rebounding problem, as he has struggled in that area due to subpar athleticism and some uninspired boxing out:

 

I like the sound of that. So why don’t they try it?

Because Coach Brown isn’t feelin’ it, that’s why. But it seems he feels similarly about Noel, having just played Nerlens without Okafor for the final 22 minutes of Monday’s game at New York. If Brown really wants to maximize the strengths of both players, moving Jah to the 4 might just be the trick.

Alright, good talk. I feel a bit better about this whole thing now. Now go walk the dog and take out the trash.

It’s like five degrees outside. Make me.

Dec 31 2015

The 2015 Sixers Asset Ranking

After beating the Suns and hanging with the handicapped Jazz, Philly came up with another win last night against the always dysfunctional Kings. And so, the Sixers are back to being a regular bad team. All it took was reacquiring Ish freakin’ Smith.

Might this (potential) turnaround cost Hinkie/Colangelo ping pong balls? It’s certainly possible; while the Sixers have four fewer Ws than the Lakers and six fewer than the Nets, things can turn quickly.

But that’s not to say that playing better basketball will diminish the aggregate value of their enormous asset collection. Player development — and more importantly, perceived player development — can boost potential trading chips, and that can be the difference in a bidding war. Nerlens Noel, for example, might be the same exact player as he was a week ago, but he looks a lot better catching alley-oops instead of having passes bounce off his stone hands. 

On that note, below is the definitive 2015 ranking of the Philadelphia 76ers’ 41 assets. These include players under contract and team control, and draft picks through 2022. The order is determined by who you’d least want to give up in a trade.

1. PHL 2016 1st (rights to Kings swap).

The Sixers started so bad that even if they somehow played .500 the second half of the season, this would still be a good lottery pick. The way the bottom of the standings are shaping up, it’s looking like it’ll be a two-team race with the Lakers. The Sixers are a near lock for top 5 and if the Kings continue sliding, they may have greater than a 25% shot of the first pick. The top prize (as of right now) is LSU freshman Ben Simmons, a point forward with a sky-high ceiling, while Draft Express has SF Brandon Ingram, PF Dragan Bender, PG Kris Dunn, and PF/C Skal Labissiere in the top five. (Please god, not another big man.)

2. Joel Embiid (Team control through 2018-19)

Superstars change everything. You can make every wrong decision, but land a generational talent and all the problems will go away. And that’s the case for Embiid –who will have missed two-plus seasons with injuries — being the Sixers’ second most valuable asset.

If Embiid gets healthy, and that’s a BIG if, he has all the makings of a two-way star. He’s athletic, explosive, enormous (7-foot-2!) and skilled, and that’s with minimal playing experience. Let’s say he has a 30% shot of having a healthy career. That’s about as good a shot of stardom as you’ll find with any draft pick. Outside of established stars and top tier prospects (Ben Simmons, Karl-Anthony Towns), there’s not many assets I’d take over Embiid.

3. Nerlens Noel (Team control through 2017-18)

Noel is the only player on the Sixers roster resembling a “sure thing.” He’s already a plus stealer/rim protector, and he has potential to become an elite defender if he’s not already. Offensively he has struggled, though he’s improved his FT shooting and flashed potential as an efficient player, low-usage player .. particularly when Ish Smith is passing him the ball. Can he ever be the best player on a title team? Doubtful. But with continued development, he has all-star/DPOY potential.

4. PHL 2017 1st (rights to Kings swap)
5. LAL 2016 1st (T-3 through 2017, unprotected after).

Two extremely valuable assets here, but I’ll go with upside, since the LAL pick is protected and most can’t miss prospects aren’t found outside the top 3. I don’t see the Sixers being a No. 1 pick contender next season but things are starting to sour in Sacramento, and if Cousins leaves … jackpot.

6. Jahlil Okafor (Team control through 2019-20)

Set aside the fight and the speeding ticket and the gun incident … Okafor the basketball player has been exactly what we expected. Defensively he has struggled, while offensively he’s shown off his unprecedented post talent but hasn’t actually helped the Sixers score points.

This is normal. Rookies, on the aggregate, don’t help NBA teams win games, especially those with only one year of college experience. And especially centers playing alongside gypsy point guards and offensively limited power forwards. The good news is Okafor’s free throw shooting is up to 72% and he’s been a capable one on one defender. The help defense needs a ton of work but if he can get that sorted out, while expanding his offensive game to add some range, he’ll at the least be an effective starter, and at the most be a perennial all-star.

7. SAC 2018 1st (T-10 protected, unprotected after  (I think))

The details of this pick’s protections are complicated but to my understanding it’s unprotected in 2019. The Kings haven’t made the playoffs in a decade and once again look like they’re in disarray.. this potential lotto pick could end up being a top pick, and is already looking like an attractive trading chip.

8. Dario Saric (T-10 protected, unprotected after)

If Saric comes over next season, as he said he would, he’ll be an NBA-ready 22 year old with ROY potential. Now armed with a 3-point shot, the 2014 Draft’s No. 12 pick looks like he’s taken significant strides and could be a dangerous offensive weapon at forward.

9. MIA 2016 1st (T-10 protected, unprotected after)

The Heat are 18-13 — 1.5 games out of the second seed but barely in the playoff picture. Welcome to the 2015-16 Eastern Conference!

Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are old, and a couple injuries could make Miami a lottery team … and maybe even result in their pick getting protected. And that’d be awesome, because an unprotected 2017 Heat pick has a chance, albeit a small one, of landing the Sixers a superstar.

10. PHL 2018 1st

The Sixers will be a playoff team by 2018. The Sixers will be a playoff team by 2018. The Sixers will be a playoff team by 2018. The Sixers will be a playoff team by 2018. The Sixers will be a playoff team by 2018. The Sixers will be a playoff team by 2018. The Sixers will be a playoff team by 2018. The Sixers will be a playoff team by 2018. The Sixers will be a playoff team by 2018. The Sixers will be a playoff team by 2018. The Sixers will be a playoff team by 2018. The Sixers will be a playoff team by 2018. The Sixers will be a playoff team by 2018. The Sixers will be a playoff team by 2018.

That said, if teams think the Sixers are tanking forever and that this is a ponzi scheme, this pick might have a lot of trade value. But Jerry, before trading this away … remember: always use protection.

11. Jerami Grant (3 years/$2.9M. NG in 2017-18, TO in 18-19)

Grant has quietly been one of the best second-year players — ranking 9th in win shares — and certainly one of the most improved. He’s long, he’s athletic, and more and more he looks like he’s playing in control. Defensively he’s already a helpful player and on offense if he can develop a 3-pointer he’ll be a valuable stretch four for a long time. In a 2014 redraft there’s no way he’d fall out of the first round. He might even sneak into the lottery. Also: great contract!

12. Robert Covington (3 years/$3.1M. NG in 15-16, 16-17; TO in 17-18)

It hasn’t been a good few weeks for RoCo. But when his three is going down, Covington is a floor-spacing forward, capable of guarding multiple positions. Last year he had an Ish Smith-esque impact, helping the Sixers avoid infamy after arriving from the D-League. He’s only 25 and even if development stagnates he’s good enough to get significant minutes on most, if not every team.

13. Richaun Holmes (4 years/$4.2M, $2.1M guaranteed; NG in 17-18, TO in 18-19)

Holmes has been one of the most effective rookies; more than capable defensively and efficient on offense, with a little bit of range. He turned 22 in October, so it’s not a huge surprise he ranks 5th among first-year players in win shares. But it’s nice to have a young, already competent two-way player on a team-friendly four-year deal.

14. PHL 2019 1st
15. PHL 2020 1st
16. PHL 2021 1st
17. PHL 2022 1st

While I’m assuming these are all in the 28-30 range, other GMs might think otherwise.

18. OKC 2016 1st (T-15 in 16, 17; 2nds after. Swap rights with GS).

If Durant and Westbrook are healthy, this probably falls in the 25 range. So .. not great.

19. Ish Smith (1 year/$1.1M)

Sure, the Sixers could’ve scooped him off the waiver wire. And sure, he’s an FA at the end of the season. But if a GM called up Hinkie/Colangelo (?) and asked about Ish Smith, they’d have to give up something of real value. Like .. 3 second round picks. There’s a big enough sample size here to conclude that Ish boosts Noel’s efficiency significantly; that alone makes Smith an important asset, in spite of his expiring deal.

20. JaKarr Sampson (3 years/$2.9M, NG in 15-16, 16-17; TO in 17-18).

A plus, versatile defender with elite athleticism. At 22, he’s shown some improvement offensively .. to the point where he’s not a major liability.

21. Kendall Marshall (4 years/$8M, 2.1M guaranteed; NG from 2016-19)

His first few games as a Sixer were disappointing, though it’s hard to say how much we should attribute that to rust and the situation he’s been put in. Pre-injury, he was a highly effective passer with an ugly but effective 3-point shot, but pretty bad defensively. In other words, a backup point guard. He’s only 24, so even if he merely returns to that level, he’s a good bargain with team options of $2M per year.

22. Nik Stauskas (Team control through 2018-19)

Somewhere in Nik Stauskas is a creative, playmaking shooting guard that can stretch the floor and hold his own defensively. But so far, he’s been a disaster. Year 2 hasn’t gone much better than Year 1 for the former No. 8 pick, and his miserable 3-point shooting (30.4%) is mostly to blame. If he can get that sorted out — and I think he can — he’ll have plenty of time to develop into a valuable rotation player, which at this moment he is certainly not.

23. Christian Wood (4 years/$3.5M, $50K guaranteed).

He’s still here, killing the D-League. Potential!

24. Isaiah Canaan ($1.2M QO in 2016-17)

He’s an elite shooter, and as long as he’s not being played at point guard, he’s a useful player. Limited upside but helpful in short term.

25. Hollis Thompson (2 years/$2M; NG in 2015-16, TO in 16-17).

Competent defender and efficient 3-point shooter but otherwise limited. Still, probably worthy of a roster spot on most teams, especially with cheap contract.

26. T.J. McConnell (4 years/$3.5M, $100K guaranteed).

Like him as a third string PG, and I suspect several GMs would agree.

27. Vasilije Micic (Draft rights held; playing in Serbia).

A 6-foot-5 PG who may or may not ever play in the NBA. But he has the same agent, Misko Raznatovic, as Dario Saric, and that by itself is worth keeping him around.

28. BRK/CLE 2018 2nd (More favorable)
29. MIL/SAC 2019 2nd (More favorable)
30. LAC/NYK 2018 2nd (More favorable)
31. NYK 2019 2nd
32. PHL 2018 2nd
33. BRK 2020 2nd
34. NYK 2020 2nd
35. NYK 2021 2nd
36. PHL 2019 2nd
37. PHL 2020 2nd
38. PHL 2021 2nd
39. PHL 2022 2nd

At least one of those will be the next Draymond Green.

40. Chukwudiebere Maduabum (Draft rights held)

The NBA’s most neutral asset.

41. Carl Landry (2 years/$13M)

While he might be a serviceable backup, his contract makes him a negative asset at this point — that’s why the Kings gave up a 1st and two pick swaps to get rid of him. (Also: they’re dumb and shortsighted). His value should rise as he gets closer to the end of his contract.
* Information is from BasketballInsiders, HoopsHype, Spotrac, RealGM, Basketball Reference. Payroll and contract information not exact. TO = Team option; PO = Player option; QO = Qualifying offer; NG = Non-guaranteed.

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