Sixers Mailbag #14: How Has Okafor Performed at Power Forward?
This week we continue our 76ers mailbag series, where we discuss some of the pressing topics around the team.
In the 14th edition of our Sixers mailbag we talk about Jahlil Okafor‘s move to the power forward spot, whether to extend Nerlens Noel this offseason, and various possibilities in the 2016 draft.
Note: any opinions expressed here are my own opinions, and not reports or expectations based off of inside information, unless I explicitly state that a statement is based off of inside information.
“What do you think about Okafor defending the power forward spot so far?”
First, before I start, I want to be clear about something: when we (or Sixers head coach Brett Brown) talk about playing a position, we’re talking about defensive assignments. Nothing about Okafor’s role has changed offensively. Brown has switched things up by asking Okafor to defend the more perimeter-oriented big man, but nothing else has really changed.
As I mentioned the other day, so far the team has struggled defensively during the time that Okafor has been asked to defend the power forward spot. Now, we’re certainly not at the point where there’s a large enough data set to come to any sort of conclusion, and I think Okafor has, more or less, done an adequate job defending his man 1-on-1, even at the power forward position.
The numbers — 115.4 defensive rating with Okafor and Noel on the court in games that Okafor has defended the power forward position, which would be worst defensive rating in the league — have some obvious small sample size noise to them, but I do think Okafor (Okafour?) has struggled in some areas which influence that number a bit.
Most importantly, defending guys like Thaddeus Young, rather than the post-bound Brook Lopez, puts Okafor in more and more pick and roll situations. That’s not his strength, as is evidenced by the 1.07 points per possession roll men are scoring when defended by Okafor, compared to the 0.81 points per possession Nerlens Noel is giving up.
You’ve also seen Okafor get burned by baseline cuts when he’s defending off the ball a couple of times, something which is mostly an awareness thing. It’s a problem both Noel and Okafor have. While Noel has more than adequate physical tools to defend the perimeter he, like Okafor, are being asked to do something they’ve never done in their lives, and gaining that kind of recognition and awareness isn’t something that’s going to be accomplished in a couple of practices, or even half a season.
I’m interested in seeing how this plays out, even if I don’t have a particularly high level of confidence it’s going to work long term. I do think there’s incredible value in leaving Noel at the 5 defensively, and if Okafor can show he’s capable of defending in space well enough to make that a reality it would be a huge benefit for the pair long term, not to mention provide newfound confidence in Okafor working with Joel Embiid down the line.
I do think it’s something that Brown is never going to be able to do against 100% of the “4’s” in the league, though, as there are simply too many combo forwards who are proficient from the perimeter, and elite athletes on top of it, to ask Okafor to do so irrespective of the opponent.
In a way, this is where Noel hurts Okafor, because if Noel were a legitimate post-up threat teams wouldn’t be able to play small lineups against the Sixers’ big front court.
“Given that they have the potential for like 4 picks, would it be better for the other 3 picks to not convey this year?”
I think much of the Philadelphia fan base would panic if the Lakers pick didn’t convey this year, and I understand the desire to see that pick turn into a tangible product. But I’m not in love with the 3-through-10 range of this draft, and the 2017 draft looks very strong and deep, that I would certainly be okay with the Lakers pick not conveying this year.
And, while I think there’s a chance the Lakers improve — in part because of the impact a potential top 2 pick can add, but mostly due to the loss of Byron Scott and Kobe Bryant — I think there’s a very real chance the #7 pick in 2017 turns into a better player than the #4 pick in 2016.
At the very least, I want the Lakers to maintain the second worst record this year, which would guarantee one of three possible outcomes: the Sixers get the Lakers pick as either the #4 pick or #5 pick this year, or it carries over to 2017. What I don’t want is to open up the possibility of the Lakers pick falling to #6 or #7 this year, and if that means there’s a 55 percent chance the pick doesn’t convey until next year, I’m more than willing to take that chance.
In short, I don’t want the Nets or Suns passing the Lakers.
For Miami (reminder: the pick is top-10 protected), it’s unlikely to matter.
The Heat are showing some of the same inconsistent tendencies they showed down the stretch last year: win 3 out of 4, then lose 7 of 8, then win 6 of 7. And they do still have a tough schedule to close out the season. I could see the pick falling into the teens, but not the top-10. In order for Miami to pick in the top 10 this year they’d have to catch Sacramento, and the Heat are 8 wins up on the Kings with 29 games left to play. Even with a complete collapse, the odds of that happening is practically zero.
In theory, getting Miami’s pick next year, where it would be unprotected, and with their aging roster and how poorly Goran Dragic has fit in his new role, would be a great option, but it’s just not realistic at this stage.
The Thunder’s pick, which is top-15 protected, is conveying this year as well.
Jeffrey Trainer (@jeffrey_trainer):
The talk is that this upcoming draft is a 2-player draft. Outside of Dragan Bender(3), who has a chance to “jump” by draft day?
While I have Bender rated as the third best prospect, I’m not sure it’s a lock he goes in the top three. I think that buyout has a real chance of scaring away teams, especially teams at the top of the lottery who have immediate needs, both because they need talent on the court to compete, but also because GM’s for teams in this situation frequently have an immediate need of showing off young talent to prove the future is bright, and their job secure.
I don’t think there’s much of a chance of anybody jumping either Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram, but I do think somebody jumping to the third pick is still in play. The most likely candidates, in my opinion, are Kris Dunn and Jaylen Brown.
Dunn is somebody who is getting a lot of attention, and is pretty universally talked about as a top-5 pick. 17 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.7 assists, and 3.2 steals per game, with the athletic gifts he has, will garner that kind of attention, especially when you factor in quality team wins like Providence has had over Arizona, Creighton, Butler, Georgetown, and Villanova. Dunn certainly has some holes in his game, and we’ll discuss that in detail in the coming weeks, but he’s going to stay in the conversation.
Jaylen Brown is the type of prospect that, right now, you could pick his game apart quite easily. His outside shot is not there, yet his shot selection is extremely questionable, relying on that broken outside shot more than a player with his natural gifts should. He hasn’t harnessed his elite physical tools into production on the defensive side of the court. And even slashing to the basket, his biggest strength, he can struggle to react to defensive rotations. He’s still very early in his development as a prospect, both from a skill and awareness perspective.
But I think he is going to be so impressive during the workouts leading up to the draft that he’s going to cement himself as a top-7 pick. Brown has prototypical size for the small forward position and is an elite athlete, something which will become even more evident in predraft workouts. He might not yet be able to convert that into a consistently productive player, but, if his interviews and workouts go well, he has a ton of potential to showcase in those environments.
“Should the 76ers extend Noel this summer or do you wait until next summer when he becomes a restricted FA?”
With how drastically the salary cap will increase because of the national television deal (from $63 million in 2014-15, to $70 million this year, to an estimated $89 million in 2016-17 and $108 million in 2017-18), since contracts are based on a percentage of the salary cap, I’ve seen many fans hoping to get Nerlens Noel locked into an extension in the fall of 2016 in hopes of getting him on a salary structure based on the 2016-17 cap.
Unfortunately, rookie-scale extensions don’t work like that. What ends up happening is that contracts are agreed to based on percentages: they agree to a percentage of the salary cap, with a defined length of the contract and a raise each year based on a percentage of the first year of the contract.
So if the Sixers and Noel agree to a contract extension next fall, they’ll basically agree to, for example, “25% of the 2017-18 salary cap, with 7.5% raises over the first year salary of the contact in each of the next three seasons.”
The actual dollar amounts won’t be filled in until the 2017-18 salary cap is set, and it won’t be based on the lower 2016-17 salary cap figure, even if the deal is signed during the 2016-17 season.
In short, locking Noel into an extension won’t lock him in to 2016-17 rates.
Because of that, and with the uncertainty in the Sixers’ frontcourt, I think you let him play out the final year of the contract, hopefully get some answers (or, at least, some more information) on Noel’s fit with Jahlil Okafor and with Joel Embiid’s health, and you head into the 2017 free agency period with Noel as a restricted free agent, and the right to match any offer.
“Nerlens is a very good defensive player with seemingly unlimited potential on that end. That being said, does he have a problem with turnovers on the other end?”
Oh, no doubt.
Part of it is that I think they try to use Noel as a slasher more than an, um, “normal” team would, as they are more worried about giving Noel a chance to develop that skill than they are about necessarily winning games, but I think part of it is Noel’s very real limitations on that end of the court. Between his struggles catching the ball cleanly and how frequently he’ll get the ball stripped by defenders, it plays a big role in limiting Noel’s effectiveness even as a low-usage offensive player.
It has, predictably, improved since the addition of Ish Smith, in my opinion mostly because of where Noel is receiving his passes. I’d love to see the splits in how frequently Noel misses a pass when it’s above his chest rather than below.
“If the Lakers pick conveyed at #4 and the Sixers were at #3, would you (if you were Hinkie) try and trade 3 and 4 for #2? Would another team take that trade?”
I’d make the trade in a heartbeat. We always say that the most difficult thing to accomplish in a rebuild is to acquire a legitimate star, and I think Brandon Ingram has a much higher chance of developing into one than any of the other players that will be selected after him.
Unfortunately, I think other teams are also in the hunt for a star, and I think such a trade would be unlikely. I think if you’re really interested in moving up, dangling one of the Sixers current players (Okafor or Noel) is going to have to enter the equation, but that’s something we can talk about if lady luck abandons the Sixers on lottery night.
Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.