Brett Brown decided not to play Jahlil Okafor on Saturday against the Heat because of trade rumors.
No deal is imminent, according to league sources, but trade talks have been progressing and are more advanced than previous discussions with the Bulls and Pelicans.
“There were trade rumors that were happening before the game,” Brown said after the Sixers' 117-109 win over the Heat (see Instant Replay). “I was aware of those. In those situations, I felt that it was best to not complicate things and not play Jahlil. We talked about it together before the game and I explained to him that this was going to happen for this reason. That’s why I made the decision.”
This is not the first time Okafor has been linked in trade talks as the Sixers look to balance their crowded frontcourt. On Saturday, though, Brown factored them in when shaping the starting lineup.
“As the All-Star break gets closer, possible deals have more of a chance,” Brown said.”Although speculation is rampant all throughout stuff, you learn that as the deadline gets closer, the reality that something could happen goes to a higher level. When we get to this stage of the calendar, it influences those types of decisions tonight.”
The Sixers have two games before the Feb. 23 deadline, Monday in Charlotte and Wednesday in Boston. There is a chance Brown could continue to sit Okafor if discussions continue.
“I feel like it’s still fluid,” Brown said. “But if you see me not play him, that’s probably going to be the reason.”
Okafor’s teammates did not know why he was benched Saturday. He had been out of the rotation when Joel Embiid started and starting when Embiid was sidelined. Embiid missed his ninth straight game, but this time Nerlens Noel found out he was getting the start 20 minutes before tipoff.
“I didn’t even know the reason,” Noel said. “Jah’s honestly one of the nicest kids I know, most humble, down to earth. He cares about other people. He’s in the situation, just like I am, where you have to be cautious about certain things. He’s only growing smarter, stronger mentally and knowing how to handle a situation like this.”
Nik Stauskas was surprised to learn of the explanation. He, like many of the players, have been involved in a trade before and can relate to what Okafor is going through.
“That’s my first time hearing it right now,” he said. “It’s tough. That’s completely out of his control. That’s up to management and coaching. He’s been doing his job on the court for us and he’s been playing well when he has been playing so he really can’t be upset or down on himself about it. It’s just part of the business of basketball and he’s going through it right now. I’ve been there, done that. It sucks at the time, being uncertain about your future and not knowing. But we all love Jah and we’re hoping the best for him.”
Echoed fellow Duke alum Gerald Henderson, “Jahlil’s a good friend of mine, a good buddy of mine, he’s like a little brother to me. You hate to see a guy go (if he does get traded), especially a good guy like Jahlil. I just hope he’s happy, if he’s here or wherever else he is because he’s just my buddy.”
Trade talks are part of the game, but there is not textbook formula to deal with them on a person-to-person level. Even though Brown's reason to bench Okafor was clear, it came with mixed emotions.
“You feel conflicted,” Brown said, "tremendously conflicted because you’ve spent a lot of time with these guys and they’re very young. I hope that when they seek guidance, I give them good advice. Trying to coach them and educate them and make them aware that this will always be a part of your NBA life and it’s at many times no reflection of the individual. It’s part of just the normal drumbeat of an NBA season and you’re not going to find many people that stay with one team their whole career.
"To find ways to say that, do that and know at some point somebody could come in and say he’s not a part of your team anymore, there’s a human side to all of that. I have an affection for Jahlil Okafor. I have a far greater respect for him than I had at the start of the year and it was high. I just see a human being in there that handles it with all class."