The Sixers have made some bad personnel decisions in the past three years, and the great majority of them can be traced back to June 25, 2015, when the Sam Hinkie-led Philadelphia 76ers selected Jahlil Okafor with the third overall pick of the NBA draft.
For the record, when I say that, I don't even include the foresaking of Kristaps Porzingis — taken one spot later that night by the Knicks, and currently terrorizing the NBA and powering the otherwise putrid Knicks to a .500 record — as part of the comedy of errors. As tempting as it is to envision a starting five that somehow includes three ultra-skilled, athletic giants bullying the rest of the NBA like the relative nerdlingers they are, you may recall that just as many Sixers fans were fantasizing about Croatian wing Mario Hezonja in 2015 as they were the Zinger, and his career may somehow be off to an even less auspicious beginning than Okafor's. Who we should've taken besides Jah doesn't concern me. It only ever concerned me that Jah was who we ended up taking.
Okafor never made sense for this team as anything but a misguided attempt at a Joel Embiid insurance policy, and even then, only barely. He didn't fit the team identity, he didn't fit the pre-existing personnel, he didn't seem in any way like a Sam Hinkie player — which is why conspiracy theories will always abound about whose call it ultimately was that the Sixers picked Okafor that night. Personally, I thought taking Okafor was the move, but only as a means of shaking down a team drafting below the Sixers for their guy, plus whatever else we could get for swiping the player we really wanted anyway. (Basically, how the Celtics ended up playing us for Jayson Tatum, a deal which may still work out from the Sixers' perspective, but always made more sense from Boston's side than Philly fans gave it credit for.)
But whether Hinkie & Co. were really that enamored with Okafor, or just hoped to exploit a potential trade partner later in the season, they picked him and kept him. And two-plus demoralizing years later, despite their best efforts, they've been thoroughly unable to get rid of him, with endlessly rumored potential trades either never materializing or falling through at the last minute. Finally, seven mostly bench-ridden games into the Sixers' 2016-'17 season, an end date was etched into Jah's Philly tenure. The team did not pick up his fourth-year option, meaning he will be a free agent this summer, almost certainly to never be seen by the Sixers in a home locker room again.
The fact that Jahlil Okafor consistently proved to be largely unplayable as a professional basketball player is, in theory, forgivable for the Sixers' front office. The draft is a maddeningly inexact science, and if you pick in the top six in five consecutive drafts, as the Sixers essentially have, chances are pretty good that one of the five is gonna bust beyond repair. Besides, can't exactly say that going to the Sixers was the most desirable outcome for Jah either, and a recent SB Nation profile did a fine job considering The Process from our beleaguered center's perspective, pointing out all that was stacked against the dude, and positing that he may ultimately just need another chance somewhere else.
If the only consequences from the Okafor pick were Draft S--t Happens, then whatever. The real fallout came with the way the Okafor pick further alienated Nerlens Noel, already a mildly superfluous center on the roster, but one with far more potential to fit as a long-term asset for the Sixers (with or without a healthy Embiid alongside) than the square-pegged Jah. Souring Noel's already none-too-sweet relationship with Philly and turning Too Many Centers into one of the team's prevailing media narratives, the move led somewhat inextricably to Nerlens' eventual shipping to Dallas for Justin Anderson and a hologram of a draft pick. Not only was the Okafor pick a waste of one of our most valuable assets, but it ended up poisoning an entirely different one.
Why bother rehashing all this? Well, mostly just to say: We're still fine. A two-in-one asset squandering like the Sixers managed with the Jah pick would mean back to square one with many NBA franchises, but the Sixers have not only endured that — as well as that other recent prospect nonsense that's too dumb to waste further time thinking about here — they're currently thriving.
I mean, did you see that game on Monday? We haven't had two players as electric as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons on the same squad since the mid-'80s — seeing them in action together is an entirely new sensation for any Sixers fan under the age of 40. Teams spend entire decades waiting for one prospect like Embiid or Simmons, and we somehow have both of them, on the court at the same time, playing together. The Sixers may be only 3-4 — on a tough, road-heavy schedule, featuring not nearly enough J.J. Redick and far too much Jerryd Bayless — but are there five teams ahead of them in the standings you'd trade the season to come with? Doubtful.
And this is what The Process has always been about. Sixers fans, myself included, wanted the one-year rebuild the Jrue Holiday trade seemed to promise in 2013, but team-building in the NBA rarely works so neatly. To build a four-player core, you don't need four lottery picks, you need seven or eight and maybe even more than that, and you need to do a lot of things right on the margins of those picks to maximize their efficiency. Derek Bodner has been rightly bullhorning about this essentially since the whole thing started: You never know for sure which shots are gonna hit, so you need to take as many high-percentage shots as possible.
That may be the ultimate legacy of the Jahlil Okafor pick. It's the biggest (non-medical) disaster of Our Once and Always Dark Lord Sam Hinkie's tenure, and it still failed to sink the Good Ship Process. We may not have enjoyed our time together much, but Sixers fans should bear Jah no real ill will once he goes. If he's the worst thing that happens to this era of Sixers ball, we're still doing pretty good.