Jahlil Okafor Might Be a Factor

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Published: December 28, 2018

I remember it distinctly because I was in great distress. I was on the elliptical late at night and deep in the offseason discussing edge moves and reclamation projects with the guys, particularly Kumar (who can verify this). I was all over point guards, or passing combo guards. . . and there was one other guy: Jahlil Okafor. Because I was discussing moves via messaging, I couldn’t use YouTube for my music (I just had audiobooks on my phone for an up coming trip), and I had to listen to gym “music.” I might actually pay for the background thing . . .

At any rate, the New Orleans Pelicans nabbed Jahlil Okafor on, get this:

  • A two-year minimum contract, non-guaranteed, with a team option
  • $1,567,007, $50,000 guaranteed until January 10, 2019
  • $1,702,486, $54,323 guaranteed until January 10, 2020 IF team option is exercised
    • $54,323 is just the same percentage of salary in the second year that $50,000 is in the first year

If he plays the contract out, his Early Bird Rights will be established.

Uhhh, hello?

This is one of the most extreme examples of a team-friendly deal. It’s construction is almost . . . too perfect.

Let me come back to that.

Okafor Background

Okafor played at Duke as a Freshman in the 2014-15 season, where he was part of the title team and ACC Player of the Year. He was selected third in the 2015 NBA Draft by Philadelphia. His career there was hampered by injury (centered around his right knee), off-court issues, poor play, and losing his spot among the glut of young players, including Joel Embiid, drafted the season before him, also third, but who got a late start due to injury, missing effectively 2.5 seasons. His 4th year rookie option was not picked up entering his third season, and he was traded to the Nets early in the 2017-2018 season, his third. His game / minute history is:

  • 2015-16: 53 games, 1591 minutes
  • 2016-17: 50 games, 1134 minutes
  • 2017-18: 28 games, 353 minutes

“Reading” the Okafor Contract

NBA Contracts can be very interesting. Most are not. However, I’ve gained significant insight into many things by properly “reading” some NBA contracts, particularly Dell’s. I think I’ve read the Okafor contract correctly.

All of Okafor’s issues, taken together, then adding in the fact that the teams he was on were trying to find and focus on a young core, one can see how Okafor found himself on the outside of the hot free agency season. Then, there is always someone without a chair when the music stops, and that could have been Okafor as much as any one. If it was due to the concerns, however, was it all really that bad that a two-year deal with minimum guarantees and a team option was really the best route for the big man? The one-year version of that deal was nowhere in the NBA and his team felt it would not materialize?

If Okafor were released quickly, the difference between this deal and a one-year version is immaterial. If Okafor proved himself able to outplay the contract, he would be committing to forgoing that salary and perhaps significant future salary.

So, why?

Why not come to Dell and say, “Give me the first year of that deal, then, if it works out, let’s talk about year two then?” (Deals shorter than three seasons can not be extended.)

It’s clear the market was a factor, for at least the reasons above, plus the movement of the league to getting smaller. From the Pelicans’ perspective, you get the best deal you can, and they did (you can’t use the minimum exception for longer than a two season deal). This is almost the best possible minimum contract, save the small guarantees, large enough to buy a car that Okafor may not even fit into comfortably.

To me, something else is going on. At some point when you see something weird, you have to look to see if it’s just “one of them deals” or if there is an overlooked or closely-held information that drives the weirdness back into the realm of “expected.”

Since this franchise has a history of:

  • Successful reclamation projects
  • A player-friendly atmosphere
  • Sticking to player commitments, even to the franchise’s possible detriment

It’s entirely possible, and I think likely, that the organization signed Okafor with the understanding that if certain parameters were met regarding behavior, he would be retained this season, and he would be given time to heal (in many respects), reforge is image, and get his game together. Then, next season would be the actual year he and the organization would be “going for real.”

Taking this route gives Okafor time without pressure in a soft media market and shows him making a strong “character play,” taking the low money, not balking at minutes, etc. Establishing himself as an NBA player in spot minutes early, and more significant minutes recently, all while not complaining about the minutes or feeling like he fits in hits a reset on the 23-year-old’s young career in a positive way. This season is all bonus for him from that perspective, and the various data to this point reflect that while little-to-none controvert it. For instance, he’s only had 7 games with double-digit minutes in two stints (one is ongoing), and he’s certainly not played in some games that seems like he would have (e.g. Thunder twice, one of which had no Mirotic, of course, the Pelicans won that one).

The reward for this is a better market for him at the end of the contract, and Early Bird Rights, which allow an offer up to approximately that of the NMLE (without needing to use any of their MLE, whichever version) for at least a two-year deal. If that happens, Bird Rights are then established after that third season. Rack-and-stack it all, it’s, in spirit, re-rolling his rookie experience, ending up with the kind of money Randle is making now.

Wait . . . Randle?

Did someone say, “Randle?”

Why, yes . . . Yes, I did.

How Okafor Can Be A Factor

Okafor, now that we have some data about his play, health, and have not heard of any off-court issues (which I take to mean: there are none), is very much an investment in the future of the team, and perhaps a larger one than his contract and minutes would indicate. Stepping back from the details of the contract and looking at the broader team and cap sheet:

  • Okafor is under contract for two seasons
    • Mirotic and Randle have expiring contracts
  • Okafor’s contract is for the minimum
    • Mirotic and Randle could each potentially land 8-figure deals
  • Okafor had good offense and is working on his defense
    • Mirotic and Randle fit the same mold, with Randle having more defensive issues

So, here’s the one other thing about the Okafor play: the Okafor contract, if his play is acceptable enough, actually allows the Pelicans to trade Randle, for sufficient return, and still keep a three-big-man rotation this season while solving one major variable of the offseason: keeping the band together (see: July). If they keep Mirotic this offseason . . . and having his Bird Rights enables this salary-wise . . . the band plays on. Randle can then be traded this season, as a talented player on a good expiring contract as part of a bid to bring in a perimeter player to help the defense, the overall talent pool, and the skill mix.

Okafor could in fact be traded as a “quasi-draft-pick” by the argument above, but you are left with “the band problem” if you do not create a “destination” team.

This can be part of what is served up to Davis this offseason, along with any other improvements this season. They can gain the flexibility to go a cap space route or bring in more talent now to create a sense of certainty with an improved roster.

So, the Okafor re-rookie plan I laid out has the added benefit of potentially being accelerated slightly if it could help with the roster changes regardless of Davis’ future, but particularly if he stays.

If winning were everything, stars would not leave winning teams for losing teams, which they do. Some of it is about potential and flexibility. Track record of the franchise matters, as do other things, but the Pelicans have to play the hand they have now, and this is it. Okafor, perhaps, gives them even more options, and options do not hurt in a case like this. That is: trying to keep the franchise player.

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