Is Jahlil Okafor A Strategy Changer In Today’s NBA?

Jahlil Okafor

For most of the season, the title hopes of the Golden State Warriors were tied directly to the health of Andrew Bogut. He was, so the theory went, the lynchpin to the league’s top rated defense. Without him, the Dubs wouldn’t have enough size or rim protection.

Tuesday, the Warriors knocked off the Cavaliers to become NBA champions.

In that clinching Game 6, Bogut played a total of zero minutes. This on top of an equally strenuous zero minutes in Game 5. Perhaps it was the strain of three minutes of court time in Game 4 necessitating the rest. Bogut is a high end defensive center, not some sort of overhyped paper tiger. But when it was all said and done, Golden State found out they didn’t necessarily need him, deciding instead to go Steve Martin and get small.

What Golden State’s stereotype-shattering win says about the state of the NBA, where it’s going, and what teams will need to stay competitive as it continues evolving is arguably the biggest question coming off the Finals. Even if the Warriors were successful in part because Cleveland wasn’t truly equipped to make them pay, the larger trend towards smaller lineups with greater agility and flexibility is impossible to ignore.

D'Angelo RussellIt’s in this context that the Lakers have to decide who to take with the second pick in next week’s Draft.

I wrote about my preferences last week — click here — but since some of you people are lazy, here’s a brief summary: Assuming Karl Anthony Towns is selected first by Minnesota, I like D’Angelo Russell over Jahilil Okafor, mostly based on questions of fit that when it’s all said and done sprout from concerns about Okafor’s defense. His work at Duke as a rim protector and against the pick and roll was poorly reviewed. Are the Lakers setting themselves up for problems by pairing him with an undersized power forward in Julius Randle who also didn’t arrive in the NBA with a killer defensive rep? Not to say it couldn’t work or that Okafor is incapable of improvement, but assuming Russell and Okafor have comparable talent — something plenty of people believe — doesn’t it make more sense to avoid a problem fairly easy to see coming?

In the wake of the Finals, where the Warriors won small in a league trending that direction, it’s reasonable to ask whether Okafor makes even less sense. Teams across the league are becoming more adept at exploiting defensively challenged big men, or even forcing them off the floor entirely. It would be a shame for the Lakers to find themselves in a position where either Randle (replaced by a Serge Ibaka-like rim-protecting power forward) or Okafor (replaced by a smaller player or a more agile big) can’t play late in games for matchup purposes. This is not what you want from the presumptive Frontcourt of the Future.

— Have you seen the ‘Lakers Nation’ phone case? —

On the other hand, nobody forces Anthony Davis off the floor, or Marc Gasol. DeAndre Jordan sometimes has to sit, but not because of any defensive deficiencies. DeMarcus Cousins? Not a DPOY candidate, but good enough. Bigs capable of hitting the minimum thresholds for team D and rim protection play, unless their offense is problematic, stay on the floor. The big man has been made obsolete, there just aren’t that many of them coming around anymore. Fewer young players are learning classic skills, as jump shooting and face-up play become more the norm.

So while it’s easy to say drafting a pure back-to-the-hoop center in the NBA of 2015 is a dumb idea, the flip side is also true. Teams capable of punishing small ball opponents on both ends have a tremendous advantage, forcing the opposition to match up in ways they might not want, outside of their comfort zone.

That becomes the million dollar question, the one L.A.’s hoops braintrust is expected to answer: Down the road, is Jahlil Okafor going to be the guy who has to subbed out (or so heavily protected it impacts defensive integrity) in favor of more mobility against the pick and roll, or will he force teams to stay large, punishing wee defenders for their short-stacked insolence? Is he the player who makes other teams adjust to him? If the Lakers believe strongly the answer is yes, they should take him over Russell. The scarcity of that commodity makes Okafor more valuable.

If they don’t know? If they’re just hoping? Go with Russell and find paint help somewhere else, whether this summer or next.

kristaps_porzingisFinally, a word about Kristaps Porzingis… 

I don’t know how good he’ll be. Some scouts/media types love, love, love the guy. Love. Like, in-four-years-will-be-the-best-in-class love. He has, by all reports, set the world on fire with his workouts. On the other hand, he weighs like, 114 pounds, meaning Porzingis is at least physically not ready for prime time. He’s an upside play. Upside tickles the imagination, and imagination can be a very, very destructive thing in the NBA Draft. My approach to the Draft would be particularly risk averse, so I wouldn’t take him. If the Lakers get a very good player who turns out not to be the best in his class, that’s fine. What they can’t do is whiff.

That said, if the Lakers shock some folks and pull the trigger on Porzingis*, it would mean one very specific positive: That the front office, specifically Jim Buss, isn’t operating from a position of fear. Fear of the fans, of media, of optics. Byron Scott, for example, gets hired by people afraid to go out on a limb. Great teams require bold direction, and it’s hard to be bold and scared at the same time.

*In my mind, it’s a scene where to gin up the courage to follow his convictions, Jim gets sloshed at lunch, then goes into the war room, throws his juevos on the table and screams “WE’RE TAKING THE LATVIAN!” He’d get hammered by fans, though ironically those same fans will crush him three years from now should the Lakers take Okafor and Porzingis turn out to be better. 

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