Nerlens Noel's return to the Sixers' lineup on Sunday made an already crowded front-court situation tighter than a telephone booth.
When at full health, the Sixers have three young centers who warrant starter-like minutes and a fourth, in Richaun Holmes, who has certainly done enough to earn consistent minutes off the bench. Add in Ersan Ilysova and Dario Saric, and things get even more complicated for Brett Brown and his distribution of minutes in the front court.
A trade involving either Nerlens Noel or Jahlil Okafor has seemed imminent since Embiid returned to full basketball activities over the summer, but here we are in mid-December with both centers still on the roster.
Of the two, Noel has long been seen as the center likely to be shipped out of town. He has voiced his displeasure with the Sixers' current logjam at center and is set to be a restricted free agent this summer. In contrast, Okafor has put his head down and is under team control on his rookie deal for the next two seasons.
With a trade out there to be made, Sports Illustrated's Andrew Sharp floated around a hypothetical Noel deal involving the Portland Trail Blazers in which the Sixers would receive Allen Crabbe and a protected first-round pick.
"If the Blazers send Allen Crabbe and a protected first-round pick to the Sixers, this can work," Sharp wrote. "Philly needs Crabbe's shooting around Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, and they don't have to worry about the cap space Crabbe would occupy. Crabbe would likely sign off an opportunity to play 35 minutes per game on the east coast. 76ers GM Bryan Colangelo could declare victory after he finally lands a first-round pick for one of his big men. The Blazers would get short-term help up front, and potentially a long-term answer who can grow with Lillard and McCollum over the next several years. Who says no?"
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On the heels of a surprisingly successful 44-38 season in 2015-16, the Blazers have stumbled through the first third of the season at 12-14. While their offense led by dynmaic guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum has been scorching hot, averaging 107.7 points per/100 possessions, opposing teams have been even hotter against them on the other end of the court. Portland currently carries the league's worst defense, which is allowing a 109.9 points per/100 possessions.
That's where Noel comes into play.
Noel averaged 1.7 blocks and 1.8 steals in over 30 minutes of action through his first two seaons in the league. During his rookie season, Noel anchored a Sixers defense that finished 13th, in terms of points per/100 possessions, despite the team only winning 18 games.
"As a defensive counter to their offense, Nerlens could be deadly next to McCollum and Lillard," Sharp wrote. "He can play uptempo, he can rebound and protect the rim. Blazers games can be fun again. The environment with Lillard and Terry Stotts would be the inverse of everything he dealt with in Philadelphia, and the Blazers would have three months months to gauge the fit on and off the court."
The fit is definitely there, but the question for the Blazers is whether they are willing to commit big money to Noel beyond this season and, if they are, would it best suit them to simply wait to do so in the offseason rather than surrendering multiple valuable assets for him now. It's also important to note that Portland spent over $56 millon combined on centers Meyers Leonard and Festus Ezili, who has yet to play this season because of a knee injury. In addition, current starting center Mason Plumlee is also set be an unrestricted free agent this summer.
But, trading Crabbe would give the Blazers cap flexibility to be able to offer, or match, a contract to Noel this summer. Crabbe signed a four-year, $75 million offer sheet with the Nets this summer, which was later matched by the Blazers. Since he signed a deal this past summer, Crabbe can't be traded until Jan. 15 and has the right to veto any trade this season.
The fourth-year guard is currently averaging 9.7 points, while shooting 43.8 percent from the field and 40.6 percent from beyond the arc. Crabbe's most attractive skill is his outside shooting, as he's already proven to be an above-average three-point shooter with a career clip of 39 percent.
Given his age (24), shooting prowess and ability to play multiple positions on the wing, Crabbe would be a perfect fit in Philadelphia. His price may come off as steep for a role player, but, much like Robert Covington, his combination of shooting and defensive potential makes him a prototypical wing to play alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Considering the lack of leverage the Bryan Colangelo and the Sixers currently have, Crabbe and protected first-round pick would be a heck of a return for Noel.
It's just questionable whether the Blazers would give up that kind of haul for a player they can attempt to sign this summer.