It's probably safe to say at this point that Nerlens Noel would rather not continue to play basketball on the Philadelphia 76ers. He groused in the offseason about the glut of centers on the roster, he received elective knee surgery that forced him to miss the first month and a half of the season (and rehabbed away from the team), he complained about only being played eight minutes in Friday night's loss to the Lakers and consequently played no minutes in Sunday night's win against the Nets -- something he should apparently get used to for the foreseeable future. He doesn't want to be here, and his coach, general manager and teammates might not be terribly inclined to argue for him to stay at this point, either.
I do not join them. Obviously, the circumstances are lousy, and as many have been quick to accurately point out, no one is absolved from blame in making them as such -- everyone, from Bryan Colangelo to Jahlil Okafor to Brett Brown to Sam Hinkie to Noel himself shares in the culpability here. (Everyone except JoJo, that is, precious JoJo.) Nerlens is making the worst of a bad situation, but nobody has given him any help in making it better -- the Sixers asked him to suffer through two years of historic losing while they used two top-three picks on dudes who play the same position, refused to trade any of 'em, and now ask him to accept playing alongside them as one steals all his shine and the other sops up all his minutes.
But I'm not interested at who's at fault at this point -- I'm only interested in how we solve this problem without trading Noel away for unsalted peanuts. Because no matter how bad things have gotten with The Eraser, I still think it's worth trying to redeem them.
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Nerlens, lest we forget, is really, really good. He posted historic defensive numbers as a rookie, and even as a highly limited offensive player, still averaged 11 a game on 52% shooting last year. In the mere 18 minutes he's played this season, you can already see how he changes the game, with reflexes and speed that outshine even Joel Embiid's and make his defensive sphere of influence practically limitless. And even though he only shot 4-9 from the field, most of his attempts were good looks at disarmingly close range; it's less concerning that he missed a bunch of 'em than it is encouraging that he got 'em all in the first place. To not even get to see what we could have with him and Embiid at the same time would seem criminal.
It seems especially short-sighted to leave Noel as the odd man out on the Sixers' depth chart when Jahlil Okafor may end up the odd man out of the entire modern-day NBA. Even as Al Jefferson, Greg Monroe and Enes Kanter -- the kind of post-anchored, ball-dominating big men who would be the best-case scenario for Jahlil's career -- drift into reserve roles and out of favor with NBA execs and coaches, the Sixers continue to pamper Okafor, cramming him into the starting lineup, giving him unquestioned rotation preference over the oft-superior Richaun Holmes, and putting the burden of proof on Nerlens as to why he should be taking any minutes at all away from Jah.
Undoubtedly, there's behind-the-scenes factors at play here, and we can't presume to know everything the coaches and front-office execs do when it comes to evaluating Nerlens' current performance and future plans. But no matter what he's done, it's hard to believe it's unforgivable and irreparable, and even if it was, Philadelphia is a basketball town that's put up a lot worse from its greats before deeming the situation untenable. And that's close to the kind of treatment they should be giving Noel: He might not be a star like Iverson or Barkley, but he has true game-changing potential. To treat him as fungible with a net-negative player like Okafor, and to decide his need for an attitude adjustment outweighs our need for another elite post athlete who can keep the defense from turning into a poorly wrapped Chipotle burrito when Embiid sits, stays perplexing.
Does that mean that Nerlens should be considered untouchable? Of course not. There's a long list of perimeter players I would trade him for in a heartbeat if the opportunity became available. The problem is: No one's giving up any of the names on that list for a disgruntled center with one year left on his rookie deal, especially not one coming off surgery who's played a total of a quarter and a half this whole season. What they'll give up is spare parts, fallen-angel "prospects," and maybe a draft pick that'll end up comfortably outside the lottery. The chances of us getting a future core player in a deal with Nerlens at the center are about as good as Bad Brains' odds were of getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this morning.
Oh, and about Noel's rookie deal: I don't buy that him having one year left on it makes it particularly urgent that the Sixers take action now. The Sixers have virtually unlimited cap space to match any deal given to Noel in his restricted free agency, and in an NBA where centers like 30-year-old Timofey Mozgov still sign for $16 mil a year, it's hard to believe that there's any number that would be too high for prime Nerlens.
He could gamble on himself by accepting the Sixers' qualifying offer and becoming a free agent at season's end, or he could simply refuse to report to the Sixers if they re-sign him, but examples of either actually happening are pretty rare in the NBA, and I don't think the animosity runs that deep yet between the Sixers and No. 4. Even if we do actually end up losing him for nothing, I'd rather we try and fail with that that then trade him for scraps preemptively out of fear of eventually trying and failing.
Again, the faulty assumption here, in my opinion, is that the Sixers are trying to find time for three elite big-man prospects, and simply don't have enough room for all three. I think we've seen enough from both Embiid, Noel and Okafor at this point to know that only two of them actually live up to that billing, and that the cheese standing alone of that trio isn't the proven last-line defender who can also switch, get into passing lanes and fast-break down the other end. Nerlens might end up a disappointment and Jahlil a productive pro, but I'm not sure how you could argue that Okafor has anywhere near the two-way ceiling that Noel does right now.
When thinking of Nerlens Noel's impending free agency, I keep coming back to the contract that Tristan Thompson signed with the Cavaliers in the 2015 offseason. There wasn't a clear role for Thompson on that Cavs team -- max player Kevin Love was the unquestioned starter at power forward and Mozgov had been the game-changing pickup at center the previous season, while Anderson Varejao lingered on the bench and even LeBron James threatened to steal some stretch-four minutes. As Thompson's FA standoff with the Cavs stretched into September and even October, it seemed like the returning Eastern champs might really lose Thompson for nothing, rather than overpay him to be a luxury player coming off the bench.
But ultimately, despite his offensive shortcomings and positional redundancy, Thompson just did too many things for the Cavs to let him get away like that. He was more useful and versatile on defense than a lot of people realized, and he was a security blanket for LeBron on his sprawling layup drives, knowing Thompson would always be there for a dump-off (or if needed, a putback) when he couldn't convert himself. Ultimately, as Mozgov's productivity faded in Cleveland, Thompson found himself back in the starting lineup, and he ended up as one of the most important players on a team that brought their city its first championship in a half-century. If Thompson ends up signing with the Blazers or someone else instead, I'm not sure that even happens.
Thompson isn't a perfect comparison for Noel -- their strengths as players are different, if not without overlap, and Thompson never publicly played anything but the good soldier while under contract with the Cavs. But I still hold out hope that the roles they ultimately serve can be similar, and that Nerlens' invaluable and entirely modern skill set will find its way to helping the next good Sixers team fulfill its potential. He just has too much upside for us to discard like an extra sock, without really even giving him a chance to show us how essential to this team he can truly be.