I only asked the Sixers to not do one thing at this trade deadline, and at High Noon this Wednesday, they went and did it.
For Sixers fans, this was the nightmare all February: That the Sixers would dangle Jahlil Okafor like he was still the No. 3 overall pick, be frustrated with the (understandably) paltry offers they received for him, then deal Nerlens Noel instead, because one lottery-pick back-up big was as good as the next. That seems to be close to exactly what happened, as today, Adrian Wojnarowksi dropped the bomb that the Colangelos have traded Nerlens to the Dallas Mavericks for Andrew Bogut, Justin Anderson and a top-18 protected first round pick (which will probably dissolve before we ever actually get it).
It's hard to know even where to start in breaking down just what a gross miscalculation this was on the Sixers' part. But let's examine the likely justifications, one at a time, that the Sixers will likely offer for this trade, and discuss why each of them are pretty solidly BS.
The Sixers weren't going to re-sign Nerlens anyway. OK... why not? The Sixers are solidly under the cap for the immediate future, and even with extensions coming up in a year or so's time for Embiid, Saric and Covington, there's so little long-term money on the books that it's impossible to believe they couldn't have found a way to make it work. Shed Jerryd Bayless if you have to. Don't try to find the next Ersan Ilyasova in free agency if it's too cap-clogging. Those players don't matter. Nerlens matters.
And even if keeping all four of those guys was untenable (and if they decided Nerlens was the lowest priority of all of them, a dicey presumption to begin with), a catastrophic injury is the only thing that would've kept Nerlens from being imminently tradeable at any point during his next contract. Even if today's big-stocked NBA, there will always be a market for potentially elite athletic bigs barely at the outset of their basketball primes. You think the cost would've prohibited Dallas from making this same deal two years from now? No chance.
OK, but you can't pay $15-20 million a year for a backup center. What the hell does that even mean? Until proven otherwise, there is no such thing as a "backup center" for Joel Embiid -- it'll be a small miracle if the dude even plays 50 games this year, and until we actually see him take the court 75 times in a season for over 30 minutes a night, we have to assume that he'll need extensive platooning for the course of his NBA tenure. I've made this point before, but consider the Cleveland Cavaliers, who had both frontcourt positions filled when it came time for Tristan Thompson's restricted free agency, but signed him to a near-max deal anyway because he was just too talented a player to give up. They won the title the next season, with Thompson as one of their three most valuable players. You never know.
What's more, who's to say that he couldn't have coexisted with Embiid for stretches? Nerlens spends most of his time in the halfcourt running around the perimeter -- switching, deflecting and generally causing havoc -- and to have him do that while Joel holds down the middle could've made the Sixers' defense borderline invincible. Maybe it wouldn't have worked on offense, hell, maybe it wouldn't have worked on defense, but wasn't it incumbent on us to at least try it out? The reason that Joel and Jahlil didn't work together (or that Nerlens and Jahlil didn't work together) isn't because you can't ever play two centers on the court at the same time under any circumstances ever -- it's because Jahlil was bad! Nerlens is good! It could've worked, and at the very least, JoJo and Nerlens deserved the opportunity to prove that it couldn't.
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Well, but you had to trade one of these guys, right?
The wrongheadedness of this approach is totally inexcusable. I can't believe we have to still keep talking about this, but let's try it one more time for laughs:
THE SIXERS HAD TWO BIG MEN THAT MATTERED. THE THIRD GUY WAS IRRELEVANT. THEY COULD HAVE TRADED HIM OR KEPT HIM OR CUT HIM OR APPOINTED HIM VICE PRESIDENT IN CHARGE OF TOWEL RACKS AND WAWA ORDERS AND IT WOULD NOT HAVE MATTERED. THEY HAD JOEL EMBIID AND NERLENS NOEL AND ANOTHER TALL MAN WHOSE NAME AND PERSONAGE WERE OF ZERO CONSEQUENCE.
Does it suck that we drafted a guy with the No. 3 overall pick two summers ago that nobody (including us) currently wants? Does it suck that that same guy also plays the same position as the two other guys we drafted, who EVERYBODY wants? Yes! It's the worst thing Sam Hinkie ever did for us! So bad that most Sixers fans have constructed elaborate conspiracy theories for the decision placing the blame on anybody else but our Once and Always Dark Lord! It is a shame and a bummer and more of a burden than Perfectly Nice Guy Jahlil Okafor ever deserves.
BUT. It is done. It is a cost that is sunk. No backsies, no matter how often we call Magic Johnson to goad him into a D'Angelo Russell / Jahlil Okafor swap. To throw good players after bad by expunging Nerlens Noel in the name of well gee you just can't have three centers on the same team, howzzat gonna work is absolutely nauseating. They could've traded Jahlil for peanuts -- literal peanuts, even the unsalted kind -- and it would've been a better move than this. They could've traded Jahlil with peanuts -- the super-addictive honey-roasted kind -- and it STILL would've been a better move than this! Much better!
All right, but they got a first-rounder, and that's a pretty good return for a player about to hit free agency? Who says? What says? Why says? Would we seriously consider a top-18-protected first-round pick for Nerlens Noel a bountiful return? Again: Nerlens Noel is friggin' awesome! He's exceeded all expectations this year. The Sixers have a better record without Embiid on the court this season than they do without Nerlens! He's an historic defensive talent, and he's been unbelievably efficient and destructive on offense this year. Yes, he doesn't rebound as well as he should, no, he's not the best post defender, yes sometimes he tries to do too much on offense and the ball (or his ankles) end up in the third row. But he is an elite prospect, and he's still only 22. He's great.
To get a top-18-protected pick for him as the primary prize is beyond insulting -- oh and by the way, we're probably not even getting that pick anyway. Zach Lowe reports, and CSN confirmed, that the selection is top-18 protected this year, and then after that it turns into two second-rounders. The Mavs, currently 22-34, aren't getting a top-12 record this season unless they practically run the table from here on out -- which, better as they'll be with Nerlens, seems mildly unlikely. The Sixers will once again be hoarding second-rounders for the rest of eternity.
But you know what? I'm not even sure it makes that much of a difference, because even a mildly protected first-rounder that we actually got would've been at best a marginal asset for the Sixers in 2017. At what point do we start trading picks for players instead of players for picks? With our foundational piece finally in place with JoJo, another one likely on the bench in Simmons and who knows how many others on their way between our next two first-rounders, the Lakers pick and the '19 Kings pick, you'd think that time would've come by now. Nerlens could've been foundational too, y'know, if the team respected his talents and figured out how to maximize them. We'll never know for sure now.
...Justin Anderson, though? Look, I can't say I know much about Justin Anderson. I've liked him the couple times I've watched him, and it seems like he's an athletic wing that can do some things. He's not exactly giving the world peak Josh Howard flashbacks in Big D this season -- seven points and three boards in 14 minutes a game, with sub-par shooting numbers (40% FG, 30% 3PT) but decent defense and free-throw drawing. He sort of fits the profile of a Jae Crowder type, and Lowe and others have pointed out the potential parallels with Dallas' trade for Rajon Rondo, in which Crowder was perceived as a throw-in and ended up being the best player to change hands.
It's possible Anderson could blossom on this team, and I look forward to having him on our roster. But despite being just a second-year player, he's already 23 -- older than Noel -- and it's hard to believe that even at his best, he'll ever be more impactful than Noel already is. Not to mention that we already have a three-and-D guy on the roster in Robert Covington who's proven to be a high-level contributor, and who's cheaper than Anderson for this season and next. If he's the prize for the Sixers then that means the contest wasn't worth entering in the first place. And it wasn't.
Uhhh Bogut? Another trade maybe? Better hope so. It is possible that this is still the prelude to more wheeling and dealing to come, and that another trade -- potentially using Bogut's large expiring contract as a base to make salaries match -- will help put this one in a better context. If so, we'll deal with that when the time comes, and I look forward to eating (or at least reappropriating) some of my words here. In the meantime, Andrew Bogut will play as many meaningful minutes for the Philadelphia 76ers as Andrei Kirilenko and Danny Granger combined, and apparently we're already talking buyout. Say hello, wave goodbye.
Well, Nerlens was a malcontent anyway, good to get rid of him. Don't. You. Even. Nerlens had his moments of immaturity, like anyone under the age of 25 (or 35 or 75) does, but he was a great Sixer, and a true Processor. The fans loved him and he loved the fans, and both sides said as much repeatedly. He loved his teammates and his teammates loved him, and both sides said as much repeatedly. Watch this video and tell me with a not-entirely-crooked face that the Sixers needed to get rid of him.
Nerlens Noel and Richaun Holmes with CSN Philly's Molly Sullivan after tonight's win.Posted by Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday, January 24, 2017
WATCH THIS DUMB VIDEO AND TELL ME THAT THIS TEAM IS BETTER OFF WITHOUT NERLENS.
This trade, as it stands, is the least-defensible move I can remember the Sixers making in the post-Iverson era. The Elton Brand contract? He at least was that good in the not-that-recent past. The Bynum trade? Him too, and hell, the press conference was exciting. Drafting Jahlil? Well, a lot of other smart people seemed to think it was a good idea at the time. This is the only deal I can remember viewing like a cliff well off in the distance, with plenty of BRIDGE OUT signs clearly located along the way, wondering why the driver is still going, yelling at them to stop, and then watching hopelessly as they casually sail off the edge. Forget about trusting the process, why did we not trust common sense on this one?
Will the deal end up being particularly destructive to the Sixers? Maybe not. The Sixers are so strapped with assets right now that a semi-catastrophic move or two like this doesn't necessarily mean the end of the road in any meaningful way. But no team can afford to flub players like Nerlens without it becoming something of a problem, and if you burn off too many of them, that's how you become the Sacramento Kings, straight-up. We're more Vlade than Hinkie at the trade deadline today, and that is the single saddest sentence I hope I ever have to write as a Sixers blogger.