Not Your Average Defender: 76ers Should Keep Nerlens Noel

Nov 2, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Nerlens Noel (4) and center Jahlil Okafor (8) block the shot attempt of Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) during the second quarter at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 2, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Nerlens Noel (4) and center Jahlil Okafor (8) block the shot attempt of Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) during the second quarter at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

Nerlens Noel may want out, but that doesn’t mean the Philadelphia 76ers should pull the trigger on a trade.

Nerlens Noel is probably not happy with the Philadelphia 76ers. Disregarding his recent social media actions, this is a not-so difficult logical leap for those outside of Noel’s inner-circle. Not only has he been one of the primary faces on one of the worst teams in NBA history, but his development has and will be impeded by teammates Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid, both of whom play the same position.

The fourth-year center (who will be playing his third season due to missing his first) out of Kentucky has been notably absent from the offseason spotlight and reports have surfaced that he’s open to a trade, with Boston being the likeliest suitor. While the accumulating smoke appears to signal a fire, Noel remains an undervalued talent that the Sixers would be better off holding on to.

We’re witnessing a league where the dual defensive skills of paint protection and switch-ability are becoming more valued than ever (see Draymond Green and Tristan Thompson). The 3-point line is revolutionizing NBA offenses, and switch-heavy defensive schemes are one way of neutralizing the 3-point line.

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Rudy Gobert is an extremely valuable shot-blocker when he’s in the paint — draw him out to the perimeter and his value decreases. He’s too slow to guard in space, and offensively creative teams can take advantage (For the record, I like Gobert, but he has his limitations). It’s what makes Green so special. He can guard five positions on the court well — something no one else in the league can do.

Finding a defender that can erase shots at the rim, make instinctual rotations when necessary, and capably switch on to smaller guards is extremely rare. Noel theoretically fits this modern ideal; shipping him out of town for cents on the dollar after a season that saw him masquerading as a power-forward is selling low on a rare asset that has yet to maximize his potential.

As an aside, if you have a player that is too slow to make timely rotations, can’t protect the paint, and can’t guard in space, you’re betting on a skill-set that acts as an absolute sieve on defense and makes opposing offenses googly-eyed with opportunity. Not to mention any names.

Much has been made about Noel’s upcoming contract, and it’s definitely not a non-issue — if Embiid stays healthy, paying a max contract for a backup insurance policy isn’t ideal. Locking Noel in at the max is fine in a vacuum, if you think he’s worth it.

But when a transcendent talent like Embiid plays the same position, it becomes an inefficient allocation of funds for a sport with a salary cap that plays five players at a time. The Sixers don’t plan on staying financially conservative forever, and Bryan Colangelo will eventually hit free agency hard. Committing max money to a potential backup is risky for long-term flexibility if you want to be a major player for the top free agents.

The future still remains amorphous, and as plainly as I can say it, certain risks are riskier than others. Trading away a defensive swiss army knife like Noel with the hope that Embiid (who hasn’t played basketball in over two and a half years) stays healthy isn’t pragmatic, to say the least.

Even if the best-case scenario unfolds where Embiid stays healthy (when you can make a decision based on that confidence is another story) and you need to open up cap room for potential free agents, it’s not like Noel’s contract will be untradeable (And with the amount of cap room the Sixers will have, Noel’s contract wouldn’t be hypothetically burdensome until the 2018-2019 season at the earliest, when Noel will be 24). Unloading an unwanted contract isn’t as difficult with the explosion in the cap, if you consider a young talent with rare defensive instincts entering his prime a burden.

On the other hand, Okafor is still bound to the rookie scale for three more years until the 2018-2019 season — an exceptional deal if he’s able to meaningfully contribute. He offers much more flexibility, in both time and money, to shuffle the roster to Colangelo’s liking. But Okafor’s skill set is one declining in value — he’s been called an NBA dinosaur and his defensive metrics are atrocious.

In order to be at his most effective, Okafor needs to be surrounded by unique defensive lineups catered to hide his deficiencies. There’s no questioning his offensive touch around the rim — Okafor can take over for brief stretches of the game and the eye-test can lead one to believe he’s the best player on the floor.

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But basketball is a two-way sport, and Okafor’s defensive liabilities unfortunately outweigh his offensive abilities. This isn’t to say he can’t improve, but there are way too many questions surrounding Okafor’s game in the modern NBA to make a significant roster decision based on his presumptive improvement.

Assessing risk and its various outcomes is a delicate balance between likelihood and reward. Embiid staying healthy and Okafor playing meaningful enough defense to supplant Noel’s on-court value are two highly unlikely outcomes. We’re coming off of an NBA Finals where defensive versatility and switch-heavy schemes played a huge role in limiting the Warriors’ offensive attack.

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Even if you pay Noel the max, you’re betting on a skill set that’s of proven value in the modern NBA with a player who’s flashed defensive brilliance at his natural position. Hold on to Noel and you’re betting on defensive production that’s highly likely and highly rewarding. I’d prefer to see him do it in a Sixers uniform.