Exploring the Philadelphia 76ers‘ potential path had they held onto Nerlens Noel
At this past season’s February 23rd trade deadline, in a deal with the Dallas Mavericks, the Philadelphia 76ers swapped the first egg to hatch inside the Process incubator, Nerlens Noel, for Andrew Bogut (salary dump), Justin Anderson and a first round pick with a comical top 18 protection, which eventually become two second round picks in this past NBA Draft. The trade was criticized by fans, who clamored for a more lucrative return in the deal. While the trade haul was not gold mine to say the least, the Sixers and Bryan Colangelo felt a small sense of victory – at least they got something for Noel after striking out on any potential Jahlil Okafor movements. But what if the Sixers held onto Noel?
If the franchise opted to retain Noel through the deadline until the end of the season, the Sixers would face a decision: sign Noel to an extension or let him walk in free agency. If the Sixers chose the later and renounced Noel’s rights, the Sixers end Noel’s tenure empty handed: no Justin Anderson, no assets to deal in the second round of the draft. A Noel extension, however, could have drastically altered the franchise’s path moving forward.
Before speculating what the numbers could be for a Noel contract extension, it’s worth discussing Noel’s happenings this offseason. The former 6th overall pick has yet to agree to a contract with the squad that traded for him. Rumors following the commencement of regular season play was that Noel was likely to field multiple max offers, according to Mike Fisher of Scout.com. A month and a half later, salary cap space has dried up around the league and I can’t imagine Noel has any leverage whatsoever, so a max offer doesn’t seem to be coming his way. Instead, a better gauge for a Noel contract would be the one Kelly Olynyk signed in Miami: four years, $50 million. Noel’s potential is higher than Olynyk, so for argument’s sake let’s bump his number up to $60 million over 4 years.
If the Sixers were to agree to that sort of contract with Noel, they would be looking at about a $13.5 million cap hit to start in the early years, and ~$16.5 million a year in the back end of the deal. There was no way for the Sixers to have known the free agent market would have had the downward spiral it has had, but if the Sixers knew they would be getting Nerlens over $10 million per season less than his potential max, I’m not so sure he would have been traded. Philly could have easily had cap room for Noel, considering they are giving Amir Johnson $11 million next season. But even at a discount, there’s still a problem if the team were to roster Noel: his fit.
Amir Johnson singing notwithstanding*, Brett Brown would still face a frontcourt logjam between Noel, Joel Embiid, Richaun Holmes, Jahlil Okafor and Dario Saric. In today’s NBA, teams simply don’t need that many bigs; Embiid aside, all of those players will likely come off the bench as a 4 or 5. Is it worth it for a franchise to pay a guy, who is coming off the bench as a seventh or eighth man in the rotation, like a starter? Me thinks not, especially if that player is entirely replaceable at a much cheaper rate. Why shell out tens of millions of dollars for Noel, when Richaun Holmes can provide you a quality backup center at only $1.47 million next season?
Even if one were to make the case that Noel would demand a starting spot on in this unit, Noel and Embiid hardly played together and when they did, it wasn’t effective. Noel’s limited range at the 4 constricts what the Sixers would like to do on offense and clogs the paint. The team already has a non-shooter in Simmons; paired with Noel’s inefficiencies shooting the rock, the offense is severely limited in contrast to its’ potential. Bringing back Nerlens may have had a positive impact on team defense, but it would seriously limit floor spacing on the opposite end.
Simply put, Noel doesn’t fit. Not only with how Brett Brown wants to play basketball, but even at a basic level in regards to the roster construction. There had to be a front court casualty; Dario offers the most upside, Holmes is cheaper (than Noel), and Okafor couldn’t fetch a bag of chips in a trade. If the franchise extended Noel at the max, or at a discount, it is really hard to see how he returns value on a four-year-contract in a limited role. It’s even tougher to imagine him signing with the team knowing he would have to accept a limited role. With all that in mind, Colangelo knew in February that holding on to Nerlens likely meant letting him walk for nothing in July. And what if they had extended him? What would the Sixers be doing right now if they retained Sam Hinkie and the Process’ very first selection? Trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.
Extending the athletic rim-runner/shot-blocker would be a desperate move to recoup value disguised an insurance plan to cover Embiid’s injury woes. But a better insurance plan is saving the money the franchise would have paid Noel, to spend in 2018 or 2019 when guys like DeAndre Jordan, Demarcus Cousins, Andrew Wiggins or Klay Thompson are scheduled to become free agents. Not moving Noel meant extending him (to be utilized as a player or an asset down the line) and sacrificing long term cap flexibility or losing him for zilch. Bryan Colangelo made the right call in moving Noel, regardless of what he received in return.
*If the Sixers retained Noel, it is unlikely they would have signed Amir Johnson.