It’s a weird feeling seeing Nerlens Noel in another uniform but he deserved a new situation. It made sense why Philadelphia traded him. Of course fans believed it would be Jahlil Okafor donning a new jersey, but sometimes things work out differently. After watching Noel the past three years, there’s little doubt he’ll be dynamic in Dallas. He’ll protect the rim, finish alley-oops and swipe the ball away from opponents just about as well as anyone else in the NBA. He’s a highly skilled big man with unlimited potential. As a fan of basketball, I’m excited to see what type of player he will become. As a fan of Philadelphia, I’m saddened.
It appeared once the season began it was inevitable that Noel would be elsewhere. Many speculated, following volunteer knee surgery days before the season started, Noel had played his last game as a 76er. Noel finally returned to the roster, only to come off the bench in a limited role. He spoke out against Bryan Colangelo and his lack of minutes following a brutal home loss to the Lakers on national television Dec. 16. Eventually Noel found his role, taking over for Okafor and helping lead Philadelphia’s second unit for most of January and February. With Embiid sidelined for a handful of games, Noel started seven times, and Philly won five of them. He’s a difference maker.
It did make sense to trade Noel for the right price. He’s a restricted free agent this summer, requesting at least $20 million per year. Dallas will pay him. Who knows what would’ve happened if Philadelphia kept Noel into the summer? Dallas still would’ve made an offer for his services. Maybe Boston would, too. And Colangelo wouldn’t have matched any offer. Blame Sam Hinkie all you want for creating this logjam at center. He deserves it for drafting Okafor third overall when he already had a defensive star in Noel and an injured big man. People defended Hinkie, saying he drafted Okafor solely for insurance in case Embiid never played. Last summer rumors surfaced connecting Philly to a number of points guards and draft picks for Noel or Okafor. Everybody in the NBA knew Colangelo wanted to trade one or both players. The public probably won’t ever know exactly what trade offers Colangelo presumably turned down. Maybe Philly could’ve received a lightly protected 2017 lottery pick. It doesn’t really matter at this point, because Noel’s gone. He’s in Dallas where he’ll be a force for the next several years.
All the smart NBA people wrote about how effective Noel has been during his career on defense. He still has room to grow, of course. People worry about his maturity. People worry he’s injury prone. It’s baffling he elected for surgery days before the 2016 season began, but it’s unclear who the driving force was behind that decision. Teams overrate their own players all the time. Fans definitely overrate their own players all the time. It’s hard to see what Colangelo was thinking, unless he believes Richaun Holmes could do what Noel does, or he really likes Justin Anderson. He has a plan, and fans won’t see his plan until this summer, because he clearly didn’t want to tie-up cap space to essentially a back-up big man. Anderson will take time to adjust to a new situation. There’s hope for him because he does show flashes of defensive potential, which Philly sorely needs on the wing, but there’s no way Anderson has a better career than Noel. Noel and Embiid could create a dynamic one-two punch, causing havoc to every offense, no matter what big man was on the court. Out of players under 25, Noel and Embiid would rank in the top-5, maybe even top-3 of rim protectors. Rudy Gobert would be slated at the top spot, but you could make an argument the next best two are Noel and Embiid, which makes this trade even harder to digest.
Noel didn’t contribute to many wins as a 76er, especially his first three years. The team struggled to form an identity because they lost games purposely. Yes, the team tried hard, but rookies and undrafted players simply do not win many games. In Noel’s rookie season, when Philadelphia won 18 games, the 76ers finished 12th in defensive rating. Noel was a major reason for that rating. Noel’s happy to be in Dallas, that’s certain. Along with Harrison Barnes, Noel is the future of the Mavericks. He wanted his own situation where it was him, and only him, as a team’s big man, and he’ll flourish in that role.