By Bryan Toporek
Heading into the 2017 NBA trade deadline, most Philadelphia 76ers fans were cautiously optimistic that team president Bryan Colangelo wouldn’t bungle the massive cache of assets he inherited from former general manager Sam Hinkie.
That optimism barely made it past noon.
As Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical first reported, the Sixers sent soon-to-be restricted free agent Nerlens Noel to the Dallas Mavericks for second-year forward Justin Anderson, Andrew Bogut (who will be bought out) and a protected first-round pick. If the Sixers don’t receive the Mavs’ first-round pick this year, they’ll instead get Dallas’ second-round picks in 2017 and 2020, according to the team’s press release announcing the trade.
Underwhelmed by that return? You aren’t alone.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported Philly had “trouble generating a market for Noel [with his] pending restricted free agency status and potential near-max offer sheets expected.” Basketball Insiders’ Steve Kyler echoed that sentiment, tweeting, Noel’s “value was never high, combine injury-filled NBA career with pending free agency and expected high price tag and you get low market.”
Sensing an opportunity to extort the Sixers, Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson struck like a viper and landed his center of the future.
Noel should be an immediate breath of fresh air for a Dallas defense that ranked 17th overall and was dead last in terms of rim protection heading into the All-Star break. When Noel was a rookie in 2014-15, he helped anchor a league-average defense in Philadelphia despite being largely surrounded with D-League-caliber talent. This season, he’s holding opponents to 50.8 percent shooting within six feet of the basket on 4.5 attempts per game, which is 11.5 percentage points below their average. In Dallas, he’ll be a drastic short-term upgrade for the plodding Bogut, who quickly proved incompatible next to Dirk Nowitzki.
You don’t have to squint too hard to envision Noel as the second coming of Tyson Chandler, who helped guide the Mavericks to the 2011 NBA championship with a combination of rim-rolling on offense and shot blocking on defense. The Kentucky product isn’t much of an offensive threat outside of lobs and easy put-backs yet, but his field-goal percentage has risen considerably each season, and he’s beginning to show comfort with foul-line jumpers.
Now that Noel doesn’t have to share the paint with Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor, he’ll have more freedom to feast there on both ends of the court. Given how Nowitzki and Harrison Barnes help stretch the floor at the 4, Noel won’t have to play out of position offensively anymore. He’s also one of only three players in league history to average at least 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks across his first two seasons, joining David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon, which should help stiffen Dallas’ defense once he learns head coach Rick Carlisle’s system.
Whereas Noel’s impending date with restricted free agency helped force Colangelo’s hand at the trade deadline, it’s of no concern for Dallas. If the Mavericks pick up Nowitzki’s $25 million team option for 2017-18, they’ll have nearly $75 million committed to the Big German, Barnes, Wes Matthews and Dwight Powell alone. The odds of them luring a major free agent this summer were slim to none, but they can now ensure Noel will be part of their long-term core. Only giving up an out-of-the-rotation wing and two second-round picks was well worth the price of obtaining Noel’s matching rights, even if they’re forced to slightly overpay him this summer.
For the Sixers, it’s tough to swallow the rationale behind this move. As The Vertical’s Bobby Marks suggested, if Noel’s upcoming free agency was chilling the price he’d net on the trade market, Philadelphia may have been better off re-signing him and flipping him later.
Digesting the PHI/DAL trade a bit more and PHI might have been best off keeping Noel and use his new contract (FA) as an asset.
— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) February 23, 2017
Colangelo’s reluctance to allocate a huge chunk of cap space to someone who ideally profiles as a backup center behind Embiid is understandable, but the return for Noel went against everything he promised since usurping former general manager Sam Hinkie. This past summer, he declared, “We’re not going to make a bad deal just to make a bad deal.” Colangelo affirmed that stance in December, telling reporters, “I will not make a bad deal for this organization.”
Unless Anderson turns into the second coming of Jae Crowder, receiving only him and two second-round picks for a player with Noel’s defensive upside is the definition of a bad deal.
During a Sixers broadcast on Jan. 21, Colangelo did allude to such a scenario unfolding, per Rich Hoffman of PhillyVoice.com, saying, “I don’t want to give someone away. I don’t want to let someone walk, but either one of those things might happen and it’s just by virtue of our circumstances.” During a radio appearance in early February, he elaborated on that, saying, “We’ve got three talented bigs that all feel like they deserve to be looked at as a potential starter and potentially paid as a starter, and it is going to create some sort of a balance with respect to the overall makeup of this team and the roster-building that we go through.” Considering Okafor is signed through 2018-19, it wasn’t a huge mystery to whom Colangelo was referring.
It appears as though Colangelo’s hand may have been somewhat forced at the deadline, too. According to Kyler, Noel’s representatives made it clear he wanted out, and the organization agreed not to hold him hostage in restricted free agency if it didn’t trade him by the deadline. Sixers fans are understandably frustrated with the lackluster package Noel netted, but if retaining him over the offseason wasn’t an option, landing something in return beats losing him for nothing.
While the ill-fitting pieces Hinkie assembled put Colangelo in a lose-lose situation, the latter also deserves some of the blame for the disappointing haul. Noel’s frustration with the franchise was publicly palpable since the preseason, when he told Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer on the eve of media day, “I think it’s just silly…this situation that we are in now with three starting centers. With the departure of Sam Hinkie, I would have figured that management would be able to get something done this summer.” He doubled down on that in mid-December after only playing eight minutes during a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, saying in no uncertain terms, “[They] need to figure this shit out.”
If Noel’s agents told Colangelo he wanted out last offseason, Colangelo should have traded him then while his leverage was highest. According to Liberty Ballers’ Kyle Neubeck, the Boston Celtics offered a lightly protected 2018 or 2019 first-round pick for Noel back in the summer, which, depending on how Anderson turns out, may wind up being a better return than what Philadelphia ultimately received. If Colangelo expected Noel’s value to rise while sharing minutes with Embiid and Okafor this season, he badly miscalculated.
In a recent radio appearance, Colangelo suggested the health status of Embiid and Okafor prevented him from making such deal during the offseason, but unless Noel or Okafor weren’t healthy enough at the time to pass a physical upon being traded, that argument doesn’t hold much water. Noel and Embiid played a whopping eight minutes together before Thursday’s trade deadline, which is hardly enough time to determine the long-term potential of such a pairing.
Respecting a player’s wishes to depart the franchise is admirable, and it could curry favors with agents moving forward. Considering the reported damage Hinkie did in that regard, Colangelo not holding Noel hostage as a restricted free agent may do wonders for the franchise’s long-term reputation among players and agents. When solely looking at the on-court fit, though, Noel was clearly better next to Embiid than Okafor, which clouds the optics of this decision.
Colangelo wasn’t a total bust at the trade deadline, as he flipped Ersan Ilyasova and what will amount to a 2017 Golden State second-rounder to Tiago Splitter, a 2017 Atlanta second-rounder and a 2017 Miami second-rounder (protected 31-40). Between avoiding the temptation to overpay Ilyasova in free agency and opening more minutes for promising rookie Dario Saric and second-year big man Richaun Holmes, there’s little downside in that move. It also should make the Sixers tangibly worse for the next two months, both boosting their own lottery odds and the chances of them leaping the Los Angeles Lakers in the lottery standings.
Unless Anderson develops a three-point shot and emerges as a long-term fixture in Philadelphia’s rotation, however, Colangelo’s decision to sell Noel for 40 cents on the dollar will overshadow the good will he engendered with the Ilyasova deal. Meanwhile, the Mavericks can rest assured knowing their short-term and long-term prospects improved considerably Thursday, all thanks to Colangelo’s self-created moment of desperation.