By Bryan Toporek
Nearly two months after his free-agency saga began, Nerlens Noel decided to sign the Dallas Mavericks’ one-year, $4.1 million qualifying offer Saturday, according to ESPN’s Chris Haynes. The move came just days after he fired his previous agent, Happy Walters, and hired Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, per Michael Scotto of Basketball Insiders.
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Mavericks offered Noel a four-year, $70 million deal when free agency commenced on July 1, but Noel turned it down. (Walters confirmed that report on Twitter.) When the big man instead countered by requesting a max deal, Dallas reportedly pulled its offer, per Tim MacMahon (via Haynes).
Haynes reported Noel’s decision to sign the qualifying offer “should not be viewed as an adversarial move,” as it “allows both parties to evaluate a larger body of work and then assign a proper valuation for Noel after the coming season.” It’s fair to wonder whether the bad blood from acrimonious negotiations will spill over once training camp begins, though.
It’s easy to understand Noel’s frustration with the Mavericks’ offer. When the likes of Bismack Biyombo and Joakim Noah inked four-year, $72 million contracts last summer, that seemed to set a baseline for Noel’s free-agent value. Though the salary cap didn’t rise as drastically as expected, it still jumped $5 million between 2016-17 and this coming season, giving Noel even more reason to believe he’d surpass the deals Noah and Biyombo received.
Instead, a series of market forces conspired against him, crushing his chances of earning anywhere close to a max deal.
When the cap rose only to $99.1 million instead of $101 million, that vaporized $60 million of theoretical free-agent spending power across the league. Since a number of teams splurged last offseason like Chris Christie at an all-you-can-eat buffet, many suddenly found themselves in dire cap straits this summer, restricting their ability to pursue a big-name free agent. When the likes of Kyle Lowry and Paul Millsap couldn’t find teams willing to offer them long-term max deals this summer, it didn’t bode well for the likes of Noel and the rest of this year’s free-agent class.
“If you’re a team, you’re sitting there saying, ‘Well, I’m not going to negotiate off of someone else’s mistake,'” a general manager told MacMahon and ESPN’s Bobby Marks in reference to free agents using contracts signed last summer as reference points. “That was the problem. Players were going to try to hold teams and agents to these comparisons. We’re coming out of a bubble.”
Restricted free agency is also often unkind, as franchises are typically reluctant to tie up cap space on big-money offer sheets early in July. Since incumbent teams can drag out the matching process—see: what the Washington Wizards did with Otto Porter Jr. and the Brooklyn Nets—most front offices don’t pursue that route until the desirable unrestricted free agents dry up. At that point, cap space becomes even more sparse throughout the league, driving down the chances of a bidding war.
Heading into free agency, Mike Fisher of Scout.com reported “multiple” teams were willing to hand Noel a max offer sheet, but those offers never materialized. Between his status as a restricted free agent and the league-wide belt-tightening after last summer’s spending spree, teams seemingly had no real interest in maxing him out. And since Noel couldn’t force the Mavericks’ hand by getting another club to sign him to a max offer sheet, Dallas owner Mark Cuban had no financial incentive to bow to his demands.
On paper, Cuban’s stance makes perfect sense. While Noel touts preternatural defensive instincts, he’s a limited offensive player with a terrifying injury history. After tearing the ACL in his left knee during his lone year at Kentucky and missing his entire NBA rookie season, he’s endured off-and-on knee problems throughout the ensuing three years. He missed the 2016 Rising Stars Challenge due to tendinitis in his right knee, and he spent the first five weeks of this past season on the sideline after undergoing surgery on an inflamed plica in his left knee during the preseason.
Noel’s knee problems date back to high school, according to the Courier-Journal (via Sporting News) as he fractured the growth plate in his left knee early in his sophomore season. While doctors reportedly advised him to continue resting and recovering throughout the summer, Noel decided to come back early and began playing with his travel team in the spring. Dr. Robin West, an orthopedic surgeon with the Pittsburgh Steelers, told the newspaper, “If the leg healed awkwardly and [Noel] had a malalignment in that knee, that could predispose him to future injuries in that leg.”
Considering Noel missed three games due to left knee soreness following his arrival in Dallas at the trade deadline, the Mavericks may be worried about the long-term condition of his knees. Off-court concerns may have factored into their decision-making, too.
Before the 2013 draft, ESPN’s Ryen Russillo told Bill Simmons (via Craig Lyndall of Waiting for Next Year), “[Noel] has, by all reports if you start digging a bit deeper on this—and I don’t know who is going to end up writing this story—but he has some, like, epic bad dudes with him.” This past December, when speaking about Noel on his podcast, Adrian Wojnarowski said (via Andrew Porter of CBS Philly,” The research teams have done on him is not good. They don’t get good reports back on their intel, how he’s carried himself [in Philadelphia] of his habits. It’s not a great return.”
In early March, the Mavericks got their own taste of that. Head coach Rick Carlisle delayed the big man’s entrance into the starting lineup after he was 10 minutes late to the airport one day, per Dwain Price of the Star-Telegram. Afterward, Carlisle told reporters, “I’ve got to say, Elton Brand has been the guy mentoring him for two years. I sent Elton a text this morning saying you didn’t do a very good job mentoring the kid.”
If Dallas’ medical staff red-flagged Noel’s knees and Carlisle has questions about his attitude, it’s tough to argue with Cuban’s reluctance to max him out. There’s also a human element to consider in negotiations, though, which is where the Mavs have erred before.
As Andy Tobolowsky of The Step Back noted Monday, Dallas has already been down this road with Tyson Chandler and Steve Nash, which may have cost the team a chance at winning multiple rings over the past decade-and-a-half. While such a strategy spared the Mavs from giving Chandler Parsons (and his broken-down knees) an albatross four-year max deal, it could cost them Noel next summer once he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Unless they’re willing to pony up and meet his demands, they’ll no longer have the ability to match any offer he receives, giving him far more power than he had this time around.
It’s also unclear whether Noel stood firm at demanding nothing less than the max, or if there was room for compromise between the two sides. Noel’s mother, Dorcina, told Brad Townsend of the Dallas Morning News that he asked for “about $22 million a year, but Dallas refused to give it to him.”
“He told me, ‘If Dallas gives me $20 million, I’m going to be there because they love me there,'” Dorcina told Townsend.
If Noel was demanding $7.5 million more annually than the Mavericks were willing to offer, it’s understandable why they couldn’t reach an agreement. If the chasm was only $2.5 million annually, though, Cuban’s reluctance to budge could come back to haunt him.
With rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr. looking like a dream pick-and-roll partner and little legitimate competition behind him on the depth chart, Noel may be in for a career-best season in 2017-18 so long as he can stay healthy. The Mavericks were 4.0 points per 100 possessions stingier defensively with him on the court last season, a trend which harkens back to his first season in Philadelphia. He and San Antonio Spurs legend David Robinson are the only two players in NBA history to have averaged at least 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks across each of their first two years in the league, which speaks to his immense defensive gifts.
Having a shot-swatting, passing-lane-thwarting, turnover-inducing machine manning the middle of your defense is an enormous luxury for any team. Having one who is expanding his offensive repertoire as well—Noel shot 37.8 percent this past season on field-goal attempts between 16 feet away from the basket and the three-point line—is a godsend. While no one will mistake the Massachusetts native for a stretch 5, he could feasibly average north of 15 points this season while easing Smith’s acclimation to the NBA. If Noel adds roughly 10 rebounds, two blocks and two steals per game, teams will fall all over themselves to hand him a max contract next summer.
Noel has bet on himself before, to mixed results. Prior to tearing his ACL at Kentucky, he looked like the consensus No. 1 overall pick. While that injury didn’t deter him from declaring for the draft, it caused him to slip to No. 6, where the 76ers pounced after trading Jrue Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans for a package including that pick. Once Philly’s frontcourt depth chart became more crowded than a shopping mall on Black Friday, he wasn’t shy about vocalizing his frustration, all but forcing his way out from the Sixers.
Signing Dallas’ qualifying offer was Noel’s biggest gamble yet. Although it could lead to a max deal next summer, he’s sacrificing more than $13 million in earnings this year alone, further increasing the pressure for him to sign a huge contract in 2018. If his knees act up again this season, he could be forced to sign another one-year, prove-it deal.
The market also may be even less friendly to him than it was this year, even though he’ll be an unrestricted free agent rather than restricted. According to Marks, early estimates peg only nine teams with cap space for 2018-19, while 10 could be paying the luxury tax.
“The real story is the nuclear winter for free agents coming next year,” one team executive told MacMahon and Marks. “Teams planned the last two summers for the cap to be much higher. The fact that it went way down from the projections crushed teams.”
Will Noel regret turning down the Mavericks’ long-term contract offer? Should Dallas have bit the bullet and given him the max contract he desired? While we won’t know a definitive answer until next summer, both sides may grow to regret not reaching a compromise.