Everyone is happy in Sixerland. Everyone, it seems, but Nerlens Noel.
While nearly the entire off-season was spent in celebration of drafting Ben Simmons, regaling the rejuvenation of Joel Embiid’s legs and lauding the addition of Dario Saric from Europe, two players seem to have become the odd (big) men out.
Jahlil Okafor averaged 17.5 points per game as a rookie. Nerlens Noel has become an elite rim protector in the NBA. Nobody thought they would both still be here.
On Sunday, the day before Sixers media day, Inquirer beat reporter Keith Pompey published a story in which Noel called the situation “silly.”
“I think it’s just silly . . . this situation that we are in now with three starting centers,” Noel said on the eve of the Sixers’ media day. “With the departure of [former general manager and president] Sam Hinkie, I would have figured that management would be able to get something done this summer.”
Either the Sixers weren’t able to trade Noel or Okafor, or they frankly didn’t want to.
Nobody knows what Embiid is going to be, and while he can say all he wants at media day that he’s in the physical shape right now to play 20 years in the league, he hasn’t even played 20 games yet. He hasn’t even played 20 minutes.
The Sixers expect Embiid to be a star — head coach Brett Brown called him a centerpiece of the franchise earlier this summer — but until he actually plays, keeping Okafor’s offense and Noel’s defense is the ultimate insurance policy.
Truth be told, Noel’s assertion they have three centers who can play 30 minutes is a little far-fetched. Okafor and Noel both averaged just around 30 minutes per game, but Okafor is coming off an injury that limited him to just 53 games last season. Noel, himself, played in just 67 last year. With the team already saying Embiid won’t play on back-to-back nights, that cuts his maximum number of games from 82 to around 65, and that assumes he doesn’t have any setbacks or other injuries to manage. There are minutes to be had on the court, especially if Embiid struggles to find his game after two years off from competitive basketball.
But if Embiid is as good as advertised? Yes, Noel is right. There are simply too many bigs and not enough minutes.
This isn’t new. We’ve talked about this a lot. What are the Sixers going to do with all these bigs? If anything, since last season, the team has only gotten bigger. Simmons is 6-10. So is Saric. So, too, is Richaun Holmes, who probably won’t get much playing time but showcased enough talent in Summer League to warrant some minutes on the low block, surely.
For months, Sixers fans have been debating what to do with either Noel or Okafor, with the popular vote leaning toward keeping Noel and trying to deal Okafor, whose offensive game has serious NBA limitations and whose defense, at least for much of last year, was non-existent.
The problem is, Okafor seems to want to be here, while Noel has done everything to get himself traded.
He changed his Twitter image to black and changed (then changed back) his bio to remove any mention of the Sixers. He talked on social media about how much he loves his hometown of Boston; a town, and a team, that could use a solid rim protector.
Hell, Noel didn’t even show up to media day wearing a team shirt.
He might as well have come in a top that says “Trade Me.” And you know what, GM Bryan Colangelo probably still would have smiled, nodded and said “We’ll have to wait and see.”
Colangelo isn’t going to just give Noel or Okafor up for nothing, and while Noel’s game might be better suited to play alongside Embiid and Simmons, there’s a lot to be said for sticking with the guy who wants to be here. Also, there’s the pesky contract situation the Sixers have to figure out.
Noel is essentially on a one-year deal, with a qualifying offer set for next season. Assuming the Sixers make that offer, Noel can sign with any team he wants, but the Sixers will have the right to match. That would become the dumbest game of chicken ever, as matching an offer for Noel would do little to reshape the roster into a more balanced unit. Thanks to Sam Hinkie’s wheeling and dealing, the team right now can afford three centers when they are all making next to nothing, but overpaying one of them to stay is patently ridiculous.
Colangelo knows that, and so does Noel. And even if the team were to find a trade partner for Okafor, that leaves them with Embiid and Noel down low, which is like going from walking a high wire while having a double-reinforced safety net beneath you to walking it with no net at all.
Let’s face facts: Noel is gone after this year, unless the Sixers match an offer for him. There is no reason for him to stay with the franchise after this season. Loyalty? The organization wasted his entire first contract in a perpetual state of tanking for the first overall pick. We can’t even call what they did rebuilding — they just stole two years of Noel’s career so they could get Simmons.
Why should he stay for another contract after that, only to play behind Embiid? And, again, that’s assuming they can even find value in a trade for Okafor.
So now we are left with we think, and what we know. We think the Sixers “wait-and-see” stance is going to work itself out well before the trade deadline this year, and Colangelo will see by then what he has in Embiid, Saric and, frankly, Simmons to know if they can make a serious run to the playoffs this year, next year or half a decade from now.
At that point, it would make sense to trade Noel or Okafor — probably Noel — to bring back value for the franchise you simply could not get at this point in the pre-season. That’s what we think.
What we know, clearly, is that Noel wants out. Now. And that could become an issue for a locker room with so many young players, each hungry to show what he can do.
Sure, Noel has walked back what could be perceived as him not wanting to be in Philly — not him simply not wanting to be on the Sixers — but the damage is pretty much done. He needs to go. He wants to go. It’s just a matter of where and when.
Brown has had a terrible job for years, and now that he finally has some talent to play with, there’s too much of it in the same spot on the floor. Of course this is going to be an issue, and one that has turned this year into Brown’s toughest coaching job yet. Unless Colangelo can work some magic to find a home for one of his bigs. Is this a process we can trust?
We’ll have to wait and see.