The Pelicans Should Explore Adding Another Kentucky Big Man

As Jonathan Tjarks of the Ringer recently noted, the Pelicans are awful on defense when DeMarcus Cousins plays without Anthony Davis.

Jonathan Tjarks of The Ringer recently wrote an interesting article questioning the Pelicans’ use of DeMarcus Cousins. Basically, when Cousins plays center while Anthony Davis sits, New Orleans has the worst defense in the NBA. Unlike Davis, Cousins—despite being a decent one-on-one defender—cannot anchor a team on that side of the ball. As Tjarks accurately states, he is a “combo forward trapped in the body of a center.”

What solution does Tjarks propose? Either stop playing Cousins so much without Davis, or pair Cousins with a capable defensive center when Davis is off the floor. The problem with the latter, as Tjarks points out, is that New Orleans doesn’t have many options on the roster. Omer Asik and Cheick Diallo aren’t scaring anyone.

So, let’s take this idea a bit further and look beyond the existing roster. Are there any big, capable defenders who could be available via trade? Since the Pelicans seem to be fond of one-and-done Kentucky centers, they should kick the tires on the Mavericks’ Nerlens Noel.

Remember him? He was a Pelican for about a minute on draft night in 2013 before being traded to Philadelphia as part of a package to acquire Jrue Holiday. Now, the once-promising big man is known more for eating hot dogs at halftime than blocking shots during the game. It’s safe to say Noel’s career has hit rock bottom. He’s about to return from a thumb injury, but it’s hard to see him returning from Rick Carlisle’s doghouse anytime soon.

Noel is also on a cheap one-year deal, but Dallas seems unlikely to re-sign him next year. At this point, they may be looking to simply cut their losses, and they don’t have much leverage. Could a second-round pick—maybe even a protected one—pry him away? Before committing to anything, the Pelicans need to do their due diligence. Perhaps Noel is a locker room cancer who's not even worth the minimal risk.

Or, maybe he just needs the right environment. Let’s not forget that Noel is the original poster boy for "The Process." He’s never even sniffed the playoffs. The best veteran teammate he’s had in the NBA—in his prime, so Dirk doesn’t count—might be Harrison Barnes. Seriously. And despite his current situation, Noel has actually been a very productive NBA player for some stretches of his career.

A Promising Start in Philadelphia

Noel was selected as a First Team All-Rookie performer in 2015 thanks to some eye-popping defensive numbers. He averaged 1.9 blocks and 1.8 steals per game, finishing just shy of some incredible company. During that season, Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis was the only NBA player to average more than 2 blocks and 1.5 steals per game. Among rookies, only Hall of Famer David Robinson had ever accomplished the feat.

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Despite gambling too much and being caught out of position from time to time—like any young player—Noel’s instincts as both a shot blocker and a pick-and-roll defender jumped off the screen. He controlled the paint and managed to admirably stick with quick ball handlers. Guards aren’t used to having their pockets picked by 7-footers, but Noel had a knack for the surprising steal. Most impressive, however, was the impact he had on the Sixers’ team defense.

In 2013-14, while Noel sat out the entire season recovering from his torn ACL, Philadelphia finished dead last in defensive rating. They failed to improve their roster aside from getting Noel on the court the following year, as neither Joel Embiid nor Dario Saric—the team’s two first-round draft selections—would play a single minute. They even traded away reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams during the season to make a bad team even worse. With an awful roster that produced just 18 wins, Noel led the Sixers to a 13th place finish in defensive rating, a 17-spot improvement from the previous year.

A Big Man Logjam 

Throughout his brief Sixers career, Noel continued to flash immense potential, but the team did him no favors. Before his sophomore campaign, Embiid was ruled out for a second straight season, and the team’s biggest offseason acquisition was ill-fitting bust, Jahlil Okafor. Noel still averaged more than 11 points per game and continued to fill the stat sheet with steals, blocks, and rebounds.

By the time Embiid finally played a game in a Sixers uniform, it was clear that the team had a logjam at the center position. Noel wasn’t shy about voicing his displeasure, calling the situation "silly." It was felt that his Sixers career would soon be at an end.

Knowing that Noel was unhappy, the Mavericks pounced, snatching the athletic big man in exchange for mediocre bench wing Justin Anderson and what ended up being two second-round picks. At the time, it looked like a complete steal for Dallas.

Rock Bottom in Dallas

Fast forward to 2017, and Noel’s fall from grace has been swift and shocking. From the hot dog incident to an appalling story about his behavior as an apartment tenant to scathing reports about his work ethic, it’s clear that something has to change if he wants to salvage his career.

Looking back, it’s obvious that Noel could have benefited from some veteran mentorship in Philadelphia, something that the then general manager Sam Hinkie consistently failed to address. Dallas isn’t known as a dysfunctional organization for the most part, but Pelicans’ point guard Rajon Rondo put that to the test. Things got so bad that Dallas made up an injury to keep Rondo off the court. After his recent 25-assist outing, I’d say he’s fitting in just fine in New Orleans.

This isn’t about blaming the Mavericks for a lack of professionalism by a few players. It’s about acknowledging that players sometimes need a change of scenery in order to maximize their potential. Maybe Noel is a lost cause. Maybe he’s not worth the headache he may bring to a locker room that seems to be finding its groove. Or, maybe he’s exactly the type of player who can anchor a defense and thrive next to Cousins while Davis gets his rest.

Other teams—like the Los Angeles Lakers—have been linked to a potential Noel trade. But as of now, the 23-year-old center is still a Maverick, and the Pelicans could use a player with his skills. Let’s hope they’re at least exploring the possibility.

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