When someone is injured for all of preseason and going into the first month and a half of the regular season, you almost forget the type of skill-package said injured player brings to the table. For 76ers fans, that player has been Nerlens Noel, who has certainly been the center — pun intended — of attention since he first made comments about the state of the team back in September.
Besides the ongoing debate about whether Robert Covington should continue to be cut from the team (which is a laughable and completely asinine opinion), the Center logjam on the roster has been the focal point since the summer, and there has been spirited discussion over which Centers — outside of Joel Embiid — should stay on the roster. Of course the easy choice for a trade candidate would seem to be Noel — he is a restricted free agent this summer, he will certainly command a lot of money and he has been clearly unhappy about the lack of action by general manager Bryan Colangelo to alleviate the the gluttony of big men. Couple that with the fact that Jahlil Okafor, the number three pick in the 2015 draft, is in only the second year of his rookie deal, and it should be clear that Noel is the right center to trade. . . . Right?
That's not how I see it.
It's easy to look at Noel's pending free agency and the subsequent money teams will be throwing his way — some teams (and remember, Noel is a restricted free agent) might even try to offer Noel the max contract just for the purpose of bluffing and seeing if the 76ers would match the offer-sheet — but how many teams can say that they have two elite and versatile defenders at the center position, which is arguably the most important asset for a defense to have? The sticking point would be that Noel isn't necessarily the most skilled offensive big man in the NBA, and it is true, he won't dazzle you with fancy footwork on the block and doesn't have a face up skill-set like the Karl Anthony-Towns, Kristaps Porzingis or Embiid types. However, he still provides an offensive punch with his rim running ability and the threat of the lob coming off the pick-and-roll. To boot, Noel has seemed to take noticeable steps in his mid-range jumper in the time he's been back (shooting 7–10 on jumpers beyond 15 feet so far), doesn't hesitate as much and takes the shot with confidence, which is important in any type of development. His passing ability is also underrated, and, lastly, his activity on both ends — especially his versatility on defense — draws attention and makes him a much better fit to play alongside Embiid rather than trying to accommodate for Okafor.
The contract issue is something I understand. However, the Sixers will have a ridiculous $69 million in cap space heading into this summer, and with franchise corner stones Embiid (3rd year of his rookie deal and will be eligible for an extension this summer) and Ben Simmons on cheap rookie deals, you can afford to spend a little to keep someone like Noel on the roster — even if it's just for a few more seasons if the team so desperately wants him gone — before the other star players are lined up to cash in on contract extensions themselves. How much money will Noel command? Below are some of the big men that were drafted in the first round of Noel's 2013 draft class that have cashed in on big extensions before this season started.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (drafted 15th) - 4 years/ $100 million.
Rudy Gobert (drafted 27th) - 4 years/ $102 million.
Steven Adams (drafted 12th) - 4 years/ $100 million.
Cody Zeller (drafted 4th) - 4 years/ $56 million.
Gorgui Dieng (drafted 21st) - 4 years/ $64 million.
Let's say Noel gets somewhere within the $18–$20 million dollar range. The other extensions are line up for the rest of the young core on the roster and the cap space (Noel's cap room impact won't even matter), the team will still have plenty of money left in cap room to sign other free agents to build around a hypothetical Simmons/Embiid/Noel foundation and the other cornerstone stars are paid on the cheap for a few more years. If Noel stuck around with Simmons and Embiid, he would certainly come off the bench as a backup, and of course the natural question to ask is this: "why would you pay a backup the type of money?" Well, it would be a disservice to look at it from a broad lens.
Another reason the 76ers should consider keeping Noel is his aforementioned defense. We forget this, but in his 2014–15 rookie year — remember he missed the 2013–14 season because of an ACL injury — he was top ten in Defensive Rating, Steals, Blocks and Defensive Real plus-minus. Seeing his defensive versatility is so welcoming after missing the start of this season. His hands are some of the quickest in the league, and I'm not just talking about big men. His quick-twitch athleticism is also something to behold. The fact that someone 6 foot 11 can cover as much ground as Noel is special, and, while he might be outweighed by low-post bruisers on the block, he makes up for it with proper positioning and smarts. He can switch out on the perimeter and defend guards in a pick-and-roll and is able to recover back to his man, and his rim protection has always been his trademark since his days at Kentucky. But enough of me telling you how good he is, here are some videos that will give you a better sense of his ability.
Here he shows on the dribble hand-off and has insane quickness to recover back to his man. Absolutely mind-boggling.
Thanks to his quick hands, Noel gets the steal, which ignites the fast break, putting his rim running skills on display.
Nikola Jokic has Noel by a few pounds, and yet Noel makes Jokic work for his positioning in that paint and then blocks the shot.
This is one of my all-time favorite highlights. Pretty sure this means "No" in another language.
So not only would the 76ers have an elite defensive Center on the court at all times, head coach Brett Brown can have the luxury of pairing Noel and Embiid on the floor at various points in the game. Noel would also be another target for Simmons to toss his amazing passes to — if you remember watching Simmons in the summer league, he and Richaun Holmes had great chemistry in the pick-and-roll, and while Holmes is nowhere in the same stratosphere as Noel as a player, they are cut from the same cloth of player. Keeping Noel over Okafor has many more benefits than the other way around. Among the many ideas Brown has for his team, he has said repeatedly that he wants his team to have a defensive identity. They already have Embiid and Covington, keeping Noel would be the next logical step towards building upon that identity.