Nerlens Noel is happy now, but the Sixers' big man knot is still wound tight

Ball Don't Lie
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/5157/" data-ylk="slk:Nerlens Noel">Nerlens Noel</a> likes his role … for now. (AP)
Nerlens Noel likes his role … for now. (AP)

The Philadelphia 76ers encountered a controversy in December when center Nerlens Noel, a restricted free agent after this season, was taken out of the rotation shortly after his return from injury. The logic was clear — ex-general manager Sam Hinkie’s decision to select a center with the team’s top draft pick for three straight years had created a logjam at the position, and one of Noel, Jahlil Okafor, and overwhelming Rookie of the Year favorite Joel Embiid was going to have to lose minutes. The situation didn’t make a whole lot of sense, and we and many other commentators suggested that the Sixers were going to have to trade Noel, Okafor, or both sooner rather than later.

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Noel’s time in the doghouse didn’t last long — he reentered the rotation on December 29 and has played at least 20 minutes in five of the Sixers’ last seven games. In fact, things have turned around so much that Nerlens says he’s happy with his role … at least for now. From Keith Pompey for The Philadelphia Inquirer (via PBT):

But is Noel interested in remaining Embiid’s backup past this season?

He said it “will just be a matter of time” to see if it’s a good role for him.

“You now see how comfortable I can feel throughout the duration of the season, being at the place that I am at,” Noel said. “So, right now, I feel pretty good. So we will just have to see.” […]

“At this moment in time, I’m definitely satisfied with where I’m at and the team’s rotation,” Noel said. “I think I’m able to go out there and still affect the game, change the game multiple ways.” […]

“Where this ends up it will end up,” Brown said. “It’s not my call. But Nerlens has put himself in a position that I hope will end up good for him.”

Neither Noel or Brown appears elated at the current situation, but things are clearly better than they were just a few weeks ago. At the very least, Noel is now in a position to prove his value and earn a lucrative eight-figure-per-year offer sheet this summer. It will be up to the Sixers to decide if they want to match that number, but that’s a fair tradeoff for doing right by a guy who once seemed like a core member of the roster.

The problem for Philadelphia is that Noel’s newfound happiness really just reorients their Hinkian knot of a frontcourt instead of doing anything to unwind it. Noel’s promotion into the rotation put Okafor out of it, and he has played only 10 minutes since Embiid sat out that game on December 29. Noel might have a role now, but every game Okafor stays on the bench brings his trade value down just a little more. He’s surplus to requirements, and there doesn’t seem to be much reason not to trade him while he still has value. As is, Okafor looks like little more than insurance for an injury or Noel’s potential departure in free agency.

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This is going to be the Sixers’ dilemma until someone leaves, and it’s probably only going to get worse when rookie Ben Simmons returns from the broken right foot that’s kept him out all year. General manager Bryan Colangelo doesn’t have to act immediately if he doesn’t want to, and the team’s recent run of five wins in six games — including the first three-game winning streak in three years! — has given him little reason to upset whatever’s working. Nevertheless, this story is going to pop up every few weeks until the Sixers get rid of some players. There could be value in making a decision either way, if only to end some of the uncertainty.

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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