It’s no secret that Nerlens Noel does not figure to be with the Philadelphia 76ers much longer. After being mentioned in trade rumors throughout the offseason, the No. 6 pick in the 2013 draft (and the first exciting acquisition of the Sam Hinkie “Process”) returned to action last week after missing the start of the season while recovering from knee surgery. Yet Noel saw very few minutes in his second game, causing him to rightfully argue that he’s “too good to be playing eight minutes” and to request that the Sixers “figure this s— out” after Friday’s 100-89 home loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
As our Kelly Dwyer wrote on Saturday, Noel’s especially blunt and frustrated reaction was fully warranted. A player who looked like a future All-Defensive Team candidate as a rookie deserves better.
Noel’s words were obviously heard, because the Sixers did come up with a short-term solution to his place in the lineup. Unfortunately for him, they decided that he should not be in the rotation at all. From Jessica Camerato of CSNPhilly.com:
“I think trying to force feed three bigs in a game is unfair,” Brown said Sunday before the Sixers faced the Nets. “I intend on going with two of those three bigs tonight. Nerlens will not be one of those people that will be in rotation unless something happens with foul trouble or some type of other circumstance.”
“I think a lot of people know it was going to get to a point like this,” Noel said. “Now I’m the one that’s in it, so I’m going to deal with it the best way possible.” […]
“It has zero to do with anything he said to the press,” Brown said. […]
“We talked freely with (Sixers president of basketball operations) Bryan (Colangelo), my staff, owners that we feel that two out of the three you can find ways to responsibly play without hurting the team,” Brown said, later adding, “I assume that we’re going to stick with this rotation for a while. It could end up Nerlens, what I’ve just said to you I’ve to Nerlens, and we’ll have a conversation of what it looks like when we come back in a few days against New Orleans (on Tuesday).”
In other words, the Sixers have attempted to solve the Hinkian knot by cutting it. Noel has been removed from consideration, creating a somewhat more natural rotation in which Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor start together and forwards Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and Ersan Ilyasova can see decent minutes at power forward. That plan allows Brown and his staff to mix things up depending on matchups and the needs of a particular game.
However, Sunday’s 108-107 win over the Brooklyn Nets made it clear that sitting Noel cannot clear the lineup of all its issues. His “DNP – Coach’s Decision” only exposed further complications in the Sixers’ frontcourt.
The biggest problem is fairly clear — Embiid and Okafor are a poor fit. Okafor’s limits as a defender were well known before he was drafted third-overall in 2015, but his offensive strengths are often negated when he shares the court with Embiid, a potential superstar who serves as the focus of Philadelphia’s attack whenever he takes the court. Noel found trouble adapting to life with Okafor last season, too, but the calculation is far different with Embiid’s place in the Sixers’ future secured. Embiid will win every competition between the two, because he could become the best big man in the league if his feet hold up.
The victory against the Nets put the difference between the two starting centers in comically stark terms. Embiid was absolutely terrific — he scored 33 points (12-of-17 FG, 7-of-8 FT) for the highest total by a Sixers rookie since Allen Iverson. He also grabbed 10 rebounds, the last of which led to the game-icing free throws in the final seconds.
Okafor was an offensive disaster, missing all 10 of his field goals for three points in 28 minutes. His 11 rebounds indicate that he was able to find ways to contribute, but, as ever, he and Embiid could not figure out how to excel at the same time. It looks increasingly likely that this combination simply will not work. That’s not the worst outcome — Saric, Ilyasova, Covington, and the still-unavailable Ben Simmons are all promising options (at worst) at the four — but it seems like only a matter of time before the Sixers decide that both Noel and Okafor are not in their future plans. If they don’t, Brown will have to experiment with various unwieldy combinations through the end of the 2016-17 season, and maybe longer.
It would not be an admission of failure for Colangelo to trade two of his three centers. (In fact, it’s arguable that the deal-happy Hinkie assembled this roster with the assumption he would have to do so.) However, trading a bunch of promising players only looks like a smart move if the team can get decent value in return. Flipping top-10 picks in their early-20s for middling draft picks and bench contributors suggests a failure of development.
It’s difficult to read the current situation in any other way. Okafor has been matched with Noel and Embiid, frontcourt mates who expose his deficiencies (which, to be fair, might have been revealed anyway). Even worse, Noel has gone from the rookie linchpin of a league-average defense to a non-contributor. Brown’s opinion of Noel doesn’t seem very high beyond the question of who deserves minutes, either:
Brett Brown, on if he feels bad for Nerlens Noel not getting a fair shot: "I feel worse for Richaun." Cites Holmes "being here since Day 1."
— Rich Hofmann (@rich_hofmann) December 19, 2016
To clarify, Richaun Holmes’s “Day 1” started in June 2015. Noel was part of a tanking organization for three seasons and stands to have lost considerable earning potential as a restricted free agent this summer if he’s not given the chance to prove himself.
Figuring out this situation was always going to be a difficult task for Colangelo, a man asked to take over for a cult figure with an extreme vision of how to build a team. But the early returns have been bad even after taking into account that degree of difficulty. Talented young players look entirely superfluous to requirements, except that no one but Embiid has proved himself enough to demand extended playing time. The forthcoming return of Simmons should be one of the most positive moments of the Sixers’ season. Instead, the prospect of finding minutes for another promising player could end up frustrating another high-potential prospect.
The Sixers have not done right by anyone in this situation. (Even Embiid, whose thrilling play has been one of the feel-good stories of 2016-17, seems to have made it work despite his circumstances.) Removing Noel or anyone other single player from the rotation cannot answer questions this complicated. Someone (or someones) is going to have to be traded, and it would probably be for the best if it happened sooner rather than later.
– – – – – – –