Stay or Go: Should Knicks bring back Nerlens Noel for 2021-22 NBA season?

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Knicks' Nerlens Noel treated image, white jersey with orange X behind head
Knicks' Nerlens Noel treated image, white jersey with orange X behind head

In this series, we'll look at whether or not Leon Rose and the Knicks should let these players stay -- or let them walk. We'll focus this time on Nerlens Noel...

CONTRACT: One-year, $5 million contract expiring this summer.

Why should Noel stay?

Noel was arguably one of the most important Knicks of last season. With Mitchell Robinson playing just 31 games due to multiple injuries, it was Noel starting at center most nights for one of the league’s best defenses. Rim protection is pivotal to any team getting stops, and Noel provided it in spades: 2.2 blocks per game, or 3.3 per 36 minutes. Noel swatted away a higher percentage of attempts than everybody but Myles Turner, plenty of which were huge, highlight-reel, game-saving moments.

Noel’s defense doesn’t stop at the rim. He was consistently effective at every turn of Thibodeau’s scheme all season. His active hands helped him nab 1.1 steals a game, en route to leading all centers in steal rate. The length and agility at his size that made him such a prized prospect years ago finally looks like it’s been matched with a defensive IQ that could make Noel an elite defensive center, and at the ripe age of 26.

Though Noel was not signed and will not be brought back for his offense, he did shoot over 60 percent and showed flashes of tools outside of simple finishes. His little five-foot floaters and baseline jumpers may cause some to cringe, but having different looks in the repertoire never hurts.

The Knicks have a chance to retain a serious two-headed monster at the five spot between Noel and Robinson this summer, maybe even cheaply. While they’re going to have to let go of some of the success stories that helped make last season’s magic happen, Noel should arguably be a higher priority than the perimeter-based free agents.

Feb 17, 2021; Orlando, Florida, USA; New York Knicks center Nerlens Noel (3) makes a basket over Orlando Magic center Khem Birch (24) during the first quarter at Amway Center.
Feb 17, 2021; Orlando, Florida, USA; New York Knicks center Nerlens Noel (3) makes a basket over Orlando Magic center Khem Birch (24) during the first quarter at Amway Center.

Why should Noel go?

Unfortunately for the Knicks, like with 3-and-D wings, strong defensive centers that can finish are also a big commodity. Noel is going to get himself a bag, but is it too big for New York when a healthy Robinson is better? For reference, the Dallas Mavericks offered him a four-year, $70 million deal in 2019.

That is not likely to be the deal he’s offered this time around, but something over $10 million a year should be expected. Noel is worth every penny making that as your starter, but if Robinson returns healthy, that spot is likely his. Then, that $10 million looks steep for a back-up.

The Knicks should also weigh Noel’s postseason performance. Granted, the Atlanta Hawks were an especially terrible match-up for both him and New York, and non-shooting bigs around the league get played off postseason courts, but Noel saw less minutes in the playoffs, often replaced for Taj Gibson’s more dynamic offense and burlier presence down low. His offensive and physician limitations were both exposed, as is the case for anybody in the playoffs. At that next level, he may be better suited as a backup.

What’s the right move?

If Noel is happy to return to the Knicks, whether or not he’s the starting center next year, New York should look to retain him. A cheap-ish Robinson-Noel center rotation, though perhaps redundant, is a great way to maintain the level of defense the Knicks brought to the court last season.

Once again, it comes down to cost. There’s no scenario in which the Knicks should try and match a $15 million per year offer, but something more flexible and tradeable would be a no-brainer.