Heading into the 2016-17 campaign, the Philadelphia 76ers finally appear poised to – at the very least – emerge from last place in the Atlantic Division.
The team will be bolstered by 2016 No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons and the arrival of 2012 lottery pick Dario Saric from overseas. The Sixers are also expecting center Joel Embiid, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 draft, to return to action after missing the prior two campaigns due to nagging foot issues.
There is certainly more talent in Philadelphia; this is undeniable. However, it’s obvious that the influx of talent is frontcourt-heavy, which will inevitably lead to a logjam at some point down the road.
While Embiid, Saric and Simmons have plenty of upside, they don’t have a single second of NBA game film to reference. But the Sixers’ frontcourt has two other lottery talents who have produced as professionals in Jahlil Okafor (the No. 3 pick in the 2015 draft) and Nerlens Noel (the No. 6 pick in the 2013 draft).
If you were playing a video game, the presence of Embiid, Noel, Okafor, Saric and Simmons on the depth chart would be fun. But the painful reality for Philadelphia is that sooner or later, tough decisions must be made. It isn’t feasible to keep five frontcourt players who are all young and brimming with potential, especially considering the 76ers have so many other holes that need to be addressed.
From all indications, the odd man out is likely to be Noel.
Since entering the NBA, Noel has averaged 10.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.7 blocks in 142 career games. As a rookie during the 2014-15 campaign, Noel ranked in the top 10 among all NBA players in steals and blocks per game. In fact, he became the first rookie in NBA history to average both 1.7 blocks and 1.7 steals.
However, out of the five big men, Noel is the least refined offensively. Even though Noel’s defensive talent is impressive and earned high praise, there are those who believe that Embiid can develop into an elite defender in time.
So where’s does that leave Noel?
Noel has been subject to rampant trade rumors over the past year, so this isn’t new information by any stretch of the imagination. But what will Philadelphia ultimately decide to do? Embiid may eventually develop into a stud, but he’s yet to prove his body can sustain the rigors of an NBA season. Saric and Simmons are rookies. Both prospects are intriguing talents, to be sure, but they aren’t traditional big men – with Saric boasting a solid perimeter game and Simmons seeming best suited for a point-forward role.
Complicating matters for Philadelphia is the fact the team must make a near immediate decision regarding Noel as soon as the season opens. The team has until Oct. 31 to agree on a contract extension with Noel, otherwise he’ll become a restricted free agent next July. Failing to reach an extension does have consequences.
On the open market, not only will teams offer a ton of money because they know anything too low will be matched, rival general managers will ensure that the contract they put on the table isn’t team friendly. Offer sheets for restricted free agents often include things like player options and trade kickers. In some cases, teams even make poison-pill offers (like the ones given to Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik, Tyler Johnson, etc.) in an effort to scare off a player’s respective team. Philadelphia would obviously be able to match any of these offers, but agreeing to an extension with Noel and his camp prior to Oct. 31 would give them much more control over what’s in the deal (and remove a potential distraction since Noel wouldn’t be worried about his deal or contract-year production).
Noel finished ninth overall among power forward in Defensive Real Plus-Minus (2.29) last season. However, as we pointed out earlier, Noel’s offense leaves something to be desired from an advanced statistic perspective. Noel’s -3.48 Offensive Real Plus-Minus ranks in the lower third in the league right alongside guys like Asik (-3.55), Kevin Seraphin (-3.79) and Bismack Biyombo (-2.97).
Still, Noel is just 22 years old. He’s only scratching the surface of his potential. From a per-36-minute standpoint, Noel fills the stat sheet: 13.7 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.8 blocks in 2016.
It’s also worth noting that last season, Noel increased his scoring production from 9.9 points per game to 11.1 despite averaging nearly two fewer minutes per contest as head coach Brett Brown tinkered with rotations that didn’t include him and Okafor on the floor simultaneously.
With free agency looming and an uncertain future in Philadelphia due to their frontcourt logjam, a trade actually may be the best thing for Noel. A change of scenery may land Noel long-term financial stability and what every young player desires most: additional floor time and opportunities to succeed.
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