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NBA Sunday: Greg Monroe, Tristan Thompson And Now, Nerlens Noel

Just like Greg Monroe and Tristan Thompson, Nerlens Noel is betting on himself. But he could lose.

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After a lengthy stalemate that lasted into nearly September, 23-year-old Nerlens Noel has agreed to sign a one-year qualifying offer with the Dallas Mavericks.

In late May, there were suggestions that Noel could command a maximum-salaried offer from a few teams around the league, but with that not coming to fruition, Noel eventually agreed to return to Dallas on the one-year deal rather than sign the four-year, $70 million extension that the Mavericks did offer him. A maximum offer for the same four years would have been closer to $100 million.

The question as to whether or not Noel passing on the guaranteed coin is wise or not has been discussed quite a bit. He entered the league with a torn ACL that caused him to miss his entire rookie year. Having been a somewhat inconsistent performer through his first three years in the league, Noel showed some flashes in the 51 games that he played last season, but committing maximum dollars to him would have been a major risk for the cost-conscious Mavericks.

For Noel, though, if he can stay healthy, the gamble may prove to be worth it.

* * * * * *

Few things in life are guaranteed, but if you’re an NBA player, one such thing happens to be your contract. For the most part, young players coming off of rookie contracts with capped salaries don’t typically turn down the financial security that a hefty contract would yield, but if history is any indicator, Noel could be making a wise decision.

Back in August 2014, after a fairly impressive four years as a member of the Detroit Pistons and some tense negotiations, Greg Monroe eventually agreed to sign a one-year, $5.5 million qualifying offer with the Pistons. Although there were conflicting accounts as to whether or not the Pistons actually made a multi-year offer to Monroe, the big man would play out the final year of his contract and eventually sign with the Milwaukee Bucks as an unrestricted free agent the following summer. Monroe would end up receiving a three-year deal worth $50 million from the Bucks—an average of about $16.5 million per year. The Pistons were believed to have pegged his value at being somewhere between $12 million and $14 million.

For the most part, players coming off of rookie contracts don’t typically accept their qualifying offer.

According to SBNation, at the time Monroe accepted his qualifying offer, he was only the 14th player since 2003 to have done so. Of those 14, Spencer Hawes was the only one to eventually re-sign with his incumbent team.

Since Monroe, Tristan Thompson nearly became the second.

The summer after Monroe accepted his qualifying offer, Thompson and the Cavaliers found themselves at a bit of a stalemate when Thompson hit unrestricted free agency. With Thompson’s representatives being somewhat confident that Thompson’s hometown Toronto Raptors would be interested in his services come 2016, they opted to play hardball with the Cavs and hold out for a bigger payday than what was initially offered. The Canadian big man would eventually re-sign with the Cavs on a five-year deal worth $82 million—considerably less than the $94 million maximum contract for which he was eligible.

Thompson’s representatives were fairly outspoken in declaring that Thompson would not re-sign with the Cavs the following season had he accepted the qualifying offer. It may have been a bluff, but it worked.

Without question, Nerlens Noel and his representatives would look at the situations involving Monroe and Thompson as their precedent-setters. In each instance, the big men were eventually able to secure higher paydays by playing hardball and digging their heels in.

What makes the Noel situation interesting to observe is the fact that, while not being afraid of spending, Mark Cuban has historically been wise with how he allocates his cap money. Cuban has earned a reputation of running his team like a true business and simply walking away if and when the asking price is deemed too high. Over the past few years, we have seen quite a few instances where teams opt to retain their talent as exorbitant price tags, only to admit defeat shortly thereafter. Allen Crabbe, now of the Brooklyn Nets, serves as a fine example.

Cuban would rarely allow himself to be on the short end of such a stick.

In the case of both Monroe and Thompson, they had something that Noel doesn’t seem to have much of—leverage.

Through his first four years in the league, Monroe managed to play 31 minutes per game. Over that span, despite sharing minutes and touches with a crowded frontcourt in Detroit, he earned a reputation as being one of the more gifted young post players in the league. Best of all? He missed a total of just four games over that same duration. He was the embodiment of health and consistency. At the time he signed his qualifying offer, Monroe was tabbed by Phil Jackson as being his primary target to pivot the post in New York City, and it was a poorly kept secret.

With respect to Thompson, aside from his ability to stay on the floor, he had emerged as one of the finest rebounders in the entire league. His defensive instincts were impactful, to say the least. Best of all, Thompson had been instrumental in the Cavaliers winning the Eastern Conference in 2015. Under those circumstances—after appearing to be so close—it would have been difficult for the Cavs to allow such a talent to leave over a few million dollars. That LeBron James called Thompson’s contract situation “a distraction” and publicly stated his desire for a resolution only added to Thompson’s leverage. It came as no surprise, then, to learn that the two sides had eventually come to a resolution.

Leverage is everything, and Noel doesn’t seem to have much of it.

Betting on himself, Noel is entering the 2017-18 season with a lot at stake. If history is any indicator, he will likely find himself with a new address by the time next season begins, but how he performs this season will likely determine his wage. For him, the question is whether and to what extent teams across the Association will be willing to spend for him next season.

Deandre Jordan, Brook Lopez, Greg Monroe, DeMarcus Cousins, Enes Kanter, Derrick Favors and LaMarcus Aldridge are all expected to be free agents next summer, and those are only a few of the big men with whom Noel would be competing with for minutes (and salary cap dollars). The class could be headlined by the likes of LeBron James, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony.

Simply put, although history would suggest that Noel may eventually receive a bigger payday than what the Mavericks were reportedly offering him, opting to accept the qualifying offer is a major risk for a 23-year-old searching for his first hefty payday.

For his sake, let’s hope that Nerlens Noel knows what he’s doing.

And for his sake, let’s hope that we haven’t already seen the best of him.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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