Plenty of Blame to Go Around for the Nerlens Noel Situation

Nerlens Noel and the Sixers seem to be on a collision course over Noel's playing time. Was this situation avoidable? Who's to blame?

Nerlens Noel came off the bench to score 16 points and collect 9 rebounds in the 76ers 113-88 loss to the Charlotte Hornets | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Nerlens Noel has been unhappy with his playing time. | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Sixers are certainly no strangers to losing, having compiled a 53-219 record over the course of the last four seasons. That record is of very little fault of head coach Brett Brown or his staff, who was hired in August 2013 to see the team through one of the more aggressive rebuilds in the history of professional sports.

Despite the losing Brown has largely been able to keep the team together, a development which feels like a virtual miracle given the competitive nature of sports, the youthful construction of the roster, and the vast quantities of losing this team has experienced. With but brief and fleeting exceptions this team has lacked the toxic infighting, complaining, and resentment typically found on losing teams.

They really have experienced losing outcomes without the losing culture typically associated with that.

Until now.

After the Sixers fell to the Los Angeles Lakers — a Lakers team that has lost nine straight games against non-Sixers opponents — Friday night at the Wells Fargo Center, fourth-year center Nerlens Noel voiced his frustration over his lack of playing time.

“I need to be on the court playing basketball. I think I’m too good to be playing 8 minutes. That’s crazy. That’s crazy,” Noel said. “(They) need to figure this (bleep) out.”

Noel played just 8 minutes in the Lakers game, his first full game back since undergoing surgery in October to repair an inflamed plica in his left knee.

Noel’s response is a strange combination of entirely true (he is deserving of far more minutes) while also being patently absurd (it’s his first game back from an ankle injury he suffered in his season debut last Sunday, and only his second appearance of the season).

“[Noel’s] arrival into the team, his trying to get in shape [and] come back in, it has been so erratic, and so completely infrequent, that you naturally go to Jahlil [Okafor] sooner than Nerlens [Noel],” Brown told members of the media on Saturday regarding his rotation, a fair and valid point that, without the rest of the context of Noel’s situation, is pretty common for a player working his way back into the lineup.

Yet Noel isn’t buying it. When asked whether the situation would be different if he had been healthy and playing all season, Noel’s answer was short and candid: “Probably not.”

Both answers probably have a little bit of legitimacy to them.

For Brown, it is difficult to integrate a player who hasn’t been available for much of the season. From Noel’s perspective, this result of not having enough minutes available was entirely predictable, and something he mentioned before training camp even started.

From Noel’s point of view Friday night’s game just confirmed his worst fears, with Noel admitting that part of the reason for his strong reaction was that it was the first occurrence of that confirmation. “I think it was just the first happening of it, just everything that led up to it. The small little things,” Noel said at practice, acknowledging that the context isn’t something he can ignore.

The Sixers find themselves in a very difficult situation, with no clear-cut way to resolve the festering problem in a way that’s positive for the team. How did they get here, and who’s at fault? There’s plenty of that to go around.

Sam Hinkie

Any discussion of this topic has to start with the guy who acquired all three players, and Sam Hinkie and his crew certainly had their hand in this situation.

It’s still, when you zoom out, an acceptable byproduct to reaching the overall goals of that stage of the rebuild, which was to get prospects of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons‘ caliber. That’s why, even with the trade value of Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel plummeting I don’t have a problem with the theory of drafting the best player available.

There’s no part of me that believes Hinkie and his team expected all of Noel, Okafor, and Embiid to be on the roster long term, instead having the goal of letting the cream rise to the top and selecting the players capable of being built around from that group.

Really, when we talk about the draft putting the Sixers in this position, we’re talking about one specific draft decision. When Noel was acquired the Sixers didn’t have a long-term fixture at the center position. When the Embiid draft rolled around, his talent was simply too great to pass up, and passing on Embiid because of Noel’s presence would have been a disastrous decision to make. It’s the Jahlil Okafor selection that put the Sixers in this situation, and the context of that decision has to be framed with the knowledge that they just found out about Embiid requiring his second surgery, and assuming that his health would cooperate was a hard assumption to make.

The problem is, if you’re going to justify the best player available strategy being necessitated by a lack of foundational certainty coupled with a dislike of passing on superstar talent, that talent has to be of a superstar level. Kristaps Porzingis was both the better fit *and* the better talent, so that decision is both a contributing factor to this situation and a real missed opportunity.

If Jahlil Okafor was on his way to developing into a superstar player who could be a real foundation for a team, selling extremely low on Nerlens Noel and figuring out how to deal with three superstars wouldn’t be a problem. The problem is Jahlil Okafor isn’t showing signs of being that guy. That’s why, for me, it was a talent evaluation miss more than a philosophical one.

It also has to be stated that just because the situation played out like it has doesn’t mean this situation was inevitable, or that this was the only likely outcome. There was a time and a place to trade Noel and/or Okafor that could have recouped more value, something which we’ll touch on in Bryan Colangelo‘s section below. And just because Colangelo held onto all three big men this long doesn’t mean Hinkie would have as well. Especially with Colangelo the Elder stepping into the picture in December of 2015 we’ll never really know how Hinkie would have handled this situation.

There’s also an upside down alternate universe that exists where Jahlil Okafor doesn’t kick off his NBA career with street fights and speeding tickets, doesn’t end his rookie season with surgery, and where the Sixers spent less time playing Noel and Okafor together last season and more time trying to put them in positions where they could succeed individually, and thus retain more of their value for once the decision of which big man to keep was made. The way this has played out feels very much like a worst case scenario.

Bryan Colangelo

Bryan Colangelo stepped into an incredibly fortuitous situation, being handed control of the organization at the bottom of its J-curve, but with the prospects, draft picks, and flexibility to set itself up for tremendous growth. Walking into a team with Joel Embiid returning to health, the #1 overall pick in the upcoming draft, the Lakers pick, the Kings pick swap, and the Kings unprotected pick in 2019 is a dream scenario few incoming executives are afforded.

Despite the overall picture being rosy, however, this specific scenario with Noel and Okafor was, individually, a tough one to navigate.

Yet while the situation was inherently tricky, that doesn’t mean that Colangelo has handled it well.

There is very much an ebb and flow to the NBA trade season, with the two most active time periods being February (the NBA trade deadline) and June (the NBA draft), with July (free agency) frequently seeing some movement as teams flip players around to either create cap space to pursue free agents or fall back to contingency plans to fill out their rosters if they’re spurned by their initial targets.

It seems hard to say this without knowing the exact details of what was being offered, but just from a purely logical standpoint, that time period leading up to the draft was when demand should have been at its highest. Once those two high-transaction time periods go by teams have already made commitments, both financial and in terms of draft picks, that they’ll want to see play out. Regardless of whether draft picks like Jakob Poeltl or Domantas Sabonis, trades like Serge Ibaka, or signings like Bismack Biyombo, Timofey Mozgov or Dwight Howard end up working out for their teams long-term, those teams are going to want to give those moves time to prove themselves one way or another.

Sunk costs usually start off as slow leaks.

Once the Sixers held on to Okafor and Noel after the draft their value declined simply because of a drop in demand, and their value wasn’t likely to rebound until the trade deadline in February. In turning down the best offer available at the time, the Sixers had to commit themselves to keeping both on the roster until 2017’s trade deadline. That doesn’t mean a trade wouldn’t present itself between the draft and the trade deadline, but they had to be willing to live in a world where a trade didn’t materialize.

That was a mistake.

Noel, Okafor, and Embiid all came into the league with the pedigree of a top young talent. Noel, until suffering a torn ACL in college, was widely thought of as the top pick in his draft. Okafor, until his defensive limitations became more apparent, was the top prospect in his high school class. And Embiid, until his fractured navicular bone was revealed just days before the draft, was the consensus #1 pick drawing comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon, comparisons that look less and less crazy every time Embiid takes the court.

It’s not just that all three players play the same position, but that their skill sets didn’t mesh. Okafor doesn’t have the perimeter game, either offensively in terms of shooting to open up the floor or the foot speed to defend in space, to maximize Embiid’s value by keeping him near the hoop. Noel, while he can move his feet on the perimeter to defend the power forward spot, needs space to dive to the hoop to have success offensively, and the pairing of Okafor and Noel was proven last year to limit the strengths of both. Brown could play the two together at times, perhaps more than he would otherwise want to, but he would have to play lineups with two centers nearly the entire game to keep all of them close to the starters minutes they’re accustomed to. With Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, and Ersan Ilyasova on the roster, that is absolutely impractical.

On top of that, it’s one thing to expect young players to make sacrifices in their playing time that they’ve never been asked to make before, and it’s an entirely different matter to expect them to willingly do so in a contract year.

Noel has a history of emotional responses in the media, although in the past it was on more benign topics such as point guard play or effort. His reaction to being third on the depth chart, among players who can’t really play together, during a contract year was entirely predictable.

If I’m the GM of a team who might have interest in Noel’s services, and in obtaining Noel’s bird rights and right of first refusal as an upcoming restricted free agent, then I’m calling the Sixers’ offseason bluff that this situation was tenable. Prove to me that you can keep all three big men happy throughout the season. Because, if not, I’m going to sit around and wait for the situation to self destruct, wait for Colangelo’s asking price to be dropped by discord in the locker room, and swoop in to get Noel at a fraction of the previous cost.

There was no reason for an opposing GM to buy high when the very scenario that is playing out before our eyes was always a likely outcome.

Bryan Colangelo’s job last June wasn’t just to figure out whether the trades he was being offered were equal value, but also to figure out whether the future offers would end up being more equitable. His job wasn’t just to assess value on the basketball court but also to predict human behavior, both the behavior of his own players and the behavior of his rival GM’s.

On top of that, some of Colangelo’s hardline comments in response to Noel’s outburst, such as saying “these are all young players not in a position to dictate circumstances” on media day in response to Noel’s complaints, didn’t help. Besides failing to alleviate the concerns of his own players, comments such as those also increased the public perception that future discord was inevitable, thus decreasing the Sixers’ own leverage. It was almost as if Colangelo was more concerned with appearing to be the one in control than he was worried about the opposition’s ability to forecast future conflict.

As we discussed above, the ability of other GM’s to predict a seemingly inevitable conflict was very likely to decrease whatever little immediate demand may have been present at the time. It likely had but a bit role in the current scenario we find ourselves in, but it was a surprising misstep for an executive who has spent so much time in the league.

The fact that Colangelo found himself in a tough spot with regards to how to handle the big man situation, and Noel specifically, doesn’t mean the situation was handled well. It doesn’t feel like the optimal solution is in play at this point.

Nerlens Noel

It’s impossible to talk about this situation without mentioning Nerlens Noel himself, who has handled the situation with the tact of a charging elephant.

“I think I sacrificed a lot,” Noel told Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer before the season. “At this point, there’s really not too much that I’m capable of sacrificing.

“I don’t see a way of it working,” Noel continued at media day. “I just don’t think it makes too much sense to come into the season with such a heavy lineup at the center position. I don’t know what there is to wait and see.”

Those comments became more forceful after Friday night’s game.

“I just want to be on the court playing basketball. I don’t really care who I’m playing with. I’m not an 8 minute player, so I don’t know what that’s about,” Noel said after the Sixers’ 100-89 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “I need to be on the court playing basketball. I think I’m too good to be playing 8 minutes. Nah, that’s crazy. That’s crazy. That’s crazy. Need to figure this (bleep) out.”

Those comments certainly don’t help Bryan Colangelo in his attempts to get decent value for Noel. That being said, I don’t exactly think that was Noel’s intention by speaking out.

Noel likely wants to be traded so he can go somewhere to prove his value for his upcoming free agency, while also landing in a spot where the acquiring team would actually have an interest in using his bird rights, thus opening up the avenue for a longer contract and higher yearly raises.

There are, generally, two ways to make a trade more likely, by either increasing the trade value of the player or by decreasing the asking price of the team.

By and large, unless there’s an injury to a center, Noel’s value isn’t going to increase until demand increases, which is at the trade deadline. That’s too long for an impending free agent to spend toiling away playing 10 minutes per game off the bench. In order to increase the probability of making a trade the best way may be to drop Colangelo’s asking price, and if Colangelo is worried that Noel will continue to be a problem in the locker room, the risk in keeping Noel around might outweigh the reward to be had for holding onto him until the deadline, thus increasing the likelihood Noel gets his wish.

There’s also the very real chance that part of Noel’s frustration is that the situation wasn’t resolved over the summer. The team was aware of Noel’s concerns long ago. While Noel was quiet in the summer he didn’t voice his frustrations publicly, and yet when the season arrived the logjam was still there. If that strategy didn’t work, Noel and his team may be more apt to trying a different approach.

Brett Brown

Finally, there’s head coach Brett Brown. His section is the smallest, because he’s the least culpable. Brown and Noel, through all of this, still seem to have a strong mutual respect for each other.

“[Brown] just has a lot on his plate. No pointing fingers. It’s the situation that we’re dealt with,” Noel said yesterday at practice.

“I care for him, I’ve been with him for a long time. I take to Nerlens Noel,” Brown said the day after Noel’s blowup. “This situation is complicated.”

Yet I do think there were minutes for Noel to be played the other night against the Lakers. In a game that saw Ersan Ilyasova and Dario Saric as the power forward / center combination for stretches in the second half, the desire to go small to matchup with the Lakers’ speed didn’t necessitate benching Noel outright, especially in a game where the Sixers struggled to defend the rim.

Beyond that, Brown had months to try out the Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor pairing before Noel even returned to play. I don’t particularly think the pairing is going to work, so staggering the two made sense from both a competitiveness standpoint and also in maximizing each player individually, but Brown is showing now that he’s determined to try the combination out, at least for a little bit.

“I think to just abandon something that we are genuinely interested in looking at would be a mistake. So we want to give this an amount of time to see which way is it going,” Brown said about the Okafor/Embiid pairing yesterday. “We are committed to giving this a chance, and to take a reverse pivot after 2 games isn’t my assessment of giving it a fair chance.”

Part of what’s cutting into Noel’s minutes is Brown’s competing agendas, which includes a desire to try out Embiid and Okafor together while also limiting the amount of time that two natural centers are on the court. Experimenting with the Okafor/Embiid combination before Noel returned to play could have opened up a few minutes for Embiid/Noel to play without cutting into Brown’s ability to play in a 4-out scheme.

This is, of course, a very small consideration in the grand scheme of things, though.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.