Nerlens Noel Isn’t Benched, They’re Just Not Sure When He’ll Play
Yesterday afternoon Sixers president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo held an impromptu press conference to clarify the organization’s stance on disgruntled center Nerlens Noel.
After the fourth-year center expressed frustration over his lack of playing — Noel played just 8 minutes in Friday’s 100-89 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers — head coach Brett Brown announced that Noel would be out of the rotation for the foreseeable future.
But that’s not the case. Or maybe it is. Colangelo’s not exactly sure, but he wanted to clear it up.
“It’s a pretty simple answer,” Colangelo told members of the media on why Noel would be out of the rotation, immediately before explaining that “how much he’s in control of (the situation), or we’re in control of that, is really the part that is difficult to define.”
“Even looking at some combinations of Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel, I think we’re fascinated by what that could lead to, and we certainly want to take a look at that,” Colangelo said, before saying they’ll take a look at that combination “whenever that happens, whether it’s next week or a month from now.”
Which is, of course, not a problem since they’re “in no hurry” to make a deal, according to Colangelo. Even though everybody is frustrated with the situation and even though Colangelo and Brown have both said over the last few days that it would be “extremely challenging” to keep all the big men on the roster.
Colangelo says that he’s “not blaming that decision making (of the previous regime) at all,” but he is saying “we’re dealing with a logjam of players based on some decision making that was done prior to me being here,” while at the same time calling it a “high class problem to have at the center position.”
Benching Noel was, of course, not what Brown meant. It was, instead, misinterpreted by the media, which didn’t correctly parse Brown saying he would “stick with this rotation (without Noel) for a while” in the correct manner. Luckily Colangelo was there to translate.
“I think (coach Brown’s) actually quite frustrated. I’m probably saving you guys from a little bit of a tongue-lashing today, because he’s frustrated that it’s perceived as cut and dry, (that) Nerlens is not going to play. That’s not the case” Colangelo said, even though he later admitted that Brown did characterize it poorly. “I think coach realizes that the way it came out yesterday that it was black and white,” Colangelo went on to say. On top of that, Colangelo wasn’t sure when Noel was actually going to play again. “At some point you will see him out on the court,” was about as specific as he could get.
As Jason Concepcion of The Ringer astutely pointed out on twitter, it’s not a benching, it’s a “strategic non-deployment of resources.”
Part of the problem, both Colangelo and Brown say, is that Noel has missed most of the season and has barely practiced with the team. Which is true, and a legitimate hurdle to overcome. But similar hurdles were cleared when they integrated Jerryd Bayless back into the lineup, as Bayless averaged 23.8 minutes over his three games played after missing the first 13 games of the season due to injury, undergoing little to no practice time with the team in the process. They also integrated Ersan Ilyasova into the team despite no practice time, as Ilyasova received 23 minutes of playing time the same day he was acquired in a trade.
And that non-benching, which may last a week or a month, didn’t happen because the team was frustrated by Noel’s comments, even though the decision was made starting with the game immediately following Noel voicing his frustration and even though frustration was an overwhelming theme of the afternoon. Some variation of the phrase was mentioned by Colangelo at least 14 times over the course of the interview, by my count.
“Now we’re at a point where we can officially kind of open up the evaluation period with respect to Nerlens (Noel),” Colangleo explained. “The fact that coach made it clear it’s not going to happen immediately is because of no other reason than we were just opening up the view of what it looked like with Jahlil (Okafor) and Joel (Embiid) on the court together.”
Not a benching, of course. Just a strategic non-deployment of the 6th overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft who is upset about his lack of playing time, whose contract expires this summer, and who is openly calling for transactions to be made in order to resolve the situation.
“This is not a benching, this is just a moment of realization that wow, we’ve got a lot of talent on this team and not everybody can play,” Colangelo went on to explain, even though the four players in question have all been on the roster for the last 18 months.
Which is, of course, the exact concern Noel expressed before training camp began.
It’s a concern that Colangelo has agreed with at times, such as when he admitted on SiriusXM Radio in July that he was “absolutely not” comfortable going into the season with all four big men on the roster, although he’s now saying “I don’t think at any point we’ve been in a position as an organization to actively pursue a trade of any of the centers,” while later arguing that there was “virtually no ability for me to go out and actively even discuss a trade.” Colangelo cited the health and availability of his centers as the reasoning behind that lack of opportunity, even though Noel was healthy up until training camp and Colangelo had previously stated that “everybody’s trying to poach a big man from us” in that same July interview.
So, now that all four big men are healthy, what does Colangelo want to do moving forward with Noel?
They’ll either keep him or they won’t.
“Now that he’s healthy, hopefully he’ll be in a position where there’s enough of a body of work that someone can see him healthy, and active, and performing of a level that is worth looking at some sort of transaction,” Colangelo said, seeming to imply the obvious, which is that trading the unhappy Noel is in everybody’s best interest at this point, although Colangelo later described Noel as “a young, talented, prospect that we are trying to determine whether or not he’s a fit for this roster.
“Because of his talent, because of his earned respect with respect to what he’s already accomplished, we need to now determine whether or not some of that is going to translate to us moving forward as a unit,” Colangelo continued to say about a player who they may not be able to find playing time for in the next week, or month, or whenever. “For Nerlens to be fairly evaluated he needs to show that he’s healthy and he’s professional, and that he’s got a good attitude towards everything that’s going on,” Colangelo continued.
None of this is to say that it’s wrong of Colangelo to present the situation as he is. Quite the opposite, in fact. With the December 15th trade restrictions now relaxed we’ve entered the NBA’s trading season, a time when league executives are sending out misinformation to try to control the narrative, albeit usually via unnamed sources leaked to reporters.
With discord evident throughout the locker room, from his disgruntled 22-year-old center to frustrated head coach, Colangelo was forced to bring those comments out to the public, a rarity for executives at this time of year. The team also has to toe the line between not rewarding a player for openly criticizing the organization, while also not alerting the league that a player they’re looking to trade is being a giant pain in the you-know-what.
Colangelo’s predecessor, Sam Hinkie, was famous for not going on the record more than he absolutely had to, his own way of controlling the flow of information, at times to the detriment of the narrative surrounding his team. With the narrative spinning out of control Colangelo wasn’t afforded that luxury, and the easiest way to maintain plausible deniability is to make statements that can be reasonably interpreted to support both potential courses of action, with enough noise in said statements to obscure any real point or plan of action.
There is also some truth to now being a good time to test out the Jahlil Okafor / Joel Embiid frontcourt pairing, as the schedule has presented some opponents which the duo can match up against defensively at least reasonably well. Then again, with a pairing that Brown has been so tepid to endorse, repeatedly going out of his way to say they have to be responsible in using the lineup, perhaps that is as good of an indication of their long-term viability as anything. Searching out assumed bad matchups and seeing whether the pair can enforce their will on undersized interior players may have some value as well, even if just to prove a negative.
While I may disagree that hanging on to the big men this long was the right course of action, and question whether their value will be maximized by doing so, Colangelo being intentionally vague with his words at this time is probably for the best.
To recap: based on yesterday’s comments the Sixers will, at some point, but nobody is really sure when, play Nerlens Noel, perhaps even with Joel Embiid, which they’re excited to see, but in no apparent rush to do so. At which point they will use that playing time to either decide if he can be a part of the team or to audition him for the rest of the league, which they can then decide to act on either at the trade deadline or not, even though everybody agrees it would be an extreme challenge to keep all of them, and even though everybody expects them to make a move.
Still, even with the likely intentional double speak from yesterday’s event, this much is clear: the organization is frustrated by Nerlens Noel not being around the team over the summer, frustrated by his comments in the fall about a trade needing to happen, frustrated by Noel not being available to practice with the team, frustrated by his public complaints over playing time, and unsure of whether they want him around long term, or perhaps even having already reached a decision they’re simply unwilling to publicly disclose at this time.
A willingness to evaluate Noel’s fit and keeping alive the possibility of hanging on to all of their big men for the long haul? Those claims seem much more dubious, even if it’s the picture Colangelo has to try to paint at this time.
Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.