Re-Examining the Nerlens Noel Trade

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Nerlens Noel and Justin Anderson faced off for the first time since being traded for each other last week.
The NBA Trade Deadline was just days away, and the Philadelphia 76ers wanted to trade a center. With Joel Embiid the center of the future and Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor, and Richaun Holmes also on the roster, it made sense for the Sixers to trade at least one of their big men.

As we touched on back at deadline day, it seemed to make the most sense for the Sixers to either stand pat or cut their losses and trade Okafor, while re-signing Noel and letting Holmes grow as a center/power forward swingman. Of course, the Sixers did neither, dealing fan favorite Noel to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for little-known forward Justin Anderson and a conditional draft pick, which would either become a single first rounder or two second rounders.

The trade was panned by critics all over social media before even giving the Sixers a chance to show their thought process. And as time has passed, it has become clear that even if what the Sixers did wasn’t the ideal move to make, it may turn out better than some people thought.

For one, the Sixers may have acquired more value than was initially thought. Anderson, a former first-round pick of the Mavs, has been a spark plug for the Sixers since he was acquired. Anderson has a large frame and can play forward or guard. He was drafted with the expectation of becoming a “3 and D” player, meaning his niche would be to shoot threes and play lockdown defense. In those respects, Anderson still has lots of room to grow. But the fact that he is already succeeding as a Sixer is exciting for Philly fans.

All of Anderson’s numbers are up with the Sixers. He is averaging more than 4 extra minutes per game, and his stats have increased. He has converted 54.7% of his shots in Philadelphia, significantly higher than his average of 40.3 over two seasons in Dallas. Anderson’s three-point shooting still leaves a lot to be desired, but he has both attempted and made more triples in Philadelphia than in Dallas, so the signs of improvement are there.

Anderson’s real value comes in his power game. Anderson is not afraid to get his hands dirty and crash the paint. He may be the best dunker on the Sixers, as evidenced by his rather-satisfying slam over Noel of all people. He plays with fire and confidence, and has been a jolt of energy off the bench. Anderson may never become a starter, but he looks to be at least a valuable bench presence for the Sixers down the road.

When GM Bryan Colangelo made the deal though, he was really only focused on acquiring more draft picks. If either of his picks can become effective NBA players, the Sixers will have gotten two or three contributors for the price of one.

But what about Noel? The familiar center was playing some of the best basketball of his career before the trade, and has continued his strong play while teaming up with Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki has been the starter, but Noel has been a good player for the Mavs. Noel’s main calling card is his elite defense. The Sixers definitely lost some punch on the defensive side of the ball in trading Noel, but they didn’t think Noel would be worth the money long-term as an offensive player.

And the money is ultimately what will help fans evaluate this trade down the road. Noel is a restricted free agent to be, and will likely earn a long-term deal worth $65-85 million. The Sixers certainly have the cap space available right now to re-sign Noel, but it may not have been the smartest move for the future.

Let me explain. Next summer, Robert Covington will need a new deal. The Sixers originally only signed Covington as an inexpensive depth signing, but he has developed into a critical part of the Sixers’ game on both ends of the floor. The forward is among the team’s best three-point shooters and rebounders, and has really improved as a defender in 2017. Although he defends in different ways than the much larger Noel, Covington may actually be just as good a defensive player.

It is hard to imagine the Sixers without Covington in the future. Covington will likely command around $15 million a season, which is money the Sixers wouldn’t have had if they had spent it on Noel, whose ceiling with the Sixers would’ve been Embiid insurance. If the Sixers can sign Covington long-term, letting Noel go may have been a smart move.

The Sixers both now and in the future will miss what Noel provides on the court. He is a very efficient shooter, a top defender, and ultimately still only 22 years old with room to keep improving in the future. And with Embiid’s status a perpetual question mark, having a fail-safe like Noel around would’ve been enticing.

However, the Sixers may have found a much cheaper and just-as-effective insurance policy in Richaun Holmes. The second-year center has really come on since 2017 began, and he has been worlds better than Okafor. Holmes may have a long-term future with the team, whereas Noel and Okafor don’t for various reasons. Sacrificing Noel was a necessary evil for giving Holmes a larger role.

The Sixers are, for better or for worse, a big-picture team. They are always looking to the future, and trading Noel may actually help the club out years from now. The simple answer would’ve been to just trade Okafor and pay Noel, but the Sixers wouldn’t have acquired the value they got for Noel and they may have had to let Covington go. The Nerlens Noel trade still isn’t a win for the Sixers right now, but the Sixers’ future motivation could help save the deal if all the pieces of the puzzle come together in a few years.

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