By Sarah Berkowitz
So, Nerlens Noel, who is a great rim protector but has virtually no offensive game except alley-oop dunks, wants out!
After missing the first six weeks of the Sixers season with a knee injury, Noel returned to a limited role off the bench, playing only eight minutes in his second game back, a 100–89 loss to the Lakers on Friday.
He was not happy afterward, explicitly telling the media that the 76ers needed to figure something out about their logjam at the center position, echoing what he said in September.
“I think it’s just silly … this situation that we are in now with three starting centers,” Noel said a day before Sixers media day. “With the departure of Sam Hinkie, I would have figured that management would be able to get something done this summer.”
Their solution probably wasn’t the one he had in mind, though. Brett Brown took him out of the rotation entirely before their 108–107 win over the Nets on Sunday, saying it was “unfair” to the rest of the team to find minutes for three centers.
All signs point to a trade, which was inevitable as soon as the 76ers acquired Noel, Joel Embiid, and Jahlil Okafor in three consecutive lotteries.
They just figured any eventual deal would be made from a position of strength, given how highly rated each of their young big men had been coming into the draft, as well as the historical demand for centers with star potential around the NBA.
Instead, the opposite has happened. Their trade leverage is gone. The league has gotten smaller and speedier over the past three seasons, making it increasingly difficult for the 76ers to play two centers together; it’s also decreased the number of teams looking for help upfront. Philadelphia mistimed the big-man economy.
The Sixers will try to drum up interest for Noel in a trade market flooded with centers — and it’s a buyer’s market out there. The increasing popularity of small ball means there are too many big men chasing a shrinking amount of minutes in rotations around the league, and not enough potential landing spots for all of them to be happy. The old rule of thumb in the NBA was that you should never trade big for small, but there are a number of teams that need to do exactly that.
Barring another injury, Embiid is the only one of the 76ers’ three young big men certain to be with the team in a few years. He has outperformed even the most optimistic expectations after missing his first two seasons in the league with injuries, and he is the runaway favorite to be the Rookie of the Year. He looks capable of anchoring a team on both sides of the ball, and the 76ers will build everything around him headed into the future.
Because of how much time each player has missed, Noel and Embiid have not had the chance to play together yet. Pairing Okafor with either one has not worked, as Okafor can’t stretch the floor on offense and can’t slide his feet on the perimeter on defense, making it difficult for another center to succeed playing next to him. Noel is quick and athletic enough to eventually become a credible defender at the 3-point line, but it appears the 76ers have made their decision about which of their other two centers they want to keep.
Once no. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons returns from his broken foot, it will be a moot point. Brown has said Simmons will be the team’s point guard, but he’s functionally a 6-foot-10 forward who will have to play as a 4 on defense, meaning Okafor will move to the bench permanently.
A generation ago, Simmons might have been able to play as a 3, but the overwhelming importance of spreading the floor and playing perimeter defense means that it’s almost always better to move players up on the position spectrum, shifting 3s to the 4 and 4s to the 5 instead of the reverse.