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No Country for Big Men

The Nerlens Noel controversy in Philadelphia has highlighted a serious problem, and it’s not just a Sixers issue. Many teams are struggling with a glut of big men who find themselves displaced by modernity.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

It didn’t take long for Nerlens Noel’s frustrations to boil over in Philadelphia. After missing the first six weeks of the 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.

Philadelphia 76ers

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.

Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets’ frontcourt logjam is a less high-profile version of what’s happening with the 76ers. Instead of drafting a glut of talented centers in the lottery, they have been too good at striking gold later in the draft. They acquired Jusuf Nurkic at no. 16 and Nikola Jokic at no. 41 in 2014, both great values for their respective spots, but the Nuggets have not been able to make it work with the two of them on the floor at the same time. Their young big men have been two ships passing in the night: Nurkic had an excellent rookie season in 2014–15 while Jokic was still in Europe, and Jokic was even better in 2015–16 when Nurkic was sidelined with an injury.

The Nuggets began the 2016–17 season with Jokic and Nurkic starting at the 4 and 5, respectively, to ensure playing time for both of their talented centers, but the Twin Towers pairing wasn’t effective, producing a net rating of minus-15.4 in 103 minutes together. They got in each other’s way on offense: Jokic didn’t space the floor enough for Nurkic to operate in the low post, while Nurkic’s presence in the paint prevented Jokic from hitting cutters out of the high post, where he is at his best. They were even worse together on defense, as neither had the foot speed to match up with smaller players on the perimeter.

After experimenting with a bunch of different lineups, Mike Malone appears to have hit on something in the past week, starting Jokic next to Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, while splitting backup center minutes between Nurkic and Kenneth Faried and keeping only one traditional big man on the floor for most of the game. It’s a tough situation for Nurkic, who is in almost the exact same situation as Noel when it comes to playing time, and it probably wouldn’t require a huge offer for another team to take him off Denver’s hands.

Dallas Mavericks

Unlike the other teams on this list, the Mavs don’t have a logjam at center.

If anything, the team with the worst record in the NBA can’t afford to give up talent anywhere. But in a lost season, trading a proven contributor for assets could be the most prudent move for a franchise trying to rebuild. That makes Andrew Bogut, who is playing on an expiring contract and would likely leave the team anyway, an expendable player.

Using Bogut as a trade chip is essentially spending house money, as the Mavs didn’t give up anything to acquire him in the offseason. The Warriors were simply looking to unload him to clear the cap space necessary to sign Kevin Durant. Bogut is still a useful NBA player, although it hasn’t always been obvious in Dallas, where he hasn’t had the luxury of being paired with a pick-and-roll guard who can get him easy lobs at the rim. The Mavs have used him in a playmaking role from the high post that keeps him away from where he is most effective on offense.

Of all the centers potentially available in the trade market, Bogut would probably be the most effective for a team looking to win right now. He is only a year removed from playing a pivotal role with the Warriors, and he would make a lot of sense for a playoff contender looking to shore up its defense, especially since acquiring him wouldn’t require much of a long-term financial commitment. And the Mavs aren’t in a position to ask for much in return, anyway.

Phoenix Suns

Tyson Chandler has been an awkward fit with the Suns almost since the day they signed him two years ago. He was supposed to be the piece that lured LaMarcus Aldridge in free agency, but Aldridge opted to play in San Antonio, leaving a messy situation in Phoenix. Chandler has been ineffective on a young team without the floor spacing or the playmaking to utilize him as a roll man, and he has been redundant on a roster with so many young big men looking for playing time.

Adding Chandler pushed Alex Len, the no. 5 pick in the 2013 draft, to the bench, and the Suns will have to make a difficult decision on Len’s future when he hits restricted free agency this offseason. They acquired two more young frontcourt players in the lottery stage of this year’s draft — Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss — which has forced Earl Watson to play Bender as a 3 in order to find the young Croatian some playing time. Phoenix’s confusing hierarchy of big men has made Bender’s transition to the NBA even tougher than it had to be.

It’s not going to be easy for the Suns to move Chandler given that he still has two seasons left on the $52 million contract he signed in 2015, but it doesn’t make much sense for a rebuilding team to keep lottery talents on the bench in favor of a 34-year-old on the downside of his career. Chandler could still help a contender, but it may have to come as the result of his accepting a buyout in a year or two.

Orlando Magic

The only team in the NBA with a more lopsided frontcourt rotation than Philadelphia is Orlando. After a long rebuilding project following the Dwight Howard trade in 2012, the Magic are determined to make the playoffs this season, regardless of whether or not it works with the developmental timetable of their young core. They traded Victor Oladipo for Serge Ibaka on draft night, then signed Bismack Biyombo and Jeff Green in free agency, squeezing playing time for the remaining frontcourt players on their roster.

After shuffling through several lineups at the start of the season, Frank Vogel appears to have found a group he is comfortable with over the past few weeks, starting Aaron Gordon next to Ibaka and Biyombo up front, and bringing Green and Nik Vucevic off the bench. It’s still far from an ideal situation: Playing Gordon at small forward causes floor-spacing issues for the rest of the lineup (Gordon is shooting only 31.1 percent from 3 on the season) and doesn’t allow him to use his speed as a mismatch against slower defenders, which is Gordon’s greatest strength at this point in his career.

Vucevic, who has been the offensive focal point in Orlando since coming over in the Howard trade, has sacrificed the most. A trade may not return him to the starting lineup, as centers with his skill set — post scorers who struggle to protect the rim — have been moving to the bench around the league. However, if he winds up on a team that could cover for some of his defensive shortcomings, he could be really dangerous, and there are a lot of former Magic players who have thrived after a change of scenery in recent years.

Milwaukee Bucks

After giving out contracts to John Henson, Greg Monroe, and Miles Plumlee in recent years, the Bucks are spending more than $40 million a season on the center position, an extreme amount of money for a small-market team that is still not getting a lot of production up front. Monroe, in particular, has not been able to live up to the expectations of being the highest-paid player on the roster, and he was moved to the bench after a disappointing campaign in his first season in Milwaukee.

Monroe has a skill set similar to Vucevic, and he might be better suited for a role as an offensive-minded sixth man. There may not be a starting position for him anywhere in the league, a remarkable development given that there was such an intense bidding war for his services only two years ago. He has a $17.9 million player option in his contract for next season that he will likely exercise, which will make trading him difficult for the Bucks.

Plumlee was Milwaukee’s starter on Opening Night, but he’s currently on the outside of the rotation looking in. Long term, they still have to find minutes in their frontcourt rotation for Thon Maker, their 2016 first-round pick. A 7-foot-1 player with Maker’s offensive talent would be most dangerous as a center playing with shooters spread around him, and he would be a fascinating pick-and-roll partner with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Like a lot of the teams on this list, the Bucks would be better off if they could just give some of their centers away. If only the NBA had a place for them to go.