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Free Nerlens Noel

With Noel, Jahlil Okafor, and Joel Embiid, the Sixers have a big-man traffic jam. Let’s try to help them clear that up.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Over the past four years, the Philadelphia 76ers’ draft-night selection of large humans has become an annual running joke. We’ve heard fantastical speculation about lineups with five earth-borne gigantes, each 6-foot-10 or taller, that would stomp small-ball rodents into furry pancakes. To date, it all remains theoretical: Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Jahlil Okafor, and Ben Simmons have never suited up at the same time in a pro game.

That lack of overlap smoothed over the inevitable friction that would occur when so many huge men are wedged into the confined quarters of a single team’s frontcourt. That’s no longer the case. Last week, Noel, who griped about the glut of centers before the season, groused again, this time after receiving eight minutes of playing time against the Los Angeles Lakers. "That’s crazy, that’s crazy, that’s crazy," he said to reporters. "Need to figure that shit out. Fuck outta here."

The situation has deteriorated further. Before Sunday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets, Sixers coach Brett Brown announced that Noel was out of the rotation for the immediate future. The next day, president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo told reporters that Noel’s DNP had, "nothing to do whatsoever with him saying something," and it was, actually, not punishment at all. "This is not a benching," he said of the benching. "This is a moment of realization that we have a lot of talent on this team and not everyone can play." Then, in Sixers’ next game against the New Orleans Pelicans, Noel took the floor for seven minutes and received a standing ovation from the Wells Fargo Center crowd.

To clarify: Noel is not being punished, not being benched, not playing, but maybe playing? All right, then. It’s a strange limbo for a guy who has been the best player on the Sixers for two straight years, and is the center most likely to fit with Embiid, the keystone of the franchise. After Tuesday’s game, Embiid called Noel his "best friend on the team" and strongly advocated for the tandem. "I feel like if we’re trying something, I feel like we should try the other thing, too," he said, delicately referring to Okafor and Noel. "I think I’m going to get him going, especially on the defensive end. Being aggressive, blitzing every pick-and-roll, just flying all over the place."

Even if you believe Noel should be disciplined for insubordination, he deserves sympathy. He was the first arrival in the Process, and subsequently watched the Sixers select two centers and two forwards with their next four lottery picks. After a rookie season in which he established himself as one of the most dynamic defensive players in the NBA, he was forced out of his natural position to make room for Jahlil Okafor, a ball-stopping vortex and spongy interior defender. After Noel’s numbers and minutes sagged, Brown conceded that he had "made the most sacrifices out of anybody."

With Joel Embiid returning after a two-season absence, it was apparent that one of the big men would soon be folding his extra-large clothing into a Louis Vuitton duffle. Colangelo declared that he was "absolutely not" comfortable heading into the season with three centers. Trade rumors swirled, and during the NBA draft, a deal that would have sent Noel and other pieces to Boston in exchange for the third pick was discussed on national television. It’s easy to see why Noel is disenchanted with his tenuous position.

Besides feeling underappreciated, Noel is an impending restricted free agent who is keenly aware of how uncontrollable circumstances can lighten his wallet. After blowing out his knee at the University of Kentucky, he tumbled from the consensus top pick in the 2013 draft to the sixth selection; over the duration of a four-year rookie contract, the difference in salaries between those respective draft positions is more than $8 million. That amount of bread, as Ghostface described it on "Wu-Gambinos," is jet money, underground money, submarines, and rings, too. Now, after seeing other premier players from his draft class like Giannis Antetokounmpo, C.J. McCollum, and Steven Adams re-up with monster extensions, Noel is justifiably worried that his payday is being jeopardized again.

The gridlock in the Sixers’ frontcourt has led to an outcry against Hinkie’s "best player available" drafting strategy, in which talent trumps well-oiled roster composition. In truth, it demonstrates the philosophy’s heightened risk of missing on a pick and the ripple effects of a worst-case scenario.

Had Philly selected Kristaps Porzingis, Noel could be shed at a discount thanks to the security of keeping two franchise big men on the squad. If the team had drafted an underwhelming guard like Emmanuel Mudiay, there wouldn’t be a frontcourt pressure cooker hissing so much steam. Instead, the Sixers took Okafor and are now presented with, in Hinkie parlance, a "zugzwang": a dilemma in which all possible moves appear bad.

In Monday’s presser, Colangelo blamed his predecessor for the frontcourt glut. "We have a logjam at center due to decisions that were made before I got here," he told reporters. While it’s true that Hinkie drafted all three bigs, they were never simultaneously healthy during his tenure. In fact, Okafor played only 19 games for the Sixers before Jerry Colangelo slithered into the organization as the chairman of basketball operations — in part because of Okafor’s intoxicated hadokens in Boston — and Hinkie reportedly lost decision-making powers at that moment. If Jerry received "credit" for last season’s superficial moves, like reacquiring Ish Smith and signing Elton Brand as a player-babysitter, the failure to decongest the frontcourt clot over the last calendar year falls squarely on the patrilineal Colangelo monarchy.

But that’s ancient history. One dude who could sort out this mess is listening to Extinct Flightless Bird Quarterly on triple-speed in a Palo Alto oxygen cafe, but Philly will have to rely on Colangelo. Thus far, his only acquisitions have been inconsequential: four replacement-level veterans that he deemed "placeholders" — a sort of polite way of saying "guys who are neither good nor young, but I’m paying them $35 million to maybe win five more games." His next move could have a profound effect on the future of the Sixers. Here are a few ideas.

Trade Noel

This is the most likely resolution, considering Noel’s snippiness and impending free agency (although, with the most cap space in the NBA, the Sixers could match any offer sheet without even blinking). The major stumbling block is that his trade value is not equivalent to his value as a player, and rival GMs are unlikely to hand Colangelo an extinguisher as he flails in an escalating grease fire. It’s unclear if he even understands how exceptional Noel is: On Monday, Colangelo described the fourth-year pro as a "talented prospect," which marks the unusual occurrence of a GM underselling his own player. When Noel plays center, he’s a borderline star in the lob-catching mold of a young Tyson Chandler.

Portland, with the league’s 30th-ranked defense, is an oft-mentioned destination for Noel. C.J. McCollum would be a sensible exchange for both teams, but the Blazers are unlikely to consider it in a buyer’s market for bigs. There’s not much else that works. Allen Crabbe’s new contract was inked in polonium-210, Maurice Harkless is yet another forward, Evan Turner is barred from Philadelphia, and Portland’s 2017 first-round pick will likely fall in the bottom third of the draft. Brooklyn would be a wonderful spot if the team plans on moving Brook Lopez, but the Nets are asset-barren and might wait to lob a max offer sheet at Noel this offseason.

So Philly would be better off partnering with Minnesota, another defensively challenged young team currently struggling to cohere. The Wolves have a fleet of guards in Ricky Rubio, Kris Dunn, and Tyus Jones, one of whom could be packaged with a protected first-rounder. An even sexier swap would be for Zach LaVine. Minny would be loathe to surrender his delightful combination of athleticism and long-range shooting, but his skill set is redundant with that of Andrew Wiggins and a Noel–Karl-Anthony Towns frontline would be fantastic on both sides of the ball.

While that quality of return seems very unlikely at the moment, Philly shouldn’t feel pressured into trading Noel while his value has plunged due to injury and indignation. We haven’t even witnessed Noel alongside Embiid and Robert Covington, a group whose defensive potential rivals nearly any trio in the league (and could boast two top-10 shot blockers, two top-10 steals collectors, and potentially the top two deflections leaders in the whole NBA). Until that tantalizing possibility is explored, Colangelo should avoid glomming up a "pupu platter" of middling picks and players in exchange for the tranquility of closure. That means ghosting Masai Ujiri when he whispers "Cory Joseph" on the Canadian side of the line.

Trade Okafor

In retrospect, Okafor probably should have been dealt at the deadline last season or, at the latest, during the draft. It’s hard to assess what his value is now, as Embiid’s exceptional numbers have put Okafor’s deficiencies into stark relief. Okafor fit poorly with Noel last season, and current experimental pairings of him with Embiid in an archaic "twin towers" alignment are hemorrhaging points like a bayonet stabbing. No one believes it will work, but embracing the delusion is the only way to put Okafor on the floor for more than 20 minutes.

Still, Okafor has the useful ability to score in the post without much help, and can rack up buckets in the right matchup. A team lacking shot creators could easily pop him into a reserve role like that of Al Jefferson and Enes Kanter. It may seem pessimistic to project a player of Okafor’s youth and pedigree as a specialist instead of a building block, but he could be a real weapon in the right surroundings. He still has upside, and has recently shown a greater willingness to find open teammates, and even exhibited some modest defensive improvement, particularly in shot blocking (his blocks rate has climbed from last season’s 1.9 per 100 possessions to 2.6, slightly ahead of notable rim protectors Porzingis and Dwight Howard).

Okafor would particularly benefit from perimeter defenders and floor spacers. Chicago is the opposite of a 3-point shooting team, but the Bulls are defensively stingy — bringing Okafor off the bench in units with Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott, or Bobby Portis at power forward might be interesting. Thinking long term, Taj Gibson is 31 years old and an impending unrestricted free agent; stashing a cheap, young, hometown-bred backup center would be a reasonable investment for one of the NBA’s oldest teams. Chicago’s 2017 first-rounder (currently slotted at 17) could do the trick.

Still, Boston is the best place for Okafor to land, and Danny Ainge reportedly was close to acquiring him last offseason. The Celtics have shooters and defenders in droves, and Al Horford is versatile enough to play forward when Okafor is in the game. Those delicious Brooklyn picks are completely off the table, but Marcus Smart might be available (especially with the Celtics destined to receive a top lottery pick in the guard-heavy 2017 draft). Smart’s dismal shooting makes him an awkward fit with Ben Simmons, but he’s a top-notch defender who would successfully shift some of the Sixers’ young talent from the frontcourt to the backcourt. Stop flirting and get it done.

Trade Embiid

Just kidding. The Process remains in Philly forever.