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Breaking Down the Nerlens Noel–Andrew Bogut Trade

Philly finally let one of its big men free, and he’ll be much better off for it

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The Deal

According to Yahoo and ESPN reports Thursday, the 76ers are sending Nerlens Noel to the Mavericks for Andrew Bogut, Justin Anderson, and a conditional 2017 first-round pick (protected 1–18), which turns into second-round picks in 2017 and 2018 if not used.

The Winner

The Mavs finally got their center of the future (and the present). Dallas has gotten exceptional play at the 5 approximately twice over the past seven seasons: when they had Tyson Chandler in 2011, and when they had him again in 2014. Perhaps not coincidentally, those were the only seasons in the past seven years when Dallas won at least 50 games. Other than that, they have rotated through a rogues’ gallery of guys like Chris Kaman, Samuel Dalembert, Zaza Pachulia, and Bogut, who never fit in during his brief time in Dallas. Rick Carlisle eventually threw his hands up and forwent the center position at the start of the new year, sliding Dirk Nowitzki to the 5 and taking the premise of small ball to its logical conclusion. The gambit saved the Mavs’ season, but building a team around the skills of a 38-year-old isn’t exactly a long-term solution.

Now, with Noel in the fold, Dallas can start to plan for their future when Dirk retires, presumably at the end of next season. Harrison Barnes has been a revelation as a small-ball power forward this season, and a frontcourt of Noel and Barnes should give the Mavs one of the most athletic duos in the league. For as long as those two seem to have been in the league, Noel is 22 and Barnes is 24, so there’s still room (and time) for both of them to grow. The Mavs have spent most of the past decade mortgaging their future in an effort to build around Dirk; now they actually have the beginnings of a young core. If they can select a point guard from among a loaded crop of floor generals in this year’s draft, they will have the outlines of a spread pick-and-roll team that will fit perfectly with Carlisle’s offense.

Maybe the most surprising aspect of this trade is how little the Mavs gave up to get Noel. They will have to give up their first-round pick in this year’s draft only if it falls outside the top 18. At 22–34, the Mavs have the seventh-worst record in the league, which means they would have to leapfrog 11 teams in less than two months to lose it. They would have to make the playoffs to fall outside the top 14, and that’s unlikely, even if Noel significantly improves the team this season. The Mavs are in 12th place in the West, and the first team ahead of them in the standings, the Pelicans, made an even more impactful trade that you might have heard something about.

The two players Dallas gave up in the trade, Bogut and Justin Anderson, had fallen out of the rotation. A frontcourt of Bogut and Dirk was too slow, and Carlisle’s decision to slide Dirk to the 5 made Bogut an expendable backup center. Anderson, a second-year player out of Virginia, never earned the trust of the Mavs coaches. He was billed as a 3-and-D player coming out of college, but his 3-point shot has deserted him in the NBA (a career 28.8 percent shooter on 205 attempts) and he lacked the discipline necessary to consistently handle tough defensive assignments for a team looking to contend. He had been jumped in the rotation by Dorian Finney-Smith, an undrafted rookie out of Florida, and he was being used sparingly as an energy player off the bench. Anderson may still have a future in the NBA, but it wasn’t going to be in Dallas.

Nerlens Is Free

After a dramatic four-year run in Philadelphia, Noel is going to an organization that is the Sixers’ polar opposite in almost every way. Instead of embracing the tank, the Mavs have always tried to win as many games as possible, even if it didn’t serve the long-term interests of the organization. And instead of playing on a mismatched roster full of young guys figuring out who they are in the NBA, Noel is going to be playing with veterans who understand their roles on both sides of the floor, and for a coach with a proven ability to maximize the talents of his players. He won’t be playing out of position next to two other centers in Dallas; he will be playing on a perfectly spaced floor with 3-point shooting all around him. And he won’t be asked to do anything more than run to the rim and catch lobs from his guards.

Given the chaos that has surrounded him with the 76ers, it’s still not clear how good Noel can be. He is averaging 8.9 points, 5 rebounds, and 0.9 blocks a game on 61.1 percent shooting this season, but he’s played only 18.9 minutes given the glut of big men on the Philadelphia roster. In the final game before the trade deadline — which was almost certainly a showcase for other teams — Noel played the most he has played all season (31 minutes) in a 116–108 loss to the Celtics, and he had 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting, seven rebounds, three assists, and three steals. He also had four turnovers and five personal fouls, but that’s about what you expect from a young big man being stretched beyond his limit.

Here are some encouraging numbers for Mavs fans: Noel is averaging 1.7 blocks and 2.7 steals per 36 minutes this season (an almost unheard-of number for a big man); players have only a 50.8 percent success rate in scoring over him around the rim, which is a 12-point decrease from their season average; and his field goal percentage has improved dramatically in each of his three seasons in the league. Noel has the athletic and statistical profile of a player who could bust out if given a bigger role, and the Mavs will get a two-month test run before they have to make a huge financial commitment to him in the offseason.

As a restricted free agent, Noel was likely headed for a big payday regardless of whether he was traded, but he’s now in a position to put up big counting stats on a team that will be desperate to keep him. The Mavs may be able to suppress the market for him by threatening to match any offer — something the 76ers couldn’t do given their full stock of big men — but if Timofey Mozgov can get four years and $64 million from the Lakers and the corpse of Joakim Noah can get four years and $72 million from the Knicks, Noel will no doubt be a well-compensated man in a few months. There have been some off-the-floor concerns about Noel in Philadelphia, and he didn’t always handle his lack of playing time professionally, but it’s hard to blame him considering the situation he was thrust into.

Whither the Process?

So how did Bryan Colangelo do in his first big trade unwinding the huge collection of assets that Sam Hinkie bequeathed him in Philadelphia? On the surface, the return he received on Noel wasn’t a lot, but he had to do something before Noel hit free agency, and he had no leverage. Unlike the Kings, who seemingly traded DeMarcus Cousins on a moment’s notice, Colangelo waited as long as he could before he pulled the trigger on trading either Noel or Jahlil Okafor, so it seems unlikely that a better offer was out there.

If there’s a regret in Philadelphia, it’s that Embiid’s lengthy injury history meant the team never got a chance to see if he and Noel could play together. Playing Okafor with either Embiid or Noel was a nonstarter given Jahlil’s inability to space the floor or guard on the perimeter, but Noel’s speed and ability to dive to the rim might have allowed him to share the floor with a jump-shooting big man like Embiid. The 76ers would almost certainly have rather moved Okafor, but they couldn’t drum up enough interest for a center who can’t protect the rim and struggles to rebound.

As for Philly’s other acquisition, even if Anderson can never become a consistent 3-point shooter, he still has a chance to stick in the league. At 6-foot-6 and 228 pounds with a near 7-foot wingspan, he has the size and athleticism to play as a small-ball power forward, where he would offer a lot of mismatch possibilities against more traditional big men. As he gets older, he could develop into a player who can switch screens and guard every position but center. An older Dallas team that wants to play in the half court was never a good fit for Anderson’s game, and he could end up benefiting almost as much as Noel from a change in scenery.

In all likelihood, the first-round pick the 76ers received from the Mavs in 2017 will turn into Mavs second-round picks in 2017 and 2018. Dallas is projected to have the no. 37 pick. It’s a spot early enough in the second round to where it still represents a lot of value as a trade piece. If the 76ers are going to get anything more from Noel, it will likely come in the form of dealing Bogut in the next few hours, as there’s almost no chance he’s staying in Philadelphia long term.

What Happens to Bogut?

In nine months, Bogut has gone from the starting center on one of the greatest teams of all time to an afterthought on a lottery team. However, as bad as he was in Dallas, he’s still only 32 years old. He is going to be an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, and he will be playing with a chip on his shoulder for the next few months, wherever he winds up. Philadelphia has no need for him, but his ability to defend, rebound, pass out of the high post, and roll to the rim could still make him a difference-maker on the right team. Colangelo is burning up the phone lines as we speak to move him, but according to Adrian Wojnarowski, another trade seems unlikely. He will almost assuredly become a free agent after reaching an inevitable buyout agreement with the Sixers. One thing’s for certain: He can’t (and won’t) rejoin the Warriors.

Update, 6 p.m. PT: It turns out Bogut can rejoin the Warriors.