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Where in the World Is Nerlens Noel?

He was supposed to be a sought-after free agent, but he’s stuck at an impasse with Dallas. What happened?

(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer Illustration)

And then there was one, 6-foot-11, with a faulty left knee. Of the most alluring free agents this offseason, only Nerlens Noel remains unsigned. The Dallas big man has until October 16 before any decisions need be made, and there’s always the $5.8 million qualifying offer the Mavericks extended his way in June. But he was never meant to still be on the table, seemingly alone in betting on himself.

Dealt to Dallas from a Philly storage unit of NBA bigs in February, Noel finished the season projected to become a sought-after restricted free agent. His ho-hum stats (8.7 points and 5.8 rebounds per game) are filled with caveats — with the 76ers he was never healthy; with the Mavs he sacrificed floor time for the greater tanking good — but Noel’s shot-blocking and rim-running still make him glow with modern big-man upside.

Teams want him, or so reports said. He’ll be offered maximum contracts, or so reports said. He’s someone Dallas has "got to get signed," or so Rick Carlisle said. But nearly a month in, the prized 23-year-old hasn’t accepted an offer sheet from any organization. To borrow a line from ’90s PBS, where in the world is Nerlens Noel?

He was spotted in Vegas alongside Mark Cuban for a Mavs summer league game —

— and was working out with the team in Dallas the month prior. So the better question may be, why hasn’t a deal been struck between the organization — who after re-signing Dirk Nowitzki to bread crumbs, had enough space to match even a $24.75 million max contract — and the center they traded for barely five months ago? Lowballing. Or that’s what Noel’s agent, Happy Walters, is calling the delay.

"We’re very disappointed with where things stand," Walters said. "Nerlens loves Dallas and spent June there working out, but we’re still waiting on a serious offer." Rumors put the Mavericks’ offer at $12 million to $15 million per season or $18 million to $20 million, but whatever the exact amount is, Noel’s camp hasn’t appeared even remotely interested in biting.

But if Noel can’t get an acceptable offer sheet from any other team, the Mavericks have final say on what a "serious" figure is. Had Noel been offered a maximum contract elsewhere, the negotiation would be straightforward: match or lose out. But his selling power was Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’d, which is to say, overestimated, misjudged, and misvalued. There is a short shortlist of teams still able to offer a payday, and with the Nets committing to Allen Crabbe, it’s whittled down to, basically, the Bulls. Without any other suitors holding roses, Dallas can play hardball and try to hold onto future cap space. By offering a shorter deal with a team option, or less overall money, the Mavericks would have more resources to fast-track their rebuild and wouldn’t need to overinvest in potential before it materialized.

But will they lose the goodwill of a 23-year-old — who sees players like Joe Ingles, Derrick Rose, Udonis Haslem, and Mike Muscala all sign before him — in the meantime? The organization is known to manage these negotiations without emphasis on relationships — just ask Chandler Parsons. Their parting unveiled the unpleasant reputation attached to Dallas over time. As Andrew Tobolowsky of WFAA.com diagnosed it, "There’s a fine line between negotiating well enough not to overpay and making a player feel unwanted, and the Mavs have pretty much fallen over that line face-first every time they’ve tried."

It could be that Noel is still holding out for a maximum deal, or just refusing to accept less than what comparable bigs got last season, when the cap was still skyrocketing and offers were inflated. Or maybe the Mavericks are lowballing, taking full advantage of Noel’s limited choices. Both sides technically have time, but nothing fades conviction like a waiting game.