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How Did Nerlens Noel End up Here?

And what will he and the Mavs do after his one-year deal is up?

USA Today

There are no memes on Nerlens Noel’s Twitter feed. No dazed and confused Mr. Krabs meme, no stock-photo Guy With Wandering Eye meme, no Conor McGregor shot-to-the-face meme. But Noel (who I hope is a fan of memes, in private) did embody a popular one, offline, when the restricted free agent signed his one-year, $4.1 million qualifying offer with the Mavericks on Monday: [record scratch] “Yep, that’s me. I bet you’re wondering how I—Nerlens Noel, who was supposed to get maximum contract offers from multiple teams—got here.”

The 23-year-old arrived in Dallas at the trade deadline, after Philadelphia unloaded him for Justin Anderson, Andrew Bogut, and a well-protected first-round pick. Dallas seemed smitten from the start, and after Noel averaged 8.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.1 blocks in limited minutes, Rick Carlisle called re-signing him a top priority.

Then, silence. Top players re-signed or found new homes, then solid role players got their due, then guys past their primes notched deals, then Tim Hardaway Jr. found a $71 million offer with the Knicks—and still, Noel had no deal. The only peep out of either party came from Noel’s then-agent, Happy Walters, who said in mid-July that he was “very disappointed,” and was “waiting on a serious offer.”

We know now what that disappointing figure was: a four-year, $70 million offer made on the first day of free agency, per ESPN. Walters confirmed (via Twitter, #diligencetweets) that Noel’s camp turned that figure down presumably to ask for a maximum contract—one that most everyone, Noel included, seemed to think was a sure thing before the offseason began.

ESPN reported that the four-year deal was then pulled, though Mavs owner Mark Cuban told SB Nation’s Tim Cato that the team might have honored their original proposition if Noel, having seen the lack of a market around him, asked to revisit it. He didn’t.

“[It’s] hard to say,” said Cuban. “We never got there.”

And they couldn’t have gotten there: Noel fired Walters midway through the stalled negotiations for Klutch Sports’s Rich Paul, who came with the stipulation that Noel had to make himself available on the market next season. The 23-year-old signed the one-year qualifying offer less than a week after hiring his new representation.

Paul would rather his new client bet on himself (a concept Noel is familiar with) as an unrestricted free agent next summer. The power forward has the potential for a big contract year, with the skill set to emerge as one of the league’s premier rim runners and protectors—if he can stay on the court. Noel’s various injuries have caused him to miss time every season since he was drafted in 2013.

His new agency knows the power players have when taking their futures into their own hands—most famously, from Paul’s most successful client, his buddy LeBron James. For the LeBrons of the league, agreeing to short-term, one-year deals is an assurance that they’ll never lock themselves into a bad situation. Noel’s situation is a little different—he’s using a one-year deal to try to leverage a long-term contract in the near future—but the core philosophy is the same: Bet on yourself. The problem for Noel is that doing so is a much riskier bet for him than it is for LeBron.

Just like it is smart for LBJ to take a short deal, the opposite applies to the league’s injury-prone players. Blake Griffin preferred a five-year deal with the Clippers over the change to sign a four-year contract somewhere else for a reason (or 12, actually—his left sprained MCL, left broken kneecap, left meniscus tear, left partially torn quadriceps tendon, right high ankle sprain, left knee bone bruise, left sprained knee, left strained hamstring, right knee’s partially torn meniscus, broken right hand, right-elbow staph infection, and back stress fracture) rather than jumping ship to sign for four guaranteed years (or even fewer) somewhere else. That’s a simplification, of course, considering the $171 million he was offered, but Griffin’s body doesn’t afford him the freedom to consider a more temporary deal elsewhere. He, who like Noel, was out for his entire rookie season, opted for security.

For Noel, there was $100 million less on the table—technically an easier figure to walk away from, but still one he could regret leaving. Noel, who was highly recruited, went to an NBA factory for college, and was drafted sixth overall despite a scary knee injury, can now power up the ol’ chip on his shoulder for the first time in his career. He could have a stellar 2017-18 season for the modern big man, and if that’s the case, Dallas can only hope Noel doesn’t begrudgingly remember that the franchise didn’t consider him worth a max deal, no matter how risky it might have felt this summer. Worth exists in betting on a player before his peak, as Utah, who didn’t offer restricted free agent Gordon Hayward a maximum extension in 2014 until forced to, will regrettingly tell you. Over in Minnesota, Tom Thibodeau is taking that gamble (or trying to, at least) on Andrew Wiggins’s potential by offering him a max extension as soon as possible.

When next summer arrives, Dallas will still have the ability to offer more to Noel than any other team, an enticing consideration after a season in which Noel will be making less than Spencer Hawes. But maybe unlike this summer, that extra money may not matter enough for Noel to stay. Then it’s the Mavs who become the meme.