It's not much of a secret that either Nerlens Noel or Jahlil Okafor -- or maybe even both -- will probably be traded away from the Philadelphia 76ers at some point. These rumors are nothing new. They ramped up on draft night and are going strong again.
The logic is that the two simply don't fit together, and the numbers support this theory -- last year, when Noel and Okafor were on the floor together, the Sixers were outscored by 20 points per 100 possessions. Twenty! And the offensive rating was a putrid 88.8 points per 100 possessions, which over the course of the entire season would be 3.4 points per 100 possessions worse than any team in NBA history.
Also, if Joel Embiid can remain healthy, not just this year but into the future (optimism is high in Philly, but this is still a big if), then the Sixers have a real logjam of bigs with the optimal future frontcourt probably being Embiid, Ben Simmons and Dario Saric. Keeping both Noel and Okafor is overkill.
So yes, they are both movable. The question is, which one should the Sixers move?
Value vs. production
This, really, is what it comes down to. If you're the Sixers, do you trade the guy you believe to be the lesser player, or the guy you feel can fetch the most return? First, let's look at this from a production standpoint. Pretty simply, it's offense vs. defense. Okafor offers scoring for a team that had the worst offensive rating in the league last year, while Noel projects as a potentially elite defender for a team that wasn't much better on that end -- 26th in the league last year, having plummeted from 13th overall in 2014-15 as Philly fell completely back into tank mode.
With offense always catching everyone's eye and defense typically being harder to quantify, it's pretty easy to call Okafor the "production" guy while slapping the "value" label on Noel. It's true that Okafor, if volume-based, is a legit low-post scorer, and as you can see in the chart below, he personally scored 10 more points per 100 possessions last year than Noel.
Still, that offensive gap notwithstanding, the Sixers were actually 1.9 points per 100 possessions better overall with Noel on the floor. Why? Because defense and rebounding (though Noel only provided two more rebounds per 100 than Okafor) matter a lot more than casual fans like to recognize, and the Sixers were 2.9 points better on defense with Noel in the game.
So does this mean Noel is the better player? Not necessarily. There are a lot of layers to this kind of evaluation, with the most complicated one, perhaps, being that we're talking about a team that has actually been trying to lose. You could argue that both players' true values -- or at least our ability to properly diagnose those values -- have been compromised in that sort of environment, as they've been playing next to, at times, woefully inferior talent in a system effectively set up for them to fail on some level.
For instance, we might even be undervaluing Okafor's scoring ability, as he was basically a top-10 post scorer last year even without the benefit of legit perimeter threats to keep the defense spaced and honest. When factoring in post-up possessions with passes, only 10 players in the NBA last season had more of these possessions than Okafor, who generated 88.5 points per 100 possessions in those situations, good enough for 11th out of the 15 players with at least 350 of these post-up possessions ( he was sandwiched between Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph). Only two players Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Love, generated at least one full point per possession.
Pretty simply, Okafor was one of the better scoring big men in the NBA as a rookie. He was also the fourth-most efficient scorer (minimum 80 possessions) on offensive put-backs (1.298 PPP behind LaMarcus Aldridge, Anthony Davis and Derrick Favors), the fifth-most efficient big man in transition and the 26th-most efficient scorer in pick-and-roll for a roll man while also having the 17th highest field-goal percentage in these situations.
These aren't mind-blowing numbers by any means, but they're impressive for a rookie whose best point guard he played with all season was Ish Smith. Noel, meanwhile, has just two seasons under his belt and has already received as high as a third-place vote for Defensive Player of the Year. So there is presumably a lot more development in store for both these guys.
With all that said, if both guys figure to be ancillary parts of the Sixers' future (and again, this all depends on Embiid remaining healthy and Saric and Simmons reaching their potential in a timely manner), then you would understand the logic in dealing the one that would have the most value on the market.
Going off that presumption, here is a case to trade each player along with some teams and deals that would make sense.
The case to trade Noel
In a league that is all about defensive versatility, guys like Noel -- athletic bigs who can anchor a defense against smaller lineups -- are in short supply and high demand. On the other hand, with it being such a perimeter-dominated league these days, low-post guys like Okafor don't necessarily fit the preferred mold.
So Noel would presumably bring back a better haul, and if you're going to believe in Embiid's health long-term, having Noel becomes superfluous in every way. Not only that, but Noel will be a restricted free agent in 2017, and given the contracts we've seen bigs like Noel getting (would max money really be crazy in this climate?), it's unlikely Philly would want to pay enough to keep him. So why not get what you can for him now?
To be fair, the Sixers are far enough below the salary cap to not have to worry about doling out big money, so giving a big contract to Noel doesn't cripple their financial flexibility in a significant way moving forward. But still, if you can find a way to improve the overall strength of the roster while also allocating the money you do have for a better player or better players, then it makes sense to not have to commit yourself to that kind of contract with Noel.
Moving him now for help on the perimeter seems like the right play. The Sixers have a young but loaded frontcourt. Their backcourt needs some help as guys like Sergio Rodriguez, Jerryd Bayless and Gerald Henderson all play the role of a veteran presence on this team but are ultimately placeholders for more dynamic pieces in the future (or at least that's the plan).
Around the night of the draft, rumors about Noel being on the verge of getting traded began to swirl. We heard he could be packaged with draft picks to acquire Chicago Bulls All-Star Jimmy Butler, or possibly moved to the Boston Celtics for the third pick in the draft. Neither of those deals happened, obviously, but you have to wonder if those teams would still be interested in making something happen.
Here are four potential suitors/matches on a trade for Noel (these deals are far from perfect but used as basic starting points):
- Marcus Smart for Nerlens Noel
Some people are very high on Smart's potential. In many ways, he's a lot like Noel -- a lights-out defender with elite potential on that end, but a serious project on the offensive end. Smart, in fact, had the worst two-year shooting start to a career in NBA history, but he's a better offensive weapon than you'd assume and did show flashes of a work-in-progress jumper in the playoffs.
From the Sixers' perspective, this addresses their perimeter issues, and while you could argue you're selling low on Noel here, you could also argue you'd be buying low on Smart. For Boston, it would be all about roster flexibility.
The Celtics are guard-heavy at the moment, and adding Noel would give them one of the best defensive frontcourts in basketball (if not the best) with Jae Crowder, Noel and Horford. Also, he'd be a great lob partner for guys like Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley to use in the pick-and-roll. You can play Noel with Kelly Olynyk, as well, to cover up Olynyk's defensive issues.
Look, it's not a perfect deal for either side, but it's not bad at all. It's something both sides should be thinking about right now. It could end up yielding great value both ways in a win-win down the road.
- Tyreke Evans, Quincy Pondexter, 2017 1st-rounder for Nerlens Noel
Basically, you're paying an injured Tyreke Evans and Quincy Pondexter, who is coming off a pretty serious knee injury, in order to flip Noel for a first-round pick in 2017. The Sixers would then have another good asset to move around draft night with this pick from the Pelicans, and we're not even sure if the Pelicans will make the playoffs next season, so it could be a good one.
The irony here is the Pels already gave away a first-round pick in a Noel trade back in 2013 when they moved the pick of Noel and a future first-rounder in exchange for Jrue Holiday.
If you're the Pelicans, who don't exactly mind giving away first-round picks in trades, you do this for one pretty obvious reason: Pairing Noel with Anthony Davis probably gives them the most menacing defensive front court in the NBA. That kind of length and timing between Noel and Davis as the 4-5 combination is the stuff top-defensive dreams are made of.
The departures of Evans and Pondexter also frees up minutes at the wing for rookie Buddy Hield all season long, instead of figuring out how to balance the rotation when Evans is able to play again.
It's just tough for the Sixers in figuring out if a mid-first-round pick (anywhere from 12-18) is worth giving up on Noel.
- Ricky Rubio, Shabazz Muhammad, future 2nd-rounder for Nerlens Noel, Hollis Thompson
With the selection of Kris Dunn in the draft, it's assumed that it's only a matter of time before the Minnesota Timberwolves move Ricky Rubio in a trade. Tom Thibodeau wants to vastly improve the Wolves' defense and he's emphasizing 3-point shooting in his second coaching stint. This deal gets them a shooter in Thompson, a huge defensive upgrade in Noel (who would complement Karl-Anthony Towns really nicely -- plus there's that Kentucky connection KAT loves), and it moves Rubio in the process.
From the Sixers' side, the question is whether they'd even want Rubio, who many would consider a pretty modest return for the likes of Noel. Rubio is somewhere in the 12-17 range when you rank the point guards, and while his shooting is improved, it's still bad. He doesn't finish well at the rim, but he does draw a high number of fouls, boosting his points-per-shot stat.
Of course, he remains one of the best playmakers in the world and one of the best defensive point guards in the NBA. The lack of scoring is troubling, but it's not like he puts up a lot of shots either.
For this move to work, you'd need Embiid to be healthy and great. He'd also need to be able to step back and hit a jumper with regularity (which he most likely can do) because having Simmons and Rubio on the floor at the same time would be all of the passing you could ever want and none of the outside shooting. Defensively, this would be a win for the Sixers, but offensively is where it gets tricky. They could also mold Shabazz Muhammad into a scoring wing off the bench, but again the Sixers would have to think Rubio is as good as they can get in the next couple years at the position. And that just may not be the case.
- Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, protected 1st-rounder for Nerlens Noel
The first-round pick is the cherry on top here. Sam Dekker could be a very nice role player on the wing and Patrick Beverley is a nice placeholder and a very cheap contract ($16.5 million owed over next three years on a declining scale that isn't fully guaranteed in 2018-19). Defensively, Beverley is one of the top guards in the NBA and he's a solid 3-point shooter. That's the kind of guy you want to put next to Simmons if he's going to be your primary playmaker.
For the Rockets, this gives them more than just Clint Capela and Nene as rim protectors on this Mike D'Antoni roster, and it's the type of deal you can see Daryl Morey trying to pull off because it gives them the flexibility to re-sign Noel when he's a restricted free agent. Morey always wants to be in on the free agency pursuit of desirable players, but he wouldn't have the flexibility to go out and get Noel on his own in 2017, especially if the Sixers or his incumbent team have the ability to match.
Having Capela and Noel gives you a great rotation of rim protectors inside, which is a real need with guys like James Harden and Ryan Anderson not exactly being lock-down perimeter defenders. But is that enough for the Sixers? Is it simply getting a nice deal with Beverley and a first-round pick in the future while hoping that a lighter logjam inside will create better roster balance?
Granted, there should be better value for Noel out there than these options, but if it hasn't happened in the months since these rumors started flying around, maybe there isn't.
So what about Okafor?
The case to trade Okafor
In this scenario, you keep Noel's defensive presence and maybe you can still fetch a pretty good deal for Okafor -- who, let's not forget, was the projected No. 1 overall pick two years ago until Towns came along and took over the world.
Okafor showed some good parts to his game as a rookie before the knee injury caused him to finish his initial campaign at just 53 games. But he didn't look like the franchise-changing center that he was touted as in high school and after his one championship season at Duke. The fact that he didn't look as impressive as guys like Towns or Kristaps Porzingis colors the way we view his potential, but that might be a little premature, too.
Ultimately, the potential to have a presence inside who can score and possibly build a symbiotic relationship with perimeter threats is there with Okafor, so if you believe you can surround him with enough weapons to have a balanced inside-out attack, there's plenty of reason to trade for him.
The trickiest part of this discussion in trying to figure out if you trade Okafor or Noel is finding a team that definitely wants a post presence like Okafor in a league heading more toward the perimeter. And if they do, what are they willing to give back to the Sixers in the form of perimeter production, which the Sixers would clearly be targeting?
To me, there's one team that really makes sense.
- Strike a deal with the Lakers
Maybe this is the best option -- to approach the Los Angeles Lakers, the team that passed on Okafor with the No. 2 pick a year ago, and see if there is interest in pairing him with D'Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram moving forward. Immediately, you exclaim that the Lakers just gave $64 million to Timofey Mozgov, but a couple of teams gave big contracts to big men who may end up being backups or even third bigs in the rotation.
After all, Ian Mahinmi went to the Washington Wizards for four years and $64 million despite Marcin Gortat being the starting center. Bismack Biyombo signed for four years and roughly $72 million to currently be the backup to Nikola Vucevic with the Orlando Magic. So ending up with Okafor as your starting center and Mozgov as your expensive backup isn't the end of the world.
The only way you start getting proper value back in return is getting Jordan Clarkson in the deal. The Lakers just re-signed him to a four-year, $50 million and he can't be traded until December 14, but that would have to be the starting point. Then maybe the Lakers part with Julius Randle, Lou Williams and a protected first-round pick. That would probably be enough value for the Sixers to feel good about letting Okafor go.
What would I do?
Personally, I would find a way to move both over the next year. You trade Noel now to bring back good value in the immediacy, then you move Okafor to a team that misses out on a high draft pick in the lottery next June and needs a potential franchise-changer to sell to the fan base. Then, in a perfect world, Embiid stays healthy, Simmons becomes a star and the Sixers are suddenly and actual NBA team on their way to being a legitimate force.