Rejections: How Nerlens Noel Ended Dallas’s Hunt for a Franchise Center

February 23, 2017 – The Philadelphia 76ers trade soon-to-be restricted free agent Nerlens Noel to the Dallas Mavericks for Andrew Bogut, Justin Anderson, and a conditional first round pick (a long shot in the first place, which has now conveyed to two second round picks). Mourn the process.

Acquiring Noel during the 2013 draft was the first maneuver of Sam Hinkie’s “Process”. While unloading Jrue Holiday and a second round pick, the 76ers began their dismantling from middling Eastern Conference contender to lottery-bound Powerball addicts. Just over three and a half years later (sans the man who began the process), Philadelphia punted on a chance to retain a piece of what it once viewed as its next core for… let’s just say less than Jrue Holiday. True – Justin Anderson may prove to be an above league average rotational bench player, and two second round picks are more than the one Philly gave up in the first place, but Holiday has become a starting caliber combo-guard who will likely be retained by New Orleans (due to their own inability to manage the salary cap). It is somewhat ironic that as Philly disentangles itself from the process, they need only look southwest to see the guard they gave up playing in a two-big system with a generational talent who was drafted just one year before the process began.

The decision to move on from Noel was in large part financial – as a restricted free agent this summer, Noel was likely to command more than the Sixers felt comfortable doling out to a man they hope would be relegated to bench minutes behind Joel Embiid. One of the teams most likely to give him that money was Dallas, and in moving Noel there now they avoided losing him for nothing. But what exactly did they lose? Or rather, what did Dallas gain?

Since their title run in 2010-2011, the Mavericks have been hunting for their next Tyson Chandler – a hunt which in 2014 led them back to Tyson Chandler. If not for the great emoji battle of 2015, this team may look entirely different with a group of small-ball bigs in Chandler Parsons and Dirk beside DeAndre Jordan. The merits of that search are now debatable as both the game has become stretchier with the focus on shooters, and the fit of such a rim protector next to an aging Dirk Nowitzki may be a moot point as Dirk closes out his NBA career. But as their competitions searches out the next Marc Gasol or pushes a 7-footer beyond the arc, the Mavericks may have found a way to buck the trend. In fact, most teams are searching for their Dirk Nowitzki, a seven-footer with shooting range who can float between center and power forward and stretch the floor to create driving lanes for others.

There are no perfect player comparisons, and making comparisons between bigs has become increasingly difficult as the game at the professional level has moved away from pounding the ball in the post. That said, there has always been and seemingly will always be a role on NBA teams for two types of big men: the shot-blocking rim-runners, and the rulers of the low post. Noel is unquestionably in the mold of the former. While his arsenal of moves in the post is growing, he still scores more than half his baskets on uncontested dunks, put-backs, and alley-oops; and despite his strong on-ball defense, his all-around defense lacks the lateral flexibility of a Rudy Gobert to become a strong help defender or allow him to block many shots from guys when he’s not the primary defender. Unlike his Dallas predecessor, he may never win a Defense Player of the Year award, if only because he entered the league at a time where it seems unlikely one will ever go to anyone outside the trio of Gobert, Draymond Green, and Kawhi Leonard. Though at age 23 – younger than this year’s likely top Rookie of the Year vote-getters Malcolm Brogdon and Dario Saric – Noel has both room and time to grow.

Here’s a look at the per game numbers for four of this generation’s rim-running big men through their first three seasons:

  • Big 1: 203 games, 18.7 minutes, 5.4 points, 0.33 assists, 5.57 rebounds, 1.27 blocks .404 FT%
  • Big 2: 181 games, 22.1 minutes, 7.1 points, 0.83 assists, 6.47 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, .627 FT%
  • Big 3: 193 games, 26.9 minutes, 9.9 points, 1.5 assists, 7.33 rebounds, 1.47 blocks, .631 FT%
  • Big 4: 214 games, 19.7 minutes, 7.7 points, 0.33 assists, 5.33 rebounds, 1.7 blocks, .627 FT%

Think you know which one is Nerlens? How about which of the four went on to win a Defensive Player of the Year?

Nerlens Noel checks in at “Big 3”, playing the third most games in his first three years (minus his draft year after being held out by the 76ers). Through those first three years, he leads the pack in all per-game categories outside of blocks (where he places second). The leader for blocks? That’s JaVale McGee; (Big 4) perhaps the worst comparison of the group to Noel, McGee has never been considered an above-average defender and has been known to chase down blocks at the expense of his defensive rebounding positioning.

The more interesting comparisons here are Big 1, DeAndre Jordan, and Big 2, Tyson Chandler himself. Noel’s first three seasons compare favorably to both of the established big men through equal footing in their careers. The per-36 minute stats paint a similar picture, giving a slight edge to Jordan and Chandler in blocks and rebounds, though Noel more than doubles their combined steals output. The per-36 minutes are also highly misleading as the new NBA landscape is cutting down on traditional centers’ minutes which rarely peaked that high regardless (Chandler himself only had one season of over 35 minutes per game). The other potential flaw here is that Noel accomplished most of this on a 76ers team which showed little interest in winning and had few consistent scoring options. His offensive rebounding numbers are a tick higher than both Jordan and Chandler through the first three years, which could be skewed from his 76er teams’ poor shooting and plethora of opportunities. Still, Noel boasts the highest free throw percentage of the three and an effective field goal rate over 52%.

Now about that changing league context… Noel, in split minutes between Dallas and Philadelphia, played with five primary different lineups last year featuring a stretch four with one of Nowitzki, Saric, or Ersan Ilyasova. In the nearly 280 minutes of those lineups with Noel at the five and a shooter at the four, those lineups posted a plus 0.82 points per hundred possessions. The Mavericks experimented some with playing Harrison Barnes at the four last year next to Dirk at the pivot, and will likely try more of that next season if they are able to lure a big name point guard to take some of undrafted rookie phenom Yogi Ferrell’s minutes. That would push Seth Curry, who head coach Rick Carlisle has said he would like to start, into a combo-guard role and Wes Matthews to the three with Barnes at the four. Assuming whoever plays the point next year has a respectable three-point range and Noel is back  to inherit some of those minutes at center from Dirk, a lineup like this would boast more shooters than Noel has ever played with and open up the spacing on the floor for both more Nerlens dunks and offensive rebounds. As a center who has already shown proclivity for chasing down his own team’s bricks and wayward bounces, Noel could easily see an uptick in rebounds similar to both Jordan (8.3) and Chandler (9.7) in year four as he looks to ascend to being the Mavs next franchise big.

If watching the NBA develop over the past few seasons in Dallas and Philadelphia (or Utah, Los Angeles, Memphis, etc.) has taught us anything, it’s that finding and developing a big man is, well, a process. Dallas spent the better part of the decade searching out a paint partner for Dirk, and as his career winds down they may have found the solution in his on court antithesis: a shot-swatting rim-runner who is destined to stretch defenses back towards the basket.