The Philadelphia 76ers have three centers, and they’re trying to trade one of them in a market where bigs are in high supply and low demand. Teams appear unwilling to surrender high draft picks or prized prospects for Joel Embiid’s backups, and with the trade deadline coming up in February, nobody is blinking.
So here’s some advice for Sixers GM Bryan Colangelo: call Brooklyn GM Sean Marks and set up a deal centered around Nerlens Noel. Then call your dad on Skype and tell him to leak it like a 13-page letter.
Sure, the asset-depleted Nets aren’t a perfect trading partner for the Sixers. But they happen to control the fate of the Boston Celtics, a team loaded with assets and with all the incentive (and ammo) to prevent a Noel-Nets deal.
Thanks to GM Danny Ainge’s long-term planning, the Celtics are stacked with draft picks, young talent, and productive veterans. But they remain in search of a superstar, and their best path to acquiring one may be through Brooklyn’s 2017 and 2018 1st round picks, received in the 2013 trade with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
The Nets (5-14) are bad, but Philadelphia is in a unique position to make them less bad. By dealing them Noel — and to a lesser extent, their serviceable end-of-rotation players on expiring deals: Hollis Thompson, Ersan Ilyasova, Sergio Rodriguez, and Gerald Henderson — the Sixers could expedite Brooklyn’s rebuild, thus hindering Boston’s lottery odds and helping their own.
The beauty of this far-fetched hypothetical diabolical plan is that the Celtics would be the only team that can stop it: by bidding for Noel themselves. If the Noel-Nets deal is seen as a credible threat, then Colangelo can negotiate with Ainge from a position of power, leverage that into a better Celtics proposal.
Think of this as Billy Beane’s Mike Venafro trade. The prize isn’t Luke Anderson; it’s Ricardo Rincon. Or in this case, Jaylen Brown.
Noel, who expects to return from elective knee surgery this month, is already an impact defensive player capable of playing a low-usage, efficient role offensively. He carried a 14th-ranked defense in his rookie season in 2014-15. The Sixers’ team defense plummeted last season, but Noel remained effective (especially when playing center without Jahlil Okafor) ranking 34th overall in defensive RPM.
FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO projects Noel as a “future all-star” adding 3-5 wins per year above replacement, compared to Okafor, a “project,” who won’t produce above replacement until 2018. Noel can help a team win now, and five years from now.
The Sixers and Celtics have likely already had discussions about Philadelphia’s disgruntled center. Boston would welcome the addition of a dominant shot blocker, both as a backup, complementary piece, and insurance policy for the 30-year-old Al Horford, signed in free agency this summer. Noel’s upcoming restricted free agency may complicate matters, but he grew up just outside of Boston and seems to love the city, which would bode well in contract negotiations. If another max player becomes available and the Celtics needed additional cap room, Ainge would have little trouble shedding salary since most of Boston’s players are on team-friendly contracts.
The Nets, meanwhile, aren’t necessarily looking to win this season (their draft pick debt is a sunk cost), but they should be looking to acquire talent to help beyond 2017 and would hold Noel’s rights as a restricted free agent. The 22-year-old plays the same position as their most productive player, Brook Lopez, but projects as a better long-term fit. In the short term, he is an upgrade over backup center Justin Hamilton, and a valuable insurance policy for the 28-year-old starter with an injury history.
Noel won’t carry the Nets into the postseason, but in a tight race to the bottom he could be the difference between Markelle Fultz and say, Lonzo Ball, and would accelerate their progress in 2017-18, weakening the 2018 pick. Yes, lotteries and teenagers are unpredictable, but the math is straightforward: more pingpong balls → higher draft picks → better prospects.
The Nets don’t have much to offer the Sixers and can’t deal a first round pick until 2020 (Stepien rule). But a package featuring Rondae Hollis-Jefferson or Caris LeVert would be of comparable value to what was rumored over the summer. (The Vertical’s Shams Charania reported the Sixers and Atlanta Hawks discussed a possible trade centered around Jeff Teague and Noel; Teague was later sent to Indiana in a three-way trade involving George Hill and the No. 12 pick, Taurean Prince.)
For the Sixers, the question is not whether such a deal would maximize Noel’s value, but whether Aingle would buy it. The Celtics GM is a highly-skilled negotiator and could call Colangelo’s bluff, but if the Sixers don’t have any significantly better offers on the table — a realistic scenario — there might not be a bluff to call.
For the Celtics, the potential downside of a Nets-Noel deal could be franchise-altering; not because they’d miss out on the chance to lock in a young, talented rim protector, but because of the possible damage that player would inflict on their prized draft picks. For the Nets, the deal would be sweet revenge for the Celtics’ draft pick heist three years ago. (It would also give Ainge one more reason to get on the phone with Kings GM Vlade Divac.)