This was bound to happen eventually. And really, it’s nobody’s fault.
We prefer it to be this way of course, because a reality where Nerlens Noel is Philadelphia’s starting center on opening night is also our worst nightmare: one where Joel Embiid isn’t healthy enough to jump off against Steven Adams on October 26th. But it’s tough not to feel even a little disappointed that Noel is so clearly fed up with the 76ers — from publicly acknowledging his discontent to mysterious groin injuries to being MIA from several team events — because he truly might be a generational talent.
There’s little reason to revisit the on/off numbers or rehash the same old monotonous arguments at this point — so many words about Nerlens have been spewed on the internet that you’d think George R.R. Martin became a Sixers blogger. Surely even the most casual readers of this website have found their way to one end of the Great NoelKafor Schism of 2015-16 by now, and this post probably won’t be the one to sway any viewpoints.
But I would like to clear Noel’s name before his inevitable, unceremonious exit from Broad Street, who, due to the typically uninspired player-to-player comparisons that plague basketball punditry, has been lazily slotted into the mold of offensively-impaired rim protectors such as Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan, and the like — which is fair, if Nerlens was a better rebounder, worse passer, slower on his feet, stronger, and in other words, a completely different player. But really, if I had to pick any contemporary player to compare Noel to, it might be Roy Hibbert.
Now I know what you’re thinking: what do Hibbert and Noel have in common besides cobblestone hands, lackluster rebounding stats, and a (probably) mutual disdain for Evan Turner? We may forget now, as Hibbert was relegated to merely a sideshow in the Kobe retirement circus last season, but it was only a couple years ago that the 7’2” Parks & Rec star was the NBA’s most physically imposing force. Not only was he instrumental in the 2013-14 Pacers positively suffocating first-ranked defense, he was the defense. Indiana devised its entire defensive scheme around siphoning every pick-and-roll directly to Hibbert in the paint, who even gave LeBron James anguish at the rim. And while obviously being helped in the form of long-limbed, slippery defenders like George Hill and Paul George diving over every screen, it was Hibbert’s presence on the floor that transformed Indiana’s defense into a black hole.
Although he accomplishes the same feat in a fashion different than Hibbert’s, Noel transforms NBA defenses. Misbranded as merely a shot-blocker early in his career, Nerlens actually does his best damage when he’s away from the paint: he’s the lone player in NBA history to average at least 1.8 steals and 1.7 blocks per game through his first two seasons; he tied for the second-most deflected passes per 100 chances last season, per Vantage sports; and then, there’s stuff like this:
You can probably count on one hand the amount of NBA centers who can single-handedly cut off a dribble handoff and the subsequent pick-and-roll, then sink back to the rim and cut off passing lanes to his man (two of these guys might play for Philadelphia, by the way).
But Nerlens used to be so much more than this. In Noel’s rookie year, before (*slams nicotine patch on arm*) Jahlil Okafor came into the picture, Nerlens was the greatest weapon in Brett Brown’s arsenal, having the rookie center slide across the floor as he stopped two, maybe even three attacks on one possession.
You remember where the story goes from here: the Sixers plummeted from the 13th-ranked defense in Noel’s rookie campaign all the way down to 25th last season, thanks largely in part to accommodating the 2015 offseason personnel changes. The addition of Noel’s plodding counterpart forced the Sixers into a much more conservative team-wide defensive approach, and all those spry pick-and-roll traps and hedges were suddenly simplified to Nerlens just dropping back to the rim; and this isn’t all on Okafor obviously, for swapping out the exceptional wingspans of K.J. McDaniels and Michael Carter-Williams with bitesized defenders like Isaiah Canaan and T.J. McConnell trimmed the menu of defensive options.
But placing blame is irrelevant here — all that matters is that Noel was now being asked to play within the confines of that pesky Tyson Chandler archetype despite being capable of a Garnett-esque defensive presence. And not only were his greatest gifts going untapped, but he was put in a position that accentuated his unreadiness for NBA strength. It’s no secret that Nerlens isn’t yet big enough to hang on the boards with most big-league behemoths — his rebounding percentage last season was sandwiched between the 6’8” Paul Millsap and Kevin Garnett, who is 67 years old.
The addition of springier wings like Gerald Henderson and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot may once again allow the Sixers to get creative with Noel’s defense, but his services may unfortunately no longer be needed in Philadelphia as long as Joel Embiid is sending fools away at the rim. He likely won’t care much for serving as a 20-minute-per-game bench player coming into his first big payday, and his offensive deficiencies — although mostly inconsequential in the context of being the lone big on the floor in 2016’s NBA — don’t mend well with JoJo.
We would be remiss to not mention that this could’ve all been avoided with Noel: although there are like five NBA centers anymore who it statistically makes sense to run through the post anymore (two of these guys might also play for Philadelphia, by the way), Nerlens still handles the ball like a bar of wet soap; he often sets picks so weak that wing defenders run through him like bullets bounce off Luke Cage; and his moderately improving jumper is a cute, if not likely futile experiment. Save for his stealthily stellar passing, Noel has done little to improve his offensive versatility as a complementary big.
But it’s not so much Noel’s shortcomings that’ll hold him back in Philadelphia as it is more the presence of a generational talent standing in his way. And although I love Joel Embiid more than I love like 95 percent of my family, a small part of me is sad that we’ll probably never see the Nerlens Noel experiement play out in Philadelphia.