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Nerlens Noel trade a sign Bryan Colangelo misplayed his hand

Colangelo waited too long to make a deal, and he paid the price.

NBA: Miami Heat at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Sixers finally dealt one of their many big men, but it wasn’t necessarily the one people were expecting. Jahlil Okafor has seen his name tied to several trade rumors (and a couple nearly-completed deals), except it was Nerlens Noel who general manager Bryan Colangelo opted to move instead.

Here’s how the trade worked out:

Philadelphia received: Andrew Bogut, Justin Anderson, and a top-18 protected first-round pick in 2017. If the pick does not convey this year, the Sixers will receive a 2017 and 2018 second round pick from Dallas.

Dallas received: Nerlens Noel.

This is, undoubtedly, the worst basketball decision Bryan Colangelo has made in his tenure as Sixers general manager.

The Sixers never really showed any interest in re-signing the 22-year-old, and that was more than apparent in this deal. They traded Noel, one of the league’s better rim protectors and someone who was playing some of the best basketball of his life over the past two years, to take a flier on Justin Anderson and the same number of second round picks that Ersan Ilyasova netted.

In December, Colangelo said, “I will not make a bad deal for this organization.”

But he did, and put himself in a position to do so.

Considering how Noel has played over the past couple months, it seemed plausible he could reconcile with Colangelo as the two sides worked towards a long-term deal. After returning from knee surgery, he languished behind Jahlil Okafor, finally earning minutes once the team realized they could no longer justify playing Okafor to that extent.

Noel more than took advantage of his playing time leading up to the All-Star break. He displayed an improved mid-range game, more touch around the rim, all while continuing to be a ballhawk on the defensive end. It was easy to envision Noel being the perfect backup to Embiid (a role he publicly stated he was happy to accept), or hell, even playing next to the 7-foot superstar.

Yet the Sixers never even gave a Noel-Embiid pairing any legitimate thought. The two played a total of eight minutes together in early January, then abandoned it altogether. The decision was bizarre, not only because their two skill sets seemed like they could complement each other, but because they gave the disastrous pairing of Okafor-Embiid plenty of chances to make it work, and that was an unmitigated, floor-clogging disaster. There’s little justification for that, and the only logical conclusion for continuing to keep Embiid and Noel separated was they already had plans to move on from the former Kentucky standout.

Sorting out the Sixers front court situation was Colangelo’s first true test of his deal making prowess, and he failed. He held onto Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor through the summer, despite having an offer from Boston for Noel that was superior to the one he took from Dallas, and attempted to justify it by saying the injury situation made them difficult to deal. That then led to a disgruntled Noel taking a blowtorch to whatever value he had, all while Okafor continued to display that his game is not cut out for the modern NBA.

Colangelo spent more time talking about the good deal he was going to make for so long that by the time Thursday’s deadline approached, he had backed himself so far into a corner that receiving a quality return was off the table. Since the start of this season, he’s operated under the impression that Noel and Okafor would be able to increase their trade value in a way that wasn’t feasible. No team is giving up a quality first-round pick for an expiring contract who wants a max deal, and the same goes for an offensive albatross who has gotten worse since his rookie season.

But there’s a certain flaw in the logic behind moving Noel as it pertains to his potential new deal. If the Sixers were primarily worried about having to match a max offer sheet from another team, then that should have been reflected in the type of trade offers they received. Except Colangelo struggled painstakingly to move Noel, and was forced to settle for Dallas’s measly offer, indicating that perhaps the general interest in him wasn’t what they anticipated. If that’s the case, then it’s possible the Sixers could have kept him on a much more team friendly contract. We’ll never know.

And while this deal may technically solve the Sixers logjam problem for the simple fact that they finally took a piece out of the equation, it doesn’t address the fact that Okafor is simply not a fit for this team. He clearly can’t play with Embiid. He makes no sense on the court with Ben Simmons. They are undoubtedly worse when he is on the floor, and with Noel out of the picture, he’s back to logging big minutes for them (especially with Embiid’s health in question). The worst part is, Colangelo knows all of this, which is why he came close to trading him twice within the past week. But once again, he misjudged his player’s value, which almost certainly will not rise in the remaining 26 games of the season.

So Colangelo will go through the same song and dance again this summer, attempting to offload Okafor during a time period where teams can turn to the draft and free agency to solve their front court issues. There will inevitably be a sense of relief when he’s moved, but any confidence in Colangelo’s ability to receive anything worthwhile was lost in the Noel deal.

Colangelo could’ve solved this situation last summer. Instead, he comes out of the trade deadline looking rather incompetent during a month where his decision making has already been deemed questionable.

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