Ok. So the Sixers are suddenly winning games. That is very, very good news, considering what life in Sixerland was like before this got started. It happens to coincide with the period when Brett Brown has been using the Enbiid – Noel rotation at the 5. And there is no question that Noel backing up Embiid is vastly more effective than Okafor backing up Embiid. There are other good things happening on the court too, but this is a factor in bringing about the current euphoria. Embiid’s minute restriction is no longer a reason to reach for the aspirin bottle mid-game.
Here is the issue – Okafor is on a rookie deal and is stuck with that deal for a few more years. Noel’s rookie contract is up at the end of this season, and he is looking for a major pay increase. So, how much is Noel worth?
My own view is that Noel is worth A LOT. He is already demonstrating his value on the court on the defensive side. And his offense, while still a work in progress, is stowing some promise. Finally, Embiid has weighed in – Noel is his buddy. As important, 5’s tend to get hurt. They are more likely to get hurt when they play too much. Having Noel is insurance for the moment — and it will come — when Embiid goes down. And playing Noel allows the Sixers to keep Embiid’s minutes under control. BTW, at this point in time, I do not think there is another big in the league who offers what Noel can offer — and who is as young as Noel is — barring of course, studs like Towns who are untouchable. In other words, Noel is not replaceable.
The sole question mark is Noel’s attitude. His ultimate value depends how much much he will develop beyond where he is now. That means dedication to off court work AND to the team. This might have been an issue in the early season, but I think Noel has come a long way in proving he is serious about both of the above. Indeed, he has morphed from a problem to a source of strength BECAUSE he is able to contribute.
So, if I am right, we will get a good look at how clever Sixer management is in how they deal with Noel’s contract negotiations. The Sixers are loaded with cash and can afford to invest in Noel if they choose to do so. I think that Noel is a key piece of the puzzle to make the Sixers great and worth that investment. And from my arm chair vantage point, if management decides to trade him for less than he is worth, or if it does not offer a max deal to keep him, you will have to wonder.
FOLLOW UP – There is one more factor that drives my conviction about keeping Nerlens. Brett Brown is right – upgrading the Sixer defense is the first step towards winning. And we are seeing that upgrade, mainly because of Joel Embiid. Embiid blocks shots and stuff that you can see in the stats. He does one more thing that you don’t see in the stats, but which is obvious when you watch the games. When opposing team guards and swing men beat their defenders off the dribble and drive the lane, more often than not, Embiid is there – and he scares the crap out of them. They either take a bad shot or back out all together. Even LeBron stopped driving the lane with Embiid there. Noel does the same thing, though not quite as well. But he does get the job done. This is a critical anchoring tool for the Sixers because they do not have a lot of elite defenders on the court. And knowing that Embiid and Noel are back there, the other guys without elite skills can take more chances going after steals and contesting open looks. That lowers shooting percentages and creates turnovers. This has especially benefited T J McDonnell and Robert Covington who love to ball hawk.