Nerlens Noel was the 6th overall pick in the 2013 draft, a pogo stick from Kentucky who often was compared to Tyson Chandler, another player who was limited offensively, but was excellent at protecting the rim.
Noel missed his rookie year due to injury, then puttered along for two seasons in Philly during The Process as a player dripping with potential. He couldn’t play next to Jahlil Okafor; but Noel was playing backup minutes and producing (11.1 ppg, 8.1 in 29 minutes per game as a 21-year old).
But Philly was loaded with young, potential-laden players and traded Noel in 2017 to the Mavericks with a draft pick in return for Justin Anderson, a wing from Virginia who had pretty much maximized his potential, but was a serviceable role player. NBA twitter loved the deal for Dallas; I was lukewarm on the deal.
Five months since the deal went down, Noel is … unsigned by the Mavericks. A restricted free agent, Dallas has the right to match any offer, but by all accounts, Noel doesn’t have one yet.
Noel was the consensus #1 high school player in the country in 2012; five years later, he is an unemployed 23-years old. He’ll almost certainly get signed in the next week, but how did this happen?
As crazy as it sounds, starting this summer, NBA post players who don’t shoot 3-pointers have essentially turned into fungible bigs who teams are willing to pay $1-$2 million for.
YES, BLAME THE WARRIORS
Thanks to an influx in TV money, NBA free agency in 2016 was head-scratching, especially for post players:
Orlando Magic sign Bismack Biyombo: 4-years, $72 million
New York Knicks sign Joakim Noah: 4-years, $72 million
LA Lakers sign Timofey Mozgov: 4-years, $64 million
Washington Wizards sign Ian Mahinmi: 4-years, $64 million
It didn’t take long for these decisions to look awful. Biyombo averaged just 22 minutes a game; Noah was a non-factor in 46 games before getting hurt; Mozgov rode the bench and then was traded; Mahinmi was perhaps the worst signing, playing just 31 games in an injury-riddled season. You could make a strong case Mahinmi was the worst of those 2016 signings – he’s going to prevent the Wizards from doing anything in free agency for a few years, and ultimately, I have posited that his signing could lead John Wall to leave.
[Aside: When you really think about it, Mahinmi is essentially the Tristan Thompson of the Wizards, except he’s a much worse player, and the Wizards don’t have a LeBron. Cleveland has its big 3; the Wizards have Wall/Bradley Beal/Otto Porter. Both teams inked a 4th player who was a big, and both will live to regret the deal.]
And then there’s this: The playoffs happened, all of the premiere teams went heavy with guards or wings, and big men were rarely factors. If you want to blame the Warriors for this – they seem to get blamed for everything – go ahead. Their death lineup was so effective, they rendered Cleveland’s big, Tristan Thompson, completely unplayable.
Thompson was outrebounded in the Finals by Stephen Curry, 40-29.
BIG SALARIES FALL OFF A CLIFF
For salaries of 2nd and 3rd tier bigs to go from $16-$18 million per year to peanuts, it’s kind of jarring. The NBA is a rapidly evolving sport, and players who don’t adapt are being left behind. Chiefly, centers who can’t shoot.
Consider this: The Lakers regretted the Mozgov signing so badly, they had to package his toxic contract with the former #2 pick, D’Angelo Russell, just to get him off the books. Teams covet flexibility in free agency; you can’t have that because a 7-footer you pay but don’t play is chewing up cap space.
Consider this, II: The Warriors won 67 games and went 16-1 in the postseason with their three centers making this much money:
Zaza Pachulia $2,898,000
Damian Jones $1,171,560
JaVale McGee $980,431
Celtics coach Brad Stevens said earlier this summer that the NBA has three positions: ball-handlers, wings and bigs. If you’re a center in the new NBA, you need to be able to shoot 3-pointers, or you can expect to be on the lower end of the wage scale and share the position with a couple other guys.
I believe in free agency going forward, teams will identify the 2016 big man class as reasons not to overpay for a post player who can’t shoot. There’s a reason the Clippers tried to trade DeAndre Jordan this offseason. There’s a reason there were no takers.
A word to the wise for the loaded 2018 high school recruiting class/NBA draft class, both of which are loaded with skilled post players like DeAndre Ayton (Arizona), Mohamed Bamba (Texas), Robert Williams (Texas A&M), Chimezie Metu (USC) and Wendell Carter (Duke), among others: Better start working on that 3-pointer.