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Nerlens Noel And The Changing NBA Economy

Justin Ford - USA TODAY Sports

Nerlens Noel and the Mavericks are currently in a negotiation stand-off, but his situation is emblematic of a larger shift in the NBA.

Looking back on the first two months of NBA free agency, things have largely gone to plan. Sure, half of the league has lost its mind as five of last year’s Eastern Conference All-Stars have been traded, but in terms of free agent moves, there haven’t been too many shocks. With fewer than eight weeks left until the start of the 2017-18 season, most of the league is locked in.

There is, however, a pretty major exception to that statement. Nerlens Noel, the once top recruit in the country and prized lottery pick, remains unsigned.

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Eric Hartline - USA TODAY Sports

After two and a half injury plagued seasons and seeing his minutes diminished by the likes of Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, the Philadelphia 76ers decided to move on from Noel. This past February, Philly sent Noel to Dallas for the rights to Andrew Bogut, Justin Anderson, and a heavily protected 2017 first round pick.

That pick was top-18 protected for the 2017 draft, and once Dallas missed the playoffs it was converted into two second rounders for 2017 and 2018. Bogut had lost his value for Dallas once they fell out of playoff contention and while Anderson has potential, you would take Noel’s future over his any day of the week. With the knowledge that the pick Dallas was able to keep turned into Dennis Smith Jr., you can you only say that the Mavericks came out on top of that deal.

Once Noel actually made it on the court for the Mavericks, he really lived up to expectations. He posted a solid line of 14 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per 36 minutes; and his PER of 19.8 and remarkably high net rating of +16 indicate he was an overall positive force for the Mavs. While he was limited to just 22 appearances for Dallas, he showed signs of a real bright future.


With the momentum of a successful, albeit short, stint in Dallas, Noel seemed primed for a big payday this summer. That seemed to be confirmed as reports came out near the end of the season that multiple teams were interested in giving him the max, but those offers never came.

Noel received the $5.8 million qualifying offer from Dallas to make him a restricted free agent (RFA), but besides that, there have been no confirmed offers from other teams. As a restricted free agent, Noel could sign a deal with any team in the league with Dallas being given three days to match that offer. If the Mavericks decided to match, Noel would have no choice but to return to Dallas, hence the term “restricted.”

When Noel saw that Brooklyn offered fellow RFA Otto Porter a max just days into free agency, Noel must have thought his own offer was right around the corner. That was 50 days ago. The already limited opportunities Noel had then, have now all but dried up.

From the outside, that doesn’t really seem to make much sense. He is a 23-year-old athletic freak who could help teams win games for years to come, yet there isn’t a market for him? Had Noel entered free agency last summer he would have gotten at least one, probably multiple max offers. There’s no question about it. If Bismack Biyombo got $18 million a year from Orlando, someone would have given Noel significantly more.

The reality is that while most teams in the league would love to add Noel to their roster, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) has changed how he is valued around the league. Last summer was under different rules with different motivations, and the new ones have hurt players like Noel.

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AP Images - CSN Philly

If we assume for a moment that every team’s ultimate goal is to win a title, then we should also assume that every team wants to pack as much talent on their roster as they can. The easiest way to do that is to get as many star players on a team as you can, but under the new CBA the cost of those players has gone through the roof. Some superstars are now eligible for deals worth upwards of $40 million per season, taking up over 40% of the cap by themselves.

If you also assume that you need two or three stars to compete for a title, that is almost all of your cap accounted for. Noel isn’t commanding $40 million a season because he isn’t eligible, but he wants around $25 million. Unless a team out there views Noel as a potential number two on a title contender, it is going to be hard to justify paying your third or fourth guy $100 million over four seasons.

So while in theory the lack of a market for Noel doesn’t make much sense, that is simply the new economy of the NBA. Minimum and max contracts both jumped in value this offseason, leaving the guys in the middle to get squeezed. Unfortunately for Noel and other RFAs in his situation, they are the new casualties of the ever-changing NBA market.

The main takeaway from Noel’s situation shouldn’t be that he misjudged the market for his talents. He did. But, more importantly, the market has changed for everyone. We saw a similar situation play out for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in Detroit. While KCP ultimately got a one-year, $18 million deal from the Lakers, like Noel he was looking for a long-term deal that wasn’t there.

How does this change free agency going forward? Well, RFAs looking for that huge deal that isn’t there are left with only two real options:

1. Take a long-term deal worth $5-10 million/year less than you feel you deserve in the hopes of getting a max three or four years down the line

or

2. Bet on yourself. Take the qualifying offer or one-year deal like KCP, become an unrestricted free agent next summer and hope that a team will then take a chance on you.

It will be interesting to see which path Noel chooses, but he will not be the last player forced to make that choice. Next summer there will be a whole new crop of players with the potential to get squeezed just like Noel and KCP. Garry Harris, Marcus Smart, and Jabari Parker are just a few of the potential guys who we will see stuck in this same situation next summer. While some may get that Otto Porter-esque deal they’re looking for, more will be stuck floating in this undesirable middle-ground of the new NBA.

Edited by Emily Berman, Coleman Gray.

SQuiz
Which of these players was drafted before Nerlens Noel in the 2013 NBA Draft?
Created 8/23/17
  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
  2. Cody Zeller
  3. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
  4. Ben McLemore

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