The easiest way to describe Nerlens Noel’s fourth year in the NBA would be as a disappointment.
After two promising seasons in Philadelphia to begin his NBA career following the devastating ACL injury during his lone freshman season at Kentucky, Noel has had almost nothing go the way he intended it to.
On Tuesday, it was announced that Noel would be suspended five games for violating the league’s Anti-Drug program. This was the nail in the coffin for Noel’s 2017-18 season as the Dallas Mavericks only have five remaining games left on their schedule and are well out of the playoff picture.
The Mavs have been openly tanking since the season began in October, and despite that, Noel has hardly played any time this season.
After recording a double-double of 16 points and 11 rebounds (plus three blocks) on opening night, Noel has yet to play a game this season with that type of production. He’s dealt with a thumb injury, a hotdog incident, and lost millions of dollars all within a year, but it should never have gotten to that point.
Before this season even began, Noel had an offer on the table from the Dallas Mavericks worth $70 million over four seasons, yet he turned it down. To say this was a questionable decision was easy when it was reported and looking back at it now, there is no justification for it. Instead, Noel accepted the one year, $4.1 million qualifying offer from the Mavericks, throwing all his eggs into one basket and banking on himself having an outstanding year heading into unrestricted free agency this summer. From there, things went downhill fast.
Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle made it clear before the season began that Noel likely wouldn’t be starting (which doesn’t make much sense from the outside considering their roster and Noel’s talent, but it’s hard to question the methods of a coach with the status and resume of Carlisle. Plus, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban openly said his team was tanking). Through the first 10 games of this season, Noel did, in fact, start six of those games, however, he averaged only 18.6 minutes per game. After that, his minutes began to fall off a cliff. Eventually to the point where he was out of the rotation altogether. Then there was the aforementioned hot dog incident during the beginning of December, where Noel left the bench DURING HALFTIME OF A GAME to go grab a delicious (?) arena-style hotdog. Ballsy, yes. Hilarious, absolutely. Something you should do during a contract season? Negatory. There was some good fun between Noel and his head coach about it shortly after, but still a weird situation to say the least.
Shortly after Noel was completely out of the Mavericks rotation (who, once again, were not exactly eager to win games), he injured his thumb, which he underwent surgery for on Dec. 8. Noel has dealt with knee injuries practically his whole basketball career, starting in college with an ACL tear in his left knee at Kentucky, then a minor right knee injury in the 2015-16 season, and another left knee injury the following season that required surgery. The only good thing about this latest thumb injury is that it wasn’t his knees. Surgery to his injured left thumb caused him to miss 42 games.
By the time Noel returned on February 28th, the Mavericks were 19-43, vying for lottery positioning. Noel played 12 games since returning from the injury, averaging 20.5 minutes, 4.9 points, and 7.9 rebounds per game. Now, thanks to the failed drug test, he’ll have to sit out the rest of the regular season.
Noel has been held back throughout most of his NBA career, by both himself and the people that surrounded him. When the Philadelphia 76ers drafted him in 2013, they only continued to bring in more centers. More centers meant fewer minutes for Noel and he was vocal about his disapproval with the jam packed frontcourt. His now infamous “I’m not an eight-minute player” quote was correct, but never something a coaching staff or front office wants to hear.
Noel has more-than-enough potential to be a quality starting center in the NBA. There is value for a player of his style in the pace-and-space era. He’s not a perimeter threat, but he’s an instinctual rebounder and can be an elite-level shot blocker. He has a insanely high basketball IQ on the defensive end (remember all of those back-tap steals Noel would pull off at Kentucky that made you go from “You’re going to pick up a foul!” to “My god how did he manage that one?”) and proved last season that he can grow into a reliable pick-and-roll big man. There’s a championship-caliber team in Cleveland whose most glaring deficiency is their lack of a rim protector. Teams such as Portland or Washington would love to have a player like Noel in their rotation for the playoffs. But at this point, he just needs to find a situation that benefits him more than it benefits whatever team he plays for next season. Which, as Mrs. Tyler Thompson put it earlier today, is safe to say it likely won’t be in Dallas.
Maybe declining the Mavericks contract will turn out to be the right move basketball-wise. Financially it was a terrible decision, but his lack of playing time and the confusing rift with his head coach may have made the next four seasons a lot tougher and even more unnecessarily dramatic, especially considering he’d have to live up to the $70 million he would have been owed. Now, he’ll be a free agent in the summer, although he won’t come anywhere near touching $70 million. With how tight teams are for cap space, it’d be surprising to see him pull in anything more than $6-7 million per year. That’s a depressing drop off from the potential $17 million per year, but a more comfortable situation could mean a more confident Noel.
Noel should have been an excellent building block in the Mavericks rebuild plans, but things just didn’t pan out the way both sides thought it would less than one year ago.