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January 26, 2017

2017 NBA Trade Deadline: Are there any realistic Nerlens Noel trades?

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Nerlens Noel and the Sixers just completed their best back-to-back of the year. Without Joel Embiid (and Jahlil Okafor), everyone else trusted the process and picked up victories over the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks.

Over those two games, Noel finished with a combined 36 points (13-19 FG), 21 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals, and 3 blocks. He was, in a word, excellent:

Noel has found himself in trade rumors ever since the summer. When he reported to media day, Noel said, “I don’t see a way of it working.” From the Sixers’ standpoint, there are limited realistic trade options:

3. Portland

The Blazers’ offseason was a head scratcher to say the least. I mean, four years and $70 million for Evan Turner? Portland is still in the hunt for a playoff spot, but only because the race for an 8 seed in the Western Conference has been a disaster. The Blazers haven’t guarded all year — those are the challenges a Damian Lillard-C.J. McCollum backcourt faces — and Noel certainly can play defense.

According to a couple of ESPN reporters, Portland won’t go after Noel. First, here is a Chris Haynes report found within a larger piece:

A trade for Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins or disgruntled Philadelphia 76ers big man Nerlens Noel could help the team, but sources say they are not on Portland's radar.

More analysis that solid reporting, Kevin Arnovitz said on this podcast (10:30) that the Blazers likely won’t trade for Noel because of perceived off-court issues:

The character issue doesn’t fit in Portland. I don’t think they’re into (Noel).

The other problem is that besides perhaps a future pick, there isn’t much that Portland can offer in a trade that would entice the Sixers. For example, I’m not all that interested in paying Allen Crabbe $18 million.

2. Boston

Nerlens is from Boston, and Nerlens likes Boston:

Nerlens tweets about the New England Patriots, proving further that he still keeps ties to his hometown:

And wouldn’t you know, the Boston Celtics could really use a rim protector like Noel. Let the rumors fly!

The C’s rank 22nd in the NBA in defense, and when scaled back to since Christmas, they’re 28th overall. If you’re going to play Isaiah Thomas heavy minutes (and they should, he’s an incredible offensive player), the back line of the defense needs to be ready. Noel could take all of the center minutes when Al Horford isn’t on the court, and with the latter’s ability to space the floor, they might even work together for short stints.

Head on over to NBA Assets and you’ll see that the Celtics have the best war chest in the NBA along with the Sixers. The problem is, Boston isn’t going to trade one of those golden Brooklyn picks for Noel. After that, some of Boston’s young players and future draft picks are less appealing.

The good news for Celtics fans is that if Noel is traded elsewhere and blows up, Danny Ainge will be there to admit that Boston was thisclose to landing Noel.

1. Philadelphia

Yeah, there are really only two trades out there that I see. The best answer for the Sixers very well could be to not trade Noel. It’s complicated, though. Compared to teams like Boston and Portland, I would say that the Sixers need a player with Noel’s skill set less.

First, there is the team-building aspect of all this. They already have what might be a generational talent at center and another promising backup option in Richaun Holmes on the roster. Maybe Bryan Colangelo figures that he’d rather spread the money around to the other positions rather than match a $20+ million offer for what will be his backup center in restricted free agency. Maybe Noel’s handling of an admittedly tough situation this year has put too much distance between him and the current front office.

Of course, there is an emotional attachment between Noel and the fans. Joel Embiid might consider himself “The Process,” but this is the guy that was here from Day 1, the guy that dealt with more losing than anyone else through little fault of his own.

“I love the city of Philadelphia, I love the fans that stuck with me from everything I’ve been through,” Noel said the other night. “That means a lot to me, I’m Philly hard.”

And there are plenty of basketball reasons to keep Noel. As a rookie, he anchored the 13th-ranked defense in the NBA while dealing with a consistent roster churn and playing with a good amount of fringe NBA players. If this were baseball and there was no salary cap, it would be close to a no-brainer.

Noel isn’t a perfect player — defensive rebounding has certainly been an issue when he’s in the game, and quietly, his team on-court numbers aren’t that much better than Okafor’s — but what he does well has value in the modern NBA. His trade market and free agency should be very interesting to watch simply because it could go in so many different directions.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann