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November 07, 2016

Some thoughts on the Sixers and Nerlens Noel not reaching a contract extension

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Just as a little bit of late housekeeping, I’d like to mention that the Sixers last week exercised the fourth-year contract options on Joel Embiid and Nik Stauskas as well as the third-year option on Jahlil Okafor. Outside of maybe Stauskas, no huge surprises there.

Truthfully though, something that didn’t appear on the Sixers press release was their biggest story of the October 31st deadline: Nerlens Noel and the team didn’t reach a contract extension.

At the end of the 2014-15 season, when Noel anchored the league’s 13th-ranked defense as a “second-year rookie” playing with a group of unheralded young players and scrap-heap vets, this would have been at least qualified as a mild surprise. Remember that he was getting a lot of Rookie of the Year buzz, and rightfully so.

But after Noel didn’t mesh well with Okafor last year and Sam Hinkie (the person who traded for Noel despite needing to sit him out for an entire season) left the organization, this wasn’t a major shock anymore. Bryan Colangelo even confirmed that the team and Noel weren’t talking about a contract extension a few weeks ago.

Here are a few quick thoughts on the situation:

•    The team still has the right to match any contract offer Noel receives: As long as the Sixers next offseason extend a qualifying offer of $5.8 million for 2017-18, Noel will be a restricted free agent. If Noel were to sign a big money offer sheet with another team, the Sixers would still have the right of first refusal.

That is, unless Noel decides to simply sign the qualifying offer (a la Greg Monroe) and then could become an unrestricted free agent in 2018.

•    That said, the idea of Noel’s restricted free agency is probably getting ahead of ourselves: Noel and the Sixers don’t appear to be on the best of terms right now, as evidenced by them not even discussing an extension. He was honest about the big man glut at training camp, and the team described the knee surgery that is currently keeping him out as a “minor elective procedure.” Translation: It doesn’t sound like the Sixers thought the surgery was all that necessary.

•    We likely could have a new CBA in the next month: Rookie scale contracts and cap holds for restricted free agents are expected to bump up and could affect the Sixers in the long run, but with so little committed salary, any changes probably won’t matter much in this specific scenario. If the Sixers want to, they can easily pay Noel.

•    Trading Noel would keep max flexibility: Early on in “The Process,” one of the major criticisms of the Sixers’ approach was that they would have to make decisions on contract extensions for players who they couldn’t properly evaluate. Noel, who figures to get paid by someone in the offseason provided his body and performance hold up, and Michael Carter-Williams were the first two players who would’ve been up for such extensions. MCW has already been moved twice, and the Noel trade speculation isn’t going anywhere.

If Noel is out of the Sixers’ plans, then Embiid is the first decision the team has to make next season. Okafor would follow the year after that, if he is still in Philly. Dario Saric just began his rookie contract, which is why there was so much speculation about him coming over this season in the first place. Ben Simmons of course has a few years before he’s up for a new deal.

The Sixers are going to have a ton of cap space regardless of what happens with Noel, but if they trade him for a smaller contract or some future asset, they’re going to have even more. And two different general managers, Hinkie with MCW and Colangelo with Noel, would’ve made the same evaluation on the first two Process lottery picks.

•    There are a lot of arguments for wanting to extend Noel: I have to admit that at times it felt like Noel regressed last season, but after you stepped back, he actually made a lot of improvements (specifically on the offensive end, where he became more efficient while also scoring more). Where Noel fell off last year was defending the rim, which could be explained by a couple of factors: 1. The 700 minutes he played with another center in Okafor. 2. The nagging injuries he was dealing with.

The injuries are something that you have to factor in moving forward, but Noel is a unique defensive force when he’s allowed to roam around the lane as a shot-blocker. We all know that Embiid can’t play the whole game, and if Noel proves overqualified for the backup role, the Sixers likely would have a very tradeable contract for someone who won’t turn 23 until April.

Noel has some flaws in his game and there is an argument to want max flexibility around players like Embiid and Simmons, but this is also a pretty valuable big man the Sixers stand to lose.

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann