What the Jahlil Okafor Trade Rumors Mean for Nerlens Noel

With Jahlil Okafor rumored to be involved in trade rumors, what does this mean for Nerlens Noel and his long-term future with the Philadelphia 76ers?

It’s been a tumultuous three years for Nerlens Noel.

The Philadelphia 76ers’ big man became the earmark of “The Process” on draft night in 2013. Since then, Noel has been subject to one failed thought experiment after another. Nerlens was originally intended to headline the Sixers’ future alongside former AAU teammate Michael Carter-Williams. One blockbuster trade, two top-three selected big men, and three failed Scott O’Neil slogans later, Noel found himself on the outside looking in on the Sixers’ future.

“Nerlens has made the most sacrifices out of anybody,” head coach Brett Brown told the media after a 95-85 loss to the Cavaliers on January 11, 2016.

Sacrifices are a strange thing to ask of a 22-year-old who has been (intermittently) considered a franchise cornerstone.   

As he fell from the consensus number one pick to the Sixers’ laps at number three, Nerlens Noel became Embiid insurance. The Embiid selection was made possible by a number of circumstances that the Sixers faced. Not the least of those circumstances was already having a versatile center to fall back on in a league in which “rim protectors are at a real premium.”  

But $18-24 million is a lot to pay for a (hopefully) backup center. The league’s new CBA rewards superstars and impedes their movement through free agency. What does this mean for the next tier of players, such as Noel?

In short, it means more uniformity in player contracts. Currently, Allen Crabbe, Harrison Barnes, and Kawhi Leonard make within $4 million of each other. Leonard is the lowest paid player of that bunch.

There is more money in the NBA than ever before. The problem with the current structure of the salary cap is not that Allen Crabbe or Timofey Mozgov shouldn’t be making $18 million. It’s that the superstars should be making $50-70 million.

Thus, why skip out on Noel? If everyone from Timofey Mozgov to Marc Gasol is worth $20 million, Noel should be no exception.

The Sixers’ salary situation is particularly conducive to a Noel extension. Presuming the Sixers deal Okafor, they will face a Noel extension after 2017, and an Embiid extension after 2018. They then won’t face a significant salary cap obligation until Dario Saric and Ben Simmons finish their rookie deals in 2020. The Sixers can dish out $30 million between Nerlens Noel and Ersan Ilyasova this summer, and still have $22 million in cap space.

A sign of hope

Nerlens is as much of an embodiment of “The Process” as anyone — a long list of “what-ifs” and unrealized flashes of brilliance. Nerlens is slowed down by the same things that hinder “The Process”. The big man logjam, inauspicious fit, and looming uncertainty have taken as much of a toll on Noel’s process as it has the Sixers’. Perhaps, now, Nerlens has found his role and will finally be rewarded for his sacrifices.

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