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Why Nerlens Noel is more dispensable than you think

Long before the recently verified health of Joel Embiid and offseason acquisitions of Ben Simmons and Dario Saric, the presumed end-game of either Jahlil Okafor or Nerlens Noel getting traded has hovered around the Sixers organization.

There’s plenty of reasons for the either/or trade, just pick one: They can’t coexist on the court, the Sixers need to establish roster balance with simply too many big men in place or the trade value to build around Simmons and Embiid is worth parting ways. Whatever the reason, it’s a nearing reality; one that Sixers General Manager Bryan Colangelo is well aware of.

Thanks to the defensive prowess of Richaun Holmes and Jerami Grant, Noel is the more easily replaceable talent. That said; it’s worth noting that the on/off numbers, which clearly supported Noel last season, can essentially be tossed aside and discredited moving into 2016-17.

With a crop of seven fresh faces inhabiting the Sixers roster, the decision of whom to trade is basically a balancing act of which quality is of more value moving forward—Okafor’s generational low post offensive capabilities of Noel’s interior defensive aptitude.

The answer is plainly visible, and as noted, it’s found in the defensive impact Holmes and Grant could aid in providing next season, as the numbers suggest they’re on pace to do.

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The most obvious feat worth pointing out is blocked shots, as rim protection has been Noel’s calling card dating back to his high school days at The Tilton School. Last season, in which Holmes was a rookie and Grant spent plenty of time on the wing; the two rejected 2.1 and 2.2 shots per 36 minutes, respectively. And if Holmes 22 blocks in summer league were any indication, that’s an area he’s taken a significant step forward in. Noel, on the other hand, clocked only 1.8 last season—a 0.4 regression from his rookie campaign.

Noel’s defensive rating (105.6) was also just slightly better than Holmes (105.7) and a small step behind Grant (105.1), indicating his absence wouldn’t automatically leave Philly as a vulnerable interior defensive team.

That’s evident in the defensive field goal percentage at the rim, which gauges an opponent’s shooting percentage at the basket when defended by a specific player. Noel held opponents to 48.6 percent on 8.3 attempts per game, comparable to Grant’s 46.1 percent in 4.9 attempts and Holmes’ 47.5 percent in 3.5 attempts.

Need more proof replacing Noel’s defensive impact with Grant and Holmes isn’t unfathomable? Noel’s defensive field goal percentage (47.8), which gauges opponent’s general field goal percentages when guarded by him, has a differential of 0.4.

That means a player’s field goal percentage is 0.4 percent higher when guarded by Noel, on average. As a rookie, Holmes certainly had room to improve with a 50.3 defensive field goal percentage and a 4.7 percent differential, which he showed positive signs of in summer league, but Grant’s 41.1 percent and -4.2 differential was far and away the headliner.

In short, the Sixers can survive with Noel’s defensive impact absent, and that’s not including whatever defensive ceiling Embiid brings to the table, which at 7’2, could be quite towering. Okafor’s 21 points per 36 minutes aren’t quite as replaceable, especially with the pass-happy Simmons now in need of as many reliable scoring options as possible.

When the time comes that one is finally traded, Okafor can thank Holmes and Grant for solidifying his position with the Sixers, at least for another season.

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