The vast majority of the time, the beginning of NBA training camp is a period of unbridled enthusiasm. Every player had a terrific offseason, either gained or lost 15 pounds depending upon his body type, and, like an eager co-ed right before beach season, is in the best shape of his life. Optimism reigns supreme, which should especially be true for the Philadelphia 76ers. The franchise is expecting three lottery pick rookies to take an NBA court for the first time, with Vegas projecting more than an additional 17 wins tacked on to last year’s dismal 10-win campaign.
However, it hasn’t been all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows everywhere for the Sixers, as the proverbial turd in the punch bowl has been the outspoken criticism emanating from center Nerlens Noel. First, late Sunday night in an interview with Keith Pompey of Philly.com, Noel expressed his frustration with the fact that the team has not resolved the situation with himself, Joel Embiid, and Jahlil Okafor all still being on the roster. Here were a few of his comments from the interview:
“I think it’s just silly . . . this situation that we are in now with three starting centers,”
“I feel like it definitely needs to be figured out. I think at the end of the day, again, you have three starting-caliber centers. And it’s just not going to work to anybody’s advantage having that on the same team. That’s how I’m looking at it. I’m not opposed to anything, but things need to be situated.”
“We’ve gone from zero and we are not at 100. We went from zero and things are still building here. . . . I think I sacrificed a lot. And at this point, there’s really not too much that I’m capable of sacrificing.”
With media day taking place on Monday, Noel could have opted to smooth things over and gloss his comments over as a momentary bit of frustration. Instead, he doubled down on them, essentially echoing his statements in front of the larger assembled media horde:
Nerlens Noel on current big man situation: "I don't see a way of it working… We've got 3 centers capable of playing 30+ minutes a night."
— max (@MaxRappaport) September 26, 2016
Noel: "Doesn't make much sense to come into season with such a heavy (logjam) at center position." Not sure what there is to wait and see.
— Derek Bodner (@DerekBodnerNBA) September 26, 2016
Noel: 'I've been through the worst. At this point, it can only get better.' Best future 4 him is 'to be utilized 2 the best of my abilities.
— Tom Moore (@tmoore76ers) September 26, 2016
Naturally, Noel sticking out like a sore thumb has not gone over well with a sizable segment of the fanbase. They see a guy making over $4 million this season, more than many people will make in a lifetime, and it’s certainly understandable that their reaction would be to wish he just shut up and did his job.
However, I’m here to tell you that while he could maybe couch his statements a tad less harshly, Noel is absolutely right to be saying these things.
First, he’s not wrong in the least. Three centers on the roster can’t work. As Noel mentioned, there simply aren’t the minutes to support it. It’s been the primary topic of conversation for fans and analysts in Philadelphia since Jahlil Okafor was drafted in 2015.
We say we want honesty and more than canned, milquetoast answers from athletes, but when they do say what’s actually on their minds, we usually end up getting in a huff about it. Noel made sure to repeatedly mention that he loves the fans and the city, and he and the other big men get along great, so I have absolutely no problem with him affirming what’s the most obvious flaw with the Sixers roster.
Then, there’s the fact that Noel has to do what’s best for him in the long-term. Prior to his injury in college, he was projected to be a first overall pick. Even still, Noel ended up as a high lottery pick, one who has excelled in many of the areas a modern center is expected to contribute. Most teams would be treating him as a key building block moving forward, but instead, the Sixers have created a situation where many view him as a redundant piece that the organization should just get whatever scraps they go for and move on.
It’s bad enough that the NBA’s draft system fails to create a fair, free market for the labor force, effectively determining where these players are going to have to work for the first eight years of their career. Noel will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season, with the Sixers having the right to match any offer.
Thus, the current logjam at the center position likely to deflate Noel’s playing time and stats, potentially costing him millions of dollars in his next contract. But also, with plenty of cap space, the Sixers could match any offer and retain him as a backup 5 / insurance policy for Embiid; unless, of course, he had made it clear that he would be unhappy with such a role and the team viewed it as a negative distraction.
Now, I know there aren’t many people out there crying over the fate of a multi-millionaire, but from a perspective relative to his peers, it’s easy to see where Noel is coming from in the situation.
There are plenty of places around the league where he would be the unquestioned starter, with all the playing time and eventual bump in salary that comes with it. For a guy who was expected to be a first overall pick and has essentially developed as scouts expected, Noel is getting a pretty raw deal.
It’s a tricky problem in Philadelphia, and while I don’t know how Bryan Colangelo should best go about trying to fix it, I’m also not going to hate on Nerlens Noel for pointing out the problem is there in the first place.