The Trail Blazers have gotten off to a rough start defensively in the early weeks of the 2016-17 season. Notably, opponents have repeatedly driven to the rim with impunity, and the Blazers have surrendered a league worst 52.3 points in the paint per game.
The Blazers’ inherent defensive limitations have been much publicized; Even if Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless re-find their continuity from last season, the Blazers will still need an elite rim-protecting center to make up for the limitations of CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Nerlens Noel and the 76ers have become disenchanted with each other. The Sixers have three blue-chip center prospects in Noel, Kahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid. Noel, possibly reading some writing on the wall behind the scenes, opined to the Associated Press in September that it is impossible for the Sixers to find playing time for all three and one of them needs to be dealt:
"I don't see a way of it working, it's just a logjam. You've got three talented centers that can play 30-plus minutes a night and three centers can't play 30 minutes a night. That's that," Noel said. "Obviously, somebody's got to be moved around. It's a tough situation, but I can only say so much because I have no say and no power."
Sixers GM Bryan Colangelo replied that he is in no rush to move any of the three and that Philadelphia management is thrilled with its young talent. At the same time, the deadline to extend Noel’s expiring rookie contract passed on Oct. 31 with no news that Noel and the Sixers had even opened negotiations. It’s safe to say that the relationship is fractured and Colangelo would be interested in making a trade before Noel becomes a restricted free agent this summer and Philly’s hand is forced.
The natural follow-up question: Should the Blazers make a trade to buy low on Noel in an attempt to solve their defensive woes?
Would Noel fit in Portland?
On the positive side, Noel has bona-fide stud - maybe even certified G - potential on defense. Bryan Torporek has outlined the details here for BBall Breakdown, but suffice to say during his rookie year Noel put up gaudy block/steal numbers (top 10 in both!) and had an elite impact as measured by advanced statistics. He has the athleticism to erase shots from all angles around the rim (doesn’t matter who’s shooting!), and the range to disrupt pick-and-rolls like nobody else on Portland’s roster.
Basically, he’s everything the Blazers wanted when they signed Festus Ezeli:
Noel did take a step back when he was moved to power forward and paired with Okafor last year, but he would face no such competition for minutes at center with the Blazers.
On the downside, Noel does not have the best reputation around the NBA. He has missed team functions, was accused of trashing a rental property, and is beginning to develop a reputation as a malcontent. At the same time, Noel has been in a fairly terrible situation in Philly, and Embiid and Okafor have also gained negative reputations with the 76ers. The Blazers, who have been touted for their locker room strength, may be the change of scenery he needs.
Noel also has a semi-concerning injury history – he suffered a torn ACL in 2013 and had another minor surgery on the same knee in October of this year. But he was mostly healthy for the last two NBA seasons, playing a total of 142 games.
In sum, Noel is a tantalizing prospect who would fit the Blazers system perfectly. If Neil Olshey believes Portland’s culture and state of the art training staff can mitigate the primary concerns swirling around Noel, the team may have found its target for the ever-elusive “consolidation trade.”
Can the Blazers make the trade happen?
Whether or not the Blazers have the pieces to make a trade for Noel without sacrificing McCollum will depend heavily on how far the center’s stock has fallen with his current team, and what other GMs around the league are willing to offer for his services. For added context, a potential trade of Noel to Atlanta for Jeff Teague was rumored this summer but never confirmed.
Working in the Blazers’ favor is the the 76ers’ lack of outside shooting. They’re woefully undermanned at guard, starting Blazer castoffs Sergio Rodriguez and Gerald Henderson, and this might open the door for the Blazers to snag Noel with a package centering around Allen Crabbe.
Crabbe’s outside shooting and decent perimeter defense would be an immediate help to the Sixers, and also potentially give them a long-term starter at shooting guard. The Sixers also showed interest in Crabbe this summer, before deciding against making him an offer, possibly because they feared Olshey would match any contract.
Acquiring Crabbe would eat into the Sixers’ salary cap space – they have nobody on a large contract to send back to Portland – but with players hesitant to sign with struggling teams this summer, the Sixers may be interested in avoiding free agent negotiations by acquiring players on longer deals via trade.
Ultimately, the success of a deal centering on Noel for Crabbe and other Blazer assets will come down to offers from other teams. At this moment, the Sixers would certainly say no to such a deal and hold out for a more equitable offer from another organization.
But if February rolls around and Noel’s reputation and pending restricted free agency have scared off all suitors, the Sixers may become desperate as they face the reality of locking up big money on a player who wants no part of their franchise, or letting him walk for nothing. At that point the Blazers may have an outside shot at using Crabbe, draft picks, and a couple other players (Vonleh?) to acquire Noel for 75 cents on the dollar.
Would you trade Crabbe and other assets for Noel? Let us know in the comments!
Eric Griffith | GoBlazers87@gmail.com | @DeeringTornado