This piece is about the recent Nerlens Noel trade to the Dallas Mavericks for Two Second Round Picks and Justin Anderson.
I’m not going to write a lot about Nerlens Noel value on the court. Everyone else is already doing that. It’s potentially very high.
First, think about a guy like Tyson Chandler, who came into the league as 7’0″, skinny (224 lbs) barely functional basketball player, showed his first positive flashes as a 22 year old and didn’t become a fully functioning player on both sides of the ball until age 24, when he was paired with Chris Paul and David West.
Now think about Rick Carlisle, who helped sculpt the careers of both Ben Wallace and Tyson Chandler. It was Carlisle who first truly weaponized Ben Wallace. (Number per Sports-Reference.com)
The first time Wallace led the league in Defensive Box Plus Minus was 2000-01, the year before Rick Carlisle became head coach. Though Wallace did become noticeably better defensively under Carlisle, amping up his DBPM to 6.5 and 7.0 at age 27 and 28, that wasn’t the real magic trick. The magic trick was that Wallace figured out how to put Wallace in position to succeed on offense.
And no, success here isn’t a relative term. Here are Wallace’s results in his first season under Carlisle:
A 117 Offensive Rating for a center who can’t score is pretty good. Especially considering Ben Wallace was only at 100 the year prior to Carlisle taking over the Pistons.
Though these positive results aren’t restricted to Ben Wallace. Carlisle did the same for Tyson Chandler.
What we see here is Tyson Chandler’s case for the Hall of Fame. Tyson Chandler age 28 through 32. It’s not a coincidence that the first of these 130+ Offensive Rating seasons took place in Dallas. Never before had Tyson Chandler been on such an offense, not even with Chris Paul and the Hornets. The key being that Rick Carlisle truly realized just how dangerous Tyson Chandler could be rolling to the basket.
Nor was it just Tyson Chandler. Let us look at the career of Brendan Wright.
We see the same kind of progression. Average to below average offensive Center ends up on Dallas. Becomes an integral part of one of the most dominant offenses in the league. Yes, that’s a 147 Offensive Rating that Brendan Wright was scoring in nearly a third of the season with Dallas before the Rondo trade.
What I am trying to say, Rick Carlisle knows how to teach Centers the game, and he knows how to utilize their strengths to positive effect, whatever those strengths may be. Nerlens Noel is in good hands. And yes, Dallas did very well.
The Sixers Side Of Things
On the face of things the Sixers take seems underwhelming. Two second round picks and Justin Anderson. It very well may have been the best deal on the table, but it’s also not the kind of deal that had to be made now. The Sixers could have just as easily waited until Free Agency, let the Dallas Mavericks or another team sign Nerlens Noel to an offer sheet, and then use the 48-hour window to negotiate a sign-and-trade. If no sign-and-trade was workable, match and if you still don’t want Noel, useful as he is, trade him in December.
Dallas made this trade because they are planning on signing Noel to a Max Contract. It’s not like a deal for Justin Anderson, who is basically out of Rick Carlisle’s rotation, and two 2nd round draft picks wasn’t going to be available at that time. So the question is why now?
It’s simple. Lottery odds.
The Race to the Bottom
Here are the team’s at the bottom of this year’s NBA Standings, arranged with the worst team, the Brooklyn Nets at the top.
Here we see the Sixers are three Wins away from 2nd place. (That’s the 2nd worst record.) They’ve traded Noel, their best healthy player. They are likely going to shelve Embiid for the season, due to a meniscus injury. And they are going to be playing Okafor a lot. That’s a good recipe for losses.
I’d put that team as the odds on favorite to be 2nd worst in the league, especially seeing as how both Phoenix and the Lakers, are projected for 27 Wins. Does the Lou Williams deal change that math? Perhaps a little, but probably not substantively. Especially when the Lakers are still playing and trying to develop the young players who are integral to the franchise’s future.
That would have two positive effects for the Sixers, since the Sixers also own the Lakers pick if it falls out of the Top 3. The worse the Sixers do, the better chance the Sixers have of getting the Lakers pick this year.
However, there’s more. There’s the Sacramento Kings, who have traded Boogie Cousins and seem almost destined to drop to the bottom of the table. Orlando, Minnesota, Dallas, Portland, New York and New Orleans are almost certainly going to pass them. And it’s possible the Suns and the Lakers do as well.
Why is that important? Thanks to Sam Hinkie and Sachin Gupta, the Sixers own a pick swap with Sacramento. A pick swap that could be very valuable as the Kings looked primed to finish with between the 2nd and 5th worst record in the league.
Let’s Look At Some Lottery Odds
Thanks to Tankathon.com we have this pretty little chart:
If I’m right and Sixers finished 2nd from the bottom and Sacramento finishes no worst than 5th, we see the Sixers will have the best chance for the First overall pick in the draft at around 28.7%. While also possessing a 28.5% chance at the 2nd pick in the draft and a 27.8% at pick three. This is a scenario in which the Lakers have at best a 46.9% chance of keeping their pick. But that’s only if the Lakers do indeed finish worse than the Suns. Indeed, in the the situation the Lakers finish 4th, their odds of keeping the pick drop to 37.8%.
Those are good odds for the Sixers. Of course, they aren’t anywhere close to a best case scenario. The best case scenario involves the Sixers and the Kings finishing with the 2nd and 3rd worst records in the league, dropping the Lakers odds down to a maximum of 37.8% of keeping their pick. Should the Lakers finish in 5th place in this scenario, they’d only have a 29.2% chance of keeping their pick. Whereas the Sixers would not only most likely get the Lakers pick, they’d increase their odds of receiving the 1st pick in the draft from 27.7% to 35.5% and their odds of receiving the second pick to 34.5%. A 70% chance of either the 1st or 2nd pick. Better odds than any team has had in the lottery era.
I may have calculated wrong. Just how good they are is important, but it’s not the point at hand. The point is that these odds are good, really good, and much, much better for the 76ers than they would have been. What I’m saying is that this trade really isn’t about a limited return on Nerlens Noel. It’s about Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball. And if we include the Lakers pick, it’s about the possibility of getting a player like Fultz or Ball AND a player like Isaac or Monk.
Indeed, I’m guessing that this trade doesn’t happen if Sacramento doesn’t go into full tanking mode. It’s the DeMarcus Cousins trade (coupled with the Joel Embiid injury) that flipped the tables for the Sixers. Though only select parties know if that supposition is really true.
Why am I willing to give Brian Colangelo credit? It’s the timing of the deal that is so curious. We know Toronto was interested. Why not make a Noel deal with Toronto before the Ibaka deal was completed? (Toronto traded a 1st and like player for Ibaka, even though he’s expiring and has far less defensive upside at this point of his career.) Why not merely wait until Free Agency or next season? Justin Anderson + two 2nd round picks is not the kind of deal that goes away. The answer, lottery odds.
Considering the cost of moving up from the 5th pick to the 2nd or 3rd pick in the draft, there is hidden value in dealing Noel. Let’s say this hidden value is worth somewhere between the 4th to 8th pick in the draft. The only unique thing here is that Dallas didn’t have to surrender it. It’s built into the workings of the NBA. It’s the rules of the NBA that allow this deal to potentially be a win-win, though it’ll be a long time before we know. For the 76ers, it involves a decent amount of risk. That doesn’t necessarily make it the wrong play.