The Nerlens Noel debate was always a multi-fronted affair, so it would be disingenuous to declare any sort of finitude after less than a month of seeing how things play out. The overarching criticism from many Sixers fans remains as valid as it is impervious to rebuttal: In waiting until the last possible moment to trade Noel, general manager Bryan Colangelo betrayed an ignorance or incomprehension of one of the fundamental principles of The Process, that any player who is deemed not to be an end in and of himself is necessarily a means to acquiring such an end/ends, and thus is no longer a basketball player but an asset whose primary function is as a store of value. In salvaging a couple of second-round picks and a former No. 21 overall pick for a former No. 6 overall pick with a marketable skill set, Colangelo allowed the considerable portfolio he inherited from his predecessor to shrink. In the end, the Sixers were unable to use the No. 6 overall pick in the 2013 draft to move themselves appreciably closer to contention.
But there was a second line of attack that formed in the wake of Colangelo’s late-February decision to trade Noel to the Mavericks for guard Justin Anderson and a couple of second-round picks, one that suggested that the Sixers, given the minimality of the price point, would have been better off keeping Noel around and re-signing him to the healthy contract he thinks he deserves while retaining the ability to trade him for a better package at a later date.
Given the counterintuitive — or, rather, wrong-headed — suggestion that the market would end up appraising a Player X with a Salary Y as less valuable than that same Player X with his Salary Y multiplied by 4 (X +Y > X + 4Y), the second line of attack never made much sense. But self-evidence is not always enough evidence for the entrenched. Often, one must wait for the concrete proof to mount. Fortunately for us, Richaun Holmes has wasted little time.
In the two months before the Noel trade, Holmes had played in almost as many games in the D-League as he had at the NBA level. That wasn’t entirely Noel’s fault: Joel Embiid had not yet torn his meniscus, and Jahlil Okafor had not yet lost his will to live, meaning Holmes was no better than fourth on the depth chart at the five. If Noel had remained on the roster, Holmes might still be averaging 15-20 minutes a game. But he almost certainly would not have been in a position to open up a vast new frontier in The Process, which is exactly what has happened in the 14 games he’s played since the trade, most recently in Monday night’s overtime loss to the Magic.
In 42 minutes against Orlando, Holmes turned in a performance that Noel had managed only a handful of times in his 2 1/2 seasons in a Sixers uniform. Holmes’ 24 points were more than Noel scored in all but two games as a Sixer, and his 14 rebounds were more than Noel grabbed in all but nine. Put it together and it equals this: Noel reached 24 points and nine rebounds in just two of his 171 games as a Sixer.
Holmes has done it twice in 10 days.
Granted, Noel rarely had an opportunity to log the kind of minutes that Holmes did against the Magic on Monday night, but that’s actually the point of this whole exercise: If Noel was still here getting those minutes, Holmes would be here getting far fewer. The big differences — the critical ones, really — are that Holmes is not set to become a free agent, and that the Sixers have not had two full seasons and half of another to evaluate and valuate him and project those evaluations and valuations into the future. Noel was what he was and, with Dallas, he has remained what he is.
From the Mavericks’ perspective, that is not a bad thing. They are 8-4 since acquiring him, 7-2 in games he has played, an effort toward which Noel has contributed a downright Noellian 9.0 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks while shooting .589 in 23.1 minutes per game. He is and always will be more athletic, more dynamic, better in transition, and it stands to reason that would be a more versatile piece in a playoff rotation than the slower-afoot Holmes.
Yet from the Sixers’ perspective, none of that really matters. Nor does it matter if Noel remains the better player. What matters is, like the original issue at hand, two-fold:
1) Is the difference between Noel and Holmes equal to or greater than the extra $12-14 million per year the Sixers would have to spend, at minimum, to have one and not the other as their backup five-man?
2) What is the difference between Noel’s future production and Holmes’ future production?
In both cases, the answer is becoming obvious. First, Holmes offers far better bang for the Sixers buck than Noel would have moving forward, to the point that he might even show himself to be a better store of value w/r/t future trade markets. Since the trade, Holmes has averaged 25.0 minutes, 13.4 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.1 steals and shot .625 from the floor, and even .375 from three-point range.
Second, we can project Holmes’ three- to five-year trajectory far less certainly than we could Noel’s, and, thus, it would be a step backward in the process to currently be giving Noel the minutes that Holmes is getting.
More than anything, foundational principle of The Process is the Law of Large numbers: The more information you have, the more educated your guesses will be, and the more educated guesses you take, the greater their aggregate probability of paying off.
Really, Holmes is The Process far more than Noel was The Process. Sam Hinkie’s penchant for collecting second-round picks was easy fodder for first-level thinkers who read it as the mad compulsion of an egomaniacal intellect who thought he was smarter than the basketball men who regularly failed to draft NBA talent with their second-round pick. Instead, it was an admission of ignorance, a submission to that which nobody can know, a decision that the dominant strategy is to treat the second round as the thing history has shown it to be: a game of chance in which quantity of picks might trump quality of scouting.
Since 2013, the Sixers have selected 12 players in the second round, more than any other team in the NBA. Of those 12, only Holmes and Jerami Grant look to have long-term futures as fixtures in an NBA rotation. But the value of finding just one such player outweighs the cost of the rest. For that matter, Holmes ended up in Philly only because one of Hinkie’s earlier second-round picks played well enough to hold some market value: The Sixers landed the second rounder they used to draft Holmes by trading K.J. McDaniels to the Rockets.
As disappointing as the return for Noel might have been, and as valid as the criticisms of Colangelo for failing to act sooner might be, the recent play of Richaun Holmes has laid definitive waste to the notion that the Sixers would be in a better position right now had they decided to hang onto Noel rather than trade him for scrap.