Everyone loves fake trades. At any given moment, fans are trading unhappy All-Stars (John Wall, Boogie Cousins), struggling young players (Willie Cauley-Stein, Mario Hezonja), expensive sidekicks (Bradley Beal, C.J. McCollum), and expiring contracts (Andrew Bogut, Rudy Gay). Fake trades are the oxygen that keeps the NBA Internet thriving. But this is not about a fake trade. This is about a very real trade that needs to happen in the middle of January.
Let's get Nerlens Noel to Portland. For some context, Noel played his first game of the year on Sunday. He had eight points, no rebounds, and one steal in 10 minutes.
The Sixers won, but he left before halftime with a sprained ankle. It was a nice microcosm of his frustrating year thus far. Depending on who you believe, prior to Sunday Noel had either been patiently rehabbing after a preventative knee surgery this fall, or he'd spent the past few months demanding a trade from the Sixers, and refusing to play in the meantime. The truth is probably somewhere in between. In any case, he's healthy now—Sunday's ankle sprain doesn't sound serious—and it's time for the rest of the NBA to pay attention.
Cousins would command a war chest of picks, and they'll still need help to succeed on a new team. Eric Bledsoe could be stolen from Phoenix, but he's had injury issues that would give a lot of teams pause. Teams are always looking for the next James Harden trade, but the NBA has gotten smarter since then. It's hard to steal stars in 2016.
Nerlens might be the exception. When he's healthy and motivated, he can be excellent. He's mobile enough to keep pace with guards on defense, he can protect the rim and rebound, and he'll run the floor and get all kinds of garbage points on offense. He's also 22 years old, and he's spent the past few years stuck in a nightmare situation in Philadelphia.
There's a chance that he's better than anyone realizes. At worst, he's Bismack Biyombo. His best case scenario is probably close to Thibs-era Joakim Noah.
For the record, the Sixers should think very hard about keeping him—especially given Embiid's minutes-restriction and Nerlens's ability to become super valuable as a sixth man. But Noel doesn't seem interested in staying in Philly, and the Sixers have apparently been looking to deal one of their big men since last May. The relationship has probably run its course.
This where is the Blazers comes into play. Portland's pieces don't fit, and everyone knows this. There is too much money tied up in the perimeter, and the holes up front have been worse than anyone expected. With Lillard and McCollum, the Blazers should be one of the most addictive young teams in the league, but they're not. Watching them in 2016 will give you an anxiety attack. They paid how much for Evan Turner? And Allen Crabbe? Those are the big men? This is the plan?
No. Nerlens should be the plan.
It's not that he's a sure thing. Dating back to the draft, there have been red flags surrounding both Noel's health and his lifestyle off the court. He's never played a full season in the NBA, and last year he was named in a lawsuit over a rented house that went, uh, very wrong (Nerlens denies the allegations). The gamble here is that most of his health issues are behind him, and that playing in a winning environment can help solve any other issues he's had. It's a smart risk.
There are other teams that could make the same bet. The Raptors could give up someone like Terrence Ross and try to make Noel their new Biyombo. The Celtics could flip a future first-round pick for him, and hope the he solves their defensive rebounding issues. The Warriors could send Shaun Livingston to Philly to try to shore up their interior defense. The Mavericks could flip Andrew Bogut for a draft pick, and then use that pick to trade for Nerlens. The Suns could decide that the Alex Len experiment is over and deal Bledsoe for Nerlens and a pick. There are plenty of options out there.
It's just hard to find a solution that makes more sense than Portland. Noel is a restricted free agent after this year, which is why he'd be a tough fit in Toronto, Boston, or Golden State. Those teams won't be in a position to pay him market value over the summer, which makes it harder to sacrifice assets now.
It's a different story for the Blazers. They stockpiled this summer's mismatched assets specifically to move them for more useful pieces down the line. They can't trade Evan Turner back to Philly (Hinkie fans would burn down the Wells Fargo Center), and they have to wait until January 15th to trade any of this summer's restricted free agents (Allen Crabbe, Mo Harkless, Meyers Leonard), and Crabbe can veto any trade during this season (since Portland matched his Nets offer sheet). Still, the pieces are there. They just have to survive another month.
As a defensive counter to their offense, Nerlens could be deadly next to McCollum and Lillard. He can play uptempo, he can rebound and protect the rim. Blazers games can be fun again. The environment with Lillard and Terry Stotts would be the inverse of everything he dealt with in Philadelphia, and the Blazers would have three months months to gauge the fit on and off the court.
So let's do it. If the Blazers send Allen Crabbe and a protected first-round pick to the Sixers, this can work. Philly needs Crabbe's shooting around Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, and they don't have to worry about the cap space Crabbe would occupy. Crabbe would likely sign off an opportunity to play 35 minutes per game on the east coast. 76ers GM Bryan Colangelo could declare victory after he finally lands a first-round pick for one of his big men. The Blazers would get short-term help up front, and potentially a long-term answer who can grow with Lillard and McCollum over the next several years. Who says no?