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Nerlens Noel chose to bet on himself. What happened in contract negotiations?

Nerlens Noel thinks he can wait out this season for the max deal he deserves. How did we get here?

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

It’s over.

Nerlens Noel has signed a one-year qualifying offer to return to the Dallas Mavericks via ESPN’s Chris Haynes. The deal is for 1 year $4.1 million and means Noel will be an unrestricted Free Agent next summer. Haynes also reported that the “reported $17M “offer” was non-existent in any form.” This is in reference to a Basketball Insiders report that Nerlens “turned down a deal in the $17.5m per year range.”

However, mere minutes after Haynes debunked that offer, Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Noel “turned down 4-year, $70M Mavs offer made on July 1.”

These are not necessarily contradictory reports because $70 million over 4 years averages out to $17.5 million.

(laugh track)

All of these deals are still just reports, all summer there have been reports of all kinds that have proved to grow the noses of reporters, but when Woj gets involves a report becomes a real boy.

Either way, there’s a lot to unpack from a few sets of 140 characters.

What happened?

According to Woj, the Mavericks offered Noel a 4-year $70 million deal on July 1st. An offer that even Noel’s peers said he should accept or get better friends and advisors in his circle.

Now we know that this deal was initially turned down. At the time of this offer, teams still had money to spend on free agents and this didn’t seem like such a bad move on Noel’s part. But after each passing free agency deal, the money was drying up and the number of teams that could even offer Noel a deal of that size dwindled.

The only reason for the waiting game was to see if Noel was offered a max deal by another team which, for a player of his experience, would have been around $25 million per year. The Mavericks had the ability to match any deal Nerlens was offered by another team because Noel was a restricted free agent. Once the threat of a max offer was eliminated and no team could offer Noel anything close to $17 million per year next season there seemed to be no doubt Noel would have to accept the original offer.

But apparently once Noel asked for a max contract the Mavericks shot back with a melodic “look what you made me do” and the original 4 year $70 million offer was pulled soon thereafter.

The only report at that time was from Nerlens’ agent (at the time), Happy Walters.

“We're very disappointed with where things stand. Nerlens loves Dallas and spent June there working out, but we're still waiting on a serious offer."

Making Noel just the second person this week to be disappointed with something that he made someone else do.

As the weeks went by, nothing materialized and Noel decided to take action.

Not even a week ago, Noel decided that he would leave Walters and be represented by Rich Paul of Klutch Sports. Paul had represented Tristian Thompson, Eric Bledsoe, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope who were all in similar negotiations situations with their current teams and ended up receiving more money. The thought was that now Noel would wait until the very last possible day—October 1st—for the Mavericks to cave and give him the offer he wanted.

But the NBA offseason remains undefeated.

As a restricted free agent there are a few options for a player. They can accept an offer given by their original team, accept an offer from another team which could be matched, or do something completely different. Which is where Noel, Rich Paul, the Mavericks, and all Mavs fans find themselves today when Noel accepted the qualifying offer.

This is how NBA Cap Master Larry Coon explains the QO in his incredibly detailed and essential CBA FAQ:

“In order to make their free agent a restricted free agent, a team must submit a qualifying offer to the player between the day following the last game of the NBA Finals and June 29. The qualifying offer is a standing offer for a one-year guaranteed contract, which becomes a regular contact if the player decides to sign it. This ensures that the team does not gain the right of first refusal without offering a contract themselves. The amount of the qualifying offer depends on the situation…”

The situation Noel found himself in was a qualifying offer of $4.1 million. Draft status, “Starter Criteria,” and years in the league all affect the QO a team can make. Noel’s $4.1 million QO was lower than Caldwell-Pope’s QO of $5.5 million because Noel did not meet the Starter Criteria.

Now Noel has accepted the Mavericks’ QO and will be an unrestricted free agent in Summer 2018.

How did it come to this?

Noel turned down the Mavericks original offer of 4 years $70 million because he assumed there would be a better offer out there. It made sense at the time, but then the money dried up.

Last season the NBA Salary Cap jumped up $19 million from the 2015-16 season. Every team—basically—had an extra $19 million to spend in Free Agency which is why some ridiculous contracts were handed out. For example: Ian Mahimni played his part in the Mavericks 2011 title run but in what world is he worth $16 million per year for the next 3 years? The Free Agent class of 2017 looked at the amount of money that was being thrown around last summer and assumed that it would also be hurled toward them as well.

Narrator: “It wasn’t.”

While a few players received exorbitant deals, most of them were one year deals like the 1 year $20 million contract Caldwell-Pope eventually signed with the Lakers or the 1 year $23 million deal J.J. Redick signed with the 76ers.

This issue never would have occurred if the Players Association had accepted the League’s proposal of Salary Cap Smoothing that would gradually introduce more money into the league’s salary cap instead of the $19 million surge it experienced. That surge created unrealistic expectations on behalf of the players and Noel seemed to fall for it hook, line, and sinker.

Now having accepted the QO, Noel is betting on himself to prove to the league that he is worth the max contract he seeks.

What Happens Now?

Now the Mavericks have a motivated Nerlens Noel in another contract year—maybe the most important of his life. If he can prove he’s worth a max contract on the open market then the Mavericks are in prime position to bring him back for the 2018-19 season. The Mavericks would still hold his Bird Rights and be able to offer Noel more money than any other team. They could offer him a 5 year max contract worth 25 percent of the salary cap next season whereas any other team could only offer him a 4 year deal. To a player like Noel with significant injury history, that extra year could be incredibly valuable, but Noel did turn down a 4 year deal in favor of 1 year so…

The problem with Noel betting on himself is not that he couldn’t become a max contract-caliber player, the issue is the market for next season.

This is the list of big men that could* be free agents next summer:

DeAndre Jordan (PO), DeMarcus Cousins, Joel Embiid (RFA), Brook Lopez, LaMarcus Aldridge (PO), Jusuf Nurkic (RFA), Jabari Parker (RFA), Julius Randle (RFA), Clint Capela (RFA), Derrick Favors, Greg Monroe, Enes Kanter (PO)

RFA: Restricted Free Agent
TO: Team Option
PO: Player Option
*There are several prominent big men that have Team Options next summer (Nikola Jokic, Myles Turner, Kristaps Porzingis, Karl Anthony-Towns, etc.) but they are still their Rookie Deals and will almost certainly return to their original teams.

The climate of the 2018 offseason may look similar to this past offseason and Noel may again find himself without a cart or a horse. That’s a lot of talent that will demand big money and it’s hard to envision Noel getting the big piece of chicken when Cousins, Jordan, and Embiid are sitting at the same table. Noel can try to prove himself, but he’s not just betting on himself—he’s betting on the market to be favorable too.

Now that Noel is reportedly signed, the Mavericks find themselves in an odd place. One roster spot remaining (assuming one of the current players fills the second Two-Way spot) and $10 million in cap space.

What the Mavs can do with that space is another story, but today the Mavericks retained Nerlens Noel. He might not be in the season promotional material but he will be a Maverick for the 2017-18 season.

Noel made a decision, not the decision everyone expected but a choice to believe in himself. All summer it seemed everyone was talking at him, trying to get in his head, he needed to listen to his own heart talking, needed to count on himself instead. He’s not going to stop, that’s just who he is, he gives all he’s got, that’s his plan. Will he find what he lost? He thinks he can…