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The Mavericks’ biggest reclamation project to date

What if Nerlens Noel and the Mavericks both realized they screwed up?

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Qualifying offer and hot dog jokes aside, Nerlens Noel can still be a good player in the NBA. It’s baffling that the Mavericks, a rebuilding team in desperate need of young talent, would be in a position to just buy out or get rid of a 23-year-old former No. 6 overall pick.

The journey to this point has been complicated, and there were points in the season where it seemed like both sides were at fault. Nerlens Noel arrived in Dallas as part of a deal that sent beloved young wing Justin Anderson and a few protected draft picks to Philadelphia. At the time, the front office touted Noel as a “Tyson Chandler starter kit,” a lofty compliment considering Chandler is arguably the best center in franchise history.

Noel played 22 games for the Mavericks (and started 12), and while the fit with Dirk Nowitzki wasn’t cozy, he still seemed like a good piece with unique upside. The question of signing him was considered a matter of “when, not if,” and the Mavericks held all the leverage. But after July 1, it was oddly quiet, with no reports even mentioning Noel, just speculation, an odd occurrence in the age of Twitter reporters. Rumors swirled that the restricted free agent would be offered a big contract by the Mavericks but wanted a bigger one, pretty typical behavior.

But nothing after that point felt typical. To recap:

  • Noel declines the $70 million deal offered by the Mavs, fires his agent in favor of friend-of-LeBron Rich Paul, and accepts the qualifying offer of just $4 million for one year just four days after declining the more lucrative long-term contract.
  • On Media Day, just moments before Noel is scheduled to speak to the media himself, Carlisle reveals that Noel will come off the bench. Noel only found out himself a few days before.
  • He is eventually shifted back into the starting lineup, but after six games as a starter, he disappears from the rotation. The only explanation Carlisle offers publicly is “matchups.” But as reported by ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, Noel was really being outplayed and out-hustled in practice by Dwight Powell and Salah Mejri.
  • Noel leaves the locker room at halftime of a game he wasn’t playing in to get a hot dog.
  • In December, two weeks after disappearing from the lineup, it is announced that Noel needs thumb surgery. The team offers no timetable for his return.
  • Carlisle’s assertions that he is “dying to get [Noel] back” and “definitely looking forward to having [Noel] available” are blown off as mostly jest.

Even now, the entire story still seems so strange. Going into the trade deadline, the relationship between Nerlens Noel’s camp and the Mavericks seemed to be at an all time low, with an irreparable rift formed between the two sides.

Some believed the Mavericks would trade Noel; others suggested they would buy him out. Neither happened. Instead, a report from Marc Stein revealed that the Mavericks had no intention of releasing Noel. “To the contrary,” Stein said. “Dallas is hopeful it can get Noel back on the floor after the All-Star break and make another run at establishing a role for him.”

Mavericks President of Basketball Operations Donnie Nelson spoke to the media on the day of the trade deadline and reiterated that same notion. ”Nerlens is a young player that’s had a very difficult year with his injury.” Nelson said. “We want athletic, young bigs that can block shots. We traded for him for a reason.”

Both statements seem like a change of ideals for a relationship that wasn’t just broken, it seemed non-existent. But maybe Carlisle wasn’t teasing when he said that he wanted to bring Noel back, even though it seemed like he benched Noel and removed him from the rotation for no apparent reason at all.

It sounds crazy, but what if over the course of this whole affair, the Mavericks front office took a look at themselves, the free agency market, and Nerlens Noel and thought, “We need to fix this?” Both Noel and the team have had plenty of time for soul searching. Perhaps the “rift” that seemed to develop between Noel and the Mavericks has been overstated. Not fabricated, but exaggerated by what we assumed was a frustrating situation for both sides.

By all accounts, Noel has handled this situation professionally. When he was removed from the rotation in Philadelphia, Noel vented his frustration to the media and said, “I’m too good to be playing eight minutes, we need to figure this sh*t out.” Even with several opportunities to do so, Noel has made no such quip this season.

The market this summer is expected to be brutal for players, with only five teams projected to have more than $20 million in cap space (Mavs included). Perhaps diminutive deals like the one Lou Williams, a player who was one or two injuries away from making the All-Star Team in the Western Conference, recently signed with the Clippers, helped drive that reality home for Noel. If he becomes a free agent this summer, there’s no telling what he would be offered, but all signs are pointing towards teams spending even less this summer than last—and no one even offered Noel a deal last summer.

There’s still time for Noel to come back and play this year. And at just shy of 24 years old, there’s still time for Noel to carve out a place for himself in the NBA and get back some of that money. The Mavericks front office still, apparently, values him and wants him to return to the lineup. They would have just bought him out if they didn’t.

Between the team and the market, all signs point to the Mavericks reaching back to Nerlens Noel and trying to fix whatever damage may have been caused last summer. The Mavericks have revitalized many players before, but this one could be their biggest projfect to date. And there’s a non-zero chance that they can reconcile their differences and make this right.