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Nerlens Noel’s suspension is the only way this saga could have ended

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Not once since Noel signed the qualifying offer did it appear he and the Mavericks were going to have a long future together.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Nerlens Noel screwed up. A lot.

At times early in the season he didn’t seem as engaged as he could have been. Rumors swirled for months about his apparent mediocre work ethic and Noel was so checked out after being benched early in the season that he went and got a freaking hot dog at a home game during halftime. This culminated in Noel being suspended for the final five games of the season due to violation of the league’s drug policy.

To earn that suspension, Noel violated the policy for a third time. To get caught three times smoking weed in the NBA is incredibly dumb. Weed isn’t a big deal in the slightest, but it’s obvious other players avoid this problem.

But despite Noel’s obvious mistakes, it always felt like this was the kind of end the two parties were destined for. Noel has likely played his last game in a Mavericks uniform a little more than a year after he was described as a “Tyson (Chandler) starter kit.” This is a colossal failure from all parties involved — Noel, his agent, his inner circle and, yes, the Mavericks.

I’ve been on the Nerlens Noel beat all season, and if you’ve read my work, you know my extreme distaste for the Mavericks’ handling of the situation at every turn since contract negotiations went sour last summer. Even if you want to put 100 percent of the blame on Noel for not holding up his end of the bargain, the fact remains the Mavericks traded for a young, ultra-talented player that mostly produced well when given minutes, and now that player is likely done with the team.

The fact that a player has a hand in his demise does not wash the hands of the organization that acquired him. Especially not when it’s the same organization that made the Lamar Odom and Rajon Rondo trades that ended in similar disasters.

It doesn’t excuse how the Mavericks handled the Noel situation from the moment the contract negations got icy. I was clearly wrong that the Mavs should have ponied up and met Noel’s max counter (that’s the only part of this saga making the team look smart right now), but that doesn’t explain why the Mavericks continually put Noel in tough situations from the start. He was benched at the beginning of training camp and somehow failed to crack 20 minutes in the season opener, despite playing one of the best games of his entire career.

From there, it was probably over. Whatever the Mavericks hoped to get out of Noel was likely lost, and while Noel absolutely slumped from that point on past the season-opener, it’s hard to blame him. The argument that Noel should have responded better is completely valid, but at a certain point you have to stop putting him in situations where he needs to respond in the first place.

The fact that Noel was benched and out of the rotation completely shortly thereafter was puzzling, especially when you consider where the Mavericks were and where they are now. Even with the stories swirling around Noel’s work ethic in practice, what exactly would the Mavericks lose by spoon-feeding Noel minutes just to see how a potential core part of the roster would fit with rookie Dennis Smith Jr. and Harrison Barnes? The Mavericks credit their strong locker room culture for their aversion to tanking... shouldn’t that strong locker room get more out of Noel or be able to weather his playing time, even if it wasn’t specifically earned?

We’re getting in the weeds here, because it ultimately doesn’t matter. The Mavericks made up their mind about Noel, even though he came back from a mid-season thumb surgery to once again start doing the things he was always good at doing when he got time. In the last 15 games, the Mavs posted a 97.1 defensive rating with Noel on the floor. When he was off? It shot up to 110.1. Noel is good. He might not be as good as we, or I, wanted him to be. But he is good.

That’s why this has been such a massive disappointment. Noel was supposed to make up for the devastating back-to-back failures of Rondo and DeAndre Jordan. The Mavs roster was hilariously bone-dry of young talent due to those moves falling apart, but Noel was going to bridge the gap. It didn’t happen. Not one time since Noel signed the qualifying offer did it ever appear the Mavericks and Noel were willing to make the relationship work. It was a consistent string of obvious stumbles and failures because that’s how this was always going to end. Noel has to shoulder a lot of the blame for that, but the Mavericks do, too.

Player development is a two-way street. When a player fails, an organization has to be reflective and ask why. If Noel wasn’t working hard, why couldn’t the Mavericks bring that out of him? If the Mavericks have a strong locker room with good leadership, why couldn’t they withstand Noel getting force-fed minutes for the good of the franchise? If Noel had such a bad attitude and was a problem, why were the Mavericks willing to give Noel $70 million? If Noel was such an issue in practice, why didn’t this happen after the trade last season, when Noel played a good amount of minutes and was one of the best players on the team until the season ended? Why does the front-office consistently saddle Rick Carlisle with players he seems to want nothing to do with? If Noel was a lost cause, why did the Mavericks let him hang around the team and not trade him to someone else so he could potentially save his career elsewhere? If no one was offering, then why didn’t they cut him?

The Mavericks might already have answers for those questions. I hope they do. Because these types of moves can’t be swept under the rug. Dallas needs talent desperately and striking out on a 23-year-old with as much talent as Noel is a gut-punch. Luckily for Noel, he’s young enough to still have a chance at carving out a career for himself if he wants to. That can’t happen in Dallas — the bridge is burned. The Noel experiment was a giant failure and that’s a damn shame.