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2021 NBA free agency: The Mavericks could reunite with old friend Nerlens Noel

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Recent changes could open a path for the once and future Maverick to return

2021 NBA Playoffs - Atlanta Hawks v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Terrible. Horrible. No good. Awful. Pick one of these and you have a pretty good description of the Dallas Mavericks defense. The Mavericks ranked 20th in the league in defensive rating at 113.0 points per 100 possessions during the regular season. During the playoffs, this already terrible number fell to 122.2 points per 100 possessions. They have to get better and Nerlens Noel would help with that.

The basics

Noel is a non bird rights free agent after playing on a 1-year, $5 million deal with the New York Knicks in 2021. Noel famously and foolishly turned down a 4-year $70 million contract with the Mavericks in 2017 betting on himself and losing in an epic way. We hear the stories of people betting on themselves and winning but Noel might be the biggest bet on himself and lost story in recent memory. He has made a total of roughly $13 million in the 4 years since he turned down the Mavericks extension offer.

Strengths

Noel is a fantastic defensive playmaker. Noel can block shots, averaging a career high 2.2 blocks per game this year in only 24.2 minutes per game this season. He is also great with his hands, averaging 1.1 steals per game this season and even up to 1.8 steals per game early in his career. In addition as an extremely athletic 6’11, he is a good rim runner. He even has some playmaking skill in the short roll that his statistics don’t show.

The Mavericks need rim protectors due to how often the perimeter players get beat off the dribble. Unfortunately they also need switchable big men because none of the perimeter defenders can get around picks and still challenge shots effectively. Noel is the rare big man who is equally adept at switching pick and rolls or blocking shots at the rim.

Weaknesses

Noel’s biggest weakness is his inability to space the floor. He is 2-of-10 from 3-point range in 425 career games. When he is on the court, there is no five out offense. While he is a dominant defender, he can be overpowered by brutes like Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid due to his smaller frame. Fortunately, each of those players is one of a kind. Jonas Valanciunas is the only other center that would truly inspire fear when being guarded by Noel.

Fit with the Mavericks

On the court, the fit with the Mavericks is near seamless. He essentially represents the ability to combine Willie Cauley-Stein and Dwight Powell into one player. Noel has Powell’s abilities as a rim runner and savvy short-roll passer AND Cauley-Stein’s stunning athletic traits and defensive ability.

He is not the star either he or the Mavericks once thought he was. But he would make a fantastic situational player. Before the Mavericks experimented with turning Maxi Kleber into a big wing, the team tethered Kleber and Powell together in reserve units that were incredibly successful. Replacing Powell with Noel in a similar tandem could be incredibly effective. Both Kleber and Noel have the ability to protect guards by both blocking shots or switching on pick and rolls.

Noel is still relatively young, having just turned 27 in April. He is also likely to continue to be incredibly cheap. The Mavericks cannot continue to pour tons of resources into big men and small guards. New coach Jason Kidd likes to play an aggressive style of defense. In order to play that style of defense, a coach needs defensive playmakers. Noel fits the bill.

The biggest question is whether the Mavericks and/or Noel would swallow their pride and revisit this relationship. Things did not end well last time. Without the recent changes within the team, this would have absolutely been an impossibility. But with Donnie Nelson and Rick Carlise gone it is possible the time is right for a reunion.