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Raptors may be a Nerlens Noel escape hatch

Philadelphia 76ers' Nerlens Noel dunks against Toronto Raptors' Terrence Ross during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Friday, Jan. 23, 2015, in Philadelphia. Toronto won 91-86. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
AP Photo/Matt Slocum

In the wake of Joel Embiid’s meteoric breakout over the first two weeks of his rookie season, the Philadelphia 76ers and general manager Bryan Colangelo have made it clear the roster is being constructed around both he and injured first overall pick Ben Simmons.

The first step was bringing in supplementary help on the perimeter in free agency via Sergio Rodriguez, Gerald Henderson and Jerryd Bayless, who has still yet to debut after suffering a wrist injury in training camp. The next move involved shipping Jerami Grant to Oklahoma City for Ersan Ilyasova and a future pick. Ilyasova’s outside shooting from the power forward position is expected to create space for Embiid to operate from the post or within the pick-and-roll.

However, as has been talked into the ground, the truly big domino to fall involves shipping out Nerlens Noel and/or Jahlil Okafor, with Noel the overwhelming odds-on favorite to go first. Noel and Sixers management reportedly never even made a good-faith effort toward coming to terms on a contract extension at last week’s deadline that saw fellow 2013 lottery picks Victor Oladipo, Cody Zeller and Steven Adams reach agreements with their current clubs. With Philadelphia seemingly out of the Nerlens Noel business, the soon-to-be restricted free agent’s departure seems inevitable.

The only questions remain as to where Noel will be sent and for what return. In an article Friday, ESPN’s Marc Stein indicated that the Boston native Noel could head even farther north.

The Raptors are among the teams that have expressed interest in Philadelphia’s very available Nerlens Noel, but sources say Toronto’s initial preference in the wake of losing Jared Sullinger (foot) to injury is to give more minutes to various younger players (such as rookies Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl) so they get first crack at filling the void.

Coming off an Eastern Conference Finals appearance, Toronto is firmly in win-now mode and were counting on Sullinger to soak up a lot of minutes at both power forward and backup center behind Jonas Valanciunas. Noel would more than ably fill the backup center void, similar to the role Bismack Biyombo played in last year’s playoffs, a run that helped propel him to a big free-agent deal with Orlando. The Raptors were already reportedly interested in Noel over the summer, per ESPN’s Zach Lowe, and Sullinger’s injury might be the accelerant needed to fan the flames of the trade between the two teams.

When evaluating what the Sixers should seek in return for Noel, naturally the question of leverage is a concern. Everybody and their League Pass-subscribing mother knows Philadelphia has too many centers on the roster. Understandably, after years of grin-and-bearing “The Process” through epic amounts of losing, Noel has not had the ideal “good soldier” attitude about appearing to be the odd man out. First, he (rightfully) said to the media in training camp that having he, Embiid and Okafor all on the same roster doesn’t make any sense.

Then, Noel recently underwent what the team termed elective surgery for an inflamed plica in his right knee. The Sixers gave the impression that Noel would be heading to Alabama for rehab, but his next appearance in the public eye was shooting a T-shirt cannon at local radio station Power 99’s Powerhouse concert:

He’s certainly not doing anything wrong, and the team only said he would “eventually” be heading to Alabama, but it’s just another example of bad optics and speaks to the increased disconnect between Noel and management, even if just from a PR perspective.

With all that in mind, what can the Sixers rightfully hope to get back in a Noel deal? Small forward Terrence Ross was a name suggested by Lowe in the piece over the summer. Actually drafted by Colangelo in the 2012 draft, Ross is signed for around $10M per year through the 2018-19 season, and will be stuck behind DeMar DeRozan and DeMarre Carroll throughout that time period in Toronto.

In a similar situation is 2015 second-round pick Norman Powell, who greatly exceeded expectations in his rookie year. He received increased playing time as the season progressed and the Raptors dealt with the knee injury to Carroll, and the shooting guard eventually won the NBA Rookie of the Month award in April while averaging 15.3 points over those final eight games.

Any deal for Noel would have to include one of those young wings, and at least one first-round pick thrown in for good measure. The Raptors own the rights to all of their future selections, as well as the Clippers’ first-round pick in 2017. Given Toronto’s status as a hopeful contender, those picks should be expected to be in the mid-to-late 20s, making them unlikely to exceed the on-court value that Noel could provide.

While a wing that probably caps out as a useful rotation player and a pick or two in the 20s aren’t a great return for a former lottery pick who has provided historically great defensive value during his brief time on the court, the Sixers have painted themselves into a corner with the way their roster was constructed. With Colangelo making it clear that Noel doesn’t have a future with the club, sadly, the best thing fans can hope for is the team recognizing a sunk cost and making the best deal it can in the moment.

Such a deal with the Raptors might be just that: unfortunate, but ultimately palatable.

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