BY PAUL MANCANO – Last night, in the third quarter of one of the Sixers’ more embarrassing home losses of the season, fans began to get restless. The Sixers and the Pelicans were trading buckets with little resistance to start the second half. The lax defenses that have become trademarks for both teams this season were leading to easy buckets on both ends. Philadelphia couldn’t cut the lead to single digits as the minutes ticked away. Frustration set in.
Then, a chant began to reverberate in the Wells Fargo Center. It started out low, then it started to grow.
We want Nerlens… We want Nerlens…
Whether Coach Brett Brown had heard them or not, with 6:48 left in the quarter and the score at 66-52, he granted the fans their wish. In checked Nerlens Noel for the first time all game. A cheer arose as fans slowly stood to applaud the 6’11” center.
Noel logged a mostly uneventful seven minutes, registering just four points and three boards. But it was a moral victory, small though it may have been.
One may question why Sixers fans cheered Noel in the first place. After all, this is the same player who has been complaining for months about his team’s logjam at center. He’s the same player who spent the summer months away from the team, working out alone in Alabama. The same player who, after playing just eight minutes in a loss to the Lakers Friday, said the front office needed “to figure this s*** out.”
Philly fans usually hate that type of behavior, right?
Philadelphia sports fans reward hard work, toughness, and above all else, loyalty from their players. Failing to meet display those qualities often results in harsh treatment. Noel has certainly not been a model Philadelphia athlete as of late.
But for all the hate Philly fans receive for their conduct—a lot of which is deserved—they’re given little credit for their depth of understanding.
Fans understand what Noel has gone through. Along with Hollis Thompson, Noel is the only player to have survived the entire Sam Hinkie era, and played through two of the worst seasons in franchise history. He watched the organization spend very high draft selections on two other guys who happen to play his position and he didn’t say a word. He’s been the center of trade talks for years. And now, after returning from injury, he’s been tossed scrap minutes.
The fans understand that. And they feel for him.
But more notably, the fans know what he can do. They’ve watched him develop into one of the NBA’s premiere defensive big men in just two years. They see a 22-year-old blossoming big man blessed with incredible skill and athleticism.
The fans were told by Hinkie that a pairing of Noel and franchise cornerstone Joel Embiid would “bring violence to the rim.” Yet, two-and-a-half years later, Noel and Embiid have yet to take the floor together.
Fans have seen enough of Jahlil Okafor to know his limitations: his defensive indifference, his time-sucking post game, and most importantly, his lack of fit with Embiid. Having both Okafor and Embiid on the floor together has been an abject failure to date, especially defensively. Anyone who can’t fit with Embiid can’t fit with the long-term future of the team.
All signs coming from within the Sixers organization seem pointed to trading Noel. The two sides failed to reach an extension on his contract at the beginning of the season. They had little contact with him over the summer and during his rehab. They’ve given Okafor an extended tryout with Embiid, while Noel remains on the bench. For some reason, the team seems fed up with Noel, and vice versa.
Things have gotten so bad lately that general manager Byran Colangelo had to schedule a meeting with the media to discuss Noel’s apparent benching. Colangelo told those in attendance that the team is trying to determine whether Noel “is a fit for this roster.” Yet Noel has played a combined 25 minutes in the past five games.
The Sixers clearly don’t think Noel deserves a chance to prove he can gel with their new-look front office off the court, let alone with their franchise player on the court.
Most fans disagree.
Colangelo said Tuesday he’s “fascinated by the possibility of playing Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel together.” So is everyone else. Until it happens, we’ll be left wondering if it really could work.
Despite the harsh words and the discontent, Sixers fans are still eager to see Noel get a shot at playing up to his potential and becoming a long-term fixture on the team.
The men who will determine Noel’s future do not seem to be on the same page.