NBA: 3 players maximizing the value of minimum contracts

NBA Milwaukee Bucks Wesley Matthews (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
NBA Milwaukee Bucks Wesley Matthews (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images) /
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NBA Oklahoma City Thunder
NBA Oklahoma City Thunder Nerlens Noel (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images) /

3. Nerlens Noel, Oklahoma City Thunder

Nerlens Noel has always been a talented player, but he is yet to find a long-term home. In the early days of his career, he was the face of The Process with the 76ers. Unfortunately, the 76ers used subsequent draft picks on other centers, which made it difficult for Noel to find minutes.

Just like that, the former coveted building block was expendable. Philadelphia traded Noel to Dallas, who offered him a four-year, $70 million contract after playing only 22 games with the franchise. Noel, who was a restricted free agent at the time, believed he was worth more, so he accepted the $4.1M qualifying offer and would become an unrestricted free agent the following summer.

The next season was disastrous, falling out of the rotation entirely and decimating his chances for another lucrative contract offer. Since then, he has been playing the best basketball of his career in Oklahoma City for pennies on the dollar.

Since signing with the Thunder, Noel has made a strong case for the best backup center in the NBA. Thus far this season, he is fifth in the NBA in block percentage (6.9%), sixth defensive rating (100.7), and leads the league in defensive box plus-minus (5.5). The caveat with these numbers is his limited minutes.

Noel only plays 18.4 minutes per game, so these numbers would likely regress against opposing starters. Another strong possibility as a full-time starter is the exploitation of his offensive limitations. Since his days at Kentucky, Noel has lacked an offensive repertoire. As his development on that end has been lagging.

Noel has never been a threat from deep, and his midrange still needs work. Thankfully, he’s a monster at the rim, where his 84 percent shooting falls within the league’s top two percent, per Cleaning the Glass. Traditional centers like Noel usually raise the team’s floor, but rarely increase the team’s ceiling. As a result, executives are more inclined to replace them rather than pay them.

Even though he’s done so well in Oklahoma City, it’s highly unlikely that Noel will receive anything close to what the Mavericks offered initially. He might be the perfect example of the further declining market for traditional centers.

As an unrestricted free agent this summer, he could see anywhere from the minimum to the full mid-level exception; but it’s unlikely he’ll be offered much more. Lastly, Noel could be included as a sweetener in any Oklahoma City deal, as trade rumors surround the franchise.