Nerlens Noel and the Dallas Mavericks recently came to an agreement. Noel signed a one-year qualifying offer with Dallas worth a reported $4.1 million. After a summer in which Noel played the waiting game, going through two agents, the result is clearly not what he envisioned heading into the off-season as a restricted free agent. Beyond this deal, though, there could be bigger ramifications. By settling for the qualifying offer, an almost unprecedented decision, Noel could shape the future of how teams and players approach free agency going forward.
There’s almost no way that the leadership of the National Basketball Players Association is happy with Noel’s decision. The NBPA, headed by Chris Paul and LeBron James, states that part of its mission is to “ensure that the rights of NBA players are protected and that every conceivable measure is taken to assist players in maximizing their opportunities and achieving their goals, both on and off the court.” In taking the qualifying offer, Noel certainly didn’t maximize his opportunities and achieve his goal. But it wasn’t supposed to be this way.
As free agency began in the early morning hours of July 1, many assumed that Noel would draw a max offer from a team interested in him. The Mavericks, who made clear their intentions to keep Noel, would then have to match. However, offers from other teams never emerged. The only one on the table was a four-year deal worth $70 million from Dallas. That wasn’t enough for Noel, though. The Mavs pulled their offer upon learning this. A stalemate ensued and Noel eventually blinked first.
Noel reportedly wanted a max contract from the Mavs. It’s a request that wouldn’t seem out of the question if he had asked for it in the summer of 2016. That’s when the NBA salary cap ballooned to historic levels based on terms the NBPA negotiated for and agreed upon in the current collective bargaining agreement. Teams issued high-value contracts across the board in order to sign free agents to fill out their newfound cap space. Max contracts were a dime per dozen. This summer saw the opposite.
Rather than gradually increasing the salary cap, the CBA created one summer of extraordinary growth. In 2017, the markets adjusted and leveled out. Max contracts are no longer the norm. The market that Noel thought he was entering never materialized. He can partially thank the NBPA for that but he must place the majority of the blame on himself for misreading the market. And thus, this is a win for the Mavericks. They got the player they wanted at an extreme discount without having to dig into their future cap space this summer.
Looking forward, it’s feasible to see teams employing this strategy going forward with other restricted free agents. If no other offers materialize for mid or lower tier players, there’s no need to drain the coffers to give them a max deal. At the very least, teams can retain the player on a minimum deal for a year then return to the negotiation table to reevaluate a player’s worth. This is what Noel has agreed to do.
Noel is taking a major gamble on himself. While he’s shown flashes of greatness, he’s still never played a full season. With Dallas, he averaged 8.5 points and 6.8 rebounds and played only 22 minutes per game. If Noel can’t improve upon that, then he won't get many max offers next summer when he’s an unrestricted free agent. Further hindering his chances of a max deal will be his peers also entering the market. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, Chris Paul, Isaiah Thomas, and a bevy of other big-name players will be free agents.
With teams facing limited cap room, these players will command the majority of the money available. That could again leave Noel on the outside looking in.
By betting on himself, Noel is entering a season of considerable risk and an uncertain future. It’s entirely possible that he has a breakout season in Dallas, blossoming into one of the best young big men in the league. There’s also a chance his history of injuries gets the better of him and he misses a sizeable portion of the season. Whatever the case, Noel decided to venture into uncharted territory. Only time will tell if he should have taken the Mavericks’ offer this summer. $70 million is a lot to leave on the table.
You can follow Doyle Rader on Twitter at @TheKobeBeef.