Jrue Holiday-Nerlens Noel Trade Gives Philadelphia 76ers a Much-Needed Direction

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistJune 28, 2013

Nerlens Noel unexpectedly slid during the 2013 NBA draft, causing the Philadelphia 76ers to pounce.
Nerlens Noel unexpectedly slid during the 2013 NBA draft, causing the Philadelphia 76ers to pounce.Mike Stobe/Getty Images

After the 2013 NBA draft, the Philadelphia 76ers are hardly recognizable.

For a previously rudderless franchise that had no clear direction before draft night, that development should only be considered a positive.

Since being hired back in May, new Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie had mainly been lurking in the shadows. He kept quiet on the team's coaching search, draft-day targets and free agent prospects.

But like a lion stalking its prey, Hinkie lashed out on draft night and took the entire league by storm.

He pulled off one of the most shocking moves in a draft full of surprises by trading All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday and the No. 42 overall pick for rookie Nerlens Noel, who's currently recovering from ACL surgery, and the New Orleans Pelicans' top-five protected first-round pick in 2014.

It's a franchise-altering move that's sure to frustrate many fans, as the Sixers effectively just traded their best player for a guy who's unlikely to play until December at the earliest.

It's a one-way ticket to Tank Town, in other words.

But those criticizing the deal must keep one simple fact in mind: The Sixers weren't going to challenge for a championship in 2013-14, with or without Holiday.

Therefore, using him to acquire a player who had a realistic shot of being the No. 1 overall pick in 2013 is a maneuver that speaks to Hinkie's team-building logic, which he alluded to during his introductory press conference in May.

I start with an end in mind in everything, and I'll encourage our staff to do the same. The mantra here has been very clear, which is to compete for championships.

And what's the key to a championship-winning team? In case the Big Three battle of the 2013 NBA Finals didn't make it clear enough, it's superstar-caliber players.

During his introductory press conference with the 76ers, Hinkie hammered that point home.

History, for the most part, especially recently, especially in the current environment with the current rules and the current collective bargaining agreement, history has been reasonably clear that superstars matter.

Was Holiday a superstar? That's a tough argument to make, considering that he only posted an average PER of 15.1 four years into his NBA career (the league average is 15).

Holiday was a bright spot in an otherwise miserable season for Philadelphia during 2012-13, without question. He was the one player who took a quantum leap forward, giving Sixers fans the slightest modicum of hope during the yearlong Andrew Bynum fiasco.

But a superstar? Can an excellent half-season of play over a four-year span really earn a player that distinction?

Of course, there's no guarantee that Noel becomes a superstar either. While ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton's Wins-Above-Replacement-Player projections (subscription required) slotted Noel as the top prospect in the 2013 draft, he noted that Noel's WARP projection "is a little on the low side for a No. 1 pick."

He also said, however, that "Noel's defensive potential is immense," having generated a nigh number of both steals and blocks during his one season with the University of Kentucky.

If there's one thing we've learned that can stop LeBron James and the Miami Heat, it's an elite big man. As noted by Jonathan Tjarks on RealGM, "it takes a Defensive Player of the Year manning the middle to beat [LeBron]" in the playoffs, from Ben Wallace and Tim Duncan to Kevin Garnett and Tyson Chandler.

While Noel needs time to bulk up and acclimate himself to the NBA, having a player that's teeming with shot-blocking potential could give the Sixers a chance against James in the years to come. That was the rationale that caused the team to trade nearly half their roster in August 2012 for another big man with a history of knee problems (Bynum).

If Noel's knees turn out to be worse than Bynum's, then yes, Hinkie made a huge mistake. Yet Kevin Wilk, who's been working with Noel throughout his rehab, told ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman that the rookie is well ahead of schedule in his recovery from surgery (subscription required).

Wilk said that "alignment and weak hips" are the two major red flags in terms of recurring knee problems, but Noel "doesn't have either." He also told Goodman that Noel has been "really fortunate" in the sense that he hasn't suffered any tendinitis since the surgery, which is "unheard of."

The Pelicans' 2014 draft pick is only icing on the cake for Philadelphia. There's a real chance that the Sixers have two top-10 picks in a draft that's projected to be one of the deepest in years.

Upon recognizing that the Sixers weren't anywhere within the realm of championship contention, Hinkie elected to hit the detonate button. He put a premium on accruing assets by trading away his team's most desirable player, favoring a long-term building strategy over a short-term "win now" mode.

In other words, Hinkie chose the anti-Brooklyn Nets approach.

Which plan wins out? It's far too early to say.

Considering where the Sixers stood heading into the draft, however, it's hard not to appreciate how Hinkie gave the team a solid direction within one night.

All aboard the Andrew Wiggins Express.


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