Did the New Orleans Pelicans Make a Grave Mistake Trading Nerlens Noel?

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistFebruary 16, 2014

Kentucky's Nerlens Noel, picked by the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round of the NBA basketball draft, listens during a news conference Thursday, June 27, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
Craig Ruttle/Associated Press

Hindsight is a blessing and a curse.

Looking back on decisions in the past can help a team avoid repeating mistakes in the future. But lessons learned can be bittersweet. For the New Orleans Pelicans, the lesson can be summed up in two classic basketball clichés:

You can't teach size. Never trade a big for a small.

The Pelicans violated both those old standards when they traded their No. 6 pick, 6'11" center Nerlens Noel to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for point guard Jrue Holiday.

Noel slipped in the 2013 draft down to the Pelicans because of a torn ACL he suffered in February of last year. After the Cleveland Cavaliers decision to take Anthony Bennett first overall, Noel's tumble down the board was perhaps the second-biggest shock on draft night.

Many experts, including Jonathan Givony of Draft Express, felt Noel was still a potential top pick even after the injury:

Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver explained why he felt the blown knee shouldn't have too big an impact on Noel's game, saying:

An ACL tear is a major injury but it’s become so common in the NBA that it’s just a part of the game. Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Leandro Barbosa, Brandon Rush, Iman Shumpert, Ricky Rubio, Josh Howard, Lou Williams and Baron Davis have all suffered ACL injuries during the last year. The treatment path is clear and a player’s ability to contribute post-injury has been proven. Executives selecting in 2013 can be reasonably certain that a player will able to do everything that was expected of him pre-injury.

Noel himself had a similar outlook on the injury:

If it does turn out to be a "MAJOR comeback" and Noel returns to being able to do everything he did before the injury, the Pelicans may look back on the decision to trade him as a mistake.

In his one season at Kentucky, Noel finished sixth in the nation with 106 blocks, despite playing in just 24 games. Had he avoided injury, maintained his pace and qualified for the leaderboard, his average of 4.4 blocks would've topped the NCAA...comfortably. Chris Obekpa's four a game would have been the closest.

And he wasn't just a shot-blocker. Noel pulled down 9.5 rebounds and swiped 2.1 steals a game. The kid was a bona fide stat stuffer.

Now imagine that kind of defense and rebounding in combination with Anthony Davis. You know, New Orleans' superstar power forward who's a Western Conference All-Star in his second season. The guy who leads the NBA in blocks at 3.1 a game and is fifth in player efficiency rating at 26.4.

Yes, that Anthony Davis. He's already developing into one of the best big men in the league. And combining him with Noel wouldn't have caused a logjam inside because this Davis kid can shoot.

His mid-range game has improved drastically from his first to second season:


The chart on the left is from Noel's 2012-13 season, and 2013-14 is on the right. There's obviously a lot more red on one than the other, indicating percentages below league average. The green zones on display in the shot chart on the right indicate percentages above league average. 

He still has some work to do, but there are a few definite sweet spots. And when he's in one of those spots, defenders have to pay attention, creating space inside for Davis' frontcourt mate. That of course could have been Noel.

When he was first selected by the Pelicans, he seemed somewhat redundant considering the team already had Davis. So the trade for an All-Star point guard like Holiday made sense.

But now that we've witnessed the evolution of Davis, it's clear that the two not only could've coexisted, they could've thrived, even dominated.

Just think of how difficult it would've been for opposing teams to score on that duo inside. In the mold of David Robinson and Tim Duncan, they could've been the new Twin Towers.

And the league's become so flooded with point guard talent that missing out on Holiday might not have been too big a deal. New Orleans already had Tyreke Evans, and this year's draft class features several more big-name prospects at the position.

Potential superstar centers don't come around every day, certainly not as often as guards or wings do. So in the future, New Orleans may be wise to remember those old clichés.

Now that the Pelicans know Davis can be paired with a true center inside, they may think twice before trading big for small again. Because you can't teach a 6'3" guard to be 6'11".


Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of Sports-Reference.com and NBA.com and are current as of Feb. 16, 2014.

Andy Bailey covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.