Nerlens Noel and the NBA's new restricted free agency gamble

Nerlens Noel reportedly turned down $70 million to sign for $4 million. You do the math. (AP)

Restricted free agency has become a boom-or-bust market, and Nerlens Noel played a losing hand.

The 23-year-old former lottery pick reportedly turned down a four-year, $70 million offer from the Dallas Mavericks on the opening day of NBA free agency and instead sought a contract in excess of $20 million annually. By the time Noel replaced the agent who negotiated that deal with LeBron James’ business partner, Rich Paul, who quickly learned a max offer would never come, the Mavs had rescinded their offer, and Noel was forced to sign his $4.1 million qualifying offer, per reports.

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Noel’s former agent, Happy Walters, confirmed as much in a tweet to ESPN’s Chris Haynes:


In other words, Noel turned down roughly $66 million in guaranteed salary before his 28th birthday to bank on earning an even bigger payday as an unrestricted free agent next summer. By foregoing a double-digit pay raise this season, Noel will now have to earn at least $22 million per year over the next three seasons in order to make the difference in lost salary. And that’s entirely reasonable for an athletic 7-footer who can protect the rim defensively and attack it with a ferociousness offensively.

Except, Noel battled knee problems in high school before suffering a torn left ACL as a freshman at the University of Kentucky — an injury that led him to slide to the No. 6 pick in the 2013 draft and miss the entire 2013-14 season for the Philadelphia 76ers. He played all but seven games as a rookie in 2014-15, only to miss extended time over the next two seasons due to minor injuries to both knees.

Given his injury history, impending free agency and a crowded frontcourt, the Sixers dealt Noel to the Mavericks at the trade deadline in February for Justin Anderson and a pair of second-round picks. That pittance should have been Noel’s first sign that restricted free agency would be a challenge.


Of course, Noel had years of recent evidence that restricted free agency is no more than a crapshoot.

This decade, the only restricted free agents before this season to receive offers worth more than $17.5 million annually — the offer Noel originally received — were Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond, Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler, all of whom were All-Star-caliber talents who signed max deals to stay with their teams on the first day of free agency. Other teams never even had a chance to make an offer.

Because incumbent teams can match any offer on the open market, other teams have generally fallen into two categories when chasing less-than-All-Star-caliber RFAs: 1) Stay away, since any offer ties up precious cap space for up to 48 hours while unrestricted free agents sign elsewhere in the first week of July, or 2) Throw out a massive offer that the incumbent team either has to or would never match.

This season, two players fell into that second category and signed deals in excess of $70 million over the next four years: Otto Porter Jr. and Tim Hardaway Jr. Porter earned a max contract, if only because the Brooklyn Nets offered a wonky one with all sorts of odd clauses knowing the salary cap-strapped Washington Wizards had no choice but to match it or take a significant step backward in the Eastern Conference hierarchy. And the Knicks gave Hardaway $71 million, knowing the Hawks wouldn’t match.

Noel must’ve figured he’d fall into that second category, too, except the Nets can only hand out so many nouveau poison-pill contracts (they played a similar game with Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson last year, much to the annoyance of other NBA teams), and the Knicks already have athletic big man Kristaps Porzingis under contract and reserved their customary bad contract offer for a two-guard.

Most every other front office has smartened up. The only other two RFAs to sign offer sheets with other teams were Langston Galloway, whose reasonable three-year, $21 million deal with the Detroit Pistons went unmatched by a Sacramento Kings squad flush with backcourt help, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, whose rights were renounced by the the Pistons to make room for Avery Bradley.

By the time KCP became unrestricted, the free agency market had dried up, and he was fortunate to find a one-year, $17 million flier from a Los Angeles Lakers team that saw the deal as a gift from God.

Three more RFAs signed contracts worth double-digit millions annually — Joe Ingles (four years, $52 million), Tony Snell (four years, $46 million) and Andre Roberson (three years, $30 million) — all of whom own similarly spotty résumés to Noel. They all never bothered to sign offer sheets elsewhere, instead choosing to stay put for slightly above market value. That’s the customary offer from most incumbent teams hoping to keep a player happy and avoid matching a more ludicrous offer sheet.

That’s the deal Noel received from the Mavericks. He just didn’t take it.

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Incumbent teams are forced to overpay for second-tier RFAs or run the risk of losing them in unrestricted free agency the following year. Potential suitors, save for those based in New York, have come to the realization that they’re better off avoiding the headache of making a reasonable offer, seeing an opponent benefit from matching it, and having their cap space tied up for a couple days.

Restricted free agency is designed to benefit players, because they generally receive fair value on the open market, slightly above market price from incumbent teams or well above their worth in a Nets-like desperation offer. Other teams knew the Mavs would match any reasonable offer, so why bother? That left Noel with the choice between $70 million or finding a max offer sheet, and he chose poorly.

The Brooklyn-ian poison pill deal is a relatively new development. Considering in 2011 that Marc Gasol was the only RFA to receive a double-digit offer, and the highest-paid RFA to change teams was Dante Cunningham on a two-year, $4.1 million deal to leave the Charlotte Hornets for the Memphis Grizzlies.

The following year, Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey dropped poison pills in his offers to restricted free agents Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik. The New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls subsequently refused to match Houston’s massive third-year pay raises, and the Rockets were stuck with what turned out to be a pair of cumbersome contracts.

In its most recent collective bargaining agreement, the NBA got rid of such shenanigans, but the Nets — the rare team with a boatload of cap space, little chance to improve the roster and nothing to lose by offering overpriced contracts — developed the latest version of the poison pill, including a 15 percent trade kicker, a fourth-year option and up-front lump-sum payments in Porter’s offer sheet.

Don’t get too used to that, though, since few teams have been so poorly run as Brooklyn, and new Nets GM Sean Marks will finally be free from the previous regime’s stranglehold in 2018. RFAs next summer should beware, considering the class is loaded with second-tier talents like Marcus Smart, Zach LaVine, Rodney Hood, Gary Harris, Aaron Gordon, T.J. Warren, Elfrid Payton and Clint Capela.

At any rate, Greg Monroe made the same gamble as Noel in 2014, when he signed his $5.5 million qualifying offer from the Pistons, and then cashed in on a three-year, $51.4 million deal from the Milwaukee Bucks the next summer. The four-year sum wasn’t all that far off from the reported five-year, $60 million and four-year, $58 million deals he reportedly turned down as a restricted free agent, although Monroe denies ever receiving either. So, there is hope for Noel yet. If he can stay healthy.

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Ben Rohrbach is a contributor for Ball Don’t Lie and Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!