Drug suspension ends season in which nothing went the way Nerlens Noel planned

Nerlens Noel will spend the rest of the Mavericks’ season sitting. (Getty)
Nerlens Noel will spend the rest of the Mavericks’ season sitting. (Getty)

Nerlens Noel‘s disastrous 2017-18 NBA season came to an early, and ignominious, end on Tuesday, when the NBA announced that the Dallas Mavericks big man was one of two players to receive a five-game suspension without pay for violating the terms of the NBA/NBPA Anti-Drug Program. The other, Thabo Sefolosha of the Utah Jazz, has been sidelined for nearly three months after undergoing surgery to repair a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee.

The NBA didn’t specify exactly how Noel and Sefolosha violated the anti-drug policy, but the penalty structure laid out in the policy between the league and players’ union details only one offense that carries a five-game suspension: a third marijuana-related violation. From the 2017 collective bargaining agreement (emphasis mine):

Any player who (i) tests positive for marijuana pursuant to Section 5 (Reasonable Cause Testing), Section 6 (Random Testing), or Section 15 (Additional Bases for Testing), (ii) is adjudged by the Grievance Arbitrator pursuant to Section 5(e) above to have used or possessed marijuana, or (iii) has been convicted of (including a plea of guilty, no contest or nolo contendere to) the use or possession of marijuana in violation of the law, shall suffer the following penalties:

(A) For the first such violation, the player shall be required to enter the Marijuana Program;

(B) For the second such violation, the player shall be fined $25,000 and, if the player is not then subject to in-patient or aftercare treatment in the Marijuana Program, be required to enter the Marijuana Program;

(C) For the third such violation, the player shall be suspended for five (5) games and, if the player is not then subject to in-patient or aftercare treatment in the Marijuana Program, be required to enter the Marijuana Program; and

(D) For any subsequent violation, the player shall be suspended for five (5) games longer than his immediately-preceding suspension for violating the Marijuana Program and, if the player is not then subject to in-patient or aftercare treatment in the Marijuana Program, be required to enter the Marijuana Program.

The injured Sefolosha’s suspension will begin with the next game for which he’s active and in which he’s physically able to play. Even if the Jazz make the playoffs, that’d likely be next season. It remains to be seen whether the veteran swingman will be in Utah to serve it, as the second year of the $10.5 million contract he signed last summer is reportedly unguaranteed.

For Noel, though, the suspension starts now, with the Mavericks’ Tuesday game against the Portland Trail Blazers, and will keep him out of the lineup for the remainder of the lottery-bound Mavericks’ campaign. That all but certainly means the end of Noel’s tumultuous tenure in Dallas …

… and the forfeiture of six figures’ worth of income …

… which, given how this season started for Noel, feels kind of appropriate.

The No. 6 overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft had shown signs of being a high-impact defender and rim-runner during his first two seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers, before Philly’s glut of talented young big men — and the emergence of All-Star center Joel Embiid — left Noel on the outside of coach Brett Brown’s rotation and general manager Bryan Colangelo’s plans. Noel showed some enticing flashes after being shipped to Dallas at the 2017 trade deadline, looking like a potential piece of the core of the next competitive iteration of the Mavericks, alongside maxed-out forward Harrison Barnes and the team’s 2017 lottery pick, point guard Dennis Smith Jr.

Things started to fall apart last summer, though, when Noel — then a restricted free agent — reportedly turned down a four-year, $70 million deal that the Mavericks offered. He reportedly believed that multiple maximum-salary contract offers were coming his way, but when July 1 rolled around and free agency began, those offers never materialized.

Despite changing agents to try to shake those richer deals loose, Noel wound up settling for signing his one-year, $4 million qualifying offer — a monster haircut from the salary he could’ve clocked by taking the Mavs’ offer, but one that would afford him the chance to enter unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2018. In essence, Noel was aiming to follow in the footsteps of Dion Waiters, making a massive bet on his ability to produce enough in a prove-it year to entice a prospective suitor to come up with the kind of offer he believed he’d receive one year earlier.

But while Waiters starred for the 2016-17 Miami Heat, helping lead the Heat to within one win of a surprising playoff berth and earning a $52 million contract last summer, Noel’s bet seems less likely to pan out … largely because he barely played this season.

Despite suiting up for a tanking rebuilding Mavericks team that just about everybody expected to be bad this year, the 23-year-old opened the season struggling to earn consistent playing time. He exited the starting lineup in early November, exited coach Rick Carlisle’s rotation shortly thereafter, and started racking up DNP-CDs after that. Why Noel wasn’t getting any tick remained a big question, and the answers varied depending on who you talked to.

Maybe Mark Cuban, Donnie Nelson, Carlisle and the rest of the Dallas braintrust decided to park the fourth-year center in part as a response to his decision to reject their offer and turn himself into, essentially, a lame-duck free agent whose minutes would be more about auditioning for 29 other teams than trying to convince the Mavs to more highly value him as part of their future plans. Or maybe the Mavs honestly felt like Noel — a talented and versatile defensive player, but one who hadn’t set the world on fire with his production through the first 10 games of the season and in whose minutes Dallas was roundly outscored — didn’t merit playing time in the middle over options like Salah Mejri, Dwight Powell (who, for what it’s worth, would turn out to be one of Dallas’ best players and few bright spots this season), Maxi Kleber and Jeff Withey.

“Look, minutes have to be earned,” Carlisle said after Noel didn’t play against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Nov. 11. “At this point, if it’s between him and Salah, Salah has earned the minutes. There’s no doghouse here. There just isn’t. It’s pretty simple: You compete, and if you earn minutes, you get minutes. And you’ve got to compete to keep them, because it’s a competitive situation.”

It also proved to be a fairly absurd one. I mean, what else can you call it when the most notable thing about a player’s season is the time he went and got a hot dog from the media dining room at halftime of a game?

Shortly after the Hot Dog Imbroglio, Noel underwent surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb, which knocked him out of the lineup through the All-Star break … and, more notably, the trade deadline, which came and went without any significant action on a new ZIP code for the former Kentucky standout.

With the Mavericks already well on their way to spiraling to the bottom of the Western Conference, Carlisle returned the once-again-healthy Noel to the lineup in late February. He’s still been coming off the bench, but he’s been seeing more playing time, averaging 4.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, 1.8 steals, 1.2 assists and 1.0 blocks in 20.5 minutes of playing time, shooting 51.9 percent from the field in a dozen appearances.

Dallas’ offense has cratered with Noel on the court, but the defense has stiffened considerably. On balance, since his return, the Mavs have performed a bit better when he’s played than when he’s sat. Still a bad team, but not quite as bad with Noel in the mix … albeit in a situation from which it’s tough to glean much, given that all involved in Dallas are basically playing out the string and just waiting for mid-April to come and release everybody into a long, restorative offseason.

For Noel, that release comes a bit early, with a whimpering end to a season that he hoped would establish him as a player worth building around and make him a boatload of cash. Now, he’ll enter an unrestricted free agent market in which few teams figure to have meaningful salary cap space to spend, in the context of a spread-the-floor league in which fewer and fewer teams really seem to need centers who can’t shoot.

That doesn’t mean Noel won’t have suitors. It just means finding one was already going to be tough, and that this probably doesn’t make things any easier. Now, we wait to find out just how much money this whole ordeal in Dallas cost him, and who’s willing to look past the sturm und drang of his time in Texas to take a shot at finding the player Noel and others once believed he’d become.

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Dan Devine is a writer and editor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@oath.com or follow him on Twitter!

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