Wearing a maroon hooded sweatshirt, Nerlens Noel emerged from a training room at the 76ers' Camden training complex and sauntered across the floor to Joel Embiid, finding his closest friend on the team for a hug and a fist pound, setting a fitting scene for his departure for Dallas.
The two of them said their goodbyes in front of the conference room where, in late September, Noel had doubled down on comments he had made to the Inquirer, daring Bryan Colangelo to follow through on trading Noel, Jahlil Okafor, or both - to achieve the precious "roster balance" that Colangelo confessed on draft night he was seeking.
"Someone needs to be moved around," Noel had said, and still less than six months into his tenure as the Sixers' president, Colangelo was quick to reply by flexing his power, suggesting that Noel wasn't accomplished enough to dictate anything, that the course of Noel's young career was Colangelo's call to make.
He made it Thursday, shipping Noel to the Mavericks for a paltry package: Andrew Bogut and his expiring contract, guard Justin Anderson, and what are likely to be two second-round draft picks. That deal, along with the one Wednesday that sent Ersan Ilyasova to the Atlanta Hawks for two more second-round picks and injured big man Tiago Splitter, made plain what anyone who has been watching the Sixers since Embiid last played - 11 games ago - already knew. Forget what they're saying about Embiid's knee and Ben Simmons' foot. Forget what they're not saying. This season, they're tanking again, only this time on Colangelo's terms. This isn't a continuation of Sam Hinkie's Process. This is a reboot of it.
Here's how you know it was a rough day for the Sixers and Colangelo: Their prospective superstar criticized the franchise for its lack of transparency, for its willingness to mislead and string along the public about the severity of his knee injuries, and it wasn't the most troubling news of the afternoon. ("I wasn't happy with the way it was handled," Embiid said. "I thought keeping my name out there was just like literally having people think about me all the time instead of just saying when I was going to be back.") Between Wednesday and Thursday, Colangelo traded the Sixers' second-leading scorer (Ilyasova) and arguably their best defensive player (Noel), and if Dario Saric's development made moving Ilyasova a priority, Noel had shown in recent weeks that he was more valuable to the Sixers and to a potential trade partner than Okafor was. The controversy over his comments and that strange benching earlier in the season had been forgotten. He fit back in.
Okafor still hasn't. Removing Okafor from the roster, in and of itself, would improve the Sixers. His skills in the post aren't reason enough to tolerate his languid style of play and poor defense. He's the player whom Colangelo could have afforded to trade for pennies on the dollar. Instead, the Sixers are left to keep shoehorning him into the lineup in the desperate hope that he'll become a player he's never been, that his trade value will rise, that it will somehow be easier for Colangelo to make a trade he should have made weeks ago.
In getting a first-round pick for Thaddeus Young and a probable high-lottery pick for Michael Carter-Williams, Hinkie showed a knack for trading a player at peak value. In contrast, Colangelo didn't bother trying to hide his intentions. Forget the truth of any negotiation: Information is power. Information is currency. He gave some away immediately, and in doing so, he pulled off a dubious trick with this trade: He didn't get enough in return for Noel, and we never learned whether the Sixers could put Noel and Embiid on the floor at the same time and function, or even excel. Noel played with Embiid for just eight minutes all season.
"I'm a little bit disappointed," Embiid said. "I thought we should have tried it out a little bit more."
By trading Noel for such a relatively small return - last offseason, the Sixers reportedly turned down an offer for him that included a first-round pick - Colangelo revealed that he never considered Noel an important part of the Sixers' core. He regarded Noel the same way that Hinkie regarded Young, Evan Turner, and Spencer Hawes - nice players but hardly indispensable. Noel will be a restricted free agent this summer, so in theory the Sixers risked having to match an exorbitant offer from another team or losing him altogether. But they were so far under the salary cap that they could have re-signed him and, after giving an honest go of pairing him with Embiid, traded him next season. Are the odds that Anderson will develop into a decent two guard that much greater than the odds that Noel - an elite defender, an unselfish and high-tempo player who didn't disrupt the flow of the Sixers offense - would have found a way to make it work with Embiid and Simmons?
Brett Brown will attempt to answer that question amid some difficult circumstances now. No more Noel. No more Ilyasova. No Embiid for at least four games. No Simmons for maybe the rest of the season.
Nerlens Noel walked out the door early Thursday afternoon, and yes, this was Bryan Colangelo's call - for better or for worse. His prerogative. His power. His Process now.