NBA PM: Dallas Experimenting With Roster
With a group of veterans and young talent, Rick Carlisle has to balance winning now and developing for the future.
On September 28, 2017, a vote of the NBA Board of Governors made official what had previously been rumored. The NBA would be instituting a version of lottery reform. The goal would be to end the alleged practice of NBA teams purposely losing, or “tanking” games for the purpose of increasing the odds of getting top picks in the NBA’s annual draft lottery. Before this change goes into effect, the league will operate under the previous draft percentages once more for the 2018 NBA Draft. The older percentages are much more favorable to the league’s worst teams. Whether these new rules, once in effect, will stop or substantially slow teams from tanking is yet to be seen.
Early in the season, some teams have certainly surprised with their performances thus far. The Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers sit on top of the Western Conference and the Orlando Magic have suddenly found a winning formula. However, even before the calendar turns to November, a few teams are already looking beyond wins and losses for signs of progress as they mount what seem to be losing campaigns, such as the Dallas Mavericks.
The Dallas Mavericks did have a strong win against the Grizzlies and recently went down to the wire against the Philadelphia 76ers. However, the Mavericks are 1-6 with a -9.4 net rating on the season. Right now, only the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Chicago Bulls sport a worse net rating at this point. Surprisingly, the Minnesota Timberwolves are just above the Mavericks with a -7.8 net rating to go along with a middling 3-3 record after trading for Jimmy Butler this offseason. For reference, FiveThirtyEight.com projected the Mavericks to finish with a 26-56 record and to sport a -5.7 net rating. At this rate, the Mavericks will finish the season with an ever worse record than FiveThirtyEight projected.
The Mavericks have talent but they find themselves in an awkward position. Harrison Barnes continues to be a strong scoring option and focal point on offense. Seth Curry could have continued his strong play from last season but has been injured to start the year. Rookie Dennis Smith, Jr. starts every game and has stepped into the void. The team starts Mavericks legend Dirk Nowitzki at center in some games.
Nowitzki, now in his 20th season, is known for his elite shooting and offensive moves. However, Nowitzki doesn’t really have the strength or rebounding prowess to play center and doesn’t have the foot speed to defend most opposing power forwards. Unsurprisingly, he sports a -10.1 net rating when he is on the court. If the team was only focused on winning, it would be best to bring Nowitzki off the bench where his scoring would be welcome and his defensive shortcomings would be less of an issue.
“Obviously, I’ve said that we want to compete and we want to make the playoffs,” Nowitzki told ESPN late last season. “If that means I’m the 10th man, so be it.”
Instead, head coach Rick Carlisle placed his faith in Nowitzki to start the season.
“At this point in time, Dirk at the 5 position is probably the best scenario for Dirk and for our team. And I just don’t think Dirk is the guy that is going to come off the bench as long as I’m here.” Carlisle said. “There’s a very good chance Nerlens is going to come off the bench.”
Fans in Dallas love Dirk but there are issues with playing an aging star over younger players who have untapped potential and more long term value for the franchise.
With Carlisle’s comments, Noel remains in a tough position. It’s hard to question the coaching of Rick Carlisle. Although Dallas has not been competitive the past few years, he continues to be regarded as one of the league’s best coaches and has the 2011 Mavericks’ championship as proof.
Back in March of 2017, Carlisle declared Noel a starting caliber center.
“I do think he’s a starting center in this league. That’s why we traded for him.” Carlisle stated. “But we’re in an experimental mode here.”
When this season came around, Carlisle’s tune had shifted as he stated his commitment to keeping Nowitzki in the starting lineup.
In his fifth season, Noel has experienced some success in the NBA. However, his first two seasons were arguably his best and he has yet to match the levels of production he reached while playing for the Philadelphia 76ers, who were in the midst of a massive rebuild. Noel went into the offseason as a restricted free agent hoping that a team would find his skill set and potential intriguing enough to offer him a lucrative contract. Unfortunately, an appealing multi-year offer never materialized and Noel was forced to accept a one-year qualifying offer and await his pay-day as an unrestricted free agent in 2018.
So far, Noel has started four of seven games and has seen his role and minutes go up and down. He’s currently logging 19.1 minutes a game, which would be a career low for him. With his role uncertain and constantly in flux, Noel will likely continue to make the same mistakes that could be corrected with more consistent playing time. While playing time shouldn’t simply be handed to Noel, it’s reasonable to argue that a player at his age with his skill set should be given more of an opportunity to develop and contribute.
On the other end of the spectrum, Dennis Smith, Jr. has gotten off to a notable start to his rookie season and is earning a sizable role with the team. While teams are most often cautious with true rookies and bring them along slowly, don’t count Dennis Smith, Jr. on that list. Drafted 9th in last year’s NBA Draft, Smith, Jr. has been a revelation for the Mavericks. He was voted by fellow rookies as most likely to win rookie of the year and has not wasted his time in displaying his abilities on the court. So far, he is fourth on the team in minutes per game (30.3), he is averaging 13.2 points and 6.6 assists and is third on the team is individual usage (24.8 percent). Only J.J. Barea and Devin Harris have a higher usage rate and both play far less than Smith, Jr. After a recent game, Mike Conley, Jr. was highly complementary of Smith, Jr.
“He’s going to be something special in the league and they’ve got a good one,” Conley said. “It’s fun to compete against him.”
Dallas possesses their own first-round draft pick and likely has its eyes on landing a top pick in 2018. So far, this season, it looks like Dallas is trying to figure out where its long term pieces will fall into place in the team’s larger puzzle. With Noel playing on a one-year deal, his role seems to be less of a priority than many may have expected. However, Smith, Jr. will likely be with the team for years to come – especially if he can continue building on his early season success.
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