By Adam Spinella
Watching a star fade cannot be easy. Dirk Nowitzki, a beloved superstar for his postseason heroics, unique style and classy persona, is no exception to the rule. As the end of Nowitzki’s career draws closer, the afterthought of a team he plays for has kept Dirk’s swan song out of the headlines. True, this season may not be his last, but the writing on the wall seems crystal clear: he’s played his last postseason game for the Dallas Mavericks.
Both Dirk and his team are too loyal to swap him out to a contender to chase another ring. Instead both are trying to enjoy the time they have left together. While the losses pile up and the star grows dimmer by the day, a new supernova is flashing through the sky. Dennis Smith Jr., the team’s first-round pick this past June, has all the aura of a franchise-caliber cornerstone. So as one Maverick great prepares to pass the torch to what he hopes is the next, we all should savor the final few moments of the wondrous Dirk Mavs.
Look up and down the roster and it’s a collection of slightly disappointing prospects next to aging, mediocre veterans. Nerlens Noel jumps out as obviously disappointing, failing to establish himself as the alpha of the frontcourt while rubbing the brass the wrong way. The qualifying offer he accepted first seemed like a price tag bargain, though the relationship between the two parties may prevent a return this summer via unrestricted free agency.
Harrison Barnes hasn’t turned into the cornerstone Mark Cuban and company envisioned when they snatched him away from Golden State nearly 18 months ago. Wes Matthews has turned into a bomber from deep and an inefficient finisher (he’s only shooting 32.9 percent from two-point range), driving down his trade value as he’ll inevitably be pushed into the market this winter.
The likes of Yogi Ferrell and Seth Curry have been bright spots for the organization due to their overachievement in comparison to expectations. But neither is a starter on a good team and both have serious flaws on the defensive end. A Curry return will boost the beleaguered Mavericks offense, while pushing Yogi into a full-time reserve role where he’s best-suited.
The only shining hope for this organization’s long-term hope remains with Dennis Smith, and boy has he held up his end of the bargain. Athletically, he’s already in the top tier of NBA point guards and he’s been much more efficient from a creating perspective than most imagined. He rarely forces shots against contesting defenders and instead makes elegant euro-steps leading to kick outs to the perimeter:
Most youngsters would try to finish over the top of Huestis at the rim – especially athletes like Smith – but he finds a tight passing window and exploits it. Right now Dallas is taking the second-most threes in the league while hovering around league average in percentage. By design, the Mavericks want to spread the floor around Smith so he can attack, and it’s making the game simple. He’s proven he’s capable of the more sophisticated, though.
Like any rookie point guard thrust into heavy minutes, Smith has been turnover prone. As he learns to read help-side defenses in the NBA and anticipate a step sooner due to increased athleticism and length around him, he could be something special. Playing in a simple pick-and-roll offering very few wrinkles means defenders start to read the offense and anticipate the play. Smith frequently gets caught mid-air while the windows he began to jump for are rapidly closing:
Right now DSJ has a 23 percent turnover rate as the pick-and-roll ball handler, per Synergy Sports Tech. That’s entirely too high. Nearly one out of every four possessions ends in a turnover! Concerns like that usually get quelled over time and, almost too obviously, dissipate when the talent level surrounding the pick-and-roll is heightened. Dallas just doesn’t have the dudes to make the game more complex.
Carlisle has ditched his traditional ball-movement offense that provides options to scorers coming off screens and gone all-in on the Smith pick-and-roll. It’s a strong message to send for a coach who rarely abandons ball movement, and one the rest of the league should worry about: in a few years, DSJ is going to be a problem.
The numbers certainly back up their reliance on pick-and-roll creation. Per Synergy, roughly 50 percent of their offense is derived from pick-and-roll offense or spot-up opportunities (most usually drawn from ball screen offense). Dallas may be near the bottom of the league in those PnR metrics right now, but they’re a top 10 shooting team based on their personnel and immaculate spacing on the perimeter. Those shooters make DSJ’s life a little easier, and he returns the favor by getting them easy looks.
Of course Carlisle has tried to make things as easy as possible on the rook, keeping a starting frontcourt of Matthews-Barnes-Nowitzki as frequently as possible. Having three great shooters surround him really opens up the floor. Still Smith is impressive with the patience with which he navigates these screens while simultaneously manipulating the help defense:
Of course the Mavs played through ball screens last year and in prior years (Dallas has frequently built their roster to have multiple PnR creators on the floor at a time to maximize this) but never before been so reliant on it in terms of generating their offense. Dirk is barely posting up anymore, as moving up a notch to the center spot full-time gets him pushed off his spots and unable to cleanly shoot over his man. Harrison Barnes at the 4 has the same issue, and Carlisle has been forced to ditch his famed cross-screen sets that would get either an isolation near the baseline. Whether a simple cross screen or a staggered one tight to the baseline, the objective was to slow things down, play through Dirk and let things ride from there.
Carlisle wasted the beginning of last season trying to play as slow as possible with their already-forgotten lineups featuring Dirk, Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut. Clunky sets that Williams ran in Utah stalled out the offense while spacing was cramped. The adjustments of moving Barnes to the 4 and Dirk to the 5 helped clear open the lane, and Carlisle hasn’t looked back, centering his entire offense on the spread pick-and-roll. By the end of the season, Dallas had taken the lowest percentage of their shots in the paint of any team over the past 20 years, since the league started collecting such data.
Mavericks fans longed for the days of Dirk commanding their offense with his back to the basket. There was a certain delight in watching those post-Nash Mavericks teams that ran unorthodox sets around Nowitzki. He’s been such a unique player with that Hall-of-Fame jump shot that Carlisle found the most unusual ways to spring him open for shots. One personal favorite remains the counter to those baseline isolations – a devastating down screen set by a smaller guard like J.J. Barea:
Part of the art of Nowitzki and his impact on the game has been watching all the beautiful ways he gets open shots within their offense. This year Dirk looks old and rapidly growing older. He can no longer carry the heavy-lifting of their offense. And at this point in his career and in the Mavs’ current organizational situation, they shouldn’t want him to. Nearly all his open threes come from pick-and-pops or transition; it’s sad to see those wonderful sets disappear.
As for Carlisle, he’s still working his magic. Dallas is a top five team out of timeout situations, one area where a coach can have most immediate and direct impact on an offense. Those big men will continue to find ways in and out of the rotation, while youngsters like Salah Mejri, Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber are continually placed in situations to succeed.
Dallas has been playing a game of rotation roulette with their big men thus far in the season, juggling the minutes of Dirk, Noel and Dwight Powell. Exceptional coaches like Carlisle usually know the right buttons to press; his choosing of Powell in the Mavs win over Milwaukee last week was such an example, as the Stanford product posted nine points and 13 rebounds and was a game-best +32, according to his bball-reference page. Doubting Carlisle is fools play after he’s proven through the years he can plug-and-play the right pieces. After all, he did something similar during the 2013-14 season with Samuel Dalembert, Brandan Wright and DeJuan Blair.
The issue with such a strategy is the constant wear-and-tear on a player’s psyche that can have. Mental preparation for heavy minutes, only to be treated to a minimal role, is draining over the course of such a long season. A player-led team is always better than a coach-led team, and it’s hard to establish that type of culture when the coach is the one constantly tinkering with the chemicals.
Many may be clamoring for his head due to the Noel situation, but time and time again he’s proven to be on the right side of clashes with players. Noel, one of the internet darlings across the NBA fanbase due to his athleticism, high draft position and highlight-reel defensive plays, is officially approaching overrated territory. The trade market from Philadelphia and the lack of offers he received this summer should serve as proof that NBA teams don’t hold him in as high esteem as casual observers do.
Sure he produces numbers on the defensive side of the floor, but he completely torpedoes a defensive scheme to do so. For every highlight reel save or instinctual play he makes to save a bucket, he gives up another one with ill-advised gambles that drive coaches insane. The occasional calculated risk can be lived with if effort exists on every play. But a gambler who stands and stares at the ball in the half-court is difficult to stomach:
Defensive anchors, a common role for NBA centers to fulfill, must be the reliable backbone of any unit. Noel’s constant ball-hawking tactics and lazy tendencies prove he’s anything but reliable. He’s playing his way out of the rotation, logging only 14 minutes per game on the season and a mere 4.2 per game over the last six (with a DNP-coach’s decision jammed in there for good measure).
Still there’s a case to get Nerlens more than this current allotment of minutes. He’s the team’s leader in offensive rebounds – total, not just per minute – despite that limited playing time. He knocks down his free throws and has finished at a decent clip near the rim. There’s probably a happy medium to be found between where he is now and where he expects to be.
While Noel remains the team’s biggest wild card, he’s also their biggest source of optimism outside of Smith. The season is young, and Nerlens could work to mend fences, produce and supplant Dirk as the team’s starting center. Of course things could completely go the opposite direction, where the Mavericks find themselves without a long-term option at the 5.
Starting the season 3-14 likely means the Mavs are once again bottom-feeders in the Western Conference, barring a strong unexpected turnaround. For an owner that hates to focus on tanking or even consider the possibility for his own team, the organizational focus is now shifting towards acquiring the best long-term talent they can. Dallas GM Donnie Nelson has done an exceptional job of keeping costs down while Cuban swings-and-misses on top tier free agents on an annual basis.
Nelson has helped position the Mavericks well to absorb salary this season; they currently have the lowest number of active salaries in the league (around $86.6 million) and are a clean $12.5 million shy of reaching the salary cap. Combine that with three players (Dorian Finney-Smith, Jeff Withey and Devin Harris) on partial or non-guaranteed contracts and Dallas stands out as a desired dumping ground for some teams trying to shed salary this winter. The reward for their troubles would likely be draft compensation.
As of now the Mavericks have north of $31 million in cap room, which could be more if Nowitzki retires. Cuban could try to use that cash to lure in a good free agent (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope would be an awesome fit, by the way) but that space is likely to disappear if the Mavs are smart with using their space properly this year.
It’s not like there are no veterans of desire to other teams around the league. Both J.J. Barea and Josh Powell could be trade bait worth dangling in the waters. Barea is still an exceptional pick-and-roll creator despite his defensive liabilities and loss of a half-step. Several playoff teams will be in the market for a backup point guard this year. Powell is a decent do-it-all big that Dallas would hate to lose, but could be used to get the Mavs a high-quality draft choice.
A team like the Knicks, dying to free themselves of Joakim Noah, could send some serious first-rounders to Dallas for Powell and that relief. The Lakers, serious about unloading Luol Deng so they can chase superstars this summer, might offer a sweet-enough deal for Dallas to pull the trigger. No matter who they try and package away, the Mavs would be wise to utilize their cap space to get them some young talent or draft picks. The long-term outlook of the club and of their cap circumstance makes one such move somewhat palatable.
2018 should bring another loaded draft class, one where the Mavericks could backdoor their way into another foundational player. A year from now the outlook of this team long-term can change drastically from where it is now. The team will turn the corner and despite the awfully disappointing start to the year has a better assembly of talent than their record indicates.
All of this goes without talking about Harrison Barnes, their $100-million dollar man that has simultaneously underperformed his contract and been a steady anchor for this team. Harrison is never meant to be an alpha male, and is best as a third option on a good team. Slowly, with Smith emerging and a draft pick on the way next year, he’s getting back to that territory.
So before we get all down on the Mavericks, buy some stock this year while it’s cheap. They’ll have two young studs to get excited about twelve months from now. One of the elite coaches in the league roams their sidelines. The front office and owner are in sync about how to grow this team. Things will hit the upswing soon enough.
It just won’t be accompanied by a Nowitzki step-back anymore.