The Dallas Mavericks didn’t make a splashy move in free agency this summer. Actually, unlike most of the summers since winning the title in 2011, the Mavs didn’t even have their eyes set on a big fish to go get.
Their focus? Hit on the rare top-ten draft pick, re-sign Dirk Nowitzki to whatever he wants, and make Nerlens Noel a cornerstone down low for years to come.
Noel was the primary reason the Mavs stayed put in free agency. They knew Nowitzki wasn’t going anywhere, and they had the money to give him whatever he wanted (though if you follow the Big German at all, he isn’t exactly the greedy kind). Landing Dennis Smith Jr. with the ninth pick was great when it happened but it wasn’t a long-held desire. Up until the last month or so of the season, Rick Carlisle and company were trying to make a push for that final spot in the West to earn the right to get swept by the Golden State Warriors in the opening round of the playoffs.
It was the move made at the end of the trade deadline in February when the Mavs traded their late first round pick from the 2015 draft (Justin Anderson) to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Noel, the sixth overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft. There were other formality pieces involved, such as Andrew Bogut but in reality, it was a swap for the most part.
Upon arriving in Dallas, Noel was relegated to coming off the bench as he saw Nowitzki, one of the greatest power forwards of all time, make his starts at center. There were thoughts that perhaps it was because Noel came in the middle of the season so Carlisle was just easing him into the system. Turns out, it was just a sign of things to come.
“I basically said to them that I’m not sure that he’s going to start,” Carlisle said regarding his conversation with Noel and his agent, Rich Paul. during the Mavs’ media day. “There’s a very good chance that Nerlens will come off the bench. Look, he said he’s good with it.”
After management and Noel failed to come to terms on a deal that would keep the big man in Dallas for the long haul, he signed a one-year qualifying offer. So Noel, the oft-injured but very talented player, is betting on himself to land a max contract next summer, whether it’s with the Mavs or elsewhere.
There is a trickle-down effect with the decision to start Nowitzki at center and bring Noel off the bench. First of all, with rookie Smith running things from the point, Noel seems like the obvious pick-and-roll big that would thrive under Carlisle’s desired fast-pace offense. However, the head coach has said that as long as he’s in Dallas, Nowitzki will be in the starting lineup and in order to get as many athletes on the court to start the game as possible, it means transitioning the creator of the “stretch-4” to a “stretch-5.”
That isn’t to say Noel won’t get his chances. Carlisle has already expressed that he would like to keep Nowitzki’s minutes in the 20s more regularly than the 30s as he enters his 20th season. It is entirely possible that Nowitzki is the first sub out and Noel becomes an instant candidate for Sixth Man of the Year, and maybe even tally more minutes than Nowitzki.
The key will be how this impacts the personnel around Noel when he does enter the game. Will Carlisle keep Smith out there longer so he can develop something with Noel crashing hard to the rim? Smith would be a fan of that.
“He’s my dream big,” Smith said at Mavs’ media day.
The feeling is mutual.
“[He’s] the point guard I’ve always dreamed about,” Noel said.
That is a dynamic that will bear watching because the exact answer is unknown. What is not unknown though is that Noel will still be an integral part of the Mavs this season. That is why Noel and his camp have agreed to coming off the bench in a bet-on-me year. At the end of it all, it might be best for Noel to show what he can do in that role because his skills will be on display while he also won’t be exposed to the risk of injury, something else that has plagued him in his basketball career.
The wrench thrown in the whole lineup mix came in late preseason for the Mavs. Initially it was simple: Smith would start at point with Seth Curry sharing the backcourt with him. Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes and Nowitzki would fill out the rest of the lineup. With Curry out with a stress reaction in his tibia, there were some wondering if that may create a Smith-Matthews-Barnes-Nowitzki-Noel starting lineup. Instead, Carlisle seems primed to give Yogi Ferrell the shot to fill in for the injured Curry, at least to start the season.
Noel coming off the bench has many layers: the scheme, the personnel, the personal interest and the team interest are all in play. It’s not like the Mavs are setting up Noel to fail.
They want him around for the long haul. The history at center for the franchise isn’t exactly a rich one, with two one-year stints by Tyson Chandler basically being the highlights. The team will have the money to pay him after the season if they wish to do so and Nowitzki is in his final year or two so the spot in the starting lineup for the next decade or so is there for Noel in Dallas. The question now is how everybody associated in that situation, from Noel, to Carlisle, to his teammates can make it work this season.
Best case scenario? Noel is on the receiving end of the Sixth Man of the Year award, because that would mean the experiment resulted in a max contract for Noel and a cornerstone center for the Mavericks for years to come.
“Nerlens is ready,” Carlisle said. “He’s motivated.”