It started after the very first game. After the very first preseason game.
Rick Carlisle called out Samuel Dalembert. He did so without even being asked about it, which means he was making it a point to mention it no matter how the press conference unfolded. That's not a good sign.
Here, let me take you back to October and this post from Tim MacMahon:
"I just told him in front of the whole team that he's got to keep working," said Carlisle, who mentioned Dalembert's conditioning issues to the media without a question being asked about the center. "We need his minutes. They're going to be very important to us. He's a factor. When he's in shape, he's a factor as a rim protector and rebounder, and he gives you a big, active, athletic body in there."
What's worse is that Dalembert then said conditioning wasn't even the issue and that he was a little roughed up from a previous practice. Again, it didn't even take one game for Dalembert to be in Carlisle's crosshairs. An ultimate foreshadowing of what was to happen.
Right now, Dalembert isn't doing much of anything. He's not starting and, for now, he's not even the backup. That would be second-round pick Bernard James who, while doing his best, you might remember for being easily overmatched in his 2013 Summer League debut before being waived and then resigned and who never played meaningful minutes until Saturday night.
This isn't even about James or Dejuan Blair, who's been fantastic in his own right. Blair has a very specific and niche role on the team: crash the boards, bring energy, set screens, finish at the rim. Him doing this for around 20ish minutes a night is perfect. Especially if he can do this coming off the bench and taking advantage of weaker big man most typical second units compose of.
Yet Blair is starting now. He' started the last three games, including last night's beatdown against the Kings. Again, this is nothing against Blair -- he's really great in his role. Against certain teams, there isn't much issue with Blair starting. Against the weak and Antony Davis-less front court of the Pelicans? Sure. The Blazers don't have a big post threat (LaMarcus Aldridge tends to drift more to the mid-range area) so that was OK too. Did you see the screens he set in that fourth quarter? Phenomenal. But against the Kings? Why?
When Dalembert was first demoted, Carlisle mentioned it had more to do with matchups than anything. Dalembert is a post defender and rim protector. Against teams that don't like to get into the paint that much, his defensive role is wasted. Plugging in Blair, who's a bit more mobile to snare longer rebounds and run the floor, makes sense in those type of matchups. But Blair has never, ever held the reputation of a good defender. He's a lousy post defender and an out-of-sorts help defender, either overextending his reach or being slow to react.
DeMarcus Cousins had his way with the Mavs last night. He did pretty much anything he wanted, shooting over Blair, grabbing rebounds over Blair and muscling his way to whatever spot he wanted. That's not really Blair's fault -- he isn't supposed to be a guy who contains big guys like Cousins. He's supposed to be the change of pace guy.
For some reason, Dalembert only logged 12 minutes against the Kings. Almost all of them were garbage time minutes, once the Mavs were soundly beaten and Cousins out of the game. For the rest of the game, Carlisle went with Blair and James. It didn't work. It was never going to work. Blair and James are nice players in their own way, but they were never supposed to stop guys like Cousins. That's what Dalembert is for.
Why not start Dalembert on Monday night and see how he handles Cousins? What was the harm? If Dalembert moped around and didn't do anything, make the switch, go to Blair and James and sit Dalembert's ass on the bench. Not even allowing him to attempt to check the Kings front court, which was dominant all night, seems perplexing.
This isn't unusual for Carlisle. Brendan Haywood and Chris Kaman both ran into Carlisle's dog house, but for good reason. Haywood sulked constantly and couldn't be counted on in crunch time because of his free throw shooting. Kaman was horrible defensively, and the Mavs guarded at league-worst levels when he and Dirk shared the floor.
While Dalembert hasn't been great, he certainly hasn't stooped to the level of Kaman and Haywood. The Mavs have a net rating of +1.8 when he's on the floor, not amazing but not putrid. Not get-benched-for-Bernard-James bad. The Mavs two most-used five-man lineups are the typical four starters (Calderon-Ellis-Marion-Dirk) paired with either Dalembert or Blair. Both have similar net ratings (Blair's group at 5.7, Dalembert's at 5.6) but Dalembert's group gives up about seven points per 100 possessions less than Blair's (112.1 to 105.3 for Dalembert's group). So the Mavs core group defends better with Dalembert rather than Blair (although "defend" might not be the best word. A 105.3 defensive efficiency is still really bad).
The same thing goes to when you just pair it down to each big with Dirk. The Mavs defense is slightly better when Dalembert and Dirk are on the court, as opposed to Blair and Dirk (101.9 to 102.8). It's so slight that it's really a toss up, but it goes to show that the Mavs are no better defensively when Blair is on the court.
I almost wonder if that's the rub. Maybe Carlisle understands that it doesn't matter if it's Dalembert or Blair, the Mavs defense stinks and he'd rather go with the guy who makes the offense better, which is clearly Blair. But still, in certain scenarios, Dalembert has to be a factor, like last night against the Kings.
The Dalembert benching sparked an interesting debate between Andy, myself and Tim (leader Tim): What's the deal with Carlisle's sometimes wonky rotations and lineups? Wayne Ellington, a good shooter and solid defender, seems lost even with the Harris injury. Shane Larkin is clearly more talented than Gal Mekel, but neither can hammer down the backup point guard spot. Remember, last year's Mavericks were a disaster in terms of having a cohesive unit. No team used more starting lineups and Carlisle admitted even he didn't know who was going to start every night.
Carlisle yanked around Darren Collison so much I'm surprised he didn't just wear a coat hanger with his jersey -- it'd just make things easier for Carlisle to give him the hook. Mike James started, so did Bernard James and the Mavs had very curious late-game lineups (small-ball, no Brandan Wright, no Elton Brand, etc.) Even Zach Lowe of Grantland noticed it last season:
Carlisle has been unusually ornery this season, and he admits this strange campaign has taken a toll on him. He threatened to suspend players for lack of effort in late December, has publicly called Darren Collison a career backup, been very slow to trust Brandan Wright, and struggled to find any workable front-line combination.
It's an interesting trend -- when Carlisle doesn't have a set roster in place, he tinkers like mad and pulls players in and out of the lineup. He did it in 2009-2010 season with Rodrigue Beaubois, going back and forth between playing him and J.J. Barea (even though Beaubois was clearly the better player at the time. Remember: Barea's emergence really didn't happen till the next season and the playoffs. In that 2009-2010 season, Barea definitely wasn't a sure thing. He was still a good backup point guard, but Beaubois was outplaying him then.) He did it again, even in the title season, not deciding on the starting two-guard till the team made its case for DeShawn Stevenson...only for Beaubois to start, then come off the bench, then start again before Stevenson started the final regular season game.
Of course, last season's lineup changes were well-documented. It's easier to make the case for last season, because a lot of the players Carlisle was tinkering with were just bad. Kaman isn't doing much for Los Angeles off the bench, Darren Collison is a back-up now and Mike James had his ashes spread across the Pacific Ocean. That doesn't excuse the puzzling decisions though -- Carlisle almost went out of his way to make sure Dirk and Elton Brand never finished a game together, despite the duo having the most potential (to be fair, Brand's defensive numbers paired with Dirk were not as great as you'd think). It took far too long for Wright to get run, with the coaching staffs hesitation of exposing Wright's flaws with more minutes (that never made much sense to me...the Mavericks were going to be bad defensively no matter what. Might as well get your very best players on the court for as much as possible and see what happens). Anthony Morrow was brought in for some much-needed bench shooting, but never played. It's almost as if the front-office didn't even let Carlisle know he had a new player on his bench that could hit at least 40 percent of his threes. It's not like O.J. Mayo could have used a rest. Oh wait! Yes he could! Remember how poorly Mayo shot to end the season? Surely it couldn't have been to playing so many 40+ minute games up till that point, right? Moving on.
Now we're here at this season with Dalembert. He was brought in to play defense, rebound and protect the rim. He hasn't been the best at it, but for the large part, he's done his job. Sitting Dalembert and starting Blair depending on the matchups make sense, but Monday night was Dalembert's matchup. It's why the Mavs signed him.
To counter, I realize that Dalembert's numbers have always been hollow throughout his career. I mentioned as much when the Mavs announced the signing. Dalembert always seems to put up good raw point, rebound and block totals but he's never anchored a good defense and never been a focal point on offense. He's just kind of there, grabbing some boards, blocking some shots, fouling some dudes. He isn't a game-changer by any means.
But the Mavs need him. The roster needs him. As someone mentioned to me on Twitter, the Mavericks aren't good enough to teach Dalembert an effort lesson or send him a message. They need his minutes and need his production, however limited it may be. Carlisle had the opportunity to do this with Haywood and Kaman, because there were options. The Mavs had Tyson Chandler, Ian Mahinmi, Wright or Brand. These Mavs just have Blair and James, neither defensive difference makers like the previous players could be.
Again, Carlisle is a fantastic coach. Watch his management of the Portland win. But there does seem to be something strange going on when it comes to lineups and rotations. It isn't big, but it's there. It's noticeable.
Perhaps this won't even matter, with Wright so close to returning. Maybe Wright will start, Blair will back him up and Dalembert will phase out of our memories as the Mavericks defense improves with Wright's athleticism and the eventual return of Devin Harris. But for right now, with no Wright, the Mavericks need Dalembert. Whether Carlisle likes it or not.