Every office seems to have that one coworker who everyone likes but whose value to the company no one quite understands. For much of last season, Charlie Villanueva was that guy in Dallas.
Theoretically, Charlie V.'s role on the team was clear -- provide backup minutes behind Dirk Nowitzki and help the team's spacing with his outside shooting abilities. But the veteran power forward struggled with consistency last year -- he started off on fire, hitting on more than 42 percent of his 3-point attempts in the first two months of the season, then turned into league average in January before cratering out at 29 percent in March.
The limitations on the rest of his game meant it was hard for Rick Carlisle to find minutes for him when his shot wasn't falling. In that March stretch where he struggled so much shooting the ball, Villanueva also posted a defensive rating of 111. He'd gone from an effective contributor in small doses to a net negative by the end of the season.
But there are few players easier to root for Charlie. He was maligned for failing to live up to a five-year, nearly $40 million contract with the Pistons, but he's just such a likable player and person. The Dallas Morning News in February wrote about the time he spends in various NBA arenas meeting with kids who suffer from alopecia, the autoimmune disease that caused him to lose his hair as a child. Villanueva has served as an ambassador for the NBA in the Dominican Republic. He also appears to be a genuinely nice guy who loves to play and enjoys connecting with fans through forums like his blog.
It looked like he might have competition for a roster spot in the preseason but free agent front court signees like Maurice N'Dour failed to impress. Meanwhile, Villanueva was solid, including double digit outings in two starts. His first team reps early in the preseason might indicate how much confidence Carlisle has in him.
What to expect from Villanueva?
If this season is anything like his first in Dallas, Charlie will get up plenty of shots when he's on the floor. He had a usage rate of 26 percent last year -- higher than Nowitzki's. That green light might not carry over this year but his shooting range could make him an ideal complement in the reserve unit to athletic roll men like JaVale McGee and Jeremy Evans. However, the Mavs front court is stocked with potential rotation quality big men, if few elite talents. If his defensive deficiencies seriously outweigh the value of his outside shooting, it will be hard for Villanueva to stay on the floor.
Best case scenario
Much like John Jenkins this preseason, Villanueva went from a fringe free agent signing to member of the final Mavericks roster thanks to some brilliant shooting in what are ultimately a handful of meaningless games. Partly because of the team's depth at the front court last year -- Dallas still had Tyson Chandler and Brandan Wright to play next to Dirk -- and partly because of his shooting struggles, Charlie V. had a tough time carving out a consistent role last year.
The key for Villanueva this year is consistency. Limiting the decisions he has to make with the ball in his hands could go far in that regard. When opposing defenses could force Charlie V. to put the ball on the floor, disaster often ensued. If Carlisle can surround him with enough ball handlers, he can make an impact roving the perimeter. His 3-point shooting skills can allow reserve guards like J.J. Barea and Devin Harris to play in space while Dirk gets breathers. If he can stay out of his own head, he can be valuable in that role.
Worst case scenario
Mavericks fans already saw the worst possible scenario for Charlie last spring. He couldn't make shots, couldn't rebound and couldn't defend. To be fair, the team as a whole struggled -- Nowitzki was dealing with conditioning issues and the general moodiness of the Mavs' starting guards hurt the team's chemistry on and off the court.
For Villanueva individually, another shooting stretch like that one would be discouraging. In some respects, it would be a bad sign if the team is leaning heavily on Villanueva for bench production as the season wears on, regardless of his quality of play. That would indicate second-year power forward Dwight Powell hasn't taken a big step forward or that guys like Dirk and McGee can't stay healthy.
Rick Carlisle is masterful when it comes to putting limited players in position to succeed. If most of the lineup can stay intact this year, the Mavericks coach will have another shot at finding that role for Villanueva this year.