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The future of the Mavericks' big man rotation

Dallas has half a dozen options to back up Dirk and Tyson. Who will it end up being?

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

With all the rumors out there surrounding potential Mavericks targets, I thought it would be a good idea to talk a little bit about the elephant in the room: the Mavs' big man rotation.

The Mavs have been attached to Jermaine O'Neal rumors since shortly after they traded away human pogo stick and analytics superman Brandan Wright. It was confirmed this weekend that the Knicks have bought out Amar'e Stoudemire and Dallas is apparently the front runner to sign him. And, of course, earlier this week, Bernard "Sarge" James was brought back into the fold on a 10-day contract.

With Sarge on the team, the Mavericks have a full roster. Even if Sarge isn't kept for more than 10 or 20 days (NBA teams can only offer a player two 10-day contracts before they have to sign him for the rest of the season), there is still only one open spot for two rumored targets. So it seems like someone is going to be the odd man out if the Mavs go through with their plans.

But should they? And if so, who is the unlucky guy? Let's consider the options.

Bernard James

"Sarge" James is a serviceable back up center drafted by the Mavericks in the 2nd round of the 2012 NBA draft. Sarge of course got his nickname because he served in the Air Force prior to playing college basketball at Florida State, and so he was a bit older than your normal rookie when the Mavs' drafted him. The Mavs mostly used Sarge as an emergency center, though he started 11 times his rookie year. Last season, there wasn't nearly as much playing time for Sarge behind Samuel Dalembert, Brandan Wright, and Dejuan Blair. Despite having a guaranteed contract for this season, Sarge was released at the end of training camp. Many of us were more than a little disappointed to see Sarge go.

In his two seasons with Dallas, the 6-foot-10, 240-pound center played averaged about 2 points and 2 rebounds per game in a little under 8 minutes a game. While this isn't exactly promising for your primary backup center, Sarge didn't exactly get a lot of opportunities. It's also important to note that he has absolutely dominated lesser competition, averaging 20 points, 12 rebounds, and just under 3 blocks a game in the D-League and 19 points, 11 rebounds, and 2 blocks a game in China.

In his first game back with Dallas, Sarge looked good, with 9 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 blocks in 22 minutes. For me, Sarge is the center equivalent of Al-Farouq Aminu. It is unlikely that he is going to put up great stats, but he plays with an energy that is contagious and when he is on, he gives the Mavericks quality defense and rebounding without being a huge liability on offense. Again, while Sarge is only in his third season, he just turned 30, so you should probably assume he is at or near his ceiling athletically. He may get wiser and smarter in the way he plays, but mostly, he is who he is at this point.

One game isn't much to go on, but I for one find myself hoping Dallas keeps Sarge around.

Greg Smith

The presence of Greg Smith was the primary reason Dallas was willing to part with Bernard James. While Charlie Villanueva is the "stretch 4" that the Mavericks signed after cutting James, Smith is more of a traditional defense and rebounding center  at 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds. My guess is that the Mavs saw a lot of potential in the 24-year-old and felt that he had a much higher ceiling than the 30-year-old James. Since they really needed one player for the "defense and rebounding" backup center role, the Mavs went with Smith over James.

Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to have panned out. A lot of us here at Mavs Moneyball were cautiously optimistic that Smith could grow into a quality role player this season, but it appears that several knee injuries and a missed season have perhaps taken a toll on the young center's game. He is averaging less than 10 minutes a game this season, and his numbers are down across the board from his time in Houston.

While Smith's minutes jumped up after Brandan Wright was shipped to Boston in exchange for Rajon Rondo, he really failed to capitalize on his opportunity. He never quite looks comfortable on the floor, and while he has shown some flashes of good play, he also disappears regularly and is often caught out of position, forcing him to commit unnecessary fouls. Ultimately, he just doesn't seem like the springy, athletic big man who showed so much promise in Houston.

It really looks like Sarge was brought back to Dallas because the Mavs have lost all confidence in Smith, which is really unfortunate, since Sarge was cut largely because of the promise the front office saw in Greg. Whether or not Sarge is kept past his 10-day contract, Smith seems like the obvious odd man out if changes are made in the front court.

Dwight Powell

The new kid on the block seemed like a throw-in to the Rondo trade, but the rookie's got game. In his only game with the Texas Legends thus far, he scored 26 points and 21 rebounds. His stats don't approach those highs but he's been reliable in Dallas, including: 11 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, and a block against Denver; 6 points, 10 rebounds, and an assist against Minnesota; and 10 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, and a block against New Orleans.

If Sarge is the Aminu of big men, then I would argue Powell is the Jae Crowder or Shawn Marion. He doesn't do anything particularly well, but he is quietly pretty good at everything. He generally makes solid decisions and works hard whenever he is on the floor. Maybe we use this term too much, but he is the epitome of a glue guy. And his jumper has some promise as well.

Unfortunately, Rick Carlisle doesn't care if I love Dwight Powell. While the rookie took over a hefty chuck of Charlie V and Greg Smith's minutes for a couple of weeks after the trade, he has since been kept on the bench more often than not. I'm really not sure why this is. Yes, he makes some rookie mistakes, but nothing worse than what we've seen from Greg Smith and Charlie V. Hopefully Powell will get some more opportunities soon. More than anyone else on this list, he has real potential to be a major contributor to the Dallas Mavericks for years to come.

Charlie Villanueva

Charlie V has been the surprise of the season. He is really an outlier on this list, since he is really only on the roster to do one thing: hit three-point shots. Prior to the Rondo trade, Charlie was no more a factor on this team than Ricky Ledo, but because the trade decimated the Mavs bench (i.e. the Mavs missed Brandan Wright), Dallas really needed someone to produce some points off the bench.

Villanueva has had two 20+ point games this season and is averaging 38.6 percent from beyond the arc. Occasionally he does more than that, using his energy to get some rebounds or knock down an absolutely silly layup. But for the most part, he is a one trick pony. He doesn't nab a ton of rebounds, and he's more liability than asset on the defensive end. The man has a defined role and mostly plays is well.

Because Charlie V is unique among the Mavs (and potential Mavs) big men, I highly doubt his roster spot is in danger.The fact of the matter is that Dallas needs three-point shooters, and Villanueva is one of the best ones on the roster.

Jermaine O'Neal

The last time the 6'11", 226-pound center played professional basketball was Game 7 of the 2014 playoff series between the Warriors and the Clippers. He injured his knee in Game 6, and played a total of about 5 minutes in Games 6 and 7. That season with the Warriors, O'Neal played primarily power forward and averaged 7.9 points and 5.5 rebounds in about 20 minutes a game.

O'Neal is a six-time All Star in the twilight of his career. In the past four seasons, he only played an average of 37 games a season, and injuries have been a recurring theme in his career. This was perhaps part of the reason O'Neal has been considering retiring since his season with the Warriors ended. Even now, despite all the rumors connecting him to the Mavericks, O'Neal has been emphatic that he hasn't decided whether to play at all, much less for any particular team.

Just before Christmas, O'Neal posted a picture to Instagram in which he was receiving some sort treatments in Germany. Nearly two months later, we haven't heard from the 36-year-old big man. When healthy, he was exactly the sort of gritty rebounding center the Mavs could use behind Tyson Chandler. But it's really hard to say whether he is actually healthy and whether, at his age, he can still produce at even the level he maintained last season with Golden State. A lot of fans expect Jermaine to solve some of the Mavs' problems, but a number of us are pretty skeptical.

Amar'e Stoudemire

The rumors that Amar'e might seek a buyout from the Knicks have been swirling for a while now, and a few weeks ago, it broke that the Mavs might be a serious contender for his services. I'm sure I don't have to remind anyone what an offensive force Amar'e was in Phoenix, and he was supposed to be the Knicks' franchise cornerstone when he signed there in 2010. Unfortunately, his career has been pretty much straight downhill since then.

While Amar'e made the All-Star Game his first season in New York, he has been plagued by various injuries ever since. If you judge him based solely on his exorbitant contract and the starring role he was expected to fill in New York, Stoudemire is clearly an unmitigated failure. However, if you think about him in the role he would serve in Dallas, he is a fantastic asset. He has played 36 of 53 games this season, averaging 12 points and 6.8 rebounds on 55% shooting.

Stoudemire may not be the hyper-athletic dunk machine he used to be, but as the Mavs' primary offensive big man off the bench, he can more than make up for the punch lost when Brandan Wright was traded away. If you ask me, Dallas has the most to offer him in terms of a defined role, playing time, and a chance to compete for a title, but nothing is certain and plenty of other teams are in the mix.

Concluding thoughts

Even if the Mavs figured out a feasible way of keeping all these big men (by cutting Ricky Ledo and another player--maybe Felton?), why would they? Eight big men is way too many; there just aren't enough minutes to go around, even if you do your damnedest to limit Dirk's and Tyson's minutes as much as possible.

If I were calling the shots, I would cut Greg Smith, sign Bernard James for the rest of the season, and add Amar'e Stoudemire. Play Dirk and Tyson 25-30 minutes each, throw 20 or so at Amar'e, and split the rest between Sarge, Powell, and Charlie V, depending on the matchups.

I disagree with all the conventional wisdom that insists the Mavs need to sign Jermaine O'Neal. Even assuming that he is everything he was with Golden State (so 8 points and 5 rebounds in 20 minutes a game), I believe firmly that you can get at least comparable production out of Dwight Powell and/or Bernard James. I get that the Mavs are in win-now mode with Dirk's career nearing its end, but it is actually possible to win now without completely sacrificing the future. Not only are Powell and James pieces that could contribute to the team beyond this season, there is absolutely no guarantee that O'Neal will even be as good as either or both of those two, much less definitively better. To me, it feels like a much higher risk to depend on a 36-year-old center with a history of injury, who hasn't played a game in nearly nine months than to allow your younger guys to make some mistakes and grow into a role by the playoffs.

If you can get Amar'e, absolutely do it. I would love to see Dwight Powell grow, but if his minutes are sacrificed so that you can bring a weapon like Amar'e off the bench, so be it.

From all the rumors, it seems like the Mavs are probably going to sign O'Neal regardless. This probably means that Sarge is nothing but a stop-gap, unless the Mavs are willing to part ways with Ledo or Smith. Things get tricky if O'Neal isn't ready to join the roster before Dallas is forced to make a decision on Sarge. But probably the Mavs pick up O'Neal and will add Amar'e if he's willing, and cut Sarge, Smith, and/or Ledo as necessary.

Probably this will all shake out in the next few weeks, but for now, go ahead and throw your own hot takes in the comment section. Who do you have behind Dirk and Tyson for the rest of the season?