Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the NBA is going small.
It’s true; the league has shifted away from the classic hulking, back-to-basket threat and the old adage that any (Jordan-less) dynasty must have a great big man is being thoroughly dismantled. Today, floor-spacing is the buzzword(s) and having four or even all five guys who can shoot/handle/pass is the way the modern lineup is being assembled.
So, with that context, Tim McMahon’s hint at the possible future direction of the Dallas Mavericks makes at least some sense. McMahon -- who usually has his finger on the pulse of the team’s internal discussions -- dropped this very interesting tidbit in a recent article:
The thought process: Target a two-way small forward such as Harrison Barnes or Nicolas Batum during the summer to add some size and versatility to the lineup. If they successfully hit on Plan A in free agency -- and you don’t have to tell Mavs fans just how big an if that is after the last four years -- good luck trying to stop Dallas from lighting up the scoreboard. Of course, the Mavs better score a whole bunch if a 38-year-old Dirk is the backbone of the defense.
Now, the obvious caveat here should be that it’s still only March, and a whole lot can happen before players actually start signing contracts in mid-July. For one thing, the regular and post-season still have to be played, and for plenty of fans that is undoubtedly foremost on the agenda. Then, of course, there’s the little matter of Dallas keeping Chandler Parsons, who can opt out and become a desirable free agent, something he’s widely expected to do.
Assuming the team does get a good look at a small-ball lineup going forward, however, should the team aggressively pursue Batum, Barnes, or a player of similar skillset? Personally, if McMahon's hypothetical does play out, I would have major, major concerns about the 2016-2017 season, and beyond.
As we all saw Wednesday night against the Cavs, the smallball lineup can be exposed against a certain kind of team. This is apparent even if you read the headline in McMahon's article, but for those who missed Wednesday's matchup, the Mavs were outrebounded 57-38, and worse yet, were outscored in second chance points 22-4. Get used to seeing lots of discrepancies like that if Dirk Nowitzki is your full-time center.
It is not only conceivable but likely that if Chandler Parsons is in Dallas long term, his future position may be at power forward. As long as Dirk Nowitzki is playing at a starter-level, though, the Mavs are going to need something close to a traditional center as the primary pivot man. Nowitzki is not up to taking the 82 game pounding inside defending the post, and we've already highlighted the issues on the glass. Beyond that, I think that both Dirk and Parsons are more successful offensively when Dallas has a big man who can finish around the basket off high pick and roll. This is hardly conjecture; think back to recent days of Brandan Wright and Tyson Chandler shredding defenses in the paint.
Going back to Wednesday night in Cleveland, remember that with about six minutes left in the second quarter Wednesday, Dallas trailed the Cavaliers 30-50, and for the first time Carlisle subbed in both Lee and Dirk together, next to the standard Deron-Wes-Parsons perimeter trio. Dallas closed the half on a 21-7 run, which Carlisle noticed enough to make that lineup the one that started the second half.
If we can play the free agent crystal ball game for a second, I think the Dallas front office that the right idea last year when they pursued DeAndre Jordan. It didn't work out, but on paper, a center who can do some of the things Jordan can still makes a lot of sense for this franchise. Ideally, you need a rebounder, a shot blocker, and a pick and roll finisher all in one. Getting a star at any position is very hard (the Mavs should know, since they've failed to do so pretty much throughout their history), let alone center, but the 2016 free agent class is projected to have several standouts there, including Al Horford, Dwight Howard, and Hassan Whiteside.
Right now, I'd say Dallas doesn't have great odds to get any of those guys. The humorous thought occurs that all three could sort of do a musical chairs routine, with Dwight going home to Atlanta, Horford returning to the state where he spent his college days in Miami, and Whiteside being scooped up by the risk-taking Rockets. The next tier of big man drops off in quality, but if we're looking at a restricted free agent currently in Golden State, why not consider Festus Ezeli, instead of Harrison Barnes?
The bottom line is that the Mavericks would be an historically bad rebounding club if not for all those minutes Zaza Pachulia logged earlier in the season. The small-ball stuff is an extremely effective wrinkle, in the right matchup, but count me as strongly opposed to making it the focus of your team going forward.