Imagine you're Justin Anderson. You're the 21st pick of the 2015 NBA draft, an accomplished college player from a winning basketball program.
You play a position and style the league is tailored for -- a 6'6 wing that can jump out of the building, play defense and shoot threes. You also realize you're joining a team and a coach, the Dallas Mavericks and Rick Carlisle, that doesn't have a great history with the draft and young players.
With both Wesley Matthews and Chandler Parsons coming off brutal surgeries, you get ready expecting to shoulder some of the load as those dudes work their way back to health. Instead, Matthews comes back for game one and Carlisle rides Raymond Felton while Chandler Parsons works off his minutes restriction. You average less than six minutes a game in the first two months of the season.
You stay ready. You work hard enough to get some praise from Carlisle from some reporter scrums after practice. You realize you have to cut out the tiny mistakes for Carlisle to trust you for big minutes. You keep at it.
As the season spirals out of control and Parsons goes out for the season with another knee injury, Carlisle finally calls your name out of desperation. You're inserted into the starting lineup on March 28 against the Nuggets, and the team responds with a six-game winning streak.
Leaning on yourself, Matthews and Salah Mejri on defense and J.J. Barea on offense, you're part of a transformation as the Mavs turn into a slow-paced, grinding defensive team. You average a little over 7 points and 6 rebounds a game, playing about 26 minutes a game to close out the season's final nine games. The Mavs have a net rating of 7.1 while you're on the floor in those games with a 95.8 defensive rating. You're not only surviving in the NBA, you're a key catalyst to getting a team into the playoffs.
Saturday night rolls around. It's the playoffs. You're jacked up to contribute in a playoff game in just your first year in the league. It's what you've worked your whole basketball career for.
You don't start. You watch as Carlisle decides to play three guards for the majority of the game against the athletically superior Thunder. You play four minutes in the first half. By time you get some burn, the only question left in the game is whether your team will lose by 50 points.
Ask yourself this: how would you feel?
Anderson is human. I cannot pretend to even predict how he is feeling or thinking right now, but I can't imagine getting benched after pushing the Mavs to their best winning stretch of the season in the team's most important game to date inspires much self-confidence.
Disclaimer: Anderson playing 30 minutes would not have changed the results from Saturday night. The Mavericks were bad. The Thunder were good. Dallas would have lost, and it probably would have been by double-digits. The process behind the game, however, is troubling. Anderson not checking into the game before Charlie Villanueva and JaVale McGee is embarrassing.
It was a catastrophic coaching failure not because of the lone loss, but what it could mean for the future. If Carlisle can't trust Anderson after that stretch of nine games, when will he? He has no choice in Game 2, where Anderson will likely play 25+ minutes and the furor around his lack of playing time will dissipate. With no Barea and likely no Deron Williams, Anderson has to play because the Mavs don't have enough healthy wings.
I'm more scared of the future, where the Mavericks are going to like-it-or-not rely on the draft more than they ever have. Mark Cuban guessed wrong on the new CBA and the chance to surround Dirk Nowtizki with a star free agent is over. Dirk is 37, and the upcoming free agent class is devoid of any franchise difference maker that can carry the Mavericks for the next 10 years post-Dirk. Even if there were, it's not like the Mavs would win the sweepstakes anyway.
That means it'll be time to actually draft some players, like the Mavs did with Anderson last year. It was nice to see the Mavs jump on an athletic, seemingly-NBA-ready-made wing with their pick. No undersized shooting guard or project big that can't play (they'd save that for the second round). It seemed to be the first step in the Mavs learning to trust the draft again after ignoring it for much of Dirk's era.
What worries me now is that it might not even matter if the Mavericks actually hit in the draft -- will Rick Carlisle make sure these rookies develop the way they should?
I'll phrase the question another way -- are we soon near the point where the Mavs drafting failures are no longer the fault of the front office, but Carlisle?
If the Mavericks actually took Giannis Antetokounmpo back when they had the chance, I have zero faith that the Greek Freak would have turned into the point forward demon under Carlisle that he's transforming into under Jason Kidd. If he did, it wouldn't be for the Mavs but another team that plucked him from the roster to give the Mavs and Carlisle another veteran to work with.
It's already happened, to some degree. Jae Crowder was a hard-working wing that did all the little things well (team defense, moved the ball) but couldn't shoot. The Mavericks rarely played him and for me, it was good reason -- he couldn't shoot and the Mavs had veteran wings in front of him. He's been traded to Boston and is now putting up better numbers in certain aspects than Chandler Parsons. This is mainly because Crowder was finally given a chance to play big minutes under a coach willing to let him grow into himself with a roster that had the time and patience.
It happened in the infamous 2013 season, where Carlisle yo-yo'd Darren Collison all season in favor of the corpses of Mike James and Derek Fisher. He started Chris Kaman over Brandan Wright, and it took Carlisle another season and a half before he actually trusted Wright big time. Of course, he got shipped to Boston along with Crowder as soon as that happened.
Watching Carlisle keep Anderson on the bench as the Thunder ran all over the Mavs gave me a scary thought -- when Dirk is no longer able to carry a franchise on his shoulders, is Carlisle the best fit long term for this franchise? How many rookies will develop on other teams? How many young players will use the Mavs as a launching pad to a bigger and better situation (Al-Farouq Aminu waves hello)?
This is all hyperbole and insane, of course. Carlisle is the greatest coach in franchise history, a master tactician and a champion. He's allowed to have one bad game. Anderson will play more in Game 2, and the Mavs will most likely not lose by 40. Carlisle is still the best asset the Mavs have after Dirk.
What I'm troubled with is I even entertained the thought. Dark things happen when watching a team get plastered on national television. The Mavericks are at a crossroads with how they handle young players. We'll have to wait and see which path they take.