The Dallas Mavericks have spent the entirety of the 2016-17 season trying to find something that works. Despite outside calls for the team to tank, they’re trying to get out of the NBA’s basement. Injuries, though, have hindered that effort and head coach Rick Carlisle has been forced to get creative with his rotations. Now, with an almost completely healthy roster, Carlisle is facing another dilemma: who should be the starting center?
When healthy, Andrew Bogut was a lock to start at center, starting every game he appeared in this season. That is until Tuesday night. With the Mavericks hosting the Washington Wizards, he came off the bench.
Since Dirk Nowitzki’s recent return from the sore Achilles that’s kept him out for much of the season, the Mavs have been trying to reintegrate him into the starting lineup. It hasn’t been as easy anyone hoped. Harrison Barnes, who moved into the starting power forward role in Nowitzki’s absence, has flourished. Barnes’ emergence has caused a ripple effect throughout the rotation and forced Carlisle to find something that works without negatively impact his game.
“The important thing is that we’re finding some lineups that work well together,” Carlisle said after the Mavs’ 113-105 win over the Wizards. “Coming into the season, most people thought Barnes was a 3 that could play 4. What he’s showing now is that he’s a true 4, who’s a real offensive weapon at the 4 who can play 3 and who holds his own despite being a little bit undersized at times.”
As it stands, shifting Barnes back to small forward to accommodate having both Bogut and Nowitzki in the starting lineup doesn’t appear to be in the cards. At least for now. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. Bogut and Nowitzki just don’t mesh well when they are on the floor. They have a net rating of minus-62 when paired together.
So, on Tuesday, Nowitzki got the start. It’s not the first time he’s played center but it’s also not a position that comes naturally for him.
“There were obviously spurts throughout my entire career where I played some 5s in smaller lineups and winning situations but I really haven’t played the 5 that much consistently,” Nowitzki said. “But, I mean, it’s okay.”
“I’d say it’s a little less running which at this stage of my career is not all bad,” Nowitzki later joked.
And he believes the team benefits when he plays center because it opens up the floor for him and his teammates. It’s worked before.
“Whenever he’s played center, we’ve had success. It’s really hard for a 5-man to guard his perimeter game,” Devin Harris said.
Last season, Nowitzki played some center as the Mavs made their playoff push. He didn’t rack up a significant amount of time there but Dallas found success when he did, outscoring opponents by 6.7 points per 100 possessions.
This season, in just over 100 minutes with Dirk at center, the Mavericks are scoring .972 points per possession. That’s a fine number, but the team hasn’t been able to replicate the success it had last season.
The starting unit of Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Harrison Barnes with Nowitzki at center has a total net rating of minus-43 in the five games in which it has appeared. Further, opponents are averaging 1.171 points per possession when Nowitzki mans the middle with any unit. Simply put, having Dirk at center hurts the team on the defensive end.
“We’re a system team defensively,” Carlisle said about the team’s defense with Nowitzki at center. “There’s help building everything as long as you do your job and follow the rules. We’ve got to do some creative things from time to time. We play some zone. We do some different things with switching. We bastardize matchups from time to time.”
The wing players know that the defensive onus is on them. They have to give their all and play together around the perimeter to prevent penetration.
“We definitely have to do our job,” Matthews said. “Dirk’s going to give you everything that he has on both ends of the court but he’s never really been known for his defensive prowess. It puts a little bit more emphasis on doing your job. It’s what we’re going to do.”
Even with Nowitzki’s length and knowledge of the game, he isn’t what anyone would call a rim protector.
“You know, he says he’s got 1000 blocks in his career but I don’t know if I believe that,” Barnes joked. “We know we’ve just got to be scrappy when he’s in there. He’s not shy about his lateral quickness. We all make up for that. Then, offensively, we just punish teams.”
With Nowitzki locked in with the starters for now, that leaves Bogut playing with the second unit. But he doesn’t seem too thrilled about his new role despite offering to come off the bench.
“Obviously, no one wants to come off the bench but it’s better than starting the game for a minute and getting dragged out just to appease me,” Bogut said. “So, it’s one of those things. It’s tough to play [Dirk] and I for long stretches because of the rotations and the way the league is going.”
He’s not wrong about the direction the league is trending. Playing two seven-footers at the same time is a relic from another era. However, there is the potential that Bogut, who is a legitimate rim protector, will help improve the defense and overall play of the bench. He’ll be the first to tell you otherwise, though.
“I doubt it,” Bogut joked when asked if he could see favorable matchups coming off the bench. “My offense is right now a big fat donut, so I'll stick to rebounding and setting screens.”
Despite Bogut’s comments after Tuesday’s game, Carlisle came to his defense during his post-game press conference.
“You know, I don’t like this from the standpoint that Bogut is a starting center,” Carlisle said. “Bogut is a top six or seven center in the game. He shouldn’t be coming off the bench but the fact that he not only is willing to but basically offered to tells you a lot about his character and how much he wants to win and how much he likes being in Dallas, too.”
With all due respect to Carlisle, Bogut’s demeanor can also be interpreted as that of somebody who isn’t pleased with their current situation. Comments he made Wednesday only reinforce that notion. And though Bogut agreed to come off the bench, it seems clear that starting Nowitzki in his place isn’t the solution the Mavs are looking for.
In fact, when Bogut is teamed with the regular starters, Williams, Matthews, Finney-Smith, and Barnes, they have a total net rating of plus-27. This unit also scores 1.194 points per possession while holding opponents to just .951.
If the Mavericks truly aren’t interested in improving their draft lottery odds, then the answer to who should be the starting center is clear. It should be Bogut. And while it’s almost sacrilege to suggest it, if winning is what matters now, then Nowitzki should come off the bench. It’s not an easy decision to make, but if there’s the potential to net wins and quell any brewing drama, the team will be better for it.