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When will the Mavericks figure out who they are?

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Dallas is stuck between two different eras and mindsets.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

This can’t be easy. Going from one of the surest-thing franchises in sports to toiling in rebuilding hell isn’t a transition anyone in the Mavericks front office likely anticipated while Dirk Nowitzki was still around.

But regardless of how they got here, they’re here — the Mavericks are a bad team, a rebuilding one. After a 104-89 loss to the Jazz Monday night, Dallas is now 1-7 which is somehow a worse start through eight games than last season when the team won just 33 games.

The Mavs still aren’t at full strength, and that’s a big deal. The team only made one roster change that affected the rotation this offseason (drafting Dennis Smith Jr.), so it’s kind of hard to match that 33-win team when three of those rotation players have missed games. Smith has been out for two, Devin Harris out for five and Seth Curry hasn’t played yet. Dallas isn’t built to handle those absences and, honestly, I’m not sure if they’re built to win even with the whole roster healthy.

Dallas is trying to straddle the line between rebuilding and being relevant, and it’s almost impossible to pull off. The team had a brief stretch of winning in January last season, but most of the wins were against fellow lottery teams. From January 7 to March 10 last season, the Mavs went 15-9 behind Curry in the starting lineup, Dirk at center and a boost from the trade for Nerlens Noel.

While the Mavs were clearly better during that stretch, that record might have been a bit of fool’s gold — only six of the 15 wins were against playoff teams and of those six, two were against the seventh and eighth seeds in the West. That’s not to say Dallas was quite as terrible as their 33-win record suggested, but they certainly weren’t as good as that 15-9 stretch.

Now we’re almost two weeks into a new season and the Mavs look more lost than they ever did a year ago. Curry’s return will be a huge boost, but it won’t make up 15 points against the Jazz or 16 against the Rockets. Sure, a couple of those close losses to bad teams like the Hawks and the Kings might have been swung, but it’s not like Dallas would be that much better off. The problem now is that Dallas has its toes in two pools, but the team is obviously leaning toward toward one: rebuilding.

So we have a Mavericks team that’s 1-7 but still playing a 39-year-old over 25 minutes a night and giving two over-30 guards big minutes off the bench. Smith played 17 minutes against the Jazz and Noel 22. In a vacuum, that’s fine. Smith had his worst game as a pro going against the smothering pick-and-roll duo of Ricky Rubio and Rudy Gobert, and while Noel flashed some good moments (he showed all his best qualities during the stretch when he checked back in during the second quarter), he had too many spacey moments to make a consistent impact.

Those things are going to happen with young players, Smith a rookie and Noel having never been a big-minute guy in his young NBA career. Unfortunately the Mavs aren’t as good as their past reputation, and it’d be better to just let these guys play to get as much data as possible for looming offseason decisions. Dirk will be gone soon, as will, presumably, the vets that Rick Carlisle likes to lean on. Although at this rate I wouldn’t put it past the Mavs to keep throwing out J.J. Barea, running pick and rolls till he’s 45.

Carlisle wants the Mavs to play fast with Smith leading the charge, yet the Mavs are the third-slowest team in the NBA. Dallas traded for, in their words, a Tyson Chandler starter kit who can’t crack 30 minutes in a game. Instead, the Mavs will run Dirk out on the floor for over half a game every night, Wesley Matthews has free rein for 35 minutes, regardless of his streakiness (and he’s been very good this season) and Barea and Harris will take up pick-and-roll possessions till the end of time. That’s not a bad thing for a team with playoff aspirations, but after 89 games dating back to last season, how can the Mavs really be thinking that? This isn’t the Eastern Conference.

Good or bad, the Mavs need to cater to their young players and embrace the failures that come with them. It’s unfortunate, because Dirk was splendid against the Jazz, Barea has turned into a legitimate three-point shooter, Harris looks the springiest he has since he signed here and this is probably the best first month Wes has had since he joined the Mavs. Watching these players warms the blanket of nostalgia that wraps around all of us. It was not that long ago the Mavericks making the playoffs was a question of what seed and not if. The regularity of those 50-win seasons is intoxicating to think back on.

This isn’t a big deal right now, since Smith was regularly going 30 minutes or a more a night before Monday’s game and Noel has been starting and getting more chances to play with Harrison Barnes and Smith. In a way, it’s less about the minutes played (although that’s a part of it) and more about what Smith and Noel are doing in those minutes.

According to NBA.com’s stats page, Smith is finishing plays as a pick-and-roll ball handler for only 24.7 percent of his possessions. For reference, that’s a lower percentage than Harris, Barea and Yogi Ferrell. Noel has used only 16.3 percent of his possessions as the roll man in the pick and roll. That’s seven total possessions finished as the roll man in seven games, despite being super efficient when he does get the ball, shooting 5-of-6 in those situations. While Noel is definitely setting a lot of screens (he leads the Mavs in screen assists per game) they aren’t looking to involve him when he’s diving toward the lane.

Whether that’s on Noel spacing out around the elbows or the Mavs game plan, it has to change. Why Smith isn’t getting more chances to run and more chances to spread out a team with high-screen from Noel is baffling, and that’s regardless of how many minutes the duo gets every night. Those two need reps doing what should be the most important staple of the Mavericks offense.

The Mavs need to stop “junking” up games with slower pace, zone defenses and nontraditional lineups and just let their young guys go to work, pass or fail. It was OK when the Mavs were starting the likes of Mike James, Chris Kaman and Zaza Pachulia with the playoffs the only redeemable way to make the season worth it. But Dallas doesn’t need a “win at all costs” mantra anymore.

Hopefully as the season continues, the Mavericks understand where their place is and not just where they wish it were. It’s going to be a long year; the least the team could do is get their future core ready for better ones.