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Why Nerlens Noel isn’t starting for the Mavericks, even after Seth Curry’s injury

There are actually a couple good reasons why he’s coming off the bench, even if they come with risk.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Seth Curry is out indefinitely, we learned on Saturday, and while it’s not yet certain that he’ll miss time during the regular season, it seems like a reasonable bet.

The Mavericks had already committed to a starting lineup with Curry next to Dennis Smith Jr., one that featured Dirk Nowitzki at center with Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews filling out the backcourt, and one that notably did not include Nerlens Noel. Even with Curry’s injury, after reading between the lines on what Rick Carlisle has said in practice the past two days, I’m pretty certain Noel isn’t going to be bumped up into the starting five. In fact, I’m almost positive of it.

Some people won’t like that, but I get where Carlisle is coming from. Here’s the two main problems with a Smith-Matthews-Barnes-Nowitzki-Noel starting five.

Problem No. 1: Everyone’s out of position

Nowitzki can’t guard quick stretch fours anymore, which is basically every power forward in the league. The Mavericks would be forced to play Nowitzki at the five defensively while Noel covers the fours, which is far from ideal. Noel is the team’s best shot blocker, but he can’t do that and cover a shooter in the corner.

Two more players would be forced to play out of position, too: Barnes is better at the four than the three, and Matthews has slowed down since his injury. If you ask him, he’ll tell you can play shooting guard just fine. (I asked him Sunday and he said just that.) But in reality, he’ll have some trouble keeping up with quicker matchups.

Problem No. 2: You’re asking a lot of Smith

Rick Carlisle loves playing two ball handlers — “it’s a playmaker’s league,” he said Sunday. Barnes is working on becoming a more reliable, capable ball handler, but it’s too soon to cast him as any lineup’s second creator. Matthews mostly plays off the ball. In the starting lineup proposed above, you’d be asking Smith to create everything. That’s a tough ask for a rookie point guard.

One solution would be to bench Dirk

But the Mavericks aren’t ready to do that yet, and why would they be? They aren’t making the playoffs this year. They still need another summer to keep rebuilding (a two-way small forward is badly needed) and the Western Conference is brutal. If this team had a serious chance to make a run for a playoff berth, I’d support benching Nowitzki — something he has said several times that he would be willing to do. But on a team that’s likely headed to a sub-.500 record, you owe it to him to keep him in the starting five. We can talk about that possibility next season, but for now, this is the right move.

So no, the Mavericks won’t bench Dirk, and they shouldn’t, even if that’s the best way — on paper — to alleviate the starting lineup crunch.

The biggest risk is Nerlens Noel’s ego

Noel said he’s OK with coming off the bench, and he should be. Nowitzki’s starting center spot is an honorary one. Everyone knows that if Noel sticks around and re-signs with this team next summer, it will be his.

But you never know for sure. Noel also thought he was a max player this summer, and that proved to be way too presumptuous. (His agent told him to take the Mavericks’ original offer!) On the other hand, maybe it’s better than the team isn’t temporarily starting him, only to send him back to the bench once Seth Curry returns to health. One demotion may be understandable, but does anyone want Noel to begin the season as a starter only to be yanked out when Curry returns?

The Mavericks should play Noel as much as possible — starter’s minutes, even if he’s not technically one. (Ideally, a Nowitzki-Noel backcourt will be more manageable against bench units.) Hopefully, that compromise satiates him. If not, Carlisle doesn’t tolerate fools. Everything we know about him indicates that he will not start Noel merely to appease a potentially damaged ego.

Dallas seems fine taking this risk, which could bite them. On the outside looking in, it’s impossible for me to speculate. But the team can’t begin games with Nowitzki and Noel paired together, and for now, Noel hasn’t earned the starting nod over a living legend.