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The Nerlens Noel situation has hit rock bottom

Noel received his first healthy DNP-CD in the Mavericks close loss to the Cavilers.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

DALLAS — Try to forget everything that has happened with Nerlens Noel and the Mavericks since August. Forget the silent contract negotiations, forget the qualifying offer, forget starting the season on the bench when training camp began, forget playing the potential game of his career on opening night but spending the end of it watching from the sidelines.

Forget all that. Nerlens Noel didn’t get off the bench against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday night and, according to Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, it has all to do with what’s going lately on the floor. Noel isn’t playing well, others are.

“Minutes are earned, that’s all I can tell you,” Carlisle said.

It’s supposed to be as simple as that. In a vacuum, that’s absolutely the right call — in the moments Noel has seen the floor in the last two weeks, he’s been a non-factor. You’d have to go back to the home-and-home, back-to-back games against the Grizzles on Oct. 25 and 26 where Noel was having a discernible positive impact during his minutes.

Since then, it’s been some spot minutes and some invisible, listless play. It’s a far-cry from the Noel we saw after the trade deadline last season, where he was one of the best Mavericks on the roster from that trade till the end of the season. Unfortunately, things aren’t viewed in a vacuum. What’s happening with Noel matters past this season, more than Salah Mejri out-hustling him in November.

Noel is supposed to be a building block to the Mavericks post-Dirk future. That core, along with rookie Dennis Smith Jr. and Harrison Barnes, was supposed to be the short-cut back to relevancy and bypass all that yucky rebuilding nonsense that an organization like the Mavericks would love to avoid.

Instead, Noel, a 6’11 center who can run like a gazelle and just as easily guard the rim as he can switch out onto the wing in a pick and roll, is now matchup-dependent. Noel, who is supposed to be the perfect five in the NBA’s new small-ball world, can’t possibly chase bigs who stretch the floor like Kevin Love.

“I was uncertain if we could get any of our real centers into this game because of the matchup with Love,” Carlisle said. “Salah gave us a big lift in the second quarter. We went back to him in the third and we had a few of those problems you have when you’ve got a rim protector that has a responsibility out at the three-point line.”

It seems the Mavericks need a mystical big man, one who can both protect the rim and have the foot speed to keep up with shooting bigs. Those are hard to come by; it’s a shame the Mavericks haven’t had one fall into their lap yet.

“I think I can matchup on anybody,” Noel said when asked what he thinks is his best matchup.

To be fair, Noel hasn’t been good this season. After putting up that double-double in the season opener against the Hawks, Noel slowly become more spacey and listless as the season has progressed. How much of that is because his good efforts early in the season weren’t rewarded, who knows. We can’t get inside Noel’s head.

But it’s clear that so far this season, the Mavericks are a better team with Noel on the bench. When Noel is on the floor, the Mavs play at tire-fire levels — a 95.4 offensive rating and a 115.4 defensive rating. That minus-20 net rating is by far the worst of anyone on the Mavs, which is particularly alarming when you consider the rest of the roster is mostly the same from a 33-win team a season ago. On a bad team, Noel has been the worst of the worst.

It’s the little things that have killed Noel so far this season. Checking into a game and failing to get back on defense, not super crisp rotations and getting bullied by thicker bigs. That last one has always been a problem for Noel but the fact that he isn’t bringing enough energy in the other parts of his game is a disappointment. Again, maybe he’s not locked in because the minutes aren’t there. We don’t know.

For Noel’s part, he hasn’t quibbled or made a stink publicly. Even after the loss to the Cavs, Noel stood at his locker and answered every question. If there was ever a time for Noel to voice his displeasure, this was the moment. Instead, he gave thoughtful, non-aggressive answers to why he’s seeing the bench and not the floor.

“Disappointment ain’t a word for me, it’s more keep pushing and keep working on what I gotta work on,” Noel. “Just keep my mind right. I know when I get out there I’m gonna play my hardest and give force to a winning effort every time.”

The timing of Noel’s benching — the Mavericks had their longest stretch without a game since the season started between the win against the Wizards and the loss on Saturday — was also curious. With the Mavericks finally having time to get in some practices, maybe Noel was dogging it in front of his teammates and Carlisle needed to send a message. Maybe the effort wasn’t there.

That’s not the case, according to Noel.

“I’m having great practices, even individual wise, working on my game all the way around,” Noel said. “It never stops. Staying in the weight room, doing all the little things, staying up on conditioning even.

“Got some extra work after practice yesterday with some conditioning. I’m going to keep it moving and ready to stay focused on having a great season and supporting my guys.”

While Noel has been bad, it’s not like the rest of the Mavs have been much better. After losing Saturday night, the Mavs are 2-11 and staring at a somehow worse start than the 4-17 mark of a year ago. Let’s not pretend that Noel sitting on the bench has been the magic elixir to make the Mavs look like a competent team. They’re still playing poorly.

That’s the frustrating part, as the Mavs refuse to just let Noel run wild and see what they have before a massive off-season decision has to be made about Noel’s future. The Mavs season isn’t going anywhere and while, sure, Noel might not have earned his playing time, the Mavs owe it to themselves to collect as much data as possible on one of the most talented players on the roster.

Dallas shouldn’t be giving Noel everything he wants, but there also needs to be more of a back-and-forth. The Mavs need to develop him, because he should be an important part of their future. There’s a middle ground here between coddling Noel and treating him like roster filler that the team just has to find, for the Mavs sake and their future team-building plans.

If they know enough, fine. If this is what the Mavericks think Noel is, that’s well within their right. They just have to be ready for the scenario where Noel leaves and thrives on another team.

“He’s going to get other opportunities,” Carlisle said. “Minutes have to be earned and if it’s at this point between him and Salah, Salah has earned the minutes. There’s no doghouse here, there just isn’t. It’s pretty simple — you compete.

“If you earn minutes, you get minutes and you’ve got to compete to keep them. It’s a competitive situation, our guys have to have an edge. No one is given anything and that’s how we got to do things. The situation we’re in with a tough schedule with a lot of tough opponents, record’s not good right now — competing is what it’s all about.”

Something has to give here. Dallas cannot squander this opportunity, no matter where the fault lies. Player development is a two-way street. If Noel isn’t bringing the edge, find a way to get it out of him. Hopefully it happens before Noel is potentially making the Mavericks pay for it on another team.