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A five-step plan to get the Mavericks back in the playoffs

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NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Editors note: Welcome to “How I’d fix the Mavericks,” a semi-weekly column in which Mavs Moneyball staffers share their big ideas about how to make the Mavericks contenders again. These ideas will sometimes be serious and other times humorous. Let us know what you think in the comments!

Twenty four games in, Dallas is dead last in the Western conference and 28th overall. A solid chance at a top pick looms, Dirk Nowitzki’s retirement feels imminent, and after years of a top-five or so payroll, the Mavericks are 28th in that metric as well. Only Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews make more than $10 million this season, and only Dennis Smith Jr. is signed through 2020.

We have a few lessons from the ongoing tank season, however, that may be instructive going forward. First is that Dirk Nowitzki is not a good center, no matter how well he can shoot (which, by the way, is still pretty damn well). The top-three most-played lineups that feature Dirk at center, per NBA.com, range from slightly negative net ratings to awful net ratings. Lineups with Dirk at the four, or without Dirk, however, show some hope. Carlisle’s always-interesting three-guard lineups perform well, as usual. Barnes at the four with Salah Mejri or Dwight Powell at the five and guards around them also works well.

And yet the team is 7-17, without much hope to climb out of the cellar this season. What’s wrong? Surprisingly for Dallas, it’s the offense. At 26th in the league, this is one of the worst offenses in the Dirk Nowitzki era, alongside a league-average defense. Part of that is expected: handing a rookie point guard the keys will cause almost any offense to dip.

But the real problem facing Dallas is a lack of shooting. Only Matthews and Nowitzki are shooting over 40 percent from three, and only J.J. Barea and Yogi Ferrell are also above 35 percent and getting real minutes. As Dennis Smith Jr.’s shot comes along, things will open up, but Harrison Barnes needs to find a way to shoot better from range if he’s going to lead this team alongside Smith.

All of this, without once mentioning the debacle of Nerlens Noel. There are only two (and a half) logical reasons Noel isn’t playing:

1) He’s bad at basketball.

2) After the contract debacle, he told Dallas he wouldn’t be coming back next year, so they aren’t worried about seeing what they have or developing him.

2.5) Alternately, Dallas knows they won’t bring him back regardless of his thoughts, leading to the same result.

So how would I fix the Mavericks? First, I’ll define fix as moving back into the playoffs with bonus points for a top-four seed, which Dallas hasn’t seen in years now. To be a champion, the answer is easy: draft a guy who becomes a superstar and hope Dennis Smith does too, or hope Smith does and sign somebody else who already is a superstar. But how to make the playoffs is a more interesting question, so here’s my five-step plan:

Step 1: Develop Dennis Smith, Jr.

This is obvious. The first top-ten pick Dallas has made in a long time, Smith fell farther than he should have and is an incredibly exciting prospect. Point guards struggle when they’re new, so the turnovers aren’t that concerning. As Zach Lowe pointed out, Smith has the vision needed to develop some critical, elite-level point guard abilities like creating corner threes for teammates. If he also gets some off-the-bounce shooting ability, more necessary than ever in today’s NBA, he'll be in the vicinity of superstardom.

This is the best argument for retaining Wes Matthews. He is the epitome of veteran work ethic, professionalism, and improvement. His tutelage is exactly what an upstanding citizen like Smith can (and likely wants to) learn from. With consummate teammate Nowitzki around the rest of this season and possible the next as well, Smith’s ecosystem is nearly ideal for developing a young talent.

Step 2: Create some long-term assets

J.J. Barea. Devin Harris. Nerlens Noel. Dwight Powell. Jeff Withey. Seth Curry. Wes Matthews. What do all of these players have in common? None of them are useful assets off the court. Dallas needs to spend a little time building a war chest.

Fun fact: at about $86 million, the team is $3 million or so below the salary floor this year, so barring any roster movement at least some of the players can expect a bonus check at season’s end. This is also an opportunity to take on unwanted contracts from other teams in exchange for second-round draft picks or other assets. Or they could sign some minimum-level guys to larger deals than they might otherwise need in exchange for some second-year non-guarantees on their deals.

It make take some creativity, but they have to do something. Devin Harris could be the third or fourth guard who pushes a contender over the edge this year. Maybe someone else wants to take a flier on Noel. Leave no stones unturned.

Step 3: Nail the draft

Dallas may have a top-three draft pick for the first time since I began watching basketball. That pick absolutely needs to be a hit. A wing player to go alongside Smith could form a John Wall-Bradley Beal-esque combo of Dallas’s own for years to come.

Luka Dončić is currently seen as the best wing prospect, and everyone in Dallas loves the thought of a big-time international player to take the reigns from Dirk. Michael Porter just suffered a back injury, but nothing an NBA team can’t deal with. I scouted many of the current freshman myself while working for a Division I program, and even Collin Sexton, a guard rather than a wing, could work in formidable tandem with Smith. Our evaluation of specific players will likely evolve between now and June, but getting the right guy when the team needs it most is critical.

Step 4: Take their time

Nothing in the NBA comes quickly. Developing talent takes time, and even if a surprise season leads to more wins than expected, you can’t try to skip the full timeline without running the risk of ending up like Phoenix, mired in awfulness for years.

Develop youth. Provide the right coaching mix of patience and drive for greatness. Which brings us to the final step:

Step 5: Settle on a coaching plan

Rick Carlisle is an awesome coach. It’s hard to imagine anyone surpassing his creativity, his in-game skill set, his competitive fire, and his presence as a stable leader of the franchise. But when Dallas embarks down this road, Mark Cuban will need to sit down with Donnie Nelson and with Carlisle and figure out if one of the NBA’s best is willing to work through the player development and years-long playoff drought.

Everyone always says the right things, professing to understand the long game, but everyone in professional sports also hates losing. Can Cuban and Donnie Nelson sell Carlisle on a vision he believes in or will he want out? If he does want out, Dallas should help him get to a situation he wants to be in. But if he doesn’t, the Mavericks can rest easy after his (relatively) recent deal and buckle down for the long haul.