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Biggest questions facing the Mavs for the second half of the season

Dallas comes out of the All-Star break still sniffing at the eighth seed.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

While the NBA is well past the midway point, the All-Star break acts as a nice buffer and the unofficial divide of the NBA season. The Mavericks are, somehow, still within shouting distance of a playoff spot as the season starts up again Friday against Minnesota.

There’s a lot of uncertainty around these Mavericks, and these are the biggest questions that need to be answered as we brace for basketball to resume.

Who will be on the team?

The NBA trade deadline is Thursday afternoon, and as of early Thursday morning, the Mavs haven’t made a move — yet.

Rumors are swirling around the team the last couple of days, with Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut in possible demand for contenders to shore up their roster. Utah has been linked to both, while Williams additionally linked to Cleveland and Bogut to Boston.

Cuban has also said he doesn’t mind taking on a longer-term contract in exchange for draft picks, which is a shockingly pro-tank move — the type of deal Philadelphia murdered Sacramento over and the kind Utah made to give Golden State the cap space to sign Andre Iguodala. It’s a pro-tank move because it’s the sort of move often made by teams who are emptying out the roster in order to reach the salary floor while also restocking their war chest.

That might seem weird to a Mavs team currently pressing up against the cap, but by this summer, the Mavs could have a decent amount of room. Mark Cuban has said recently he wouldn’t be surprised if the Mavs fail to reach the cap floor next season. With Williams and Bogut expiring, Dirk Nowitzki with a player option and non-guaranteed deals next season for Devin Harris, Dorian Finney-Smith, Salah Mejri, Yogi Ferrell and Nicolas Brussino, the Mavs can clear out cap space in a hurry if necessary. Harrison Barnes, Wesley Matthews, J.J. Barea, Dwight Powell, Justin Anderson and Seth Curry are the only Mavs that are 100 percent locks to be on the roster this summer barring any trade shenanigans.

Back to Bogut and Williams — they need to go. With Williams you can make an argument that his presence has allowed younger guys like Powell and Curry to flourish. Curry is much better at off-guard and Williams has helped Powell as a pick-and-roll rim runner. Williams doesn’t need to be here, but there’s at least some argument to be made about his value in finishing out the season. Bogut? Not so much.

The Mavericks turned their season around when Bogut hurt his knee in December, and Dallas has had one of the best net-ratings in the league in his absence. Combine that with the Mavericks having plenty of frontline help at center in Powell and Mejri and Bogut is just too redundant not to be dealt to a team that needs to beef up its rim protection. If Bogut is on the roster by Thursday evening, we riot.

Can Dallas keep up the small-ball magic?

Since changing the starting lineup to Dirk at center full time in mid-December, the Mavericks have been on a roll... well, as much as a 22-34 team can get on a roll. All the numbers are up — offensive rating, defensive rating, shooting. It appeared by the end of January that Rick Carlisle had found the magic potion to save the Mavs’ season.

The Dirk at center lineup isn’t going anywhere, but how long it lasts competitively is in question after the Mavs stumbled into the All-Star break. Dallas has lost four of its last six, and the last two losses to the Celtics and Pistons really highlighted how light the Mavs are up front when Dirk is manning the middle.

They’ve been dominated on the glass to an alarming degree — dead last in rebound percentage in the last six games and by a decent margin to boot. They’re dead last for the season as well, but it’s been especially rough lately, with 20-rebound deficits becoming the disturbing norm.

Dirk does his best at center, but the Mavs are just too small. Barnes is a good rebounder at the three but only an OK one at the four. Having Matthews at the three sometimes sees him facing a three to four-inch height disadvantage, and Curry and whoever starts at point guard form one of the tiniest backcourts in the league. No Mav can be an above-average rebounder for their position because everyone is playing up a spot.

This lineup juices the offense for sure, but if the jumpers aren’t falling, the Mavs can’t claw back into the game in other areas. More time for Mejri and Powell could help, but the recent slump of Finney-Smith’s game and the continued disappointment of Anderson prevents Carlisle from bringing true wings off the bench to combat their lack of size at the power forward and center spots. The Mavs don’t just go small, they go tiny — they regularly have three guards on the court the tallest of whom is just 6’4 or 6’5.

Dirk at center was a fun trick that blew past unprepared teams, but as the season has worn on, teams are catching up and pounding Dallas in the paint. Do they have a counter? I’m not sure. If Bogut isn’t traded (*internally screaming*) he can perhaps help there.

Is Yogi-mania here to stay?

I don’t mean contractually, because, duh, Yogi Ferrell has a deal in place for next season. I mean more is the 10-day contract, D-League call up going to keep raining pull-up threes like Steph Curry?

Ferrell’s been a revelation since arriving in Dallas, averaging 14.2 points and 4.7 assists on 45.8 percent shooting from deep. Ferrell is 48 percent (12-of-25) on pull-up threes, a ridiculous number. He’s shooting better on pull-up threes than some big men shoot from the field and doing it on a more than healthy number of attempts.

He’s been a good passer, a good-enough dribble penetrator and a pesky defender. I doubt he’s better than Steph Curry on pull-up threes for the season, but Ferrell was a great (not good, but great) college shooter. Why can’t he keep raining triples near a 40 percent clip to end the year, especially when he’s playing in so much space?

Carlisle knows what he’s doing — Ferrell has played 224 minutes with Dirk, the most minutes of any two-man pairing he’s been in with the Mavs according to Even with Ferrell’s bench role, Carlisle is keeping his rookie attached to the hip of Dirk to help him transition more easily into the big role he’s taking on.

The warts will show from time to time, like his size getting him in trouble on defense or him picking up his dribble too early in the pick and roll. Those are things the Mavs can work around because for now, Yogi is feeling himself. His shooting probably isn’t that much of a mirage, and when teams start respecting that jumper it should open up the rest of his game. I dunno where Yogi’s ceiling is, but he’s solid. That should continue the rest of the year.

Can Harrison Barnes keep improving?

For the first three months, Barnes got about 17 to 18 shots per game. In February, he’s getting 15.3 — Dirk is feeling good baby.

That’s great for Dirk, who has put in some classic performances this month to make us all shed that single sports tear as we watch him try to rally the Mavs one last time in the twilight of his career. That’s been amazing and a pleasure to watch.

It’s also been interesting watching Barnes dip in and out of second banana role as a healthier Dirk commands more and more attention. When Dirk was on the shelf, Barnes put the entire team’s scoring burden on his shoulders. It led to good stats for Barnes, despite the losses.

Now the Mavs are winning, and Barnes’ shots are going down as Dirk’s are going up. From a distance, you can squint and see where I’m going here — perhaps Barnes isn’t the guy to lead a team.

Of course it’s too early to make that call, and the fact that we’re even considering Barnes for that role after his disastrous summer of 2016 tells you all you need to know about his explosion this season. Besides, while Barnes’ shot attempts are going down, the Mavs are still finding ways to win and Barnes is still keeping up his efficiency to some degree. He’s shooting 47.5 percent from the floor in February.

What’s worrying is that Barnes’ three-point shot hasn’t really been steady (30.4 percent this month) and his free throw numbers aren’t getting better. Through sheer brute force of his prolific midrange game Barnes is still scoring a good amount per game with fewer shots, but we’ve seen what happens when that well dries — in the last three games before the break, Barnes shot 39.5 percent and had seven total free attempts and two three-pointers made. It’d just be so much easier if Barnes could produce points on nights where he can’t can midrange pull-ups or turnarounds.

Again, this is slight nitpicking after what Barnes has done this season and what he could do in the next three years. He’s learning and while the results aren’t there, Barnes has had his share of aggressive drives into the paint... he just hasn’t been rewarded with foul-calls. Hopefully he keeps it up.

Will Justin Anderson figure it out?

No need to recap Anderson’s sophomore slump — he just hasn’t taken the leap from rookie to NBA player who looks like he knows what he’s doing. Anderson’s raw gifts are still present every time he takes the floor, but he still makes mistakes like he’s only been in the league for a couple months.

If Anderson makes it past the trade-deadline, it’d be nice to see him show some signs like he did at the tail-end of his rookie season. It feels like ages ago that Anderson’s insertion into the starting lineup late last season help spur the Mavs to a playoff spot with a new defensive identity. Of course Anderson wasn’t doing everything, but it was clear his gifts as an athletic wing were producing results. We’ve seen that happen maybe once or twice this season but it hasn’t been nearly enough. Too many missed assignments in transition, too many failed defensive rotations and too many bad jumpers taken.

The Mavs outlook for the next three years would look a lot better if their 21-year-old forward could prove he belongs. If the Mavs don’t come out strong from the break, he might have a lengthy audition to see if he can take the next step before the off-season.

Where are the Mavericks going?

Finally, this is what everyone wants to know. Are the tank engines going to rev-up by March or will the Mavs still be clinging to playoff dreams?

It’s hard to tell right now. Two weeks ago I’d probably say the Mavs are going to be in playoff contention until the very end, but watching Boston, Detroit and Denver maul the Mavs’ new-and-improved starting lineup has left me wondering if the Mavs have enough left to keep this up.

Dallas has played in so many high-leverage games in the last four weeks simply because the veterans will accept nothing less than the playoffs. For a team 12 games under .500, that means every single game has huge stakes. Carlisle has said the team has zero margin for error, and I can’t help but wonder if that constant pressure every night will burn them out at some point. Can Dirk really keep playing 26 to 30 minutes a night like he has this month? Can the Mavericks find enough rebounds to win a game? It’s a tall order, even for this group.

I’ve learned my lesson to never count out a healthy Dirk and Carlisle. This hole appears too deep, but I’ve been wrong before. With New Orleans and Denver fortifying their teams for playoff aspirations, it would seem wise for the Mavericks to pack it in and grab a top-10 pick. That’ll never happen with Dirk on the roster though, and I suspect the Mavericks will be kicking and screaming until the very end.