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With Nerlens Noel, the Mavericks suddenly have a future

After a rotten trade and terrible free agent luck, the Mavericks were left for dead. With the trade for Nerlens Noel, things have changed dramatically.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

On July 8, 2015, the Mavericks franchise was dead. As Austin Ngaruiya said, the Dirk Nowitzki era was over.

That was the day DeAndre Jordan signed a contract with the Clippers after verbally agreeing with the Mavericks five days prior. It was the culmination of the downfall of the work Dallas had done to finally restock the team’s assets after emptying out the roster after the 2011 title to pursue star free agents.

It was the lowest point since that title season. The Mavericks spent years before the 2014-2015 season assembling and acquiring low-key, B and C-level free agents (Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis, Vince Carter, Jameer Nelson), nailing a draft pick (Jae Crowder), hitting on young cast-offs (Brandan Wright, Al-Farouq Aminu) and using that slow-but-steady talent acquisition approach to turn into a fun team after landing the needed home-run deals of Tyson Chandler and Chandler Parsons to push them over the edge and back toward a 50-win team.

All that work, in six months, was undone. The Rajon Rondo trade was the failed final cash-in that depleted the Mavs of their best assets and Jordan’s decision was the final twist of the knife. Just look at the roster the Mavericks were left with. No, really, look.

Even with the miracle playoff run, where the hell was that team going? The most appealing long-term pieces on that roster were then-rookie Justin Anderson and Dwight Powell. They didn’t have a first-rounder, they didn’t have a (healthy) player to build around. They had nothing but an older Dirk and a hobbled duo of Wesley Matthews and Parsons.

That roster that couldn’t bear fruit even if God blessed the branches is now back on track — in a year. Nerlens Noel is a Maverick, and the Mavericks’ future hasn’t been this bright since Dirk wore an earring. Dallas now has a stable of players age 26 and under to build around in Noel (22), Harrison Barnes (24), Seth Curry (26), Dorian Finney-Smith (23), Powell (25) and somehow Yogi Ferrell (23). When the Mavs tip off the final stretch of this season Friday night, all those dudes will be in, or in Powell’s case, near the rotation.

When have the Mavericks had that many young guys that are all viable contributors? Certainly not since Dirk became a franchise player.

I’m still shaking the cobwebs of the Noel deal. The Mavericks got a 22-year-old center that is primed to handle the small-ball revolution without sacrificing a first-round pick. The protections on the 2017 first-rounder almost 100 percent assure the Mavs will keep their pick this year and give the 76ers two second rounders over the next two seasons. Dallas has six players under 26 that are capable — and in less than six months, they’ll add a seventh. It’s almost unthinkable of how they got to where they are now from where they were in the summer of 2015.

Oh yeah, and Dirk’s still around. Noel will take this season and the next learning the ins and outs of Rick Carlisle’s spread out, read and react offense next to the greatest floor-spacing big in NBA history. Noel is a somewhat limited player offensively who got overexposed on bad Philadelphia teams. Who cares if Noel can’t hit jumpers or post-up? The Mavericks under Carlisle have never needed their centers to do that. All they have to do is run, screen, roll and catch. After seeing what Chandler did during his two seasons in Dallas and Wright’s revelation a few years back, I’m salivating at what a player already so capable in the pick and roll like Noel can do. In limited minutes this season, Noel is shooting a little over 57 percent as the roll man in a pick and roll, an improvement over the previous year.

He’s a defensive freak, averaging 2.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per 36 minutes — showing off his ability to guard the rim and stretch out to the perimeter. He’s a Tyson Chandler starter kit and at 22 years old, he’s already nearing and in some cases exceeding the numbers Chandler put up in Dallas. Noel has a good feel for the game outside of just rolling for lob dunks, averaging almost two assists per game for his career and showing some aspects of a face-up and drive game.

Even when Dirk finally retires, Barnes will slide into the floor-spacer role Noel will thrive off of to do damage in space around the rim. The duo will switch screens, run the floor and give teams headaches with their versatility. Imagine pairing those two with one of 2017’s highly-touted point guards? The Mavericks in less than two years could completely rebuild from the Dirk era in what was supposed to take years and maybe over a decade.

It’s not all roses, since Noel carries a shaky injury history. He missed his first season recovering from an ACL tear and missed some games with knee problems to start the year. There’s a chance those nagging knees could hamper Noel throughout what should be max or near-max level contract that he will presumably sign this summer with Dallas.

Even as good as Noel has been in his young career, he’s still young, and he will need more time to iron out bad turnovers and missed rotations that can happen with players barely old enough to legally drink. Noel also isn’t the most-stout big man around, and you worry that his frame can’t hold up to banging down low. He also might not be able to muscle up on the boards — his per-36 career average of 9.6 rebounds isn’t the most inspiring number for a Mavs team that has struggled with rebounding for years.

The on-off court numbers for Noel the last two years are ugly, and while it’s easy to point to how trash in general the 76ers roster has been since he’s been there, Joel Embiid is lifting that team to positive net-ratings when he’s on the floor — Noel isn’t. He hasn’t moved the needle much in terms of good basketball despite his skills, although Philadelphia playing him with another center and asking him to do things he’s not comfortable with contributes to that.

If Noel doesn’t work out, the Mavs still wouldn’t have lost that much, but they’re going to tie their cap to Noel-Barnes for the post-Dirk future. Losing Anderson could be a Jae Crowder level of regret in three years, but for what it’s worth, Crowder was far more advanced and proven when dealt, as compared to Anderson. There’s a lot left for Anderson to learn, and even if Noel turns out great, the Mavericks could have a hole at wing soon if Finney-Smith doesn’t progress.

Bottom-line, Barnes and Noel have to work, and it’ll be easier to sort the rest of the roster after that. Anderson’s ceiling and Noel’s ceiling aren’t even in the same universe — you can find another peak-Anderson. I’m not sure how easy it’d be to find a peak-Noel.

I think the Mavericks make it work. Even if it doesn’t, the job done to give the team a shot at a quick rebuild has been remarkable. A year ago, I was despondent when wondering where the Mavericks were going. Now I can’t wait to see where they’re headed.