The Dallas Mavericks have traded for Nerlens Noel, sending Andrew Bogut and Justin Anderson to the Philadelphia 76ers. Hey, that’s great! Finally, there is a young core coming together! That’s the view from 30,000 feet, though. Down on the ground there are numerous questions that remain unanswered.
One of the biggest of which is: Who will be the Mavs’ starting center going forward?
Back on January 12, in a game against the Phoenix Suns played in Mexico City, head coach Rick Carlisle chose to start Dirk Nowitzki at center instead of Bogut. The Mavericks won that game, 113-108, and Nowitzki has remained the team’s starting center ever since.
Bogut never really meshed during his time in Dallas but he remained an impactful defender and rebounder, although he struggled mightily on offense. In the locker room he joked with reporters about those struggles saying after a win against the Washington Wizards on January 3, “My offense is right now a big fat doughnut, so I'll stick to rebounding and setting screens.” Bogut didn’t start that game and it was clear he was frustrated. But he hadn’t completely ceded his starting role yet.
When the team made the switch and opted to play Dirk at the 5, I was skeptical. I’ve written about Nowitzki coming off the bench twice this season, here and here, with the emergence of Harrison Barnes’ strong play at power forward. In the past he’s mentioned his willingness to come off the bench and with a sore Achilles plaguing him for much of the beginning of the season it seemed like a reasonable way to ease him back into game shape.
Beyond Nowitzki’s earlier health concerns, it was clear, at least statistically, that the regular starting unit at the time of Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Barnes were better with Bogut at center than they were with Nowitzki. That unit, featuring Bogut, had a total net rating of plus-27. This unit also scores 1.194 points per possession while holding opponents to just .951. Those are hard numbers to argue with.
However, I’m just a guy who types on the Internet. I’m not Rick Carlisle. He’s the one that gets to make the final say. It’s better this way for everyone except my bank account.
With Nowitzki at the 5, Dallas has surged. They’ve gone 11-7 since they made the move permanent. And yes, that equates to a surge after the dismal start the team had. In that time, he played with a couple of different starting lineups with Williams being out with injury and the team turning to Yogi Ferrell as the starting point guard.
Now that Williams has been waived, it’s best to look at how the starting five of Ferrell, Seth Curry, Matthews, Barnes, and Nowitzki has done. That unit has put up, in 111 minutes, 1.171 points per possession, per nbawowy, while allowing opponents only 1.102 PPP. They also have a net rating of plus-22. Those numbers are somewhat similar to what the starters were doing with Bogut at center.
So, what should the Mavericks do now that they’ve acquired Noel? Well, if Carlisle has a say in the matter, and he has a big say, the odds of switching the around the starters, at least from the perspective of Dirk and Barnes, isn’t great, our friend Bobby Karalla reports:
Rick Carlisle handicapped the odds of Dirk moving back to 4 and Barnes moving back to 3 at "less than 50 percent." So we'll see.— Bobby Karalla (@bobbykaralla) February 23, 2017
It’s my assumption, based on this, that Carlisle will stick to what’s been working for now. Nowitzki will remain the starting center for the time being. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it the old saying goes. With the team still dreaming of making the eighth seed, they’re not broke yet.
But still, the prospect of starting Noel remains and he should at least get a look at playing center with the starting unit. Knowing Carlisle, he’ll get that chance but won’t be an actual starter. He’ll spend time with this unit when Dirk sits. For now, that’s likely the best way to integrate him into a new system. What happens after that, though?
If the Mavs get everything they hope for from Noel, they’ll have to find a way to get him more minutes. His ability to play both sides of the ball warrant it. On offense, he’s exactly what Bogut wasn’t: a big man with the ability to score down low and work in the pick and roll at a high level.
This season, Noel is posting averages of 8.9 points per game, in limited minutes, with a field goal percentage of 61.1 percent. That number increases around the rim where he’s connecting on 72.1 percent of his shots within three feet.
Where he stands to gain the most in Carlisle’s offense is as a roll man. With the Sixers, Noel was featured as the roll man on 21.1 percent of his offensive possessions. In these he has a effective field goal percentage of 57.1 percent and posts 1.10 points per possession, per NBA.com/stats. Those are impressive numbers, especially for a 22-year-old. Dallas runs a lot of pick and rolls, as do most NBA teams these days, but they haven’t had a player since Tyson Chandler who can operate effectively on both ends.
Defensively, Noel challenges or alters shots with regularity, averaging two blocks per 36 minutes for his career. Opponents are only shooting 50.8 percent against him within six feet of the basket. He’s not quite as adept at defending the roll man on pick and rolls just yet, however. Here, he allows opponents to score 50 percent of the time and net 1.05 PPP. His numbers are roughly the same in defending post ups.
Noel still has room to grow. That’s a given with any player his age. But there will come a time when starting him over Nowitzki will be the right thing to do. It may not happen immediately and it may not happen this season. But it will happen. If he’s as good as he looks on paper, that’s not a bad thing.