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6 big questions facing the Mavericks 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

Editor’s note: this article was originally published before Thursday’s trade deadline, assuming it was going to be a quiet trade season for the Mavericks — whoops! We’ve updated the piece to reflect the Nerlens Noel trade.

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 after starting the final part of the season with a loss against Minnesota on Friday night.

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.

What’s the new core going to do?

Surprise! The Mavericks now have a 22-year-old potential perennial All-Defensive team center for the considerable future.

With Nerlens Noel in the fold, the Mavericks now have six rotation players under the age of 26. That’s amazing! It’s also a big shake up — in addition to Andrew Bogut and Justin Anderson being shipped out for Noel, Deron Williams was waived on Thursday. That’s three big parts of the team that are gone, so things are going to take some time to settle.

Yogi Ferrell will be the new starting point guard and Noel will either start and put the Mavs back with a traditional lineup or come off the bench where Bogut was (more on that later). Either way, it’ll be interesting to see how all these young dudes continue to react to playing with each other after Williams and Bogut missed so much time in the last couple of months. Dallas is in an interesting spot — they’re clearly rebuilding but the team isn’t any worse off for that playoff chase. In fact, they’re probably better off since Noel >>>>>>>>>>>>> Bogut. With the Mavs first-rounder owed to the 76ers top-18 protected, Dallas can gleefully go after the final playoff spot without worrying about losing their pick. The Mavs can sneak into the playoffs and still have the 15th or 16th pick in the draft. They’re playing with house money right now and I wonder how they’ll handle it coming out of the break without the pressure to tank.

Don’t sleep on the loss of Deron Williams. Yogi-mania has been fun, but Williams was quietly putting together a solid season after being a little disappointing the year before. He’s been one of the NBA’s most efficient pick and roll guards, shooting well and orchestrating the offense. Yogi and Seth Curry are great shooters, but they’re unproven playmakers. Devin Harris is going to have to come up with some huge minutes when he gets on the floor, and J.J. Barea can’t get healthy soon enough.

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 22-35 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 wasn’t going anywhere before Thursday, 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 is, hopefully, where Noel comes in. Noel is a defensive terror who seems like a custom-built center for the modern NBA. Carlisle said before the trade deadline there’s a less than 50 percent chance he pushes Dirk back to the four and Barnes to the three — so if you take Carlisle at his word, that means the Dirk at center lineup is here to stay, with Noel easing up on Dirk’s minutes coming off the bench for the time being.

This small-ball 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 departure of Anderson prevents Carlisle from bringing true wings off the bench to combat their lack of size at the power forward and center spots. Hell, Carlisle gave some minutes to Nicolas Brussino against the Timberwolves on Friday, because the Mavericks are starved for some wings with Barnes being a full-time power forward. 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. It’s hard to rebound with the starting unit from Friday, which had a sub-six-footer in Yogi, a 6’2 guard in Curry and an out of position forward in Matthews. There isn’t enough height or arms.

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. Noel should help, but his rebounding numbers, while good, aren’t inspiring in a way that you think he’ll be the cure-all.

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 decent-enough 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.

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.

Can Dorian Finney-Smith break through the rookie wall?

Holy crap, Finney-Smith has been rough with a capital “R” that’s blinking like a neon sign.

He’s 1 for his last 15 from three and now at 31.3 percent from deep for the year after being at a more than respectable percentage for most of the season. The shooting slump behind the arc has crept into the rest of his game — he just doesn’t seem as confident doing anything else with the ball, getting rejected at the rim and making hesitant passes.

With Anderson gone, Finney-Smith is one of the last true wings left on the roster. It’s him and Brussino, so long as Barnes keeps playing power forward. The undrafted rookie has to return to giving the team the quality minutes he was back in November and December. He’s been getting scored on a little more, but his positioning has still been sound on defense. It just feels like a case of when it rains, it pours for Finney-Smith right now. Hopefully for the Mavs’ sake he can pull himself out of this rut.

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? Can Noel energize the team like Yogi did and push them over the finish line? 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.