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Nerlens Noel and the new waiting game

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The Noel trade changes the way the Mavericks should view their roster, but not in the way some might expect.

NBA: Miami Heat at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Let me be perfectly clear: the Nerlens Noel trade was a swindling for the Mavericks that dramatically altered the way in which the Mavericks are positioned for the post-Dirk era. I’m not interested in debating the precise degree of swindling involved in this trade. Justin Anderson is ok, he might be pretty darn good someday, but Nerlens is a game-changing player right now and he’s still young. That’s all we really need to know.

Moving beyond the premise that the Nerlens trade changes the team’s outlook, though, the specifics start to get dicier. How, exactly, does it change the team’s approach to once again contending?

Noel is great, but rebuilding takes time

One reason it gets dicier is that we don’t really know how good this team will be even next year. Lots of people have pointed out that the team is honest-to-god young for the first time in maybe a decade, but that means there’s a lot of relying on growth to be done. There’s a lot of uncertainty attached to that kind of waiting.

I think the main reason dissecting the precise consequences of the trade gets a little tricky is that the position the Mavs now find themselves in requires a sense of long-term scale that Mavericks fans and the Dallas franchise aren’t used to.

The Mavs have been somewhere between the best and excellent for most of the Dirk era, and when your team is that good, the considerations behind roster changes are all about whether they make the team better immediately or at least within the next two years. That’s not always an easy question to answer, but it’s an easier question to answer than, “How does this move make the team better in five or ten years?” which, like it or not, is the scale the Mavericks are working with now. That’s something few of us are comfortable with or accustomed to.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

With the Nerlens trade, the Mavericks took a firm, albeit implicit, stance on how they plan on approaching that long rebuild. So what will that approach look like?

It’s easiest to start with the team as it exists now. Nerlens Noel is a really, really good NBA player, and he’s only 22. He’s an athletic freak with genuinely astonishing defensive potential. His defensive numbers have decreased every year since his rookie season as he’s gotten increasingly buried behind Jahlil Okafor and then Joel Embiid, but he still has put up an impressive 3.7 defensive box plus-minus (DBPM) in his limited minutes this year.

Nerlens is an athletic rim-running, rim-protecting center, and slotting him as a power forward behind Okafor did his statistics few favors. What it did do, however, was give him experience defending at the elbow, short corner, and perimeter, all of which taught him to leverage his athleticism to defend beyond the rim.

That knowledge came at the expense of his rim protection numbers. As he was pulled farther from the rim, his opponent’s field goal percentage at the rim dropped from top 10 among starting centers two years ago to top 15 last year to middling at best this year. But it hasn’t been all bad. His overall defensive impact hasn’t plummeted the way it often does when rim protectors are no longer protecting the rim, and on tape he looks like a menace trapping perimeter players at the elbow.

When Noel started, the 76ers — despite their horrible roster — defended at a rate commensurate with a top-10 defense.

On the Mavericks, he’ll find a similar situation on defense (a bad/inexperienced point guard, a decent wing who’s struggling offensively, a bad second big when Dirk is on the floor), but for the first time in two years he’ll be playing center comfortably with no one taking up his space. This should do wonders for his game. He’ll have total freedom to patrol the paint like the menace he can be. The flip side, of course, is he’ll likely have to spend a lot of that time defending two players at once: his own man and Dirk’s.

The question for the next few years is going to be what Rick Carlisle can make of that. It’s easy to imagine Carlisle going to a lot more zone on defense, allowing Nerlens to roam the paint and freeing him to defend two players at once.

On offense, Carlisle lives for players like Nerlens. Carlisle is an expert in drawing complex plays that flow across the court, leveraging player gravity to open up mammoth rim-rolling lanes that Noel is going to feast on, provided that he learns how to use the space that Carlisle’s system opens up for him.

Noel’s offense was categorically unhelpful to the Sixers, but his instincts have looked good. Even with his athleticism hampered by injuries, he should be a terror with Carlisle working to free up cuts to the rim for him.

This roster can’t contend as constructed

All of this is excellent. The Mavericks have a young center with a ton of potential to pair with their young wings and bargain bin diamonds! And that gets them...what exactly? A failed bid for the eighth seed this season and, at absolute best, a bunch of first round exits over the next couple years?

The current team is exciting because they’re finally young again, and in two years, they might even be pretty good! Still, even if Yogi Ferrell, Harrison Barnes, and Noel all make pretty distinct improvements in the next two years, a team with those three as its best players just isn’t going to be good enough to make any real noise.

This roster is a hodgepodge of players who are either really good at exclusively one thing or only kind of good at everything. Rick Carlisle can do a lot with that combination, but it’s limiting. You need a few players who are really, really good at everything (or at least one who is) and a few who are exceptional at two or three things.

With time, practice, and, most importantly, the Mavs’ impending high first-round pick, they can be closer to that reality than they are right now. It could be a fun team, certainly, but likely not an exceptional one with the roster as it’s currently constructed. If the front office’s goal is to contend, this squad doesn’t cut it.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Getting back to contending

So, given the current state of the roster, what’s next? Acquiring Noel — who is genuinely great — in exchange for players who weren’t valuable to the team gives the Mavericks something they haven’t had since the Rondo trade: a treasure chest of high-value assets.

And ultimately, that’s the viewpoint from which this roster makes the most sense. There are some obvious ways in which Nerlens will fit with Barnes who will with fit with Yogi and Seth Curry, but that’s such a short term positive. Remember, this is no longer a team on a single-year trajectory.

With the Noel trade, the 2017 Mavericks are starting to look a lot like the Kevin Martin-era Rockets: a team with a lot of young, talented, but ultimately limited players. That front office eventually swapped a cache of those players and picks for James Harden.

That’s going to need to be Donnie Nelson’s plan, too. Dallas is probably going to be just good enough to miss out on a full-on build through the draft, and this isn’t a good enough roster to compete through in-house growth alone. Picking at spots 10-15 year after year gives you pieces, but you have to get extraordinarily lucky to turn those into wins.

Sure, the Rockets model has been a dangerous one to follow (the Harden trade was in many ways unique), but with so many teams targeting the draft as their rebuild tool, it’s not so crazy to think that something akin to the Harden scenario might re-occur. At the very least, it’s a whole metric shit-ton better than Plan Powder.

The waiting game

So, the Mavericks have committed to playing a waiting game, a shift in approach they signaled with the Noel trade. They have lots of appealing assets now (even Wes’ deal might look palatable after another year of this CBA), and their picks will be high enough to draw some frantic interest come draft day if a major player happens to be available.

There’s a debate to be had, I’m sure, about whether this is the most strategically effective plan, but I’ll give it this: it’s more exciting than tanking. They may not be great in the next five years, but they’ll be good and fun to watch, and when Ben Simmons, or Gordon Hayward, or Jimmy Butler become genuine trade bait, it looks like the Mavs plan on being ready.

The Nerlens trade seems so straight-forward and innocuous. What team wouldn’t leap at such an opportunity? But this move represented a massive shift in the Mavericks’ approach and in the timeline over which the team is looking to improve.

Let’s hope it works this time.