Rick Carlisle, seated on a swivel chair deep in his underground laboratory, tinkers with two spherical knobs on a large, antique machine. On the floor lays an empty narrow necked flask with Jonathan Gibson scribbled at the base. A wide drafting desk behind him props up a Da Vinci like portrait measuring Dorian Finney-Smith’s lengths.
The 2017 Mavericks have been Carlisle’s strangest challenge yet. The pieces, while competent and well meaning, never quite fit. The injuries compounded with a cruel and vociferous pace. Father Time finally latched onto the heel of Dirk Nowitzki. You could hear the tank rolling into Victory Plaza from inside the American Airlines Center. It was time for the Mavericks to pick up their ball, go home and collect some ping pong balls.
After getting ran out of their own building by the turbulent Sacramento Kings, the Mavericks were 4-17. Now, they’re 20-30 sitting just one and a half games back of the playoffs as of Thursday night.
How the hell did we get here?
It’s a question that seems to be floating around a lot these days. Dallas stumbled upon their identity in the last six weeks even with J.J. Barea limited by a disgruntled calf and Andrew Bogut missing time with several ailments. That identity couldn’t be found without a hyper-competitive culture persisting on a team with every reason to quit. Wesley Matthews’ stubborn resilience and Harrison Barnes’ sound consistency kept this team afloat while Dirk rounded into form.
The Yogi phenomenon has consumed every ounce of this resurgence during his brief 10-day stay. Dallas is on a four game winning streak with wins ridiculous wins over Cleveland and San Antonio. Yogi shot his way into the heart of Mavs fandom, but his toughness and basketball IQ prepared him for this moment. “He’s got an edge to him. He’s a product of Tom Crean. Being a product of Tom Crean myself, I know he’s been battle tested,” said Wes Matthews after the win against Philadelphia.
While Matthews and Yogi played at different colleges, they shared the same head coach. The two undrafted players also share a similar competitive makeup. Yogi’s confidence has not wavered a bit in his short stint as a Maverick. During his blistering 32 point performance, he sprinted up the court and nailed a three in transition with a considerable amount of traffic around him. That’s not shot a guy on a 10-day contract ever even dreams of taking. But Yogi is cut from a different cloth. He’s one of the handful of undrafted players on the roster who knows what it means to fight to stay in the NBA.
The Big German’s nagging Achilles caused him to miss most of the season up until Christmas. Carlisle has stated several times that Dirk won’t be completely right until after the All-Star break. At 38, recovery times elongate and Dirk still isn’t quite himself, but his mere presence on the court multiplies the Mavs win expectance. Over the last 17 years, it’s been a pretty simple formula: when Dirk plays, the Mavericks are good; when Dirk doesn’t play, the Mavericks are mediocre.
In January, Dirk regained his efficiency and moved to center full time. He warped the spacing giving Seth Curry room to wiggle and Barnes space to attack. The Dirk Nowitizki supernova spacing is a luxury that we’ve been accustomed to over the years. It’s a cheat code that allows other players on the floor to reach their peak more often than not. But the key to the Maverick resurgence lies in Nowitzki’s defense.
Dirk has a defensive rating of 99(!) in the month of January. He’s leveraged his basketball IQ on the defensive end with the rangy wings in front of him to play some impressive defense. Most teams don’t have a center with the foot speed to run Nowitzki off the court and Carlisle will live with Dirk hanging back on the pick and roll. It’s a conservative scheme that they’ve employed for years, but Barnes ability to switch and guard post behemoths gives Carlisle and extra tool in his box.
If Dirk has been the variable in the Mavericks change, then Barnes has been the constant. Every night Barnes brings it on both ends of the court. There are only a handful of guys in this league that can carry a primary scoring burden and defend on every possessions. Barnes’ defensive workload may be even more burdensome than his offensive one. He has to start off on the most talented big man every night, even if it’s Derrick Favors or Karl-Anthony Towns. It’s a challenge that he’s accepted and thrived in. While he rarely makes the glamorous play, Barnes is always in the right place and never appears to be overwhelmed by an opposing player. Consistency, it seems, is a trademark of Barnes.
Nearing the 50 game mark, Barnes greatest skill appears to be his ability to learn. He picks up on tendencies rather quickly and can process information on a game-to-game basis that takes most player entire seasons to learn.
“He kinda got thrown into the fire and he’s been fantastic. He’s making reads now. He made one pass today on the spin that I don’t think he would have made two or three weeks ago,” said Dirk after a win against the Knicks.
Barnes’ development has paired nicely with Curry’s emergence over the last month. The two have developed a chemistry with the two man game that faintly mimics Terry and Nowitzki. Curry has been a revelation on his own. He’s scoring nearly 14 points a game on 50 percent from the field and 50 percent from three in the month of January. With Barea and Williams dealing with injury, Curry has blossomed in Carlisle’s guard friendly offense. The Mavericks desperately needed dynamic guard play earlier in the season and Curry has filled that void.
Dallas is 8-3 in their last 11 games, which marks their best 11 game stretch since January of 2015. Their playoff hopes buoyed by an underrated free agent named Yogi and Salah Mejri running Jahlil Okafor out the league. None of these things could happen without the right culture in place. Dallas never let go of the rope, because Carlisle, Dirk, Barnes and Matthews doused the rope in crazy glue.
The playoffs are not a lock by any stretch of the imagination, but the Maverick sent the tank in reverse. The season has been a strange case of circumstance, but Carlisle summed it up best.
“We’re a shit team. But we’re an underrated shit team.”