Try not to burn your fingers with such a piping hot take from someone who watches almost zero college basketball.
The Mavs are embracing the future, somewhat, with the focus turning to building around Harrison Barnes and Nerlens Noel in the post-Dirk era. Seeing Golden State, Cleveland and even teams on the rise like Milwaukee overwhelm their opponents with lineups that have speed, length and athleticism at all positions makes it even easier to double-down on that duo. Barnes thrived in his first season in Dallas as a small-ball four and Noel will be a perfect five for the modern NBA full of spacing and switching. There’s just one problem — Barnes can’t handle being a full-time four.
On offense? Sure! Barnes put in some serious work this past season on the offensive end, using his athletic advantages playing against either smaller wings or bigger forwards when he was at the four. Barnes isn’t a great off-the-bounce creator, so being able to abuse flat-footed power forwards or post up undersized wings was a huge deal for Barnes increasing his usage and production while keeping his efficiency pretty high.
The problem with Barnes playing the four comes on the other end.
Defensively, Barnes plays his ass off at the four. He’s insanely strong for a wing, with a sturdy lower base that just absolutely stonewalled some of the best post scorers in the game. There aren’t many wings that can do this to Karl-Anthony Towns.
Just because Barnes can handle himself in the post, doesn’t mean it’s ideal for Dallas. Barnes is a stud for his defensive work as an undersized four, but he’s just a terrible rebounder for the position.
The Mavs were by far the worst rebounding team in the league this season. They were dead last in rebounding percentage and dead last in rebounds per game. Barnes had a sub-10 percent rebound percentage while grabbing just five boards per game — a pretty lousy number considering his minutes increase this season compared to his time in Golden State.
Dallas just didn’t have a good enough combination of arms, length, size and bounce inside for all season. Whether it was Barnes paired with Dirk Nowitzki or Noel, the Mavs couldn’t close out defensive possessions. Even with Noel, the Mavs still need to address this; while Noel is a good rebounder, he’s not such an elite one that he could cover for Barnes at the four.
Then you take the rebounding woes and add in the fact that the Mavs were the third-worst team when it came to defending shots in the restricted area, allowing teams to shoot 65.1 percent, with only the Lakers and Rockets having worse numbers.
Now, this isn’t to say Barnes should never play the four, just that he needs some help. Dirk will be around at least one more season to ease the burden but he’ll be gone soon. Luckily, this draft has a lot of nice combo forwards that could help Barnes out on the defensive end, while still allowing him to play in space on the other end.
Josh Jackson was the dream choice pre-lottery — an explosive 6’8 forward that might be a little thin to help Barnes in the paint, but his length and passing would have been a welcome fit to make sure Barnes wasn’t always guarding the other teams biggest threat while giving Barnes another talented passer to get him the ball.
Now that we know the Mavericks are indeed locked into the ninth pick, we can waive our Jackson dreams bye-bye, since he’ll likely be off the board after the Sixers pick at three. Luckily there are plenty other combo forwards that fit the bill, like Jonathan Isaac, Jayson Tatum and OG Anunoby that could be there by nine.
Isaac feels like a perfect fit. Imagine a three-and-D wing that happens to be 6’11 with a 7’1 wingspan. That’s the potential you get with Isaac, who could be a defensive menace next to Noel, switch screens with Barnes, provide length inside to help guard the rim while grabbing boards and, oh yeah, he can space the floor to let Barnes still play the four on offense and have the middle of the court to himself. I drool over a potential future frontcourt of Barnes-Isaac-Noel.
Tatum could be gone before Isaac. He’s a bit more of a traditional wing at 6’8 but still has enough length and size to play next to Barnes and Noel to help with rebounding. I’m not as big on him as Isaac since Tatum lacks Isaac’s immediate defensive potential — there’s a lot of bad tape of Tatum getting blown by guards on switches. The offensive fit is nice, although I’d worry that Barnes and Tatum are a little too similar offensively. Isaac feels better for this type of pick.
I’m much more intrigued by Anunoby. He’s closer to Isaac in terms of defensive profile, standing 6’8’ with a crazy 7’2 wingspan. Anunoby feels built for switching screens and causing havoc on defense. His offense will need work and he’s an even worse ballhandler than Barnes, so the Mavs would definitely need to shore up the point guard spot through free agency or that’s a lot of non-creators on the floor. Still though, this is the type of player I’d love for the Mavs to put next to Barnes. Picking him at nine would probably be a reach, but if the Mavs want to give Barnes dynamic help up front, he’ll be the best option after Isaac before a pretty big drop off in talent. Watching these playoff teams single out weak links on offense, scorching slower bigs in mismatches, makes me want a flying, five-out, switching death lineup more than ever before.
Of course, a point guard at nine would be totally fine and acceptable. The more I watch Barnes though, the more I thirst for a forward partner for him that could mask some of his limitations, while letting him stay comfortable in Rick Carlisle’s offense.
Dallas will have a big decision next month and which position they take will tell us a bit more of how they are shaping the roster for the Dirk-less future.