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Nerlens Noel coming off the bench is confusing and troubling

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Dallas is seemingly doing everything it can to push their talented young center away.

New Orleans Pelicans v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

I woke up Monday morning unusually excited about the Mavericks season considering they are coming off their worst season in 17 years.

This is also despite an interesting off-season, one where I was pretty clear in my disapproval. Dallas made small, cap friendly moves and basically punted this summer for next summer. That’s OK, because Dennis Smith Jr. was enough.

The combination of Smith’s draft, a full season of Nerlens Noel (despite the qualifying offer mess) and Dirk Nowitzki gracing us again just got me ready to get this season rolling. Then media day actually happened.

If you hadn’t heard, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle is leaning toward bringing Noel off the bench and rolling with Dirk at center. It wasn’t some off-the-cuff remark, as Carlisle further expounded on the decision with more clarity.

“I had a discussion three days ago with Nerlens’s agent, Rich Paul, about that and then two days ago Nerlens, myself, Rich, and Donnie Nelson were on a conference call talking about it," Carlisle said. “I basically said to them that I’m not sure that he is going to start.”

Now things aren’t set in stone. Carlisle hasn’t 100 percent committed to the idea, but the fact that this is even a discussion turned my excitement to straight anger about as fast as I can ever remember. Noel coming off the bench is a bad idea.

It isn’t a bad idea for on-court fit. Carlisle mentioned how well Dirk works at the five now and it’s true — Dirk switched to the five full-time in the starting lineup before the All-Star break last season and the Mavs were much better for it. Dallas went 18-19 in the games Dirk started at center, which is a huge improvement over the bottom-of-the-league rate the Mavs were at before the switch.

The offense was much better. The starting lineup with Yogi Ferrell at point guard had a 108.9 offensive rating and the one with Deron Williams before he was waived sported a blistering 113.7. Dallas could score with the extra room Dirk afforded them at center and Harrison Barnes was allowed to keep shining at his more natural position at the four.

On the other end, the lineup was as limited as you’d expect. Dirk still has some tricks up his sleeve as a smart help defender, but he should never be your rim protector at this age. It also put a huge rebounding burden on his shoulder as the Mavs went super small elsewhere. Barnes wasn’t good enough of a rebounder at the four, Wes Matthews was overwhelmed at the three and Ferrell and Seth Curry formed one of the smallest backcourts in the league. It’s OK to go small if you have guards and wings that can play up a position — but outside of Barnes, the Mavs didn’t have a lot of that roster flexibility.

Even with that, it wasn’t like Noel starting is a slam dunk. Despite a pretty healthy net rating with the Barnes-Dirk-Noel front court starting lineup (6.1) it couldn’t score as Barnes just wasn’t as effective at the three and spacing was a little compromised. When you look at all that, it isn’t the worst decision in the world to bring Noel off the bench.

Unfortunately that’s not how the NBA works. The NBA and the Mavericks don’t exist in a world where every decision made exists in its own alternate universe. Every move (and lack thereof) touches a part of the team in some way, whether that’s on the court or off it.

Nerlens Noel did not sign a 1-year qualifying offer for chump change and turn down a sizable 4-year deal to be a backup. It doesn’t matter how nice Noel is playing to reporters or how well Carlisle conveyed the message to Noel’s agent Rich Paul. In Tim MacMahon’s piece about the potential Noel bench move, this nugget was tucked between comments from Noel and Dirk about how hard he’ll work to have a good year.

Sources said Noel did not join his teammates in informal workouts until Thursday, well after most of the Mavs. Noel spent most of the summer training in Los Angeles, but sources said he did not participate in a voluntary minicamp that most of the Mavs attended in L.A. the week after he signed the qualifying offer.

Sounds exciting huh.

It’s hilarious especially when you consider all the comments that came out after the Mavs let Noel sign the qualifying offer to now “prove it” when it comes to his max deal. It’s going to certainly be harder to do that when Noel is working in a glorified Dwight Powell role!

Of course, starting and coming off the bench doesn’t carry the same weight it used to. Plenty of reserves are key cogs to their team and are even part of the closing lineup. Jason Terry started 68 games in his last five seasons with the Mavs.

“Josh you dolt!” you exclaim, “Just because Noel isn’t starting doesn’t mean he won’t get his chances and play starters’ minutes.”

That’s true! Except there’s one big problem: who is Noel replacing in crunch time? Terry replaced mediocre-to-average starting guards like Antoine Wright, Rodrigue Beaubois, Eddie Jones and DeShawn Stevenson. OK, Stevenson was good, but the point stands — he always closed games.

If Carlisle thinks Dirk is best suited at the five and starts games with him there, who comes out? Dirk is one of the best closers of all time. Barnes is the Mavs best scoring option. Unless for some reason Carlisle goes with the Barnes-Dirk-Noel frontcourt, how is Noel going to get consistent big minutes if he’s not part of the closing lineup?

There will be situations where Noel has big minute nights by default, since Dirk will be resting and the Mavs will need defensive substitutions late in games. But that won’t be good enough.

The history is there. Dallas jerked around the greatest center in franchise history (twice), played weird games with Chandler Parsons and generally haven’t been too interested in keeping anyone on the team for more than a year or two other than Dirk and Dwight Powell since the title team.

It just seems in bad form that the response to Noel’s “prove it” season is to start him on the bench. If Carlisle is true to his word about how much he needs to have Dirk play center this year, I don’t see a way Noel can average 30 or more minutes a game. The roster just doesn’t allow for it outside of games where Dirk needs to rest. The only way is if Dirk’s minutes get a severe reduction.

It’ll be a shame if we get to the summer of 2018 and we’re right back where we started, with Noel coming off a productive per-minute season but only being on the floor for about 20-25 minutes a night. The conversations about whether Noel is worth it will crop up again, while the Mavericks do all they can to not keep Noel here for the long-term. Combine that with the way the Mavericks are tip-toeing around Noel with their quiet summer and it’s only fair to speculate the Mavs aren’t worried about getting Noel into a multi-year contract because DeMarcus Cousins will be there to thirst for.

And before you protest, it is not out of the realm of possibility that the Mavericks will ignore their perfectly talented and perfectly fitting center to chase supposedly greener pastures. History matters. It matters what potential future Mavericks think of how this franchise treats important players. Would it kill the Mavericks to show some ass to Noel just a little bit just to help ensure he’ll be a part of the organization for the next four years?

The Mavericks aren’t a playoff team so it wouldn’t be a disaster to roll out the Barnes-Dirk-Noel front-court for the first five to six minutes of a game. Hell, Barnes could use a break guarding bigs, the dude has earned it after working his ass off last season.

This stinks because it was starting to finally feel like the disappointment of Noel signing the qualifying offer had subsided. It was media day, and everything is supposed to be flowery, optimistic and exciting. It’s a new season! The Mavericks are rolling out the front-runner for the Rookie of the Year! Yet somehow Dallas found a way to bring down the room and continue their puzzling quest to shun as many good players as possible to find a hypothetical better one.