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Mid-season grades for the Dallas Mavericks

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The loss to the Knicks was the midpoint of the season, so let’s go ahead and give out a report card.

Well wouldn’t you know it, the Mavericks are officially halfway through the season! This hasn’t felt like hell at all!

Dallas is in the midst of its second quasi-rebuilding season, and to be honest, there hasn’t been much to get excited about, outside of the flashes of brilliance from Dennis Smith Jr. The dirty secret about these rebuilding Mavs is there isn’t actually that much young talent on the roster now that Nerlens Noel is in the Phantom Zone and Seth Curry is hurt.

So it’s been a weird season so far. Dallas crossed the half-season mark at 13-28, fifth-worst in the NBA. Yet, they’ve played in a ton of close games and of those 13 wins, 10 were against teams currently in the playoffs. So they’re bad, but they’re almost good in a really weird way.

Let’s get down to the grades, ordered by minutes played:

Last year, Barnes was a revelation, bouncing back from a horrid summer and showcasing a first-option game, leading the Mavs in scoring and cementing himself as a foundation piece.

There were holes, of course. Barnes did most of his work on mid-range jumpers, and his handle wasn’t improved enough to get to the rim and to the free-throw line. Barnes took those criticisms, along with his paltry rebounding numbers, to heart and has shown huge improvements.

Through the first 41 games of the season, Barnes’ free throw attempts per game are up from 3.6 last season to 4.1, his rebounds up from five to 6.6. He’s getting to the rim more too — so far this season, 27.9 percent of Barnes field goal attempts have come in the restricted area, according to NBA.com. That number last season was 20 percent. Barnes is improving! He’s even bumped up his assists per game from 1.5 to 2.2.

Yet...yet...the Mavs are still bad. Dallas fell head over heels for Barnes after last season, citing his maturity, leadership and dedication to improving as qualities they wanted to build around, along with the good scoring and versatile defense. There’s no doubt that Barnes possesses all the intangibles the Mavs would want from a number one option or franchise player, it’s the reason Dirk Nowitzki has been fairly gushing with praise. But we’re now 123 games into the “Barnes as the Mavericks’ best player” experiment and the Mavs have won 46 of those games. Granted, the roster is a mess, but it’s becoming clearer after every game that Barnes might not be the dude the Mavs can pin all of their hopes on. That’s not really a discredit to Barnes, he’s very good! He just might not be as good as we all want him to be.

There’s just something missing from Barnes, despite the counting stats going up from last season. When Barnes was on the floor last season, the Mavs had a net-rating of minus-2.1 according to NBA.com. This season, it’s minus-7.4. But the biggest difference between this season and last? Last year when Barnes went off the floor, the Mavs got worse (minus-3.4). This season? They get not just better, but significantly better (plus-8.7).

Most of that can be tied to Barnes leading the team in minutes: he’s on the floor so much that when he’s not, it’s usually garbage time or stretches in the second and fourth quarters where the Mavericks’ superb bench runs opposing bench units off the floor. Still, the fact that Barnes plays so many minutes and the Mavs play like a dog for most of them is concerning. Barnes doesn’t seem like the type of player who changes the flow just by stepping on the floor. Teams don’t throw their defenses at Barnes like they do at top-20 players — and the Dallas offense doesn’t flow through Barnes like a top-20 player who makes everyone around him play better whenever he touches the ball. Again, that’s not really a knock on Barnes because he is a very useful and good player. Just maybe not one to lead your franchise like Dirk.

Wesley Matthews does so much for the Mavericks. The problem is he’s doing it for a team that really needs more.

This is another case where it’s not really Matthews’ fault, like Barnes. Matthews originally came to Dallas to continue his career as a super-plus role player around Chandler Parsons and DeAndre Jordan. When Jordan high-tailed it back to Los Angeles, that bumped Matthews up a couple rungs, and he’s now a very useful and good three-and-D player on a team that really needs more dynamism.

What sucks is that this is probably Matthews’ best season in Dallas. He’s shooting 39.1 percent from three on a healthy number of attempts, his defense has been good and he’s finally above 40 percent from the field. His defense is still really great, like when he locked down DeMar DeRozan back in December and even flummoxed Kristaps Porzingis Sunday night in the second half. He’s also a leader in the locker room; spend a just a handful of post-games listening to him talk and interact in the locker room and it’s clear how much he cares about winning, playing hard and setting an example.

It just doesn’t seem to make a tangible difference for the Mavs. Matthews would be better suited knocking down threes and playing great defense on a team that already has a stable of good players to surround him. In Dallas, where they lack talent, Matthews just has to try and do too much. You look at the Mavs’ place in the league and then look at Matthews’ numbers closer — does Dallas really need an over-30 player shooting less than 41 percent from the field, who can’t create and doesn’t have the size to be flexible with his position? Matthews is a fine player. He’s just one the Mavs don’t technically need.

Yogi is awesome. He’s shooting better than he was last season when he was a rookie-team selection, and he’s one of the few under-30 players the Mavs can reasonably count on still being here for Smith’s prime.

Ferrell’s one of the few Mavs with a positive net-rating when he’s on the floor (1.7) and he’s part of one of the best lineups in the NBA, a bench mob with J.J. Barea, Devin Harris, Dirk and Dwight Powell. Ferrell’s shooting is really fun to watch and is useful. He’s a confident pull-up shooter and spaces the floor well for Dallas.

But, he’s super short and that, combined with the fact that he’s a four-year college player who went undrafted, caps his potential. The Mavs’ roster is so imbalanced with a lack of true wings that Ferrell is almost always guarding not just a point guard who is taller than him, but sometimes twos and threes who dwarf him. Ferrell is strong as hell and built like a damn ox, but there’s only so much you can do defensively with a sub-six footer.

Still, Yogi is such a nice find. He should continue to be a really nice backup to Smith as the rookie continues to get better.

I don’t give a crap, it’s Dirk and Dirk does no wrong

(Pay no mind to the incredibly porous defense.)

While there isn’t much to say (that isn’t obvious) about how good it is to still watch Dirk kick ass, it’s worth repeating how well Dirk has rebounded lately after a poor start. He’s shooting 43 percent from three which would be *checks notes, adjusts glasses* a career-high. Holy smokes! That’s amazing!

The rest of Dirk’s offensive game is rounding into form as well. He’s posting up a little more and taking advantage of smaller defenders on the switch a bit more, too. Dirk, 20 years in, is still fun. Bless him.

Barea is having a career season at age 33. The Dallas Mavericks are one of the worst teams in the NBA.

*jumps into bottomless pit, screaming for eternity*

Now look, Barea reviving his career and improving dramatically as a three-point shooter as his career winds down is pretty awesome in a vacuum. From an objective view, it’s been pretty fun and honestly a little nuts to see Barea play so well and become the best version of himself six-and-a-half years after he helped the team win a title. This version of Barea is so much better than 2011 Barea it’s truly mind-boggling. He’s shooting the hell out of the ball, sitting at 39.1 percent from deep which would be a career high, besting his previous mark that came just two years ago back on the 2015-16 team.

He’s scoring and assisting at career-high levels too. That’s kinda cool! He’s also averaging the most minutes per game in any season in Dallas and attempting a career high in shots per game. For a team that has 13 wins and won’t be good again until Barea is long gone and one on which he shares a position with the one blue-chip talent that needs as many reps as possible, that is not good!

So goes watching Barea in 2018. There’s a mix of fun nostalgia and some hair-pulling frustration at his usage on a team that isn’t headed anywhere good anytime soon. Barea’s performance is great, but what it means for this team and where it’s going isn’t.

Here’s the thing: Smith has been flat-out awesome in terms of “getting it” and being a badass and saying all the right things before and after games.

In terms of actual on-court performance? Eh. When he started his first NBA game on opening night, he was still a teenager. Point guards that young don’t typically light it up in their rookie seasons and Smith hasn’t been the exception.

There are the typical mistakes we all expect: the careless passes, the forgetful defense and the trigger-happy jumpers instead of probing inside for a better opportunity. That stuff happens, and the Mavs have played much better when Smith is off the floor. When you consider the veteran guards the Mavs have off the bench, that’s okay.

What’s been awesome to see is all the little stuff that affirms our love of the dude. There’s the eye-popping hops, the fearlessness in traffic and the ability and want-to to takeover in the clutch. I’ve written a lot about how the Mavs lose so many close games because they have so many okay and fine role players to keep things close but no dynamic talent to push them over the edge when it’s nut-cutting time. Smith can be that player down the road and the fact that he’s already flashed some of those moments is hugely encouraging. Bonus points for basically being molded out of Carlisle’s no-nonsense, no-excuse personality.

By far the best thing about Powell this season is that he’s stayed in his lane, so to speak, and is thriving by doing the things he’s really good at and avoiding the stuff he’s bad at.

Powell is still taking way too many threes and not making a lot of them, but for now, he’s solidified his role as an off-the-bench rim runner extraordinaire. I touched on this last season, but it’s pretty cool to see Powell go from a sort of aimless, hilariously overpaid big to a narrowly focused, regular overpaid big. Powell is an honest-to-god elite rim-runner and his speed and explosiveness in the pick and roll is the only thing besides Dirk that invokes dreamy memories of the buttery Dallas offense from years past. When Powell is in the game, the Mavericks, for brief moments, look like the 2015 Tyson Chandler-Brandan Wright team. He rolls so hard and so fast that he catches defenders napping, and he’s developed some great chemistry with the Mavs bench guards. The fact that Powell has become elite at anything is a major win considering where he was two years ago.

He’s still an inconsistent rebounder and one of the worst rim defenders I’ve ever seen. In a league where centers who can’t shoot are nearing extinction, it’s definitely fair to ask why Powell commands as much of the cap as he does if he never tops out as anything more than what he is right now.

I get it, I really do. But I’m still pretty smitten that Powell has turned into something. A few years ago, we wondered if he’d be anything.

Hey, so, I had no idea this dude could get up.

By far the biggest surprise of Kleber’s season. The shooting, the smart play, I figured. He’s played against good European teams for years, so I figured he would have a bit less of the rookie yips. The hops though? My goodness, the glorious hops.

That’s what intrigues me most about Kleber. He moves his feet so well and gets off the floor so quickly, I’m inclined to think he’s not a flash in the pan, but someone the Mavs should hang onto and keep growing.

This is by far the healthiest Harris has looked since he returned to Dallas a few years ago. He hasn’t had any setbacks with his toe or foot, and he’s moving extremely well.

The problem is that, like most of the players on the Mavericks’ roster, he’s a really solid role player on a team that needs stars. Harris is way too good and useful to be plugging away on a 30-win team and just about every single contender in the league would get a boost from him joining the roster. Who knows if Harris finishes the year here, but of Barea and Harris, I like Harris as the veteran mentor, since Harris and Smith don’t clash much in terms of roles and can play a bit more seamlessly together.

OK, here’s my big hot sports opinion on Salah Mejri: I am tired of his bit.

I say this as a big Salah fan, who definitely wanted to see his role increase when the Mavs were still a playoff team in his first season. But now that the Mavs are going in the other direction, a 30-year-old backup rim defender who talks mess like he’s prime Kevin Garnett is annoying as well and tiring.

That swag is part of what makes Mejri so good, and he was a really nice find by the Dallas scouting department. He’s been the best rim defender over his three seasons here but his contract is up this summer and the Mavs have enough bigs who can’t shoot. Send him out of here, get a draft pick and move on. I can only watch Mejri bow-up to a star so many times when the team is puddling around at the bottom of the standings.

Remember when Noel was going to help speed up the rebuild and be a cornerstone that would accelerate the Mavericks back to being a good team ahead of schedule? The trade honestly feels like 35 years ago.

The Noel failure is such a huge indictment on all parties involved. On Noel, for overestimating his worth and then floating through most of the season when he really needed to bring it. On the coaching staff, for yo-yoing his minutes even when he was doing well and failing to bring out the good we saw last season when he kicked so much ass after the trade. On the front office, for finding what they considered a “Tyson Chandler starter kit” (their words!) and then immediately playing hardball in the offseason.

Just an absolute, colossal failure all-around. What a freaking waste.

Dorian Finney-Smith, Seth Curry, Gian Clavell, Kyle Collinsworth, Antonius Cleveland, Jeff Withey, Jonathan Motley, Josh McRoberts: Incomplete

Most of these dudes are bench warmers and some aren’t even on the team anymore. A proper salute to these random dudes who fill out the roster every year.

A couple of those names, however, aren’t bench warmers. Finney-Smith has been hurt most of the year with a bum knee, and Curry hasn’t played a game all season with a shin injury. These are hugely disappointing injuries not because the Mavericks could use them in the rotation but because of what they meant.

Finney-Smith was a fun find for a team starving for long wings and Curry was a revelation last year, finally getting a chance after bouncing around the league for a couple of years. Curry might not play at all this season, and the updates on Finney-Smith have been just as quiet. A wasted season for two dudes that were hopeful building blocks to plug in next to Smith. Bleh.