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NBA Trade Deadline 2018: The Mavericks are finally figuring out who they really are

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After a two struggling seasons, the Mavericks seem to have embraced the great unknown of a rebuild.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve been a fan of the Mavericks at all during the Dirk Nowitzki-Mark Cuban era, the fourth quarter of the game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday night may have been quite alarming.

After rallying to take a nine-point lead with a little over five minutes left, Rick Carlisle sat nearly all his best contributors. Out were Dirk, Devin Harris, J.J. Barea and Dwight Powell. In their place were rookies Dennis Smith Jr. and Maxi Kleber, along with Yogi Ferrell and Salah Mejri. Wesley Matthews was the only longtime veteran on the floor.

It’s no secret the Mavs’ best lineups consist of combinations of Powell, Dirk, Barea and Harris. While Dirk has been quietly sitting out the end of games throughout the season and Smith has gotten more opportunity, one of Powell, Harris or Barea is usually also on the floor with Smith and typically Matthews.

That lineup Carlisle closed with on Tuesday night — Smith, Ferrell, Matthews, Kleber and Mejri — had only played three total minutes together entering that Clippers game, according to NBA.com. On Tuesday, that lineup played 14 minutes. Holy crap! That lineup, predictably, has a minus-36.3 net rating in those 17 total minutes.

Was Rick Carlisle ... tanking?

“I decided to play the young guys down the stretch to get them the experience of closing the game — and they learned a few things,” Carlisle said after the game.

That is a remarkable shift from where the Mavericks have been the past two seasons, a team refusing to accept its rebuilding destiny like a toddler refusing to take its medicine. Last season, the Mavericks never got closer to .500 than eight games under, and they refused to give up on the idea of making the playoffs until mid-March. They got lucky that it worked out anyway, as Smith miraculously tumbled all the way to the nine spot. This season has been different — the Mavericks are worse (worst in the league entering Thursday’s slate) without much to show for it. Seth Curry is gone for the season, and Nerlens Noel has apparently been sent to the farm. But lots of veterans have been kept around to show Smith the ropes, which could have prevented the Mavericks from acquiring a top-3 draft pick.

After tumbling to the bottom of the league even with those vets in place, the Mavericks have finally embraced the team they are — a bad one that desperately needs a franchise-altering talent. Devin Harris is sadly gone, in his place a 26-year-old former lottery pick, a second-round pick and the same clean cap sheet for this upcoming summer.

It’s a big shift. Mavericks G.M. Donnie Nelson spoke after the trade deadline about getting Harris to a team in Denver that was “competing for the playoffs.” This is the first public admission the Mavs have made that they are out of it, and while that seems silly when you consider the Mavericks have 17 wins in February, that’s a big deal for this organization. Dallas under Cuban, and especially under Dirk, have never admitted defeat this early in the season. It’s why we thought the team was trapped to repeat the same mistakes, for better and for worse. After every game dating back to last season, Dirk almost always spoke of making a run to get back into it even when the Mavericks were tumbling down the standings. Those statements have slowly drifted away recently.

Harris was a huge locker room presence, and nobody really knew if the Mavericks had this in them. Smith has said multiple times how guys like Harris have helped him adjust to the NBA world, and Harris looked as healthy as he’s been since he returned to the Mavs for his second stint. Combine that with the tragedy in his personal life — losing his brother to a car accident in mid-season — and it wouldn’t have shocked anyone for the Mavericks to keep up their steely gaze with Dirk and hold the fort and ride out the season. Even if that meant slipping up the standings and farther away from the DeAndre Aytons and Luka Doncics of the world.

Instead, Dallas has finally embraced reality. It always seemed strange how the Mavs would cite the upkeep of the locker room culture for their hesitance to part with any of their veterans, because isn’t Dirk, Carlisle, Cuban and Harrison Barnes enough? Those guys set the tone everyday, and it seemed silly to think a locker room with such strong foundations and cornerstones couldn’t handle the movement of a veteran player or two, even someone like Harris who the Mavs loved. While the Mavericks are signaling that their season is over, that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to pack it in. Smith still has plenty to learn, and there are plenty of veterans left to lean on if things get tough. There’s a place between what the Mavericks were doing up till now and what the 76ers did, a middle ground where you can keep both eyes on the future without ignoring the present. The Mavericks have finally slipped into that place, even if they’re only dipping their toes into the shallow end of the pool.

This goes beyond what the Mavericks got for Harris. He was the Mavs’ plus/minus leader and the glue to their beastly death bench lineup of Ferrell, Barea, Powell and Dirk. McDermott’s shooting and off-ball movement will fit like a glove in Carlisle’s flowing system, but there’s no way for him to replace the chemistry Harris had established with Barea and Powell. That’s not to mention replacing the defensive versatility Harris provided in lineups that were often either too small or too big. McDermott’s never had a positive net-rating in his short career, and while the Mavericks finally got another wing to play next to Barnes, his defense isn’t the best. He doesn’t do much besides shooting and moving through the next set of screens. McDermott isn’t a turnover machine, but he’s not a playmaker. He’s not the defensive joke he was early on in Chicago, but he’s not a stopper, fluid switcher or heady rebounder. He’ll be a fun rental to see if the Mavericks want to bring him back, but make no mistake — the biggest win of this trade was increasing the chances of a top-3 pick with Harris elsewhere. Adding a second-rounder to the war chest of assets didn’t hurt either.

That couldn’t have been easy for the Mavericks to swallow, and it showed, both in Nelson’s tone speaking to reporters and Harris’ reaction after practice. The Mavericks needed to rip off the band-aid, and it’s going to sting for a few days, maybe weeks. But it’s a change into a new direction, one where the next era after Dirk is closer than it’s ever been.