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The Mavericks are showing hints at their future

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Since the trade deadline, Dallas has given us a peak at what the team could look like when they’re good again.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

It was easy to miss, a sleepy Sunday game in early February. The Rockets beat the Mavericks and looking over the box score, nothing jumps out at you. The Mavs rested their older vets, the Mavs scraped like they always do and the Rockets won because of course they did.

That game though, had one interesting aspect — it may have given us a glimpse of what the next good Mavericks team could look like.

That seems eye-brow-raising at best, since the Mavericks are tied for the second-worst record in the league. Dallas’ talent pool is dangerously shallow, and after all the free agent whiffs and draft busts, it’s going to take some time for the Mavericks to catch up. Dennis Smith Jr. is a brilliant start, but it’s a somewhat sad state of affairs when almost all of the Mavericks’ best players are over the age of 30. When your team is spiraling toward the bottom of the standings for the second season in a row, that’s not good.

So it was nice to see the Mavericks enter that Rockets game, fresh off trading Devin Harris, and finally start to show some signs of what the team could look like when they’re regularly winning games again. When the playoffs are once again expected.

In that Feb. 11 game, Dallas rested all their old guys. No Dirk Nowitzki, no J.J. Barea and no Wesley Matthews. That meant it was time for Rick Carlisle to experiment a bit. Since the Mavs had just recently replaced 6’3 Devin Harris with 6’9 Doug McDermott, what the Mavs did in that Rockets game actually looked like a modern NBA team and not one desperately trying to spin plates with odd-ball lineups.

While the Mavericks’ two and three point guard lineups were fun, they were a band-aid. Take a look at the most played lineups from the Mavs this season — you’ll see a lot of two and three point guard groups. You’ll also notice that most of them are doing OK, some even great. It’s been well documented how great the Mavs bench lineup of Barea, Yogi Ferrell, Harris, Dirk and Dwight Powell has done this season, and Carlisle’s offense always moves better when there are at least two ball-handlers on the floor at the same time.

The problem is this isn’t how the NBA is going and it hasn’t for quite some time. There’s some value in zigging where the rest of the league is zagging to try and build a good team on a smaller budget, but what the Mavs were doing was never going to work to get them back into playoff contention. While the league has been trending toward small ball ever since the Mavericks won a title back in 2011, the Mavericks were going too small. There’s a big difference between the small lineups of the teams at the top of the standings like the Celtics, Warriors, Rockets and Raptors and the Mavericks version. Teams are loading up on interchangeable 6’4 to 6’10 wings that can slide across three positions, shoot, play defense, rebound and even make plays off the dribble.

Now it’s not so easy to just say “OK, let’s be a modern team now!” Every team in the NBA wants and needs those types of wings, so they are in premium supply. Still, it hasn’t been too much fun watching the Mavs roll out lineups that look so out of place. Every time the Mavericks used those small point guard heavy lineups it feels like the Mavericks are using smoke and mirrors to try to win stretches of games.

Against the Rockets earlier in February, the short-handed Mavs decided to look a little modern. The two most used lineups that night where ones with Powell at center, surrounded by Harrison Barnes and McDermott at the wing. In the backcourt, the most-used lineup had Smith and Ferrell, while the second had Smith and Kyle Collinsworth.

That second-used lineup of Smith-Collinsworth-Barnes-McDermott-Powell looked like a Mavericks team that was finally ready to embrace the modern principles of the NBA. It was big, rangy, quick and athletic. While I don’t have the hard numbers, it had to have been the most defensive switches the Mavs have had in a game in some time.

While this isn’t the best defense, it is a defense the Mavs are unable to really run when Collinsworth is either Barea or Harris. Collinsworth is a legit 6’6 with good length and while it’s not ideal to have him on Nene, the Rockets don’t post up enough to make that threat worth worrying about. It’s all about disrupting the Rockets’ primary objective, which is to get up as many clean threes as possible. What Powell lacks in rim protection he makes up for with his foot speed. The Mavs have used Powell to switch and trap, and Powell has the quickness to hang, like on this possession against Harden:

Here’s another defensive possession that doesn’t look like much at all. And if you’ve watched a lot of NBA basketball lately, it isn’t. For the Mavs though, it’s a big deal because instead of a lumbering big or a small guard challenging that shot in the corner, it’s a 6’9 forward with length and the ability (theoretically, this is McDermott after all) to hang on the close out.

Collinsworth in particular looked great defensively and while he is still very raw and has a lot to work on, his defense seems polished enough. Collinsworth gets physical without fouling and moves his feet well. He’s a springy athlete too, so he has the ability to close out hard and recover to challenge drives and mid-rangers.

It all seemed so very strange to see a Mavericks team with this much versatility and fluidity. Barnes, McDermott and Collinsworth were floating among positions, moving wherever they needed to be without looking overwhelmed.

It’s a small sample, but when Collinsworth is on the floor this season, the Mavs do good things: they score 108.8 points per 100 possessions and only give up 101.4, according to NBA.com. That 101.4 defensive rating is the best of any Mavs player that’s played at least 200 minutes. OK, here’s an even smaller but equally delicious sample — in the 18 minutes the trio of Collinsworth, Barnes and McDermott share the floor, the Mavericks have a 11.1 net rating.

The problem? The lineup with Collinsworth, Barnes and McDermott along with Powell and Smith went minus-3 that night in Houston and shot 33 percent from the field. Collinsworth is basically a tall Rondo on offense, never looking at the basket on drives and doing everything he can to help the offense besides, uhm, shoot. He’s hit two three-pointers in the 202 minutes he’s played this season. It works when Collinsworth plays with guys like Dirk, Smith and Barea to create and space the floor, but when Collinsworth is sharing the floor with Barnes and McDermott, that means there’s only room for one true playmaker. And again, Carlisle’s offense always works best with two. That’s going to be the needle the Mavericks try to thread, looking for a player like Collinsworth that can also do a little bit more on offense. The Mavericks will be waiting in line for that player this summer along with just about 29 other NBA teams.

As the Mavericks keep circling the drain in the standings, it makes sense for Carlisle and the coaching staff to try these sorts of combinations more. Thanks to Mark Cuban’s comments and tanking fine, we might not see games like that night in Houston too much, where all the older veterans got to rest and allow these lineups to perk up. Even with that though, expect to see Carlisle tinker a bit with these bigger small lineups throughout stretches of games. It’ll be a (hopeful) sneak preview of better things to come.