We all remember the line from Harvey Dent in the Dark Knight: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain?” When it comes to playing time and the possibility of coming off the bench to help the team, that phrase can probably be best applied to the newest member of the Houston Rockets, Carmelo Anthony, who has, very loudly, made it known that a bench role is not an option for him, no matter what anyone else thinks. Dirk Nowitzki, on the other hand, is cut from a different cloth and is more than willing to make that move if it helps his Dallas Mavericks win more games.
The only problem is, or was, that long-time head coach Rick Carlisle has never really viewed that as a viable option for the Big German. After the Nerlens Noel trade, about a year and a half ago, Carlisle said, “I don’t see Dirk coming off the bench as a good option. I’m not going to say it’s an impossibility, but I don’t see it as something that’s in my wheelhouse.”
Despite Carlisle having those strong feelings about Dirk potentially being a sixth man, it may now be the time for that move, given that the Mavericks’ roster situation has changed considerably. With DeAndre Jordan being added in free agency, Carlisle now has a legit starting center that is a proven commodity and reliable, unlike some guys that are no longer on the team (refraining from making a hot dog joke). What you see is what you get with Jordan, and Carlisle will be able to trust him as the Mavs’ new defensive anchor. Dirk started at center all of last season, mainly because he no longer has the ability to keep up with a lot of the other power forwards in the league at this stage in his career. So, does Carlisle take a risk on moving Dirk back to the four? It’s possible, but I don’t believe that would be the best option.
Next, you have to take into consideration that Luka Doncic is most-likely a starter. Carlisle, himself, has already projected Doncic as an opening night starter, just as he did with Dennis Smith Jr. last year. If there was any rookie that is fully prepared to be thrown into the NBA fire, it would be Doncic, given his prolific professional experience despite his tender age of 19 years old. Smith Jr. and Harrison Barnes are also locks as starters again this season, so if you’ve been doing the math, that leaves one starting position up for debate, assuming Doncic does start as Carlisle has hinted at.
Wesley Matthews would make for an excellent sixth man, and he may well be fine with that role as well if he was still getting his usual minutes. But could you see the Mavs paying Matthews $18.6 million to be a sixth man? Maybe, but I doubt that will happen. Given the potential mismatch nightmare that starting 40-year-old Dirk at power forward could cause I’d image the Mavs’ most optimal starting lineup would be: Smith Jr., Matthews, Doncic, Barnes and Jordan. Barnes has been vocal about not necessarily preferring playing at the four, mainly because playing defense at that position takes a lot out of his legs and affects his offensive play on the other end. However, with Jordan now patrolling the paint and being able to compensate a little bit for others’ mistakes, I believe Barnes’ life as a power forward can be made easier.
Carlisle can play with different lineups and try to justify Dirk continuing to be a starter as he enters his twenty-first season, but if he wants to do what’s best for the team, I believe it’s time for Dirk to assume the sixth man role. As of November 28, 2017, the best lineup (with a minimum of 48 minutes played together) in the entire NBA consisted of J.J. Barea, Yogi Ferrell, Devin Harris, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Powell. Ferrell is gone now, but Harris is back for his third stint with the team and No. 33 overall pick Jalen Brunson should be able to fill in nicely in Yogi’s absence. Seems like a pretty stellar second unit, right? All those guys will have great chemistry with each other, and Dirk, even at his advanced age, would terrorize other teams’ bench players.
Pride plays a factor in the game of basketball, especially in the NBA. As a head coach that has won a championship and has seen Nowitzki at his peak, you can see why Carlisle would be so hesitant to pull the trigger on benching him. Who wants to be known as the coach that benched the No. 6 all-time leading scorer in NBA history? As understandable as it is, that kind of stuff can’t be worried about anymore. Getting the Mavericks back to the playoffs is the goal, and Dirk can help them get back there as an extremely effective sixth man. If there was ever a time to make the move, it looks like that time is now.