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The Mavericks lack an identity

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A brutal loss to the hapless Knicks exposes the challenges which come with fluid line-ups

New York Knicks v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

Rick Carlisle knows he has his work cut out for him. Listening to him speak after the Mavericks dispiriting loss to a crappy Knicks team at home on Friday night, you could almost hear the gears turning as he answered questions about the Mavericks tug-of-war rotation right now.

Dallas has played eight games. They have six starting lineups. The sixth was unveiled in the 106-102 loss to New York in Dallas. This one featured a return of Courtney Lee, who hasn’t played since starting the first two games of the season. He played less than five minutes, with Delon Wright starting the third quarter.

The Mavericks have a weird roster, as Carlisle admits when he says the starting lineup will be fluid and match-up dependent before practices and after shoot-around. Nobody denies the Mavericks biggest question mark entering the season was what they were going to get behind their two young stars Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. But after the loss the Knicks and listening to Carlisle, it almost feels like an over-correction is happening.

“We could possibly get to that, I don’t think we’re there yet” Carlisle said of a consistent starting group. “Our challenge in games is physical disposition and on the defensive rebounding side so that’s in consideration. I love having a second playmaker in and I love having a bigger guy that’s more physical in. We kind of walk a fine line every night depending on who we’re matching up with.”

There isn’t a clear-cut third best player on this roster, but there are pretty important pieces. Seth Curry was a top-5 three-point shooter in the league a season ago and is somehow playing just one minute per game more on this team than he did with Portland, who made the Western Conference Finals earlier this year. Delon Wright came to Dallas to presumably be a starter after being a backup for most of his career, yet after some inspiring performances, he hasn’t consistently closed or opened games.

All of this makes sense on paper — Dallas is starved for quality two-way perimeter players, especially wings. Every player outside of Doncic and Porzingis has major drawbacks. Justin Jackson, Dorian Finney-Smith and Wright are all typically stout defenders but they can’t shoot well around Doncic. Curry is a sharpshooter and a decent defender but you can’t expect him to guard wings. Brunson is a good scorer and passer, but he needs the ball in his hands a lot and he’s also suspect on defense. Dwight Powell brings excellent rim running but he can give it up at the rim on the other end. Kleber is a terror protecting the rim but his outside shot comes and goes.

So yes, it makes sense for Carlisle to pull strings, throw things at the wall and see if they stick. It just feels like it’s going too far. Curry played less than 15 minutes and got zero shots Friday night. That’s simply not good enough if the Mavericks have serious playoff hopes.

“I’d love to get him more shots, I would,” Carlisle said. “That’s something, I’m looking at those kinds of things all the time. Other teams know he’s a great shooter and they stay pretty close to him so we’re going to have to work on that.”

As much as we would like to plug in basketball players into perfect holes and squeeze the available juice they have and then put another in its place, it doesn’t work like that. My former colleague Andrew Tobolowsky made the point after I pondered if Carlisle was doing too much after the game – players aren’t robots. Basketball is so predicated on rhythm, feel, chemistry. It seems impossible for the Mavericks to develop that when the starting lineup and rotation changes drastically from game-to-game. As Carlisle said, he wants it all. He wants the play-maker and the bigger defender. He wants the shooter and the rebounder. This roster will never give him both, so it might be best to just lean into the strengths that do exist.

“We’ll keep looking at it,” Carlisle said. “I’m open to getting something consistent but, we’ve talked about this from the very beginning that with the way we’re structured we probably were going to need to be fluid and be flexible. The guys have handled it well. It’s not easy and I get it.”

The unsettled feeling around the rotation leads to moments like Friday night. The Mavericks, despite being a surprising plus-four in Lee’s minutes, fell into a hole in the first quarter again. The first three Mavericks off the bench were Jackson, Maxi Kleber and Tim Hardaway Jr. Jackson missed point blank shots and Hardaway had a green light despite brick after brick. Wright and Curry, who you would presume are two of the top six or seven players on this roster, didn’t check in till late in the quarter.

Then to start the third, Wright was in. I can’t remember the last time a team changed their starters from the start of the game to the start of the second half, but Dallas has done it multiple times already this season. Coincidentally, the Mavericks once again had a terrible start to the third quarter as the Knicks forced the Mavericks into two timeouts within the first seven minutes of the second half, going up 11 at one point.

“We’ve got to have intensity on the defensive end, sometimes we start off the game a little slow,” Porzingis said. “We’ve got to have high intensity, simple as that. We can’t allow us to have intensity when we get it going offensively — that’s when it’s easy. We gotta have it without making shots and when we’re in a bad moment during games. That’s when we really gotta bring the defensive intensity up. It’s something we talk about in the huddles and halftime. We just gotta go out there and do it.”

It didn’t change until Carlisle deployed Brunson, Wright, Doncic, Porzingis and Kleber and the Mavericks made a run. Dallas played five of its top eight guys for the first time all game and the Mavericks looked better at basketball. Basketball isn’t that complicated, despite the numerous times I pound those words into dust this season.

Eventually, something has to change. Dallas has banked five wins in eight games, despite being down multiple possessions by the halfway point of the first quarter in six of them. They’ve lost the third quarter in almost all of them. All the while the Mavericks feel none closer to a set lineup or rotation.

Consider this: the lineup of Wright, Curry, Doncic, Finney-Smith and Porzingis has played just three minutes total this season. You’d figured that’d be one of the Mavericks best lineups, with Curry and Wright balancing each other in the backcourt, Luka having a multiple shooters to pass to, along with a play-maker and a sturdy wing defender. Yet it’s barely made a blip on the season. Funny enough, in those three minutes the Mavericks are plus-10, scoring 12 points. Doncic and Curry have played 103 minutes together, 13th most of the Mavericks two-man lineups and only five minutes more than the Doncic and Hardaway pairing. Again, this is the Mavericks best three point shooter and one of the top three point shot creators in the league. This should work, but it hasn’t. Curry has five points on two shots in 20 minutes combined over the last two games. Wright has two points on seven shots in 39 minutes in that same stretch.

In the NBA, the top 25 lineups by minutes played so far this season are all at 46 minutes or more. The Mavericks most played lineup? 29 minutes, the 49th most played lineup in the league this season.

Dallas is a work in progress. On that everyone can agree. Their second-best player is working his way back from a 20-month layoff. The rest of the roster features holdovers from the rebuilding seasons and the best players acquired were all mostly bench pieces on their former teams. Dallas had promise — and still does — but it wasn’t going to be easy. This much we all knew.

What we didn’t know was how funky this would get. It’s one thing to lose with your best players playing the most minutes, but can the Mavericks truly say that? Eventually, you just need to play your best players together, match ups be damned. If for nothing else, just to see what you have. If Curry, Wright and Luka play 25 to 30 minutes together a night for a week or so and the Mavericks lose some games? So be it. At least they’ll know! Right now it almost feels like guess work, like trying to avoid downtown traffic by taking a much longer route through winding suburbs. Hopefully a more patient approach awaits.