Mavs Centers, J. O'Neal + The Philosophy
Trading for an All-Star player, let alone a quarterbacking point guard, in the middle of the season brings a set of challenges. There will be inevitable growing pains and there are an assortment of losses of different levels. In the Dallas Mavericks’ case, they lost a certain amount of spacing in their starting lineup and will have to work around that lack of three-point shooting from the point guard position. They also lost a hustle and energy player in Jae Crowder.
All of those things are likely to work themselves out over time. The rest of the team will become comfortable with where to expect the ball from Rajon Rondo. (Hint: everywhere.) Parsons, Harris and Nowitzki will find new positions on the court to help space the floor accounting for Rondo’s lack of shooting. It will work.
“It’s going to take time,” Rondo said, “But it won’t take too much longer.”
But one thing that can’t be fixed with "time'' is the backup center position. Trading away Brandan Wright left the Mavericks very thin at the big-man position. On paper, the trade meant that minutes from Greg Smith — who barely saw any playing time before the trade — would be inevitable. Through two games, however, coach Rick Carlisle does not seem to have much trust in Smith’s ability to be a positive impact on the floor.
In the Mavericks’ too-narrow win over the Spurs, Smith played only nine minutes and was easily pushed around by Aron Baynes, a career backup. This was worrisome because Smith’s contribution is supposed to be strength and toughness. If he can’t defend or rebound against a mediocre NBA big man ... he is of little use to Dallas.
In Monday’s lethargic loss to the Hawks, Smith played just seven minutes, scoring three points and recording one block and one rebound. He entered the game for Tyson Chandler with five minutes remaining in the first quarter. One possession and 20 seconds later he was taken out of the game for Charlie Villanueva.
Villanueva is the other option. Smith is the only player other than Chandler on the roster who can qualify as a center, but in a pinch Villanueva will do. ... kinda. He is certainly undersized against just about any NBA center, but he can shoot the three and he stays ready at any time to contribute.
Villanueva doesn’t have a reputation as an energy player or someone who is active on the glass, but these are the type of things he has provided in Dallas, in spurts, so far this season. Monday was a perfect example of that. Against Atlanta he scored 14 points, hitting four three-pointers and grabbing six rebounds to go along with two steals. Simply having him stand behind the three-point line and bringing an opposing big out with him opens up the driving lanes for Rondo, Ellis and Parsons. (Shades of Raef!)
That being said, the size disadvantage makes it impossible to expect him to be a reliable backup center. He can certainly slide into the role of Dirk’s backup at power forward at times. (Pending the "intrigued'' Mavs' pursuit of somebody more dynamic, namely Josh Smith.) But Monday’s game was largely about trying to mount an offensive comeback, which suits Villanueva’s game. Over a long stretch of time the Mavericks would get killed on the offensive glass with him playing center.
Monday proved that Villanueva can be a spark in certain situations playing random minutes at center. Perhaps, Smith will learn to impact the game in a way that allows him to spark the team playing minutes behind Chandler, too.
But neither of those options offer consistency -- and the backup center position is important. Chandler can’t play the entire game and the 34 minutes that he played against Atlanta might even be asking a little much of him on a nightly basis. (Something we may be about to see manifest itself tonight in Phoenix on the second night of a b-2-b.) A Chandler injury would be a crisis for this team. We’re talking a miss-the-playoff-crisis.
Which brings us to Jermaine O’Neal. JO took to Twitter to speak out on rumors that he could be nearing a return.
"For 18 long years, sports has dominated my family's life to a point that they have had to sacrifice things that was important to them,'' O'Neal wrote. "So you can believe now whatever decision I make will be a pure family decision that my family will have a huge part on making with me.
"Can I physically still play? Probably better than 60 percent of the bigs in the league today! That’s not a knock on anyone but more about how I feel. ... My decision will not be based off any personal relationships with a city or organization ... which will be tough because of the love I've got for them.''
That message from O’Neal, 36 -- who averaged 7.9 points and 5.5 rebounds in 20 minutes per game last season with Golden State -- can be interpreted in any number of ways. Is he trying to ignore the fact he resides in Southlake ... was once coached in Indy by Carlisle ... was once teammates of Rondo's in Boston?
Or are we right in believing that the best way to be committed to family is to wait until after the holidays and then join a hometown team that needs you ... and thinks you can help it win a title?
Currently the Rondo trade, for all of the positives it is bound to provide, also created what is now the most glaring weakness of the team. The solution to that weakness is not currently on the roster. Perhaps it is O’Neal. DB.com has mentioned Josh Harrellson in China and backup center trades and D-League guys out there suited to fill a role above Smith on the totem pole.
Until then, the thing to watch out for with the Dallas Mavericks is: What happens when Tyson Chandler isn’t on the court?
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