When you realize the season is nearly done the mind drifts from contemplating playoff possibilities to the future. You go from watching the game with an eye toward its conclusion to watching the game with an eye for the little things that give you hope.
That’s where we are with the Dallas Mavericks. Saturday’s 94-86 loss to Toronto means the Mavs, at 31-41, can do no better than .500 this season. That might get them in the Western Conference playoffs, but that ALSO means they would have to win every single game down the stretch. Not happening.
Why do you think our Mike Fisher has been writing about “Organic Tanking” since the poor start to the season?
Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle is experimenting right now. If you’re observant enough you know that started a few weeks ago. But, just in case, he acknowledged it before Saturday’s game.
He wants to see Seth Curry play the point. So Curry started there again against the Raptors. He wants to see Nerlens Noel at the 5, so Carlisle started him there with Dirk Nowitzki at the 4. Harrison Barnes, once again, manned the 3.
So you watch the little things and you see what develops.
Carlisle believes Noel can be a true 5 in this league. At the same time he acknowledged that Noel is still developing the needed skill set. His mid-range game is not where it needs to be, but it’s improving. And physicality can be a challenge. The 220-pound Noel ran into trouble in Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas, a 265-pounder, on Saturday.
There were times Noel clearly lost the physical battle, especially early in the game. But a couple of wins stood out. With 5:14 left in the first quarter Noel went to the basket on a runner and his shooting arm ran right into Valanciunas’ arm, but Noel proved strong enough to not only get the shot through but sink it for a three-point opportunity.
In the third quarter Noel fought Valanciunas off under the basket to clear a rebound off a Valanciunas put-back. They’re little things, of course. But the point is to get Noel to put more of these moments together and become more dangerous near the basket. He managed only three points and three rebounds Saturday. He’s a work in progress in that regard. The Mavs knew that when they traded for him. (And in Mavs Premium, we make it clear that starting Noel is a MUST.)
Curry started the game at the point and toggled between that and the off-guard position, much like he did in the Mavs’ last game. Wesley Matthews was the off-guard to start the game, and when Yogi Ferrell or J.J. Barea came in Curry slid over to the off-guard.
Curry managed 11 points and didn’t shoot well. He only dished out two assists. But he also managed to avoid turnovers, something that earns you a clear path to the Carlisle mothball closet if you do it too often.
Going into the game Carlisle said he was encouraged by how Curry was handling both jobs. Curry hadn’t done much in the NBA before this season. To Carlisle, he needs to see how Curry handles running the point and maintains his ability to score while facilitating for others. If successful it would add versatility to the lineup. He referred to Curry’s “different pulse on the game” as a “metabolic situation.”
“This is an ideal situation for him, where he can play both positions,” Carlisle said. “There are two ways you can do that — as a starter or on the bench. This is a chance for him to do it as a starter.”
Ferrell knows that well because Carlisle is doing the same thing with him. After starting for a stretch, Ferrell is now coming off the bench and he’s given the Mavs a spark that Carlisle, Dirk Nowitzki and Barnes all acknowledged after the game. Ferrell scored 10 points, dished out four assists and was the one Mav with a double-digit plus-minus in the positive — plus 11.
Ferrell was quiet after the game. Losing does that. But he made it clear he doesn’t care if he gets “30 seconds or 30 minutes a game.” He just wants to make an impact.
Carlisle says Ferrell’s versatility is a “great sign for him in his career.” Nowitzki said he draws energy from Ferrell’s presence.
“He’s been a game-changer,” Nowitzki said. “He’s picking up full (court), using his energy and athleticism to make plays and get the crowd involved. He’s all over the shop. He’s been great off the bench and almost like a tempo mix-up for us.”
Ferrell’s court savvy continues to impress me and the hunger he plays with hasn’t diminished since he signed his two-year contract. In the second quarter he showed off those basketball instincts with a play you may not have picked up on. Ferrell intercepted a bounce pass at midcourt and bolted for the other end to score. Toronto’s Patrick Patterson pursued him from an angle. Now, clearly Patterson was looking for a back-side block. But Ferrell felt the pressure and had the presence of mind to cut back in front of Patterson, stutter just briefly to cut off Patterson’s momentum and render any back-door blocked shot attempt useless.
Now, basketball coaches teach that. But many players forget it by the time they get to the NBA.
Finally, midway through the second quarter Carlisle put Noel, Ferrell, Matthews, Curry and Barnes on the floor together. That’s four players with four or fewer years in the league and Matthews only has seven years. And, you know what? It worked for a while. This group started cutting into Toronto’s lead before the Raptors left the floor with a 10-point lead at halftime.
This is a lineup Carlisle might not have trusted a few years ago, and you can argue a move like that is more out of necessity than choice or trust. But the Mavs also didn’t have the quality youngsters to play this sort of lineup, either. And that’s progress when you consider the future.
The little things matter now as we watch players like Curry, Ferrell and Noel develop. The Mavs are trying to cultivate a future as organically as they’ve tried “tanking” this season.
We’ll have to wait a while to see if it works.