Harrison Barnes stood at his locker on Tuesday night, towel around his neck, after the Mavs’ 113-105 win against the Wizards. The 24-year-old was fresh off another good game — 26 points, seven rebounds, five assists in 35 minutes — and answered questions about playing the power forward position exclusively these days, and the advantages that come with playing alongside Dirk Nowitzki, now suddenly the Mavs’ starting center.

Midway through Barnes explaining how he’s beginning to see the floor better, he was interrupted by a voice coming from the next locker.

“Quit stealing my plays, HB!” Dirk Nowitzki hollered.

“They’re under new management,” Barnes replied as the league’s sixth all-time leading scorer walked away.

Such is the current state of the franchise. Andrew Bogut volunteered to come off the bench, it looks like Nowitzki will spend at least the immediate future playing center almost exclusively, and Harrison Barnes is the Mavs’ new Dirk Nowitzki.

No one in their right mind would ever have predicted in October this would be happening two months into the season, but here we are. What’s craziest about all of it, though, is that it’s worked so far. The Mavs are now 2-2 in games when Nowitzki starts at 5 next to Barnes, Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews, and Dorian Finney-Smith. That same foursome is 3-3 when Bogut starts at center. When Nowitzki and Bogut both start, the Mavs are 0-5.

In the past, Dirk moving to center would, in theory, be considered an extremely advantageous move primarily for Nowitzki, who even in recent seasons was able to use his athleticism to attack slower 5s while his teammates attack the wide-open driving lanes created merely by his presence on the floor. Now, however, Dirk has moved to center to make things easier for Barnes, who’s quickly emerged as the Mavs’ go-to offensive option. Need proof? He took six of the team’s final seven shots in Tuesday’s win.

Barnes has scored 1.21 points per possession this season with Nowitzki at center, per nbawowy.com. For reference, Kevin Durant is scoring 1.17 points per possession, and he’s having one of the most-efficient offensive seasons of all-time.

What makes Barnes’ job so easy with Nowitzki at the 5? And, more importantly, what other facets of his game has he recently unlocked that’s made him such an effective player overall? Let’s take a look.

For starters, Nowitzki’s presence at the 5 makes it virtually impossible for teams to protect the rim with a big man. Notice below how Wizards center Marcin Gortat can neither make a commitment to defending the drive nor to defending Dirk.

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Centers simply don’t know what to do in this situation, mostly because they’re not used to having to pay any attention to 7-footers standing 18 feet from the basket. Most power forwards can shoot in the modern NBA, but only a handful of centers can. Probably 99 out of 100 times, Gortat can completely disregard his man in that situation and help against Barnes’ drive. But Nowitzki isn’t an everyday talent so, as a result, Barnes gets an easy layup after beating his slower defender off the bounce.

The German will always be the master of the mid-range, but handing his plays over to Barnes opens up a few new possibilities for the Mavericks. In the play below, Barnes uses a baseline screen to get down to the right corner. For more than a decade, we’ve seen Nowitzki make that catch and wait to feel his defender, then he’d dribble, dribble, read the defense, dribble, and either fade or absorb the double-team then make the pass. But Barnes doesn’t have time for all that — plus he’s got some next-level explosiveness — so he attacks off the catch and dunks.

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Gortat, again, is totally out of the picture. Nowitzki is 20 feet from the rim by the time Barnes reaches the paint, so there’s nothing the Wizards center can do. Meanwhile, the only players in Barnes’ way are both guards. The Mavericks inverted the floor and Barnes took advantage. Notice, though, how the defense collapsed in the play above. That’s going to become important later in the game.

Barnes’ biggest and best Dirk impressions have come in “ear” sets — isolation plays at the free throw line. From that spot on the floor, a player can attack off the dribble to his right and left, he can back a player down over either shoulder, and he can pull up moving either direction. Or, in Barnes’ case, he can just face up and shoot over his defender — the Mavs create switches in this set almost every time, which gives the 24-year-old a serious height advantage over a point guard.

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The Mavericks space the floor with more precision than most teams in the NBA, which makes double-teaming a player in the middle of the floor a fool’s errand.

“It’s a good area to play-make as well, just because from the top of the floor you can see both sides,” Barnes said. “And if somebody comes to double you have to be able to make that pass.”

But the Wizards tried it anyway, at least whenever Barnes put the ball on the floor. It’s a high-risk, high-reward proposition as a defense, because if you can force a turnover it probably means a dunk or layup going the other way. But if you fail, and if the player on the ball makes the right read, you’re giving up an open shot to someone.

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Give the Wizards some credit here: They’re making Barnes make a tough play. It’s not easy to step through traffic like that and deliver a 25-foot pass on the money. Most players never develop to the point where that’s even a position their head coach would put them in. But Barnes has quickly jumped to the next level in terms of developing as a featured piece.

“He’s also understanding that in the position that he’s in now, as the lead scorer and the go-to guy, it’s not just delivering points,” Rick Carlisle said. “It also has to do with being able to create good looks for other guys.”

Nowitzki has already noticed Barnes is doing things he wasn’t doing even as recently as a few weeks ago.

“I think just being there now, he’s got more experience,” he said. “I think the game slows down a little bit for him, and he just knows how to get a shot up, and if not where his open guys are. Give him credit. He’s trying to play an all-around game for us. We keep feeding him, and he had another great game for us tonight.”

And as Barnes continues to demonstrate his proficiency in different areas of the game — he’s averaging 1+ points per possession in the post and as both a spot-up shooter and pick-and-roll roll man — he’s going to draw even more defensive attention, which could in turn mean even better looks for his teammates should he be able to make the play.

Take, for example, this one.

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Barnes curls off a Devin Harris screen and attacks the lane, drawing four — yes, four — Wizards defenders. All he can see is bodies, but this is what the floor looked like before he chose to pass to Harris.


Even Gortat is looking at Barnes. He could pass to anyone on the floor and they’ve have a wide-open 3-pointer because he’s attracted so much attention. He eventually found Harris, but he could just have easily passed it to Wesley Matthews on the wing. That’s the benefit of playing a 5-out style of offense: The defense has to collapse once a player penetrates the lane, and that leaves literally everyone else wide-open. Harris ended up with a shooting-alone-in-the-gym-at-10-p.m. shot.

Barnes finished with 26 points on 18 shots, plus a career-high-tying eight made free throws. But he also had a career-high-tying five assists, a nice follow-up to the four he had in L.A. two games before. It’s astonishing how quickly Barnes has developed his individual scoring game, but if he can complement that with a nice floor game, too, he could become a special offensive force in this league for some time. You know, just like Nowitzki has been doing in those same exact sets for longer than Barnes has been in the NBA.

“Coach has a system and we’re just plugging the pieces in,” Barnes said.

Yep, even if that means plugging a 24-year-old into a future Hall of Famer’s spot.

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