Even when things are going well, hard decisions still confront an NBA coach.
Rick Carlisle, who has weaved through more than his share of obstacle courses while running the Mavericks, will never gripe about having too much talent and having to choose between two qualified options when it comes to his starting lineup.
Still, Tim Hardaway Jr. has made Carlisle’s job just a little more taxing with the way he’s played in the last two games.
Those two games were his first two starts of the season – stepping in for Seth Curry, who has been out with an illness.
The numbers for Hardaway in those two games: 36 points, 8-of-9 3-point shooting, two wins by a combined 90 points.
It’s hard to ignore that sort of success. Carlisle said after Wednesday’s 48-point blowout of Golden State that he didn’t think a player should lose his starting job for missing a game because he’s sick. But after Friday?
“He’s got to be in consideration,” Carlisle said of possibly keeping Hardaway in the starting lineup. “Injury, illness, no injury, no illness – he’s making a really strong case.
“I really love the way he’s playing. He fits well with the first group. He’s an underrated passer. His defense is good. He’s a connector out there, he’s helping tie guys together. I’ve seen – and I think everybody has seen – a lot of great things out of him.”
That’s not a knock on Curry, who has been solid and averaged 7.9 points in the 13 games he’s played (nine starts). And, to be fair, most of the Mavericks have had good starts to the season, which is a main reason why the team is humming along with a 10-5 record.
The starting lineup has been fluid throughout the first 15 games. It’s not the most important thing in Carlisle’s system, although it is something that most players feel is a validation of their status in the league.
Eleven Mavericks have started at least one game. Luka Doncic has started every game and Kristaps Porzingis has started all 14 that he’s played. Dorian Finney Smith (12 starts) and Dwight Powell (nine starts in 12 games) also have been regulars in the lineup most of the time.
That final spot, ostensibly the shooting guard, is what’s open for debate.
Again, this is not a bad thing. Carlisle has had some times in recent years where he didn’t have enough qualified candidates to make legitimate cases that they should be in the starting lineup.
Hardaway has been a starter for the last two seasons, taking the court for the jump ball in 117 of 122 games. Carlisle took a trip to Miami this summer to discuss the possibility of Hardaway being the sixth man.
Hardaway was open to is and embraced the role.
But flexibility is a a major asset for these Mavericks. It may be that the right thing for the good of the franchise is to have Hardaway starting. And rolling with a hot hand is something Carlisle has been known to do.
One thing that is indisputable is that his insertion in the lineup has coincided with a major uptick in the Mavericks’ shooting. They have hit better than 57 percent in the two blowout wins.
More likely a byproduct of the other end of the floor, Carlisle said.
“Better defense,” he said about why the shooting percentages have been so good. “Off the New York game, our defense had taken a step back. We were 21st or 22nd. After the first two games (of the home stand), we jumped to 19 or 18. We made some strides there.”
The Mavericks will be challenged on Sunday by a powerful Houston team that features James Harden, who is averaging 42.3 points in the Rockets’ 11 wins and 29.6 points in their five losses.
Combined with Russell Westbrook, the Rockets have one of the most lethal tandems in the NBA.
“They’re amazing players,” Doncic said. “We have to take care defensively on them. It’s hard to stop them. We have to do a great job on both of them.”
The Mavericks will try their best to slow down Harden and Westbrook. But they’ll need all the offense they can muster to keep pace with the high-octane Rockets.
It might be a logical spot to keep Hardaway in the starting lineup.