Mavs’ second unit has maximized minutes since trade for Nerlens Noel

The Mavericks may have traded for Nerlens Noel with the intention of making him their full-time starting center in the very near future — be it this season or in those to come, assuming he’s re-signed this summer, as the Mavs have made it clear they hope to do — but since coming to Dallas he’s come off the bench in eight of his nine games.

For a team that has needed a burst off the bench all season long, Noel has almost proven to be a panacea for all things ailing the Mavericks. Dallas is 7-2 when Noel plays, and 6-2 when he plays as a reserve.

Not all the credit belongs to him, however. His arrival to the team has coincided with many other factors, many of which have proven to be fortuitous for the Mavericks, and the second unit in particular. Dorian Finney-Smith, for example, ran straight into the rookie wall in the month leading up to the All-Star break but appears to have forced his way through it. Since the break, he’s shooting better than 40 percent from beyond the arc.

Devin Harris, who Rick Carlisle considers the team’s unsung hero, has done the same; extending all the way back to Jan. 20, the backup off-guard is shooting 37.3 percent from deep, adding 2.6 assists and nearly a steal in just under 18 minutes per game. It helps, too, that J.J. Barea made his long-awaited return from injury six games ago and already had a 13-assist game before putting up 20 points yesterday in Brooklyn.

And Dirk Nowitzki, who plays a considerable amount of his minutes with backups, has been nearly unstoppable lately. Since Noel joined the team, he’s averaging 16.3 points on 50.6 percent shooting from the field and 42.0 percent from deep. In his last eight contests, those numbers have increased to 18.6 points on 53.1/47.2 shooting splits, and he’s recorded three double-doubles.

GAME RECAP: Mavericks 111, Nets 104

Dirk Nowitzki leads the way for the Mavericks scoring 23 points as they take down the Nets, 111-104.

Together those five have formed quite the second unit, and the fact that the group plays much (if not all) of its minutes against backups is unfair. Nowitzki is scoring at an astronomical rate for a player his age and Noel has All-Defense potential, yet they play at least a dozen minutes each against opponents’ third and fourth big men. Barea, meanwhile, played the best basketball of his career last season as a starter in the thick of a playoff race, and he’s remained in charge this season when healthy. Down the stretch against the Nets, Barea ran pick-and-roll on nine straight possessions and the Mavericks scored 12 points en route to a win.

It’s easy to forget about backups, simply because they don’t play a ton of minutes. Harris, for example, has only played more than 20 minutes in eight of his 52 appearances this season. Since Dorian Finney-Smith relinquished his starting spot to Seth Curry full-time in January, he’s filled in as a starter for injury purposes just four times in 33 games and has played at least 20 minutes in only eight of them.

That doesn’t mean they don’t make an impact. Since Noel’s team debut on Feb. 25, the Mavs are 8-5. Finney-Smith has finished with a positive plus-minus seven times, Harris has done so six times, and Nowitzki eight times. Noel missed three of those games (and Dallas lost two of them), but in the 10 he’s played, he’s finished above zero five times.

In yesterday’s seven-point win against the Nets, Nowitzki, Harris, and Finney-Smith all finished +12 or better. In the 11-point win against the Lakers on March 7, Harris, Nowitzki, and Noel all finished +11 or better. Finney-Smith’s +22 on Feb. 25 led the team in the 13-point win against the Pelicans.

Their per-game numbers might not jump off the page, but it’s hard to argue with the on-off splits: Suddenly, the Mavs have one of the league’s most effective second units, and the team is beginning to win games because of it.

Second unit, by the numbers

Since Devin Harris made his season debut on Nov. 30, the Mavericks are 27-26. Any time he’s shared the floor with Finney-Smith and Nowitzki for at least one second, the Mavericks are 20-15. Across an 82-game season, that’s nearly a 47-win pace.

Those numbers climb exponentially higher when factoring Noel into the mix, as well. Those four players have shared the floor for only 26 minutes combined spread across six games, which is not a big enough sample size to draw any huge conclusions. But even through that small sample, their numbers together have been outrageously good. (See the table below.)

Lineup Record Minutes Played Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating
Devin Harris, Dorian Finney-Smith 26-25 365 108.7 101.8 6.9
Harris, Finney-Smith, Dirk Nowitzki 20-15 201 110.3 93.6 16.7
Harris, Finney-Smith, Nowitzki, Nerlens Noel 5-1 26 138.3 74.9 63.4

Those who did the quick math all be saying the same thing: These lineups aren’t used very often. For example, Harris and Finney-Smith have shared the floor for an average of just seven minutes per game; Nowitzki is on with them for less than six minutes. Six minutes might not be a big chunk of an NBA game, but you’d better believe it’s a long enough stretch to swing a game. If you outscore an opponent by 17 points per 100 possessions and play 15 offensive possessions together, you’re gaining two or three points on your opponent, on average, during that time. (That trio is by far the Mavs’ best among groups which have played at least 200 minutes together.)

Noel’s inclusion has turbo-charged that unit even more, however. In the four minutes per game that group of four has averaged together, the Mavericks are outscoring opponents by more than 63 points per 100 possessions, which is a monstrous number. In per-game terms, Dallas has outscored opponents by 5.2 points in less than five minutes per game when that four-man unit is on the floor.

Again, it’s a small sample size, so one big run can swing those numbers either way, but that group has been so overwhelmingly dominant — sporting a 65.9 effective field goal percentage while opponents can only muster an eFG percentage of 36.9, and turn it over one out of every six trips down the floor — that the tremendous divide between that group and the opponent has been hard to ignore.

With Noel alone on the floor, the Mavericks have been terrific; Dallas outscores opponents 113.7 to 105.0 per 100 possessions with him in the game. In terms of net rating, the Mavericks (8.7 points per 100 better than opponents) are better than the Spurs (+8.6), and every other team in the NBA not named Golden State, with Nerlens Noel in the game.

Noel And-One

Nerlens Noel catches the oop from the Devin Harris and puts it in, plus the foul.

Why are they good?

Aside from the skill advantage Noel and Nowitzki provide the second unit simply because they’re quality NBA starters masquerading as backups for 10+ minutes a game, the Mavs’ second unit is on paper a very potent group. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the pieces have fit so smoothly. Most importantly it’s an extremely high-IQ group, with every player capable of making the right play in most any circumstance, reminiscent of the Harris-Crowder-Carter-Dirk-Wright second-unit lineup during the 2013-14 season that was among the best in basketball by net rating, at +26.6.

Harris remains an excellent fourth guard because he can defend both 1s and 2s, and can even switch off to defend some 3s at times. Defensively, he has a knack for drawing charges and forcing live-ball turnovers, which disrupts the opponent at the point of attack. Offensively, meanwhile, he can knock down the 3-ball, run offense as a secondary ball-handler, attack the basket both on and off the ball (including with the back-door cut with J.J. Barea that still catches teams by surprise once or twice a night), and run the floor in transition.

Finney-Smith Putback Dunk

Yogi Ferrell drives to the rim and misses the lay-up but Dorian Finney-Smith is there for the putback dunk.

Finney-Smith is long enough to guard 4s and quick enough to guard 2s, and most 3s in the NBA are either not as tall or not as long as he is. He’s a rookie with the defensive chops of a veteran. Offensively, he understands his role as a catch-and-shoot spot-up guy on the perimeter, but he also has a nice one-dribble pull-up shot to attack close-outs, and he can cut to the rim off the ball either for a shot or an offensive rebound.

Nowitzki and Noel, meanwhile, are two of the most fearsome pick-and-roll players in the NBA, with Nowitzki able to stretch the defense to the limits as a pick-and-pop jump-shooter and Noel able to do the same thing, only vertically and as a roll man. Whether they’re playing with Barea or Yogi Ferrell, both players make the point guard’s job so much easier because their off-ball movement opens up driving lanes or open mid-range jump shots. All the point guard needs to do is read the defense and then make the smart basketball play. Dallas runs complex offense, but for as nuanced as it is, it’s also extremely simple.

These guys don’t play all of their minutes together, but the fact that they each are net-positive players almost every night regardless of how their teammates look at the end of the game tells you at least this: The Mavs aren’t surrendering points when their starters check out, and that’s valuable when talking about backup players.

It’s going to be exciting to see where this second unit goes the rest of the season, and also what the Mavs do about it next season. If Noel remains with the Mavericks, he figures to be a starter, which could cut into his minutes with the reserves. Then again, the Mavericks have been so good with him coming off the bench — and he’s still played plenty of minutes overall, even in that role — that you wonder if it’s something they’ll stick with.

At any rate, the Mavs have found something pretty special with this group, albeit after a pretty small sample. Those four players will have plenty of chances in the final 13 games to prove the unit has staying power.