The 2016 portion of the Mavs’ schedule was unlike anything we’ve seen around here in many, many years for several reasons.

First and foremost, through the club’s first 34 games, players missed a total of 91 games due to either injury or rest, 64 of which were missed by Dirk Nowitzki, Andrew Bogut, and J.J. Barea, who figured to be three of the team’s six players heading into the season. Devin Harris and Seth Curry, the top combo guards off the bench, have missed 19 games combined. Against San Antonio, on Nov. 30, the Mavericks started four undrafted players in a game when just 10 guys were active. Only two were drafted in the first round.

Second, the team played 17 games in December, its most ever in the month, and seven of the last nine games in the month were played on the road. During that stretch came a five-night marathon with four games in four different cities. The Mavericks practiced at home on Jan. 2 for the first time since Dec. 15.

Third, this is the youngest and most inexperienced roster the Mavs have fielded in quite some time. It’s become even younger, too, as a result of all the injuries. Dorian Finney-Smith has the fourth-most starts, at just 23 years old. Harrison Barnes leads the team in scoring and minutes, and he’s only 24 years old. Seth Curry is 26 years old, but he’s played only 78 NBA games in his career. Salah Mejri has played in just 64. Justin Anderson and Dwight Powell have played less than three seasons’ worth of games combined.

All three factors converged on Dec. 7, when the Mavericks fell to 4-17 after a 31-point home loss to the Sacramento Kings. It was the proverbial low point to the season.

Since then, however, the Mavericks have gone 6-7 and statistically have made a breakthrough. That turnaround has also coincided with the return of many veterans to the rotation, irregular as they might be — Dirk Nowitzki played into the second half against Golden State on Dec. 30, his first time doing so since Nov. 25.

Tanking is not an option

Throughout this entire process, the Mavericks have maintained an organization-wide stance that this team is in it to compete for a playoff spot, and the unstable nature of the Western Conference makes that even more realistic and, in many ways, necessary: Dallas is just 4.5 games out of eighth place, and Nowitzki has made it no secret for years that his goal every spring is to play on the league’s biggest stage. That means the club has no intentions of tanking, which has become a larger subject of discussion among fans and in Mark Cuban’s conversations with the media. This organization, as it stands now, has no intention of opting for a complete and total rebuild while the German is around.

“We’re all competitors,” Nowitzki said. “Coach, obviously, is pushing us every day. I don’t think we’re really playing for draft position. We’re playing to win every night.”

Rick Carlisle’s challenge as a coach, then, is to balance developing players with trying to win games. In the modern NBA, those two actions are often mutually exclusive. The Mavs, however, believe they can do both.

“It’s still about winning,” he said before the Mavs beat the Lakers on Dec. 29. “We’re trying to win. Part of going through this form of a rebuild is you’ve got to continue to strive to win, and be uncompromising with how you do things.”

The key word there is “rebuild.” In NBA terms, that often means tearing down a roster and filling it up with young players, typically acquired via the draft, if they were even selected. The Mavs do qualify in those terms, sort of. Players aged 26 and under have scored more than half the team’s points and played more than half the team’s minutes this season. As it stands now, Deron Williams is the only player on the roster over 30 years old to have scored 300 points this season. 23-year-old Finney-Smith has scored more points — 173 — than Nowitzki and Bogut have combined.

Barnes at the forefront

On the surface, it would appear the Mavericks indeed are rebuilding, although injuries have perhaps accelerated the process. As Carlisle said, however, there’s no “secret sauce” to developing young players. Not everyone is Harrison Barnes, who’s averaging 20.4 points per game this season after having averaged just 10.1 in four seasons with the Warriors — but even he had four years of experience before taking on a much larger role.

“Half the team is very veteran, they’ve been in the league 10-plus years, and seen a lot of ups and downs,” Barnes wrote on last month. “Then, on the other side, it’s very new: they’ve only spent one, two, three years in the league. A lot of ‘aha!’ moments are happening for them.”

The exception to the rule, Barnes has been a complete revelation. The 24-year-old has scored in double-figures in every game he’s appeared for the Mavericks, and he’s already recorded 18 20-point games in just 34 appearances. Only Monta Ellis (20) reached 20 points more times than Barnes in his first 34 appearances for the Mavericks, per Basketball-Reference.

But even the most productive scorer on the team has experienced growing pains of his own this season. He’s hit a ton of big shots, but he’s also missed others or turned the ball over in big moments, as well. He’s learning just as much as anyone else.

“In my four seasons, I’ve been fortunate enough to go to the playoffs four years in a row and go to the Finals, so I have the experience of playing all the way through the end of the season,” he said. “But I also have the experience of being young and I’m still trying to figure out my way in the league. And even now, I’m in a different role. I’m still having some ‘aha!’ moments of my own. So I can relate to both sides.”

Young players don’t just magically improve overnight. For most, it takes years, not weeks.

“We want to make this go as quickly as we can, but there are no shortcuts to climbing a mountain,” Carlisle said. “It takes time, it’s arduous, but the steps that you take along the way can be great fun, and very memorable, and very meaningful if they’re done the right way. And that’s what we’re gonna do.”

Consistency is the biggest challenge

One of the many keys to winning in the NBA is to remain consistent. You have to show up ready to compete every single night, no matter who your opponent is, which city you’re in, and when or where your last game was.

“I think the hardest thing when you’re young is to bring consistency in your game,” Nowitzki said after the team’s 108-99 loss at Golden State, when the young players carved 16 points out of a 25-point deficit in the fourth quarter. “I think that’s something that comes with playing time and experience. but they’re all showing some great flashes, some great signs.”

For someone like Dorian Finney-Smith, who two months ago didn’t even know if he’d make the 15-man roster, consistency means staying level-headed during the chaotic 82-game season.

“That’s tough, just being the same person every day,” he said. “I’m still learning. Sometimes games like this, the intensity’s a lot higher than others. I’m just trying to find that balance, try not to get too high, try not to get too low. We’ve got another game, so I can’t dwell on this too much. I try to stay in the moment as much as I can.”

It can occasionally be easy to forget that NBA players are also human beings that experience feelings and get tired, sick, happy, sad, and frustrated. They have families to take care of, chores to do, and places to go, just like us. Finney-Smith, for example, moved into his first apartment the day before he received his first significant NBA minutes, an overtime win against Milwaukee on Nov. 6. But when more than half the current roster is made up of guys who haven’t yet completed at least their third full NBA season, balancing all of those responsibilities can be even more difficult. And that’s not even including the playing part.

That’s where maintaining consistency gets even more difficult. It’s safe to assume most young players perform better at home. That’s certainly the case with Finney-Smith, who averaged 9.3 points and 4.1 rebounds on 51.7 percent shooting in nine games from Dec. 3-18, seven of them coming at home. But in his next five games, with four coming on the road, he scored just 2.6 points on 31.6 percent shooting. He’s not a guy that gets a lot of shots, no matter where they play, but staying ready to shoot in a hostile environment away from home can be challenging.

“Sometimes when you don’t get a lot of shots, you kind of put a lot of pressure on that one shot you do take,” he admitted. “I just try not to think about it, and play with a lot of confidence and do my job.”

And then there’s the defensive end. Last week Finney-Smith defended Anthony Davis, James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson. That’s as cool as it is daunting. All four are guys who can score with a defender right in their face. You’ve just got to tip your hat.

“That’s frustrating because I play perfect defense, I contest their shot, and they still make it,” he said. “But I’ve got vets like Wes and coach telling me I did a good job. But that’s how it is sometimes.”


The fruits of their labor

So has there been progress? Absolutely, both in terms of wins and stats, for what they’re worth. (Carlisle said the Mavs had a ceremonial burning of the box score in December “because everyone’s stats sucked.” The team has turned it around ever since.)

Dallas scored just 95.4 points per 100 possessions in November, but upped the mark to 106.8 in December, including 109.1 per 100 after the devastating Sacramento loss. For reference, that mark would rank sixth in the NBA across the entire season. The club improved its assist-to-turnover ratio from 1.36 to 1.85 month-to-month, and the Mavs went from shooting 30.8 percent on 3s in November to 37.0 percent in December. That’s significant offensive improvement. During that same period, however, many of the defensive numbers have sagged, though Bogut’s absence played a huge role in that. That’s the next challenge to tackle.

Yes, the more established players received a much bigger piece of the minutes pie in December, and that had a lot to do with the team’s offensive improvement. But the younger players improved a ton, too. Dwight Powell is now among the league’s leaders in points per possession. Seth Curry has reached double-figures in seven of his last nine, and he’s shot 52.2 percent from beyond the arc in his last 12 games. Justin Anderson has bounced back from receiving two DNP-CDs in two weeks to average 7.2 points in his last five games, finishing with a positive plus-minus four times.

Again, young guys don’t suddenly become All-Stars overnight. This can be a years-long process, but the Mavericks are already beginning to see the fruits of this labor. And now that Nowitzki and Bogut are both back, minutes for everyone should stabilize just a bit more. That institutional stability can help the young players bring consistency on a nightly basis.

The Mavs have no plans of tanking — their plan is to compete for a playoff spot — but they do fully intend to do everything possible to develop the young players they do have. And, so far, that process is going according to plan.

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