DALLAS — Despite signing fourth-year pro Nerlens Noel this summer during restricted free agency to continue to man the middle of the lineup for the Dallas Mavericks inside, coach Rick Carlisle believes the team could see its best offensive success during the 2017-18 season with 13-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki featured at center in the starting lineup.
This summer, the Dallas front office signed Noel to a reported one-year qualifying offer worth $4.1 million, hoping the athletic big man could build off his production last season after he averaged 8.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.0 steal and 1.1 blocks while clocking 21.9 minutes per outing during 22 appearances with the Mavericks. The 23-year-old Noel was also expected to contend for the first-string center job after making 12 starts with the team last season following the multi-player trade that sent him from Philadelphia to Dallas on Feb. 23. However, according to Carlisle, the 6-foot-11 big man will initially be featured in a reserve role this season while Nowitzki slides up from his customary power forward position. And with hopes of playing at a faster pace, Carlisle believes the move will lead to much more offensive production this season.
“You know, I had a discussion three days ago with Nerlens and his agent, Rich Paul, about that, and then two days ago Nerlens, myself, Rich and [Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson] were on a conference call talking about it. You know, I basically said to them that I am not sure that he is going to start,” Carlisle explained Monday before his team opens training camp Tuesday morning. “You know, at this point and time Dirk at the five position is probably the best scenario for Dirk and for our team, and I just don’t think Dirk is a guy that’s going to come off the bench as long as I’m here, and so there’s a very good chance Nerlens is going to come off the bench. He said he’s good with it.
“Nerlens is ready and he’s motivated. But look, Dirk is not going to play 82 games. We’re going to rest him some games this year. And in those games that Dirk rests, if we start out starting Dirk at the five, then Nerlens will be the starter,” the coach added. “That’s pretty clear, but I think we need to have the flexibility with the lineup at this point and time. Nothing is set in stone, but my sense right now is the best way for us to go will be with Dirk starting at the five to start the season. But we’ll see.”
Entering his 20th season with the Mavericks, Nowitzki will try to bounce back after an injury-riddled ’16-17 campaign that saw him miss 25 of the team’s first 30 games due to a right Achilles strain. The 7-footer will also try to provide his team with a much-needed lift on the offensive end of the floor after the Mavs ranked near the bottom of the league in several statistical categories last season.
The Mavs ranked 30th in league in scoring last season, posting just 97.9 points per game as a team. Dallas also dished out just 20.8 assists an outing, ranking 27th in that department. The Mavericks finished second to last in pace as well, averaging 94.16 possessions per game last season. That said, Nowitzki knows the Mavs will have to be open to changes during training camp in order to find a lineup that creates more offense when the season opens at home against Atlanta on Oct. 18.
“I mean, it’s whatever,” Nowitzki said when asked about the position change. “I had no idea I was going to play the five last year a lot of the minutes, so it’s whatever happens. You know, I want to help the team, obviously, by spreading the floor still and being efficient, hopefully. We have some great, great penetrating guards with Devin (Harris), J.J. (Barea) and Dennis (Smith) now, and even Yogi (Ferrell) is fast and can get in there. So, hopefully I can be out there and set some picks, getting those guys going downhill, in transition and getting those guys on the run. I will be trailing, for sure. I won’t be leading on the break, but playing faster can be fun. Sometimes when you play at a higher pace your skill level needs to be there, ’cause sometimes it looks a little sloppy. So, we’ve got to make sure we practice that here the next three weeks, and hopefully it will be fun to watch. I think we have some new guys that are going to be really fun to watch.”
Finishing with a 103.7 offensive rating to ranked 23rd in the league during the ’16-17 campaign, the Mavericks hope to see much more success on that side of the ball this season. The Mavs also hope playing at a faster tempo will lead to more transition scoring opportunities to keep from having to generate offense in the halfcourt.
The Mavericks averaged the fewest amount of freak-break points in the league last season, posting just 7.8 points an outing in transition. The Dallas offense also ranked last in points scored in the paint, averaging 32.8 points per game in the interior as a team. That’s something that must change in order for the Mavericks to contend for a playoff position, according to leading scorer Harrison Barnes. And with Nowitzki at center, the Mavs believe spacing the floor will help generate more offense.
“It will be huge for us. I mean, we had an extensive playbook last year, and we played almost exclusively in the halfcourt,” Barnes explained. “That led to us having one of the slowest offenses in the league and some of the lowest assists in the league, so it was primarily isolation basketball. Being able to just got out in tension and get our shooters open more will allow us to get easier buckets and allow us to play not always against a set defense.”