While many teams around the league are jostling for playoff position down the homestretch of the 2017-18 campaign, the Mavericks are unfortunately on the outside looking in. With just nine games left, it might not seem like there’s much to play for. But this is a proud organization with a long history of success, particularly during Dirk Nowitzki’s 20-year career, so the club does not take this period of rebuilding through youth lightly.

Many players on this team are looking to either prove they belong in this league, carve out a solidified role for themselves, or redefine their skill set all together. For the following Mavericks, these final nine games could prove to be very important.

Harrison Barnes, playing 3 again

Harrison Barnes is a small forward by trade, but he’s played plenty of power forward during his two seasons in Dallas. Per Basketball-Reference, he’s spent 60 percent of his minutes at the 4-spot since joining the Mavericks ahead of the 2016-17 season. In four years with the Warriors, he never played fewer than 44 percent of his minutes at small forward.

The benefits of playing Barnes at power forward are clear. Despite the growing preference toward going small, especially late in games, Barnes still maintains a quickness advantage against most starting power forwards around the NBA. That’s resulted in him putting up solid numbers in isolation — he ranks 15th in points per possession out of 44 players with at least 100 iso possessions this season, per Synergy Sports, and scores more efficiently in those situations than LeBron James, John Wall, Anthony Davis, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, among many others.

Isolation, however, is just that. When Barnes takes an opponent one-on-one in space, there’s little to no chance to find a teammate with a pass for a better shot. Opposing defenders can worry about their own man while Barnes works on his own island, and although he scores it efficiently in iso, teams would rather him take a pull-up 15-footer than drive and kick it to an open teammate for a 3-pointer. The Mavs are at their best when they can zip the ball around the perimeter, taking advantage of a bevy of flare screens and pristine floor spacing to generate open jumpers every time down the floor. The best way to get Barnes in a position to score while also finding ways to manipulate the defense, then, is to put him back at small forward.

Small-ball might have taken over the league for a moment, but the next wave of the basketball revolution is going to be a return to playing huge lineups, only this time the big men are all going to be able to shoot 3s. If you can keep size on the floor without clogging the paint on offense and giving up too much quickness on defense, you’re going to do it.

With Barnes at small forward, the Mavericks have more freedom to put the ball in his hands in pick-and-roll situations. Last season, when he played a ton of power forward and worked almost exclusively in isolation or in the post, Barnes barely ever caught the ball above the 3-point line. Including his passes, he used only 88 possessions all season as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, constituting only 5.3 percent of his total offensive possessions. Those 88 trips down the floor resulted in just 0.773 points per possession, ranking in the 19th percentile league-wide.

This season, however, with more reps and a summer’s worth of work behind him, Barnes has made massive improvements. Including his passes, he’s already used 160 possessions as the P&R ball-handler, and the Mavs have scored 0.962 points per possessions in those situations, ranking all the way up in the 65th percentile league-wide. He’s turned it over only 8.1 percent of the time, too, down from 11.4 percent of the time last season. Receiving more opportunities has not resulted in turning it over more frequently, a sign that the Mavs have brought Barnes along at the right pace.

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In particular, his connections with rolling big men have been a very consistent source of offense. He’s only found rollers 21 times in 160 possessions, but they’ve produced 30 points from those trips. He’s only begun making those plays recently, too, as Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle has played Barnes at 3 more often in recent weeks. Dwight Powell assumed starting duties at the end of January, bumping Dirk Nowitzki down to power forward and Barnes to small forward. That’s the time frame we’re working with here.

Barnes has already established himself as a capable scorer, which certainly helps the way teams cover him. As he comes off a screen, you have to respect his ability to either get to the rim or pull up from mid-range and hit at a respectable rate.

“It’s a feel,” he said. “I think the best way to get a guy an open shot is to be a scoring threat coming off, being ready to shoot, being ready to score as the first option. After that, it’s just read and feel. You can’t kind of go in there with a predetermined idea of what you wanna do unless it’s a set play, so most of the touches I’m trying to get are just feel plays.”

There’s more freedom to run pick-and-rolls as the 3 than the 4 for two reasons. Primarily, you have two possible dance partners to work with; Barnes can pair up with Dirk, who likes to pop, or a center who prefers to roll, making the offense less predictable. It also puts more pressure on the defense. Instead of simply switching against the screen and nuking the play’s momentum, the entire defense has to work together to prevent a mismatch from developing.

“4-5 screens, there’s gonna be a switch. 3-5’s a little bit better,” Barnes said. “You get better matchups, better situations with spacing, especially with the weakside. Playing the 3, I think it’s easier to play pick-and-roll that way.”

For example, in the play below, Barnes and Salah Mejri run a pick-and-roll on the right wing. Jae Crowder and Rudy Gobert rightly force him sideline, thereby essentially forcing the pass. But Barnes makes a nice bounce pass to beat the coverage, and with three Jazz defenders all the way on the other side of the floor, no one had the time or speed to tag down on Mejri to keep him from dunking.

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Were Barnes playing power forward, the Jazz could have simply switched that play and the Mavs would have no momentum. It would turn into an isolation. But because no one in their right mind would switch a small 3 onto a huge center with touch around the rim, Utah forced Barnes to make a read, and he made it. It helps, too, that Derrick Favors stepped out just enough on Barnes to create enough space for Mejri to catch and finish. If Favors would have backed up, though, Barnes could have driven right to him and forced contact.

“The 3 is my natural position, Barnes said. “So the more I can just be in that, develop chemistry with our bigs in terms of passing and finding different looks, getting into the paint and helping fuel the offense that way, I think that’ll just help our team.”

He still has averaged only 1.9 assists per game since Jan. 31, when Powell took over center duties, but he’s averaging 2.6 dimes a night in his last 11 games and has generated a career-high 352 points from assists this season, per Basketball-Reference. The seeds are there.

Why is this important moving forward? If Barnes can show he can make enough plays on the wing to stay there, it opens up options for the Mavs in the draft and free agency. It means they can add another power forward to the mix, if that’s the route they want to go, knowing that Barnes might not eat up 20-24 of those minutes per night. Also, knowing Barnes can make some plays at the 3 gives Carlisle more freedom to roll out three-wing lineups including Finney-Smith and McDermott alongside Barnes, for example. That means more size, more shooting, and more defensive versatility.

A new Nerlens Noel

It’s amazing what can happen when a player is healthy. That might not be the only thing that’s changed about Nerlens Noel since returning from a three-month absence at the end of February, but Noel has looked like a completely different player. In his nine games since coming back, Noel is averaging better stats across the board than he was in his first 18 games.

Games Steal % Block % Def Reb % Turnover % Team Def Rating
18 Before Injury 2.2% 3.7% 23.8% 19.6% 116.0
9 Since Return 5.2% 4.4% 29.6% 11.1% 97.4

(Steal percentage is the percentage of opponent possessions a player gets a steal. Block percentage is the percent of opponent 2-point field goal attempts a player blocks. Defensive rebound rate is the percentage of opponent misses a player rebounds. Turnover rate measures the percentage of possessions a player turns it over. Defensive rating is the number of points per 100 possessions a team allows.)

All of those stats are purely based on production while on the floor, independent of playing time or really any other factor that could influence his output. Although it should be noted that since coming back, he’s spent a lot of time playing with Yogi Ferrell and Dorian Finney-Smith, who are both plus defenders. That trio together has been very good defensively, limiting opponents to only 99.9 points per 100 possessions in a very small 45-minute sample size. I would expect to see more of it down the stretch.

Noel prefers to use his left hand for almost everything, from stealing to passing to dribbling and even to shooting.

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With a banged-up thumb that Carlisle has said might even have been bothering him since opening night, Noel’s production dropped from last season. Since coming back, though, his full arsenal has been on display. Noel has the talent and athleticism to make spectacular plays, there’s no doubt about it. But he’s also got to prove he can do all the small things. The play below is a start. Noel’s instincts tell him to step out and make a swipe at the ball, but he stays back and allows a long off-the-dribble jumper and boxes out Dwight Howard.

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Howard didn’t pull down a single offensive rebound while Noel was on the floor on Saturday night, which tells you something. If he can continue to make jaw-dropping plays while also doing all the small stuff, he could become a truly transcendent defender. His mission down the stretch is to show he can do just that.

“I’m just trying to play my game like I have been,” Noel told me on the Numbers on the Boards podcast last week. “Just show what I’m capable of and show what I’ve been showing, just at an even higher level. I feel like I continue to get better and better and more comfortable, especially in this type of system that Carlisle has set up. Just going out there, playing ball, and having fun, I think that’s when I’m at my best, when I’m not really worried about too much.”

Yogi Ferrell at point guard

With Dennis Smith Jr. missing time earlier this month and J.J. Barea out for the next two games for personal reasons, we’ve seen Yogi Ferrell play more point guard lately than we did earlier in the season. The second-year pro arrived to the Mavs in 2017 as a point guard and started at 1 for the second half of the 2016-17 campaign, but this year has played a ton of off-guard next to Barea with the second unit.

The results have been mixed, but in a team-friendly way. Ferrell has just a 49.5 effective field goal percentage when he’s played without either Smith or Barea this seaosn, per nbawowy.com, but the team has scored a whopping 1.111 points per possession with Ferrell at the helm.

“I’ve come a long way, knowing the defense and how they’re playing, and knowing our offense and picking and choosing which guys like to roll or pop for their shots,” Ferrell said. “A lot of that just came with film and being comfortable with it.”

Playing point guard instead of shooting guard means the Mavs sacrifice Ferrell’s ability as a catch-and-shoot threat, but he’s so good at pulling up off the dribble that there’s not much of a drop-off in that area. He shoots 49.1 percent on pull-up 2-pointers, per NBA Stats, and 35.2 percent on pull-up 3s. That in itself opens up offensive options.

“First and foremost, I feel like the biggest thing is to be aggressive and attack,” he said. “First, I always go in to look to score, and if the defense commits, that’s when you make the pass. I know for me, it’s just always being in an aggressive mindset, whether I’m going to score or pass.”

The Mavericks thrive defensively with Ferrell at the 1, allowing just 1.041 points per possession when he plays without either Smith or Barea, per nbawowy. Opponents have shot just 33.5 percent from beyond the arc against those lineups, and only 23.0 percent of their field goal attempts have come within 0-3 feet from the basket. Good defense at the point of attack is vital within this system to keep opponents from getting dunks or open 3-pointers. If the point guard is beat, teammates have to rotate over to protect the rim, which leaves someone open in the corner or on the wing.

Ferrell ranks fifth among point guards in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus this season. Carlisle has praised his ability to dodge screens in the past. It’s tough to actually measure a player’s ability to defend without watching a ton of tape, but the NBA recently unveiled some new stats to give us a way to track defense a little easier. For example, in 56 possessions against Steph Curry this season, Ferrell has only allowed Curry to score seven points, which is 5.6 points below what Curry averages this season in that many possessions. Similarly, in 47 possessions while guarding Kyrie Irving, Irving got off only four shots against Ferrell, missing them all.

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You’ll often hear that smaller guys have to try harder than everyone else, and sometimes that cliche gets old. But Ferrell absolutely plays with more fiery intensity than anyone else when he’s on the floor. He is coached to have a competitive edge; a poster inside his locker describes his role as intense, competitive, and aggressive. Yes, he can shoot, but he is supposed to play harder than everyone all the time.

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How many points a player scores doesn’t always tell you that his defender is good or bad, but knowing how many shots they do or don’t take tells you something. If a guy considers his opponent to be barbecue chicken, he’d take a ton of shots. When Steph Curry only takes seven shots against you in 56 possessions, it means you’re at least in pretty good position. Ferrell has proven to be an efficient 3-point shooter and a positive, energetic defender in his second pro season. That lays the foundation for a solid player moving forward, whether he plays on or off the ball. These final games, though, could give Ferrell the chance to continue proving himself as a floor general.

Salah Mejri’s future

Salah Mejri will turn 32 this summer, but the third-year big man doesn’t feel old. Far from it, in fact. After fighting through a knee issue suffered during playing international hoops for his native Tunisia, Mejri has been able to play back-to-backs this season and is more effective than ever. He’s averaging career-highs in blocks (3.4) and rebounds (12.5) per 36 minutes and has a career-best 5.2 defensive box plus-minus. Mejri swats one out of every 12 2-point shots opponents attempt while he’s on the floor. All that said, he averages fewer than 12 minutes per game, so his numbers aren’t going to jump off the page. He’s OK with that, though.

“I’m more of a player than a guy who’s gonna put up numbers,” Mejri said. “It always counts to put up numbers for a lot of people, but some teams will look for a guy like me who really doesn’t care about touching the ball, who’s playing for the team, playing defense, playing hard all the time.

“I think that’s what I’ve shown. I play hard every time I’m on the court. I go 200 percent. Some players, they get annoyed with it, like ‘chill, you’re too much.’ But that’s who I am. I love being like that, and I think the team likes it, too.”

Mejri is still relatively new to basketball, having only begun playing when he was 19 years old. So while he’s about to be 32, he’s still developing in a sense. You can often find him hoisting 3-pointers during shootaround or before games, and he’s actually become pretty adept at the shot, though he jokes that Carlisle wouldn’t be a fan if he attempted one in-game. Mejri did knock down 9 of 28 attempts in Belgium during the 2011-12 season, so there’s maybe a bit of a foundation there.

The Tunisian big man is best, though, when he’s rolling hard to the rim. He has good hands and terrific touch in the restricted area, where he’s knocked down 70.6 percent of his shots this season, including 12 of 16 on hook shots. Years of playing soccer growing up has led to the 7-foot-2 Mejri possessing strong footwork and dexterity.

This is a big last stretch of games for Mejri as it’s his last chance to make an impression on his current team; his contract expires at season’s end. Carlisle has said that Mejri and Nerlens Noel will essentially be splitting games the rest of the way so they each get a fair shot at minutes. Both have plenty at stake, and it might not be the most ideal situation to share time, but Mejri is focusing on his opportunities instead of becoming concerned with the future.

“There’s always something to prove,” he said. “I’m not really worried about this summer. I’ve been working for three years now, and for sure I did my best. My conscience is satisfied. For sure, there’s always something good to show when I’m playing. I love to play. I love to compete. I hate to sit. But whatever coach wants me to do, I will do.”

That kind of attitude is what it’s going to take from every player on this team to get through the rest of the season and lay the groundwork for a more successful 2018-19 season. The players all seem to be bought in. They say they’re happy to be here and happy to be part of a rebuilding phase, rebranding period, or whatever you want to call it. The roster has quickly gotten younger and more athletic. The future is always exciting, but for the first time in a while, it also looks pretty bright.

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