Why won't the Mavericks play Nerlens Noel?

Oct 2, 2017; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks forward Nerlens Noel (3) dunks the ball as Milwaukee Bucks center Greg Monroe (15) and forward Mirza Teletovic (35) look on. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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Are the Dallas Mavericks purposefully tanking Nerlens Noel’s value? Are they overplaying Dwight Powell at Noel’s expense to increase Powell’s trade value? Has the world gone mad? Four games into the season and conspiracy theories are already bubbling about what exactly is going on with Noel.

Coach Rick Carlisle declared on media day that Noel would begin the season coming off the bench. “At this point in time, Dirk at the 5 position is probably the best scenario for Dirk and for our team,” Carlisle said. “And I just don’t think that Dirk’s 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 will come off the bench. He said he’s good with it.”

There are sensible reasons behind the decision including playing Dirk Nowitzki at center while he’s already warmed up. And for his part, Noel has been the perfect team player, happy to go along with whatever the coach thinks is best for the team. “Winning games matter to me more [than starting],” Noel said on media day. “Whatever we got to do to win the game. I’m going to listen to coach and I’m going to do my job.”

After the 133-130 loss to the Golden State Warriors, Noel’s season averages are at 8.8 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game. He even averages a healthy 1.5 steals. Those are great numbers for a backup center, and Noel is doing it in only 18.5 minutes per game, the lowest he has ever played in any of his four seasons. His per-36 minutes numbers are an eye-popping 17.0 points, 14.1 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks. Those are figures that would make him one of the league's best centers.

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Compounding the head-scratching rotation are Powell’s numbers. He’s brought energy and hustle to the floor when he plays, and his 46 percent from 3-point range this season would no doubt cause a few spit takes--if you ignore that he’s only taken 11 so far. But he’s averaging 6.3 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 0.3 blocks in 15.8 minutes each game this season, and his per 36 numbers are 14.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 0.6 blocks. For a team with serious rebounding and rim protection issues (more on that here) it’s curious that Noel isn’t getting more minutes particularly in crunch time such as in the first game against the Atlanta Hawks.

Many have already noticed this trend, and the Golden State game might have exacerbated the rising tide of conspiracy theories. Noel had 8 points and 7 rebounds in 12 minutes while Powell scored 10 with 2 rebounds in 19 minutes. Noel is on a one-year deal at $4.1 million and is set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season. Keeping his value low will help the Mavericks retain him at a team-friendly contract should they decide to keep him. But they run the risk of frustrating an effective Noel, especially if the oft-reported rumor of a DeMarcus Cousins pursuit comes true.

To the frustration of fans desperate for a return to glory, the team and coaches have been tight-lipped about what their long-term plans really are. With so much on the line, including Dirk’s final years and the rise of Dennis Smith Jr., it’s understandable for Mark Cuban and the front office to play their hand close to the chest. But until the cards are laid out on the table, there will be plenty more ideas about just what is happening in Dallas.