When I was younger, I was more easily upset by basketball. That definitely doesn’t happen to everyone, but it happened to me – life got complicated, and I was more invested in its parts working out than the Mavericks. If I’m honest, the major change was the Mavs’ championship, which freed some part of me for something else. Nothing, I knew, that could happen in Dallas sports could make me that happy.
But when I was younger, I would have been absolutely furious about what the Mavs are doing to Nerlens Noel. It doesn’t make any sense, it’s not useful, and it’s not smart. There’s no silver lining, no bright side. Saturday against Minnesota, they started Salah Mejri over Noel. And even though Mejri immediately got into foul trouble, and made essentially no impact on the game – 9 minutes, 0-1 shooting, 3 boards, 1 turnover – Noel still ended up playing only 14 minutes. He, too, didn’t really do much in those minutes – 1-4, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks – but it doesn’t matter.
Pretending there’s even one way in which Mejri is better than Noel – there isn’t –starting Mejri wouldn’t make any sense for this team. Because Mejri is 31 and Noel is 23. This team is not a contender, and needs to be thinking about a future. One guy might be a future piece, one guy definitely isn’t. No matter how the Mavericks assess the two, that matters. But they’re also, obviously, jeopardizing their relationship with Noel by starting a much less talented player over him, and for all that anyone thinks he should just deal, we’re all only human.
You know what makes the least sense about what the Mavs are doing to Noel? The fact that they offered him a nearly 70 million dollar contract in the first place. For all the talk about whether he should have just taken it, whether he should have understood his own limitations better, whether anyone is going to offer him the same amount next year, they extended the center a big commitment in money and years.
So if anyone wants to say right now that they’re not playing him because they actually don’t think he’s any good, or they don’t think he helps the team, then they made a monumental mistake this summer in offering him a contract at all. Let’s say we’re all just wrong and he isn’t a significant future piece, and they know that, and that’s why they’re dealing with it the way they are. They must have found that out in the last two or three weeks.
If Noel is not a Mav next year, as currently seems most likely, I’m sure that we’ll some day find out why. Someone will whisper he dogged it in practice, was late a lot of the time, said mean things about Rick Carlisle’s family or whatever. But, again, he managed to avoid all that through 22 games last year – at least enough that they were ready to commit to him for four more years.
What this is, at base, about is the fact that there’s nothing worth doing this year except investing in potential. Let’s say he hasn’t deserved minutes for some reason – like anyone with eyes can’t see that he’s better than any of Dallas' other bigs. Honest to god, who cares? Is playing Dwight Powell or Salah Mejri going to make enough of a difference that it’s not worth it to try to let one of the few guys on the team with talent make some mistakes and try to find his way?
Let’s even say that playing vets like J. J. Barea and Wes Matthews heavy minutes wins the Mavericks three extra games, because of their execution. Again who cares? Is it valuable that they win 13 rather than 10 this year? In fact, it’s actually probably bad, under the circumstances, since they could really use that higher draft pick.
However, it’s also the case that smart franchises don’t just play the season in front of them, they play the next one, too. And that means finding a time to develop guys, and kick the tires on what talent exists around them. Even if Noel turns out to be a bust, since he’s the only talented big they have, they should invest pretty heavily in finding that out.
If the Mavericks had a good team, there’s nobody I’d trust more to coach it than Rick Carlisle. I love that he wants to win, and I know that Dirk deserves as many wins as he can get in what is probably his last year – although the number he can get, with these guys, is not likely to be high. But if they haven’t learned, yet, how hard it is to get quality pieces, they’re fooling themselves, and they need to build learning what they have into their plan for this year. Anything else would be a mistake, and so far has been a monumental one.