Media Day unofficially kicks off the NBA season. It’s a day that’s usually full of oft-repeated sayings such as a player putting on ‘x’ number of pounds of muscle during the summer or the head coach’s desire for the team to play faster.
Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle checked off one of those boxes Monday afternoon, expressing his desire for the team to play more up-tempo, but he also made an announcement many didn’t expect:
Nerlens Noel will not be the team’s starting center when the season begins.
“I had a discussion three days ago with Nerlens’ agent, Rich Paul, about that,” Carlisle said. “And then two days ago, Nerlens and myself and Rich and Donnie Nelson were on a conference call talking about it. I basically said to them that I’m not sure that he is going to start. At this point in time, Dirk at the 5 position is probably the best scenario for Dirk and for our team.
“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.”
The news may surprise anyone who follows the Mavericks, but it isn’t shocking. In February, Dallas traded Justin Anderson and Andrew Bogut to the Philadelphia 76ers for Noel. At the time, many assumed Dallas was making a long-term investment in Noel as their anchor in the middle. That all changed this summer.
Dallas reportedly offered Noel a four-year deal worth $70 million at the start of free agency in July. Since he was a restricted free agent, Noel chose to seek offers from other teams, looking for a better deal. The Mavs, though, could match any offer sheet presented to him.
Unfortunately for Noel, no other offers materialized. After reportedly telling the Mavericks he wanted a max contract, Dallas withdrew its offer. Noel, after changing agents, eventually signed a qualifying offer with the Mavericks in August worth almost $4.2 million for one year. He bet on himself and the house won.
Noel has a lot to prove if he expects to earn a max contract next summer. Last season, he averaged 8.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, one steal, and 1.1 blocks in 22 games with the Mavs. Those numbers will have to improve. While he wasn’t enthused talking about what transpired over the summer at Media Day, he said the right things.
“I have a very simple mindset: Just come in and play the best basketball I can play and do other things that are needed of me to help this team win,” Noel said about his mentality this season. “At the same time, just focus on having a great year and just have fun.”
Noel only started 12 games for the Mavs last season. Therefore, the lineup Carlisle will roll out on opening night won’t be that unusual. Shifting down a position is something both Dirk Nowitzki and Harrison Barnes did last season.
“I had no idea I would play the 5 last year a lot of the minutes,” Nowitzki said. “Hey, whatever happens happens, you know. I want to help the team, obviously. Spread the floor still and being efficient hopefully.”
Barnes echoed his willingness to play whatever position falls to him.
“I played the 4 a lot last year,” Barnes said. “Three is my natural position. So, I feel comfortable in both places whether we decide to play small or play big. I feel comfortable that I can adjust just fine.”
The biggest adjustment might be for Noel. He saw himself as a max player. Instead, he signs a qualifying offer and finds himself in a reserve role before the season even begins. Again, though, he’s saying the right things.
“Winning games matter to me more [than starting],” Noel said. “Whatever we got to do to win the game. I’m going to listen to coach and I’m going to do my job.”
Noel will get his opportunities to prove himself this season. Carlisle will make sure of that and has confidence in him. Right now, Carlisle just thinks the best course forward for the team is for him to come off the bench.
“Nerlens is ready. He’s motivated,” Carlisle said. “Dirk’s not going to play 82 games, we’re going to rest him some games this year. In those games that Dirk rests, if we start out starting Dirk at 5, then Nerlens will be the starter. That’s pretty clear. I think we need to have the flexibility with the lineup at this point in time. Again, nothing is set in stone. My sense right now is the best way for us to go will be with Dirk starting at the 5 to start the season. But we’ll see.”
Media Day is supposed to be about banal comments and phrases. For the Mavericks, it was much more.