DALLAS — The search for a stopgap center has become an annual tradition for the Dallas Mavericks since Tyson Chandler played a key role in the 2010-11 title run during his first temporary stay, only to leave when Mark Cuban made an unpopular, post-lockout business decision.
It’s not like the Mavs weren’t looking for a long-term relationship. They danced with Dwight Howard in 2013 but couldn’t close the deal in free agency. They celebrated DeAndre Jordan‘s commitment to them a couple of summers later but were infamously ditched at the altar, as fans will rudely remind Jordan when the LA Clippers visit Thursday night.
The list of starting centers for the Mavs over the past five years: Chris Kaman, Samuel Dalembert, Chandler again, Zaza Pachulia and briefly Andrew Bogut. Dirk Nowitzki, the 38-year-old legend, now (kind of) jumps the opening tip as the Mavs open games with a small-ball look.
But there’s legitimate hope that the franchise has finally found its solution at center for the foreseeable future. The deadline-day trade for Nerlens Noel was made with the belief that it meant the Mavs’ revolving door for big men would stop spinning.
A month later, Dallas’ decision-makers remain confident that’s the case.
“We’re excited about the future with Nerlens,” said Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, who negotiated the trade with the Philadelphia 76ers. “Clearly, he brings a dimension that we haven’t had here for a while: shot blocking, athleticism, rebounding. A 22-year-old with significant upside in a 7-foot frame is good material to work with.”
Noel has primarily served as a sixth man with the Mavs and recently missed a few games because of soreness in his surgically repaired left knee, but the early returns have been encouraging. He is averaging 9.5 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 22.5 minutes per game. His net rating (plus-8.2 points per 100 possessions) is the best among Mavs who have played at least 100 minutes this season.
A sequence soon after Noel first checked into Tuesday’s otherwise forgettable blowout loss to the Golden State Warriors provided flashes of his potential. He swatted Matt Barnes‘ layup attempt with his left hand and then caught a pick-and-roll alley-oop from J.J. Barea and dunked over JaVale McGee and Draymond Green on the other end.
“I definitely feel like I’m in a position to be a long-term situation here,” said Noel, who admits he was frustrated as part of The Process-created center logjam with the 76ers. “There are a lot of things that come into it, but I’m definitely comfortable in the system. I’m going to continue to grow as this season ends and continue to capitalize on my opportunities and maybe even get more opportunities.”
The Mavs see shades of Chandler in Noel: the length, the lean frame, the lift, the finishes on lobs and the knack for doing the little things on defense. Noel has a lot to learn about being a professional — it’s not a coincidence that he was assigned the locker next to Nowitzki or that coach Rick Carlisle publicly called him out for being 10 minutes late to his first flight with the team — but he has been humble and eager to listen since escaping Philly.
“Overall, I’m very pleased with the trade,” Carlisle said. “I like him very much as a kid, and he’s done many good things.”
Frankly, the Mavs didn’t give up much to get Noel. Justin Anderson, the 21st overall pick of the 2015 draft, had become a fringe rotation player in Dallas and is a year older than Noel. The top-18-protected pick will turn into a pair of second-rounders. Including Bogut, who didn’t fit well with the Mavs, in the deal just meant the Sixers were on the hook for his buyout.
Of course, there were reasons the Sixers struggled to create a market for Noel. His knee issues might have been a factor. (“It’s something we’ve got to monitor,” Nelson said, but it’s not a major concern for the Mavs, who believe they have the best athletic training staff in the NBA.)
The main issue: Noel will become a restricted free agent this summer. The Mavs might not have paid a steep price to acquire him, but keeping him won’t be cheap. It’s safe to assume that Bismack Biyombo’s four-year, $72 million deal with the Orlando Magic will come up early in Noel’s negotiations. But the Mavs are more than willing to pay the going price for a big man who fits well, can protect the rim, provide the vertical element necessary for Carlisle’s pick-and-roll-heavy offense to hum and has plenty of room to grow.
“I definitely feel like I’m in a better position here,” Noel said. “I’m trying to maximize it. It’s definitely a good position to fulfill my potential. I’m going to continue to show Coach I can be in the game more and make a difference. I think that will take care of itself in due time.”
After five years, the Mavs finally believe they’ve taken care of finding their center of the future.