Somewhere between the peach basket and this very moment, NBA players developed an obsession with starting. It’s as if coming off the bench is an automatic contention of a player’s nonessential value. I’m not sure whether it’s the spotlighted introduction, the respect from teammates, individual goal validation, or just a funny wrinkle in NBA culture, but guys seriously care about this stuff.
Let’s be honest, though: how many teams in the NBA actually start their five best players? There are several lottery clubs that are woefully lacking in depth for which that would be the case, but how about playoff teams? Boston, Phoenix, and Portland come to mind, but certainly a majority of playoff-bound squads have a more than serviceable reserve that rightfully deserves a place in the starting five, should those teams look to go top-heavy. That’s just not always the best approach, as match-ups, fit, and player motivation are far more important than who gets to fill up the GS column.
Still, it matters to players, and it affects their production. Case in point: Brendan Haywood, who for the moment is the Mavs’ back-up center. At first, one might be inclined to classify Haywood as they would Jason Terry. The importance of neither should be questioned, and it’s not so much about whether JET or Haywood gets the start as it is about whether or not they play effectively enough to justify big minutes. Terry often gets the benefit of the doubt in that regard, as shot-making is at a premium and there are few nights in which he’s out-performed by Caron Butler on offense. Haywood is a different story. In eight games as a reserve, Haywood has averaged just 22.9 minutes per game, which is a pretty significant drop from the playing time he was getting during Erick Dampier’s absence. That’s to be expected, but managing nine points and three rebounds (with three turnovers) in 18 minutes against OKC? Six points and four rebounds in 25 minutes against Portland? Haywood’s drop off is more than just linear scale.
It’s up to Rick Carlisle to figure out which buttons to press with both Haywood and Dampier, and though neither is producing at a particularly impressive level at the moment, at least we know Rick is pressing something. No one can accuse Carlisle of standing pat with his rotation and not challenging his players, because he has simply refused to hand out minutes on the basis of talent or reputation. He’s emphasized the importance of performance at every turn, and if you’ll pardon my use of cliche, that’s the right way. It’s impossible to say now, but Mavs fans can only hope that running a team the right way pays off, and that both Haywood and Damp will have productive playoff runs. Dallas doesn’t get very far without a functional center rotation, so Carlisle’s ability to put those two in positions to succeed as a tandem is pretty much essential.
Something else to consider with all of this is Brendan Haywood’s future. Haywood will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, and the Mavs are clearly looking to retain him. Holding Brendan’s Bird rights gives Dallas the inside track, and the fact that Dampier could be moving on this summer should also increase the likelihood of Haywood staying in Dallas. Still, I can’t help but think that this bit of tension between Carlisle and his “center of the future” could end disastrously. Brendan “just works here,” but that doesn’t mean he’ll want to work here tomorrow if he’s not getting the respect that he thinks he deserves. That doesn’t mean that Rick should compromise his meritocratic rotation, but it’s worth noting that the Mavs are dealing with a potentially combustible element here.
It’s not that Brendan is some kind of troublemaker, but if denying him a starting gig is (in his mind) some kind of irredeemable wrong, he could very well sign elsewhere. That potential departure is where things are a bit flammable, as losing Haywood would not only be losing a starting-caliber center, but also a loss that makes Erick Dampier a bit less expendable. If the Mavs choose to trade Damp this summer as anticipated, lose Haywood, and can’t procure a decent center through other means, this team crashes and burns next year. There would literally be no hope of an extended playoff run, and playing Dirk in the middle isn’t even a remotely effective possibility. The long-term implications of Haywood’s “benching” are well-worth keeping tabs on, even if the entirety of the Mavs’ playoff ride stands between us and any real answers.