Mavericks fans are counting down the days until Dirk Nowitzki’s return, but they should also count their blessings. What the Mavericks lose without Dirk on the floor is painfully clear. An unmistakable leadership void sometimes leaves the Mavericks searching for good looks during prolonged scoring droughts. Yet what the Mavericks may potentially gain during his absence is less obvious but equally important to their long-term prospects.
Missing Dirk puts Dallas’ rebuilt roster of young players and new additions through a trial by fire. Every Maverick is being asked to make extraordinary contributions to keep the ship afloat while the captain is away. The hopeful result is the slow development of a group that will learn how to produce points when Dirk struggles or leaves the floor.
Nowitzki’s history lends credence to the theory. When Dirk shared the floor with Steve Nash, he willingly yielded to Nash at the end of close games. Once Nash left Dallas those looks fell to Dirk, who admitted he was uncomfortable being almost solely in charge of them. There were several misfires along the way, but each failure strengthened Nowitzki’s development into one of the most reliable closers in the NBA. The Mavericks’ current roster has been left to brave a similarly harsh winter, but may emerge a much improved unit when the stakes heat up come spring.
The most obvious beneficiaries of Nowitzki’s absence are the young players earning playing time and coaching attention. Jae Crowder and Brandan Wright are developing right before our eyes. They’ve both shown glimpses of their potential during these extended periods of play. An otherwise unfortunate injury — and resulting lineup shift — has put Jae Crowder on the court for more than 20 minutes a game, and to his credit, Crowder isn’t just getting minutes. He’s seeking the action. His nose for the ball and basketball IQ have already pushed Crowder to a higher usage rate than Darren Collison, Shawn Marion and Elton Brand. Crowder has been of the team’s more reliable three-point threats and appears completely unafraid of any defender. That fearlessness and self-confidence also highlights downsides that could be tamed with increased experience. Crowder’s shot selection still needs improvement. His true shooting percentage hovers in a range close to Vince Carter. If Crowder uses his extra playing time to improve his shooting discretion, he could stake claim to an even larger role.
Brandan Wright has seized his opportunity in the starting lineup and shows considerable upside. Shot selection, Crowder’s biggest deficiency, is Wright’s greatest strength, as evidenced by Wright starting the season by shooting a combined 12 for 13 against two athletic defensive frontcourts. Perhaps because he so rarely misses, Wright’s biggest challenge has been locating missed shots off the boards; although Wright ranks third on the team in total rebounding, his percentages reveal his potential for improvement. Wright grabs around 10 percent of available misses and often lets his slim frame deter him from contact. Rick Carlisle noted that the Mavericks will sink or swim with rebounding and Wright’s contributions here would make him a much more complete package.
Young players haven’t been the only ones stepping up in Nowitzki’s stead. Shawn Marion and Vince Carter have embraced the mantle of leadership and provided a stabilizing force. That sentence probably reads as a foreign language to Suns and Raptors fans. Matrix and Carter left those organizations with reputations as inconsistent players. Age has dampened their physical skills, but each player is maturing mentally. Marion has embraced his role as the temporary leader and can often be seen barking defensive instructions to younger Mavericks. Carter has played a similar role with the second unit, and although he has struggled to find his shot in the early going, he has become a vocal leader, a careful ball-handler and a willing (if suboptimal) distributor.
While undoubtedly a short-term coaching headache, these changes provide Carlisle an opportunity to experiment with different lineups and player roles. Carlisle’s mastery of X’s and O’s is unquestioned but, like everyone else, he won’t know what his players can really produce until he has an extended sample of regular season play to evaluate. The Mavericks roster is an assemblage of unfulfilled promise, and if anyone can turn discarded spare parts into a Cadillac it’s Carlisle.
This isn’t a glass half-full, half-empty conundrum. Nowitzki being out is undoubtedly a challenge that substantially weakens the Mavs. However, like most challenges, it makes those who endure it stronger in the end. If the Mavs can reliably turn to a battle-tested second unit featuring Vince Carter, Jae Crowder, Brandan Wright and Rodrigue Beaubois, they’ll come out the other side with an impressive set of reserves and a substantially more well-rounded team.