The departures of Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and Delonte West created a gaping hole in the Mavericks backcourt. While much of the offseason attention has focused on the development of new acquisitions and starting guards Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo, an equally important but under-examined three-way race for backup minutes is already underway. Rookie Jared Cunningham joins familiar and popular holdovers Rodrigue Beaubois and Dominique Jones in the backcourt to compete for playing time. Beaubois clearly won the race in the season opener, anchoring the second unit in an impressive offensive performance against the Lakers. It was a big step forward for the inconsistent young guard. The best-case scenario for the Mavericks is that Beaubois sustains his hot start and provides much-needed offense in Dirk’s absence.
It is important to remember, however, that Beaubois has an unfortunate tendency to follow great performances with games that land him back in Rick Carlisle’s doghouse. Collison and Beaubois slashed a flat-footed Lakers backcourt that never found their rhythm. Future matchups against more athletic opponents may expose defensive weaknesses that have plagued Beaubois throughout his NBA career. That could create opportunities for Cunningham to earn playing time this season, if only because Carlisle has little patience for inconsistency. Carlisle summed up the state of his backcourt nicely after the final preseason game against Charlotte, per Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas:
“I have no [expletive] idea. … Our backup point guard position struggled tonight.”
After years of “Free Roddy B” chants rocking the American Airlines Center and murmurs of an impending Jones breakthrough dominating the blogosphere, it may be time for Mavs nation to familiarize itself with the 21-year-old Cunningham. Although predicting the ever-fickle Carlisle can be difficult, his recent comments, in-game decisions thus far, and historically short leash with Beaubois create the possibility of Cunningham stealing minutes from the incumbents as the season progresses.
Beaubois showed slight improvements in several aspects of his game last season while his minutes-per-game average rose to a career-high 21.7. He showed marked progress in his percentages in total rebounding, assists, steals and turnovers but played only 12 total minutes in the playoffs against the Thunder. Part of this was due to drops in other areas, notably his defense and the decline in effective field goal percentage from a rookie mark of 59.4% to last season’s 46.5%. His hopes of a fast start to the preseason were quickly dashed by a twisted ankle against Alba Berlin, and his return to the court did not mark a return to form. He ended the final preseason game without a single point in 16 minutes of play. While some of this is surely attributable to injury and last night’s performance was heartening he still has much to prove. His 7-for-21 shooting from the floor over the course of the preseason did little to inspire confidence that he can turn in these performances every night.
It will be nearly impossible for Beaubois to match his offensive performance in the opener going forward. Beaubois posted an eye-popping offensive rating of 146 points per 100 possessions, a remarkable but unsustainable impact. He also continued his struggles on the other side of the ball. His defensive rating remained stubbornly above 100, with Beaubois allowing 102 points per 100 possessions. In contrast, teammate Brandan Wright yielded a remarkable 94 per 100 while facing the tougher side of Laker matchups. Beaubois will remain under close scrutiny by Carlisle. If and when he struggles, as all young players do, he will yield an opening for Jones and Cunningham to shine.
Jones, considered a favorite by some to steal minutes from Beaubois, has done little to seize the opportunity. After bouncing between the NBA and the D-League is his first two years, Jones seemed to make strides in a 32-point explosion against the Denver Nuggets in the Las Vegas Summer League. Now fighting to hold on to NBA relevance, he has done little in the preseason to make his case. His preseason run ended with a DNP-CD after making only 25.8% of his shots in previous games, and the first two regular season affairs have yielded only a sliver of playing time. Jones earned just 20 points over the course of the entire preseason, and never seemed to find his rhythm. His most extensive action came in 22 minutes against Oklahoma City, where he shot 3-for-11 overall. Plus, Jones’ future with the Mavs is uncertain at best; according to Marc Stein of ESPN.com, Dallas attempted to move him before regular season rosters became final, but to no avail. For his part, Jones appears to be a man accepting of his eventual fate (via MacMahon): “Whatever happens happens, and I’m prepared for it all.” He does not appear to be a factor in the race to earn regular backup minutes.
Into the void steps Jared Cunnigham. The incoming rookie earned his first-round selection by averaging 17.8 points per game and leading the PAC-12 in steals as both a sophomore and junior at Oregon State University. After missing out on summer league play due to a right hamstring injury, Cunningham has brought energy and athleticism to the Mavericks’ lineup during the preseason.
Some frustrated Mavs fans will grow impatient with Cunningham’s learning curve, particularly after watching Mavs rook Jae Crowder turn in so many inspired performances. While Cunningham’s struggles have been apparent (particularly his nine turnovers), Carlisle seems pleased with what the 6’4” guard brings to the table. Asked to evaluate his play, Carlisle reminded impatient fans that (again, via MacMahon) “this is all new to Cunningham. … It’s a huge learning situation for a rookie, but the thing I like is he goes hard on everything. That’s something we can build on.”
Excluding predictable rookie off nights against Charlotte (1-7 FG) and Oklahoma City (0-5 FG), Cunningham shot an impressive 7-for-16 combined in the other five contests. His performance against Atlanta was particularly impressive as he notched 10 points and four steals in only nine minutes of action. In a stormy offseason for the backup point guard position in Dallas Cunningham represents a silver lining.
Beaubois and Jones have the benefit of experience but it often doesn’t show on the defensive side of the ball. Both players have stalled while Cunningham’s game is steadily developing. Carlisle’s trust in Cunningham over Jones was apparent in the final preseason contest. Cunningham possesses the same inconsistent decision-making as Beaubois, but demonstrates superior upside on the defensive end. This is an area where Jones (allowing 102 points per 100 possessions) and Beaubois (100 points per 100 possessions) both have underperformed. Paired in the backcourt with Vince Carter, the backup point guard must possess defensive prowess, particularly as a Dirk-less team battles to build leads. Although Cunningham may struggle to regain his shooting touch after spraining his thumb during Monday’s practice he will remain a stout defender.
Dirk’s absence will make fans anxious for familiar faces. Some will long for the Mavs’ old veteran core or resume those familiar chants for Roddy in hopes he can repeat his performance against the Lakers. Getting Cunningham extra playing time isn’t the popular solution, but it’s the right one. Cunningham may not light up the box score but he will help stop the bleeding defensively for the second unit. Carlisle took an unpopular risk before with J.J. Barea and was soon validated. Entrusting Cunningham with consistent minutes could yield similar gains. Cunningham may have the skill to develop into a reliable NBA guard and the team needs to afford him meaningful chances to prove it. He will struggle but it is much easier to live with a struggling rookie than wondering when Mavericks regulars will finally take the next step forward.
Brian Rubaie is a high school teacher, debate coach, and full-time Mavericks fan. Follow him on Twitter: @DirksRevenge.