DALLAS — It has seemingly become a fall rite of passage here in Dallas: Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle spending much of training camp and a good part of the early stages of the regular season trying to find the right combinations on the floor.
Such is life for Carlisle, who has had little to nothing in the way of lineup continuity during his long and successful tenure in Dallas. Last season, the Mavs went 42-40 and earned the sixth seed in the Western Conference only to fall in five games to Interstate-35 rivals the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs.
But the Mavs lost several key contributors from that team, including veteran floor general Raymond Felton, serviceable big Zaza Pachulia, now in Golden State, and the oft-injured Chandler Parsons, now in Memphis.
However, Dallas has several new faces in the mix this fall, a list headlined by Harrison Barnes, who comes to his new surroundings with built-in expectations thanks to the max-level deal the Mavs offered him this summer.
Ever since Dallas signed HB to a $94 million deal in July, Carlisle has been adamant that neither he nor the club would heap too much responsibility on Barnes’ young, talented shoulders right away.
And that’s a stance Carlisle’s sticking with.
“I look at the way a guy approaches his profession. He’s a great worker. He’s young and he’s still developing. He’s going to get better and better, but we’re not dumping him into a situation where he’s got to be Paul Pierce on the Celtics type of thing,” Carlisle said of Barnes. “He’s going to be a system player for us to start with.”
But high salary or not, the veteran head coach and former NBA Coach of the Year has no doubt about how big of an addition Barnes will be to his starting five, a group which will also feature veteran point guard Deron Williams, franchise icon Dirk Nowitzki, Wesley Matthews and Andrew Bogut patrolling the middle.
“He [Barnes] is going to be a great addition to our team. He’s a winner, that’s the biggest takeaway I get from him,” Carlisle said.
Naturally, it’s going to take time for Barnes and the entire starting five and even the second unit to properly jell as a unit, a process Carlisle knows all too well.
“Right now we got to keep these guys in the starting group together by playing and building chemistry and figuring it out. As that happens, he [Barnes] will gain more of a rhythm with that group and vice versa,” Carlisle said.
Barnes admits he’s still getting acclimated to playing alongside his new teammates (his preseason has been quite rough), but the newest Mav likes the progress they’ve made as a group thus far.
“We’ve come a long way from the very first day of camp. It’s been a lot of guys getting used to playing with each other, getting used to the system, but I think we’ve responded well,” Barnes said.
With the Mavs being such a veteran-laden team, the most glaring question is rather obvious, their health. Williams missed time last season with an issue that required sports hernia surgery over the summer, while Nowitzki also missed time. And Bogut comes to town with his own injury-related baggage after spending his share of time in the training room during previous stops in both Golden State and Milwaukee before that.
Matthews, who is now a full year removed from Achilles surgery in his final season with Portland, no longer appears to be a question mark in terms of his health. So that makes Williams, a savvy and talented veteran floor general whose recent career has been marked as much by injury as anything, as maybe the most crucial Mav heading into this season.
If Williams can remain upright, then Dallas could make a push into the top four in the West. If not, they could be scrambling to earn one of the final two spots in the conference. But if you ask D-Will, he says that despite missing part of his offseason workouts recovering from surgery, he’s ready to roll.
“I feel good,” Williams said recently. “I feel like my conditioning’s pretty good for right now. I still got two weeks, another two weeks [to get ready for the season], so it’ll be good.”
The best-case scenario for the Mavs sees Barnes come close to earning every penny of his immense salary, Nowitzki continuing to contribute at a fairly high level, Matthews returning to his pre-injury self along with Bogut and Williams both remaining healthy and making sizable contributions.
One of Barnes’ new teammates has no doubt that the newest Mav will turn heads in year one in Dallas.
“I think there’s a lot of expectations from the outside world, [he needs to] just keep doing what’s got you here, keep getting better and he’s doing that,” Williams said of Barnes. “He’s definitely a humble guy. He’s a great learner, a great listener and he seems like he’s just trying to get better every day.”
Carlisle has always seemed to cobble together a solid second unit, and this year will be no different. The group consists of Justin Anderson, who showed well for himself as a rookie, along with veteran points J.J. Barea and Devin Harris, consummate glue guy Quincy Acy, young big Dwight Powell bringing energy and rebounding off the pine, and then newcomer Seth Curry giving Dallas another quality shooter.
Should all these pieces come together nicely, it wouldn’t be a huge stretch to see the Mavs crack the top four in the West. Carlisle has always proven to be one of the better in-game tacticians in the Association, and if he can mold this group into an effective unit, he could get consideration for NBA Coach of the Year.
Well, it’s simple. Four-fifths of the Dallas likely starting five, with the exception of Barnes, 24, are 30 or older, with Nowitzki being 38 at the start of the season. Bogut, Matthews, Nowitzki and Williams have had their share of injury issues.
And if health is an issue for the Mavs again this season like it was for much of last season, Dallas could be scratching and clawing for one of the final two playoff spots in the West, or even do the unthinkable and miss the postseason altogether for just the second time under Carlisle.
Of course, there is a chance that for once the Carlisle Chemistry Set doesn’t completely come together and several of the Mavs’ offseason additions fail to pan out. If that’s how things play out, it’s not hard to see Dallas missing the playoffs this season.
However, Carlisle is confident that won’t be the case.
“I like the group. I think we’re a ways away from being where we’re ultimately going to be, but we’re making small but consistent strides,” Carlisle said. “Opening night at Indiana [on October 26] is going to be very challenging. They’re going to be very quick, very athletic. Paul George is a top-five player. They got all kinds of problems to deal with on that roster and you’re on the road.
“But you might as well jump into the deep end in an NBA season and that really is jumping into the deep end. We’ll get these guys ready in the next seven days and we’ll get ready to go to work.”