Despite nightmare season, Mavericks handled Nerlens Noel perfectly

DALLAS, TX - FEBRUARY 25: Nerlens Noel
DALLAS, TX - FEBRUARY 25: Nerlens Noel /

The marriage between Nerlens Noel and the Dallas Mavericks couldn’t have played out worse this season but despite the ominous outcome, here’s why the Mavs played it right.

Nearly a year ago the Dallas Mavericks added a budding young star center, Nerlens Noel, to their roster. The move exited a resigned fanbase stuck in the throes of rebuilding. Noel appeared to be everthing the Mavericks needed. He was young (23), he was talented (former No. six draft pick), he was athletic (can play the 4 and 5 above the rim), and he could rebound. He thrived in all of the departments the Mavs were lacking in.

Best yet, he was a soon to be a restricted free agent so he was affordably controllable for the near future. For a team that was rebuilding, he was something to build around.

He flashed some of that potential early on. In the 22 games played for the Mavericks last season, Noel averaged 22 minutes, pulled down 6.8 rebounds (a stat that would lead the Mavs this season), blocked 1.1 shots, and scored 8.5 points.

But this season everything that could have gone wrong – did go wrong. He’s not only underachieved, but he’s lost his playing time. Recently, he’s been out completely after recovering from thumb surgery. Not only that but since he’s playing on a one-year deal, the chances are good he’ll sign elsewhere this summer without the Mavs receiving anything in return.

Despite all of this failure, Rick Carlisle and the Mavs seemingly played this right.

Step up or step out

The Dallas Mavericks, and Rick Carlisle in particular, have shown Nerlens Noel a little tough love this season. The result of which would either push him to step up or push him to step out.

It’s true, the future of the Dallas Mavericks looks a whole low rosier with Nerlens Noel on the roster. But Rick Carlisle isn’t going to force the marriage if Noel isn’t willing to work for it. That’s largely why we’ve seen Nerlens Noel riding the pine more than we’ve seen him on the floor.

After questionable effort, both in practice and at games, Nerlens Noel has been used as nothing more than a role player this season. His 12.5 minutes per game are by far a career low, and after averaging just seven minutes in the month of November, he was trending in the wrong direction before his surgery.

In fact, of those who have played in 18 or more games, only Salah Mejri is averaging less in minutes per game (and that’s only marginally less since Mejri is at 12.2 while Noel is at 12.5). Why would I use 18 games as the minimum qualifier? Because Noel has only played in 18 games all season. How sad is that?

This isn’t exactly the kind of development we were expecting when the season began. And not the type of contribution that makes a player want to stay with a team.

Begrudgingly playing on a one-year deal, Noel seems to be pouting his way to free agency next summer. Carlisle, never one to take less than 100 percent effort from his players, has had no problem applying tough love to his “star” center by reducing his minutes even further.

This type of approach expedites the relationship and will inevitably force Nerlens Noel into one of two corners:

  1. He’ll be inspired and motivated or
  2. He’ll continue to sulk and shut down.

So far it’s hard to argue Noel is on the second path.

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The bad news is – it’s highly unlikely he’ll be deviating from that path this season. As many know, there is no greater motivator in professional sports than money. And when you’re playing on the last year of a deal, the love of money can often lead to career seasons.

But even that hasn’t inspire Noel. Carlisle’s treatment of him is a character test. Noel’s letting the Mavericks, and the rest of the NBA, what kind of player they’re paying for. Is this who you want to invest tens of millions on?

The outcome of Nerlens Noel in Dallas may not be what anyone was hoping for but Rick Carlisle has played the situation perfectly. The only thing worse than not getting that high-priced player is getting the wrong high-priced player and that’s exactly what Noel seems to be.

Next: Mavs draft: Is this player worth tanking for?

After the All-star break we hope to see more of Noel. The time away has hopefully  been a time of growth and reflection for Noel. If the last couple months of the season don’t bring out his best, it’s likely nothing ever will.

It’s good the Mavs know this now.