Golden State has opened the season with a sloppy, lethargic, and downright surprising 1-2 record. Dallas has begun with three consecutive losses, and barely any minutes of competitive play.
While the attention and the highlights will focus on perimeter players – the Big Four for the Warriors, and Harrison Barnes and Dennis Smith Jr. for the Mavericks – much of this contest will be decided at the center position.
We’re only three games into the season, but both teams have serious question marks at center, and both Steve Kerr and Rick Carlisle are trying to figure out rotations and pecking orders. The center matchup is not only an opportunity for both coaches to find some answers, but for each team to exploit a weakness.
The Mavericks’ starting center is . . . wait . . . who is their starting center?
The Mavs had a bizarre summer at the center position. Nerlens Noel – who was acquired at least season’s trade deadline – reportedly turned down a four-year, $70 million contract early in the offseason.
After failing to land the mega payday he was apparently searching for, Noel settled with the Mavs on a dramatically smaller contract: one year, and $4.1 million.
While the young big man’s worth remains somewhat of a mystery, there’s no denying his potential. He has excellent athleticism and defensive instincts, and can gobble up rebounds and blocked shots in a hurry. He lacks offensive consistency (though he’s good in the pick and roll), but there’s a lot to like in his game.
And yet, the Mavs can’t seem to decide whether or not Noel is their starting center. Noel’s lone start of the season has been sandwiched by two games in which Dallas opted for Dirk Nowitzki – lifelong power forward – at the 5.
The reasoning for Nowitzki at center is likely to keep him from having to defend more athletic power forwards. But relegating one of their few bright young pieces to the bench is a little odd.
The Warriors’ rotating cast of bigs
Unlike the Mavericks, the Warrior have a clearly defined starting center: Zaza Pachulia. What they don’t have, however, is a clearly defined frontcourt rotation.
While Pachulia is entrenched as the starter, he’s averaged just 14.3 minutes per game this season. What occurs in the other 33.7 minutes each game has been pretty inconsistent. David West and Jordan Bell have both played in all three games, but with limited action. Kevon Looney played 8 minutes in the opener – with the bulk occurring in a tight fourth quarter – but has been inactive since.
Javale McGee’s minutes have been up and down, including a Did Not Play-Coach’s Decision, and Damian Jones has yet to find the floor. And of course, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant have had a few minutes at the 5 in small ball lineups.
Steve Kerr seems to be altering rotations based on matchups, while also trying to find what lineups work well with each other. It’s safe to say he’ll keep finding minutes for Bell, who has flashed the highest potential of any Warriors’ center.
But Bell is not without his rookie weaknesses, and Kerr seem reluctant to trust the young product for more than a few minutes at a time.
We know that Zaza will start tonight. What happens after that remains a complete mystery.
The matchup game
We don’t know who will start at center for the Mavericks, or how the Warriors’ minutes will be distributed. But we do know that the matchup will be fascinating to watch.
Kerr and Carlisle are not only two of the best coaches in the league, but two strategists who love to play basketball’s chess game. Finding and exploiting matchups, and forcing opposing adjustments is fun for these two.
And there are matchups aplenty to exploit in this game. Nowitzki at center poses a host of problems, as he’s one of the greatest offensive players in league history.
While age has slowed Dirk down quite a bit in his 20th season, he’s still an offensive threat from both the post and the three-point line. And his one-leg, 15-foot jumper is still automatic.
Dirk’s footwork and pump fakes have proven challenging for McGee in the past, and he can get his jumper off at any time over the shorter West. And let’s be honest: he can probably still throw a pump fake and drive by Zaza.
Noel causes entirely different problems. His hyper-athleticism is a serious issue for Pachulia and West, while his pick and roll prowess can exploit McGee, Looney, and Bell. His offensive game is nearly the opposite of Dirk’s, which opens the door for both coaches to make constant adjustments and substitutions.
On the other side of things, the Dubs have the potential to make life difficult for Dallas. For all of Dirk’s offensive abilities, he’s no longer a very good defensive player, and he’s extremely slow and flat-footed. Against McGee or Bell, Nowitzki is borderline unplayable, and the Warriors would be wise to run a steady stream of pick and rolls until Dallas adjusts.
Noel doesn’t offer any glaring defensive weaknesses to exploit, unless Golden State goes small. Despite his athleticism, Noel still struggles on the perimeter, and is no match against Green or Durant.
Of course, the Warriors going small against the Mavericks brings back just a few memories…
The center matchup is unlikely to decide the game. With Durant, Green, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson on the floor, the outcome probably won’t be in the hands of Pachulia, West, McGee, Bell, or Looney.
But it does offer an opportunity to see how the Warriors strategize against two wildly different opposing centers, and we’ll get further insight into Kerr’s rotations and totem pole at the center position.
And we’ll get to see two of the game’s greatest coaches play a two-and-a-half-hour game of chess, which is always a delight.