In Nerlens Noel, Mavs finally have makings of franchise center

'One down, 24 to go.' Cauley-Stein pushing Kings toward playoffs

As the Sacramento Kings make their push for the eighth playoff spot, Willie Cauley-Stein reflects on the Kings' first win against the Denver Nuggets since DeMarcus Cousins was traded. Thursday, February 23, 2017.
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As the Sacramento Kings make their push for the eighth playoff spot, Willie Cauley-Stein reflects on the Kings' first win against the Denver Nuggets since DeMarcus Cousins was traded. Thursday, February 23, 2017.

From the pioneer days of Tom LaGarde and Scott Lloyd to the blunt-spoken Aussie, Andrew Bogut, it’s been one center after another for the Dallas Mavericks, mostly by choice. The relay hasn’t exactly gone Kareem-to-Hakeem-to-Shaq. Even when the Mavs got it right, with Tyson Chandler, they didn’t buck tradition for long. Rent-A-Center should sue for copyright infringement.

Which is what made Thursday’s deadline news so stunning. Frankly, I don’t know what’s harder to believe: The franchise’s feeling that former University of Kentucky star Nerlens Noel will finally end the organization’s run on centers, or that the Mavs provided an argument in the first place.

For a beat-up Bogut, underdeveloped Justin Anderson and a protected first-round choice that probably ends up a pair of seconds instead, the Mavs picked up the pace on their return from the dead.

Even better: If they don’t screw this up, they’ve got a lottery pick to find a point guard now that they’ve plugged the gaping hole at center.

Noel, who turns 23 in April, is an athletic 7-feet, a rim protector, a guy who can chase other bigs around the floor without oxygen breaks. Once considered the best amateur in the nation, he was also compared to Chandler for his defense. If the latter isn’t accurate, at least for now, you should know his ceiling offensively is far higher.

As it is, he affords Dirk Nowitzki the luxury of riding out his career in relative comfort. Dirk couldn’t do that with Bogut. Rick Carlisle couldn’t keep both on the floor at the same time, sorely limiting his options.

The risk/reward of the deal tilts heavily in the Mavs’ favor. If you’re worried about Noel’s left knee, you should be. But you might remember that Chandler came to Dallas with a bum knee, and the Mavs let him go because they thought it might become an issue again. Never happened. Generally speaking, injuries are bigger issues the older you get.

Noel also becomes a free agent this summer, but the Mavs can now match any offers. I expect it won’t come to that. Noel’s agent, Dan Fegan, has a nice working relationship with Mark Cuban. Of course, we said the same when Cuban thought he’d kidnapped DeAndre Jordan from the Clippers. The only sure thing in today’s NBA is a monkey riding a dog at halftime.

The loss of Anderson was painful to Dirk, who liked the inquisitive, energetic kid. Sure, he’s got potential, but, in order to be a 3-and-D guy, it helps if you have at least one of the components. So far, Anderson is 0-for-2. For that matter, he’d already been surpassed in the rotation by Dorian Finney-Smith.

Besides, wings are easier to find than athletic centers, especially those yet to hit their prime. Don’t discount age as a factor now that the Mavs no longer feel compelled to build a contender around the old man.

Going into Thursday’s deadline, the Mavs, at 28.2, were the fifth-oldest team in the league. All the teams older are winners. Old and bad is no way to go. The trade of Bogut and release of Deron Williams gives the roster a better blend of youth up front.

“It’s pretty clear,” Carlisle said Thursday, “that we’ve got to get younger and advance the franchise forward.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking: The Mavs were playing .500 ball without Bogut or Williams. What if Noel makes them even better? And doesn’t that jeopardize the lottery pick?

First of all, yes, Noel makes the Mavs better simply standing for the National Anthem. But the schedule gets harder, too. Just half of their remaining games are against teams with losing records. Because the women’s Final Four is at AAC this spring, seven of the last nine are on the road.

Without Bogut or Williams, and with Dirk treading lightly, the Mavs can still look like they’re trying to win games while youngsters pile up minutes. If they keep winning anyway, well, then it’s time for Cuban to sit Uncle Ricky down for a heart-to-heart.

If the Mavs really get lucky in the lottery, they might come up with Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball, the best bets to hit it big. Still, it’s a draft deep in point guards and wings. Who knows? Maybe someone else develops into something special.

This much we know for sure: The Mavs have already acquired the sixth pick of the 2013 draft, and there wasn’t a big man of his caliber in the next one.

The Mavs haven’t had a season this productive since they came back from Miami on a parade float. Consider what they’ve accomplished already: acquired a foundational piece in Harrison Barnes; watched the return of Wesley Matthews’ game; uncovered key rotation parts, at least, in Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell; and now this, a starting center. Maybe they’ll even hang on to this one.

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