For a few years now, as Dirk Nowitzki’s minutes stacked up and age became his public enemy No. 1, the Dallas Mavericks have been searching for someone to make their franchise player the second-best player on their team.
That search is finally over.
Harrison Barnes, who was basically a role player the last four seasons with the Golden State Warriors, has quietly unseated Nowitzki as the Mavs’ best player. And neither the Mavs nor Nowitzki view that as sacrilegious.
“We always talk about when is Dirk going to be our second-best player,” owner Mark Cuban said. “I mean, I think we’re past that now.
“And no one’s happier about that than Dirk.”
Barnes basically was the fourth wheel with the Warriors behind Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Whatever those players didn’t get, Barnes was there to pick up the scraps.
But now, Barnes is the driving force behind a Mavs squad that remains in serious contention to grab one of the eight Western Conference playoff spots. And the Ames, Iowa, product is enjoying his time in the spotlight as the Mavs’ No. 1 go-to player.
“I have a completely different role just in terms of not necessarily being a spot-up shooter,” Barnes said. “But I’m getting more isolation touches and I’m getting more touches in general.
“I try to do a good job of converting on those and try to find open guys and just try to continue to get better.”
Before signing a four-year, $94 million free agent contract with the Mavs last summer, the most field goals Barnes had attempted in a season was in 2013-14, when he fired up 679 shots. He already has 957 attempts this season and the Mavs still have 26 games remaining.
Also, the Mavs have wanted Barnes to aggressively attack the basket so he can get to the free throw line more. Barnes career-high for free throw attempts occurred in his rookie season when he went to the charity stripe 190 times.
So far this year Barnes has attempted 189 free throws.
Barnes recalls his early days with the Mavs when coach Rick Carlisle, a process-oriented coach, tried to instill in him his value to his ballclub. And it didn’t bother Barnes one iota that he was the only player among the 12 who won a gold medal for the United States at the Olympic games in Rio who wasn’t selected for Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game.
“Harrison is having a great year and I think people are taking note of that,” Carlisle said. “But generally speaking you’ve got to be hitting it out of the park with huge crazy stats to get in the All-Star Game if you’re on a team with a record like ours.
“I think he’s a guy that’s taking steps towards becoming an All-Star in the future.”
Barnes leads the Mavs in scoring with 20.1 points per game, and also averages 5.2 rebounds and is shooting 47.4 percent from the field. But the main thing is the Mavs know they can rely on him to deliver in the clutch.
“It’s been a long season just adjusted to the new minutes and all of that type of stuff,” Barnes said. “The biggest thing was just kind of establishing your spots.
“I know in post-ups where I’m going to get the ball and whatever catches in certain plays in the offense, and just kind of knowing what I’m going to do when I get to those spots. You just try to do a few things really well and just keep hammering that home.”
Barnes, 24, will try to keep hammering his point home at 7 p.m. Friday when the Mavs play the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Target Center.
Having Nowitzki by his side has certainly helped Barnes’ rise in becoming a marquee player.
“Obviously when he gets it going it helps us so much,” Barnes said. “Even when he doesn’t score people have to respect his shooting so much that he draws so much attention on the floor that it creates more space to move.”
And for the Mavs, the most productive part of that movement is that Nowitzki is so low maintenance that he doesn’t mind taking a back seat to Barnes.
“The best part is we don’t rely on Dirk,” Cuban said. “Dirk gets his points in the flow as opposed to give it to Dirk and get out of the way.
“We do that a little bit of that at the beginning of games, but generally it’s not like that at all. And I think that takes a lot of the strain off of Dirk.”
And puts it on Barnes, who has quietly been crowned as the Mavs’ new go-to player.