OAKLAND, Calif. -- The return to Oracle Arena reminded Andrew Bogut of just how much his situation has changed from a season ago.
Of course, the Dallas Mavericks' record is basically a daily reminder. Dallas headed home from its two-day West Coast trip at 2-6 after Wednesday’s white-flag-waving 116-95 loss to Golden State, when Harrison Barnes was the only one of the Mavs’ top six players to step foot on the court. By comparison, the record-setting Golden State team that Bogut and Barnes played on last season didn’t lose its sixth game until March 6.
"It’s a different challenge," Bogut said before sitting out the game along with J.J. Barea and Wesley Matthews while Dirk Nowitzki and Deron Williams watched from home -- assuming the old dudes didn’t go to sleep at halftime with Dallas down 31 points. "We’ve gone to a team that’s kind of half rebuilding, has a good mix of youth and veterans. We’re an older team in the starting lineup, but our bench is younger, so it provides a different challenge.
"The bar is set a lot lower here with what you’re trying to accomplish. The goal for us is the playoffs, which would be huge, whereas that would be a letdown just making the playoffs with Golden State. It’s a different beast. It’s a development-type team right now, but we’re playing to win."
That assessment sums up the two potentially dueling goals the Mavs front office tried to accomplish during the offseason. The Dallas decision-makers wanted to do right by Dirk Nowitzki, giving the loyal legend a chance to at least compete for a playoff spot in his twilight, while putting foundation pieces in place for the post-Dirk future.
The signing of Barnes to a maximum contract, which prompted some giggles from Golden State followers, was a move that served both purposes. And it’s been a huge success so far, with Barnes blossoming with a bigger role ranking as by far the biggest bright spot during Dallas' slow start.
Barnes is averaging 22.6 points per game -- almost twice his career-best scoring average as a Warriors role player last season -- after putting up a team-high 25 while surrounded by pups Wednesday night. He was the featured attraction in a 25-and-under starting lineup, with coach Rick Carlisle opting to rest the Mavs' vets against the league’s most talented team on the second night of a back-to-back.
Depending on who you ask, the development of those young players is at least as important as the Mavs making a push for the playoffs this season.
"It’s by far one of the most unique situations I’ve ever been in," Barnes said. "You look at the youth movement, and you look at the kind of the way things have been the last 19 years with Dirk. You have the offense run through him, and then I’m coming into the mix.
"But I think the biggest thing is guys -- myself, Dirk, J.J., Bogut -- we’ve won championships. Nobody wants to miss the playoffs. You have to have patience. Things take time, but at the same time, we’re winners. We have that pride. We want to go to the playoffs. We want to win a certain amount of games throughout the year. We want to not only go to the playoffs, but we want to be competitive and get out of the first round."
Added Matthews, who is also likely to be part of the post-Dirk era with two more seasons remaining on his deal: "Winning a playoff series is the goal. [Just making the playoffs] is not good enough."
You could argue that missing the playoffs -- and getting a lottery ticket in a loaded draft -- would be the best thing for a franchise that has been stuck on the mediocrity treadmill, failing to get out of the first round in the five years since winning a title.
Just don’t dare try to make that case within earshot of the Mavs’ locker room.
Carlisle is way too competitive for tanking to even be a consideration. Same goes for owner Mark Cuban. But the roster is constructed in a way that gives Carlisle, who has a history of not trusting young players, little choice but to rely on guys who have yet to prove they can be reliable rotation players.
The Mavs need all four players who filled in as starters Wednesday -- rookie forward Dorian Finney-Smith, second-year swingman Justin Anderson, third-year center/forward Dwight Powell and 26-year-old guard Seth Curry -- to be consistent contributors. They have to perform for the Mavs to have playoff hope, and they need to develop for the team to avoid ending up in a post-Dirk ditch.
"I think we need to transition the team younger. That’s a fact," Carlisle said. "I think we all know that. We worked hard to get this roster of younger guys together. They’ve all earned their way on the team. We worked tirelessly with them. They’ve produced in situations where needed.
"First-year guys seldom hold up on an every-night basis. That’s just a fact in this league."
That’s one reason to doubt that Dallas can pull off accomplishing the playoffs part of its dual goals. So is the fact that Nowitzki and Williams are already dealing with health issues. And, of course, the fact that the Mavs are second to last in the West standings at this early stage has to be considered concerning.
"Our younger guys that are in our rotation, they’re going to be playing a lot of minutes and in big moments," Barnes said. "They need to be ready for that. We can’t have too many more deer-in-the-headlight moments."