It can seem as if Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle manages his bench like a street-corner shell game, shuffling the pieces and whichever reserves pop up from night to night is anybody's guess -- including the players'.
Only the man shuffling the shells knows the end game.
"There's a plan, usually, and sometimes the game changes your plan," Carlisle said. "But we've had a chance to look at a lot of our guys, so I don't feel like I've got to get guys in for a minute or two here or there to see what they can do. But, I do think we've got to do the best things to get our team playing well, to get our core players jelling together as best we can. So, that's kind of where we're at right now."
With the exception of sixth man Jason Terry, forward James Singleton and guard J.J. Barea (who's taken on a starting role until Josh Howard is ready to log heavier minutes), the Mavs have overturned their entire bench.
Had any of last season's reserves on their way out passed the newcomers on their way in, they could have cautioned them of Carlisle's erratic substitution patterns. Already this season, the Mavs have received contributions from guards Quinton Ross and Rodrigue Beaubois, and forwards Drew Gooden, Kris Humphries and Tim Thomas.
Yet, none can be sure if Carlisle will call their number tonight when the Mavs put their five-game winning streak up against the visiting Houston Rockets.
"The message is the same this year as it was last year," Carlisle said, "and that is be ready."
The exciting rookie Beaubois has played one minute since logging 21 on Dec. 4. Josh Howard's return has put him on the backburner. The 6-foot-6 Ross, a defensive specialist, returned from a back injury on Dec. 12 and played 12 minutes. He didn't step on the floor in the next two games.
Only so many minutes can be spread among the crowded forward spots. Drew Gooden has seen the most consistent playing time, although he went through a recent two-game stretch of playing a total of 15 minutes, six minutes less than his season average (21.1).
Absorbing the brunt of the bench time is 13-year veteran Tim Thomas, who hasn't played in four of the last six games and Humphries, who's actually averaging a career-high 13.7 minutes, but sat out three of the last five games by coach's decision. Singleton rarely gets an opportunity to suit up.
Such is life under Carlisle. His irregular and unpredictable substitution patterns, players say, differ from other coaches.
"This is my first time actually going through it as far as playing and then not playing several games," Thomas said. "But, just being a vet, you've just got to stay ready. I knew coming in that this team has a core of guys that's been together for a while. Of course, I know I can help, but it's not my decision. As a player, you just have to stay ready and be prepared when your number is called."
After the Mavs blew a big first-half lead and then hung on to beat New Orleans on Monday, Carlisle vowed to scrutinize his rotation. He came back Wednesday at Oklahoma City with a tightened, eight-man rotation, calling on Terry, Howard and Gooden off the bench.
"This is something new to me. It's something to get used to," said Gooden, who is playing with his seventh team in his eighth season. "The thing is we're winning. That's the main thing. We've got one goal and that's to win and we've been doing it. It's easier to get used to."
The Mavs' depth does provide options and versatility for Carlisle depending on the opponent and style of play. And as the season progresses, inexpensive reserves with short-term contracts can be valuable trade chips.
Carlisle knows his top seven, now with Terry and Howard first off the bench, are cemented. However he chooses to utilize the remaining seven from night to night is, frankly, his own shell game.
"At times guys may play, at other times they may not," Carlisle said. "We ask them to stay ready and to do their work and stay healthy. At some point we're going to need everybody."