Dallas Mavericks – Story Lines To Watch in 2017-18

— October 17th 2017

By: Lance Roberson

 

The Mark Cuban-era Dallas Mavericks embark upon uncharted territory. For the first time since Cuban purchased the Mavericks, Dallas is opening its season with a lottery-talent point guard; they also are subtly rebuilding to honor Dirk Nowitzki. Mavs fans have storylines galore to observe during the 2017-2018 season. Let’s examine a few.

 

The Elephant in the Room:

 

Donnie Nelson struck gold last February at the trade deadline. By moving underperforming prospect Justin Anderson, an injury-riddled Andrew Bogut, and a specious first round pick, the Mavericks acquired Nerlens Noel, whose services are desperately needed. This trade was a perfect crime.

 

Donnie Nelson took a calculated risk on a disgruntled young center with little to no accompanying long-term backlash. Meanwhile, Dallas Mavericks fans may not enjoy the league relevancy they are accustomed to, but even in the worst of times, their bottom doesn’t compare to the mortifying era that was the infancy of the Philadelphia “process years.”

 

Even if the Dallas Mavericks are no longer a perennial playoff team, the franchise still upholds a winner’s mentality. To most, the previous sentence is elementary level philosophy of competition.

  

In Noel’s “process” 76er stint, his organization’s mindset was the opposite. Simply, Philadelphia’s front office lowered itself to create an on-court product which rivals G-League teams; that might be underselling the G-League product as hilarious as that sounds.

 

At Philadelphia’s nadir, Noel saw incoming teammates drafted at his position in consecutive years, not exactly a vote of confidence. After years of being a bottom feeder in the Eastern conference, understandably, Noel snapped.

 

“I’m too good to be playing eight minutes,” Noel said. “We need to figure this s— out.” Noel made it clear to Philadelphia’s management he was finished being the odd man out on a losing roster.

 

Fast forward to the final days of preseason 2017, where it still doesn’t feel like Noel’s found a permanent basketball home. This could all change, of course, as a lot can happen in an NBA minute.

 

This summer was harsh to restricted free agents unless your name is Tim Hardaway JR. Concerning Noel, after faced with the reality of a dying market for a center with his skill set one might assume the defensive-minded pivot would’ve reached an initial long-term deal with the Mavericks. Instead, the 23-year-old hired the infamous agent, Rich Paul. The same Rich Paul who played a crucial role in getting Tristan Thompson a 5-year $82 million contract last summer.

 

Though while Noel, like Thompson, patiently waited, his holdout netted a one-year $4.1 Million deal. Not what Nerlens expected.

 

With rumors of trades still percolating around the former Wildcat due to his summer choices, this season is very much a pivotal one for Noel.

 

For example, on media day Dallas Head Coach Rick Carlisle suggested his once-touted big might not be an opening night starter. Instead, Carlisle stated it’s a safe bet Dirk Nowitzki will be the starting center, and Harrison Barnes will open at power forward. The Dallas Mavericks went 36-20 when Carlisle started Barnes and Nowitzki in the front-court last season. But as mentioned, a lot can happen in an NBA minute.

 

A perfect example of this sentiment is Seth Curry’s recently reported left tibia issues. A timetable for his return is not public.  Ironically, such an injury opens the door for Noel again to start for Dallas. For all we know, however, Carlisle could still open with a Smith-Ferrell-Matthews-Barnes-Nowitzki collective.

 

Though, when mulling best options, the Mavericks may be best served to slide Noel in at the five. With Noel, Barnes, and Matthews on court, it’s feasible Dallas would be a better defensive team. It’s not just defense that Noel will affect either. He’s shown an ability to run the floor on fast breaks. His passing is also a plus. For winning’s sake, Noel should be in clutch lineup situations.

 

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Starter or not, the Mavericks are in a win-win situation while dealing with Noel’s fluid circumstances. Of course, a breakout season from Noel would be ideal for both parties, thus making the decision easier to offer him either the max or at minimum a competitive offer next summer.

 

Conversely, Noel’s season could take many routes. He may perform well, but suffer an injury which might scare teams from offering him the elite-player money he is pursuing. In turn, this would give the Mavericks an opportunity to sign Noel to a Steph Curry injury-insurance style contract the two-time league MVP signed in 2013. At this point, though, concerning Noel, it’s all speculation. It will be intriguing, though, to see how it plays out.

 

The X-Factor:

 

Dallas is entering the third season of the Wesley Matthews experiment. Matthews will never justify the contract he signed after DeAndre Jordan backed away from Dallas in perhaps the most infamous moment in free-agency history. This must be stated when looking at Matthews’ numbers, and more importantly, the player the Mavericks knew they were getting.

 

What matters now is Matthews’ ability to guard multiple positions and being able to hit outside shots at a consistent rate.

In his time with the Portland Trailblazers, Matthews wasn’t known as a shot creator.  Although, he didn’t need to be a playmaker when working alongside the likes of Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and for one season, Brandon Roy.

 

Nowitzki is historically better than all three of those players, but now, he is a 20-season NBA veteran whose best years are well behind him.

 

Last season, Matthews found himself forcing shots he otherwise wouldn’t if he played with an adequate playmaker. JJ Barea and Deron Williams missed a combined 75 games. Harrison Barnes had a good season, but he wasn’t the creator Matthews requires to reclaim his career-average shooting numbers.

 

Matthews’ 2016-2017 shooting line reads almost like his 2015-2016 numbers. If you glanced at them, you would swear they were copy and pasted.  His field goal percentage needs to improve. He is shooting 39 percent, which is a four percent drop from his career average.

 

With Dennis Smith Jr hoping to make a splash in the starting lineup, expect Matthews’ shooting percentage to rise. Even if DSJ doesn’t average eight assists a contest, other players will have the luxury of taking a back seat when it comes to pressure playmaking.

 

Another notable element of the DSJ/Matthews interplay is Matthews’ strength overcomes his lack of athleticism. This allows Wes to find cutting teammates while working the opposition down low. Smith is a gifted cutter and strong finisher.

 

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With all the talk of Matthews needing others to benefit his offensive cause, you can’t overlook what he brings to the game defensively. Again, he isn’t known for his speed, but he has a knack for digging up in his opponent’s shooting space. Matthews is multi-dimensional when it comes to guarding players. Whether it’s on the perimeter or in the post, you can depend on him if you need a stop. He is the player DSJ should pay attention to when it comes to emulating a reliable defensive player.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bchzfvyqIo

 

Even if Matthews is “overpaid,” he has attributes which don’t always show up in a box score. It’s as if he’s the template of leadership and durability. Again,  if the eight-year-veteran improves his shooting numbers from the past two seasons,  he would have a real chance of a much-needed reclamation season.

 

If such were to happen, Nowitzki might make one final playoff appearance.

 

The Carlisle Effect:

 

The NBA’s Coach of The Year award should be renamed “The closest thing to Rick Carlisle of This Year award.” Carlisle is that parent who told you to “put duct tape on it,” or the more infuriating suggestion, “make it work” when you needed something fixed. Those answers probably didn’t resonate with you, plus you probably thought your dad or mom was insane. Carlisle, to his unending credit, looks insanity in the face each season without flinching, ala Kobe Bryant defending a Matt Barnes inbound pass. Many coaches would look for greener pastures rather than dealing with major annual roster changes. Through all, however, Carlisle has found a home in Dallas which gives him coaching freedom, and above all, job security.

 

The Mavericks are now at the stage where they aren’t going to blow up the roster to risk it all for a “star.” The front office has decided to rebuild the old-fashioned way, by having a roster of young talent and a few veterans. This gives Carlisle the opportunity to hone in on players without having to worry about them leaving when he is on the cusp of reaching them.

 

Last season was the first time the Mavericks finished with a losing record since the 1999-2000 campaign. Rick Carlisle’s fix-anything mentality was again put to the test. The positive effects after the Mavericks finished 11th in the Western conference remain on the roster.

 

Dennis Smith Jr is the most significant acquisition Rick Carlisle could have asked for. Since Jason Kidd left for the big apple after the 2011 finals, Carlisle went through a shuffle of point guards, with none of them working long term. Smith’s youth will help Carlisle’s mold him into the point guard the Mavericks need. Carlisle’s offensive philosophy is very much pick-and-roll oriented. Nothing new, but with the right combination it can be dangerous: see Nash and Stoudemire or Stockton and Malone. DSJ and Nerlens Noel is possibly the best-case scenario for Carlisle’s preferred set-play vision. Also, Barea runs the pick-and-roll well, but regarding the point guard being the finisher, Smith will undoubtedly be the more significant threat.

 

With Rick’s job security likely set, his words carry weight most coaches salivate at the thought of. When Smith hits the rookie wall, Carlisle will be there to patch it up. Whether his patching means benching or having a talk, his decision will be respected.

 

The most recent example of Rick’s tough love is telling the media Noel might not start. One would think after the Mavericks acquired Noel last season, it meant they found their center of the future. Carlisle’s contrarian suggestion may have sprung from concern for team chemistry. Carlisle clarified he wouldn’t allow Nowitzki to come off the bench. Per basketball reference, Nowitzki spent 50 percent of his time last season at center.

 

ith that said, Noel will probably be the opening starter. However, Rick’s statement on media day shouldn’t be forgotten. Perhaps that shocking statement will inspire Noel to go contract-year crazy on the court. Either that or his words pierce through a vital basketball point causing a fall out as they did with Rajon Rondo.

 

The guard position will be tinkered with often. Carlisle isn’t afraid to mess with lineups when he sees fit. You can argue he had to last season because of injuries, but with a gaggle of guards on the roster, it’s hard to imagine him not varying lineups.

 

During a preseason (whatever that’s worth) contest versus the Milwaukee Bucks, Carlisle rolled out an odd lineup that saw Barea-Ferrell-Harris-Powell-Noel on the court at once. Seth Curry’s unfortunate injury gives the guard rotation more uncertainty, subsequently giving Carlisle another reason to shift the lineups like a Rubik’s cube. In a perpetually cutthroat Western Conference, it’ll be an uphill battle for the Mavericks to make the playoffs.

 

However, “The “Carlisle effect” is enough to earn Dallas at least five extra wins this season. If the Mavericks finish with around 38-40 wins, don’t be surprised.  

 

The Year of Dennis Smith Jr:

 

For posterity’s sake, there will be a 30 for 30-esque documentary detailing how Dennis Smith Jr dropped to ninth overall. And unlike the Giannis Antetokounmpo draft miss that irks fans, Cuban will be on the right side of this story.

I’m not a gambling man, but according to BetOnline, Smith Jr has 350+ odds to win Rookie of the Year. That puts him third behind Ben Simmons and Lonzo Ball. Those odds are tempting. The Mavericks didn’t have that kind of excitement with a rookie Dirk Nowitzki. Without question, DSJ is the best point guard prospect in Dallas since Jason Kidd first donned a Mavs jersey. The rebuild is off to a comforting start.

 

Furthermore, DSJ is the only Mavs point guard to possess eye-popping athleticism, and the ability to make outside jumpers at a respectable rate. Before the glorious day of June 22, 2017, it was always the case of either or when it came to these skills at the point guard position. The talents that Smith Jr has at such an early age are promising.

 

Meanwhile, many NBA players are gifted, but ultimately what separates the supreme from mediocre is work ethic; fortunately, DSJ landed on a team full of blue-collar players to soak up who embrace gritty work ethic.

 

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Gambling odds notwithstanding, it’s reasonable to say DSJ will win rookie of the year. He has enough veterans around him to ease his metamorphosis from college player to starting lineup caliber professional. Whether it’s pick-and-roll action with Noel, or pick-and-pop with Nowitzki, the frontcourt provides options for the young guard. He also has players such as Seth Curry, Wesley Matthews, and Barnes for drive-and-kick looks. As noted earlier, there are a plethora of guards on the roster, meaning DSJ won’t have to worry about handling the ball each play. There will be plenty chances for him to get baskets from cuts.

 

The Dallas Mavericks have plenty entertainment value to offer on and off the court this season. The storylines may not consist of subtweets or subliminal messages sent through Snapchat videos, but it’ll be worth every ounce of attention you give it. The Mavericks may not be talked about on Sportscenter every night, but the storylines will shine regardless. Whether it’s a young star in the making with a vengeance to embarrass the GMs who passed on him in the draft, or a player out to prove he is worth the money that many scoffed at, it’ll be worth it.

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