NBA playoffs: The Dallas Mavericks are setting their phasers to 'kill'

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dirk nowitzki.jpgNo team in the West has better personnel to better match the Lakers than the Mavs. If you want perimeter defenders with length, Dallas has Shawn Marion, Rodrigue Beaubois, and DeShawn Stevenson. If you want bigs to match up with Pau Gasol and possibly Andrew Bynum, Dallas has Brendan Haywood and Erick Dampier. If you want a scorer that can go toe-to-toe with Kobe, Dallas has Dirk Nowitzki. The Mavs have a far deeper bench, just as many scoring options, a point guard that isn’t a waste of space, and should they meet the Lakers in the Conference Finals, surely some momentum on their side as well.

Getting to that point is going to be tricky, and making the transition from tough match-up on paper to a real threat even trickier. If any team in the West can do it though, it’s the Mavs.

If you’ve seen the impact of Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd this season,
you know the offense will be there. The difference-maker — and the
thing that could take the Mavs all the way to the NBA championship —
will be their ability to defend. 

A huge part of that is Shawn Marion’s defense against Kobe Bryant, which is absolutely critical for the Mavs to make it to the NBA Finals. Marion will need to continue sharpening his defensive abilities in the earlier rounds against some brutal competition, but the endgame is easy: stop Kobe, and (probably) then after that, stop LeBron. It’s not a one-man job and Marion would and should have help, but the Mavs’ defense against those two stars begins with Shawn.

Perhaps just as crucial, though, will be the play of Brendan Haywood and Erick Dampier. Together, the two have the potential to be the most effective defensive center tandem in the league. Haywood is one of the best post defenders in the league, and Dampier is criminally underrated on that front. If those two can play the type of defense they’re capable of playing (which includes not only good on-ball post D, but supplying superior weak side help, and rebounding well), Dallas would have an easier waltz to the Finals than you’d think. It’s just about translating that potential into reality, or really, executing defensively more consistently than they have over the last two months.

The Mavs are on a bit of an upswing right now, and their point differential over their last five games is +13.6. Four of their last five opponents were held to under 100 points, and three of those five under 90 points. It really feels like Dallas could be on the verge of something great if the defensive execution could just stick around for a spell.   

Plus, despite the unfounded claims against Dirk’s ability to perform in the clutch, his “softness,” or inability to perform in the playoffs, Nowitzki is as good of a postseason player as we have in the league. Last year he posted a 28.4 PER and earned .284 win share per 48 minutes in 10 games against the Spurs and Nuggets. Those numbers are just a few ticks under LeBron James’ this season, and while Nowitzki may not be able to keep up with some of the league’s other superstars on the defensive end, he’s still an offensive juggernaut.

So many things are on Dallas’ side that it’s ridiculous. Coaching? Rick Carlisle is one of the best in the game, and his ability to adjust in-game and in-series is top-notch. ‘Veteran savvy?’ Dallas is one of the most experienced teams in the league. Clutch play? The Mavs have been dominant in close games this season, relying on the stability of their late-game execution to win the day. Home-court advantage throughout at least half of the playoffs? Check. Leadership? Double-check.

The Mavs are confident and ready to roll, and with the the added rest and preparation time the playoffs afford, no one should be too surprised if they’re hoisting up a trophy in a few months’ time.

51Q: Will we see what the Trail Blazers saw in Evan Turner?

CAMBRIDGE, MA - JULY 27:  NBA player Evan Turner of the Portland Trail Blazers speaks to members of AS Roma during a friendly match against the Boston Bolts at Ohiri Field on July 27, 2016 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season.

Last season, Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey received the most Executive of the Year first-place votes.

This offseason, he signed Evan Turner to a four-year, $70 million contract.

How could someone who engineered such a smart 2015 offseason – nailing move after move – give Turner so much money? He earned the benefit of the doubt by rebuilding on the fly without LaMarcus Aldridge, but Olshey spent a lot of his capital (and Paul Allen’s money) on a mid-level, seemingly ill-fitting small forward.

Is this another example of Olshey outfoxing us, or did he finally get tripped up?

I expected brilliance from Portland this summer given Olshey’s successful retool around Damian Lillard last year, when Aldridge bolted. Olshey traded Nicolas Batum for Noah Vonleh and Gerald Henderson, signed Al-Farouq Aminu (four years, $30 million) and Ed Davis (three years, $20 million) to team-friendly contracts, traded a late first-rounder for Mason Plumlee, practically got Maurice Harkless for free and carved out bigger roles for C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe and Meyers Leonard by letting Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo walk. The Batum trade is the only move that’s not a clear victory, but Batum was headed into unrestricted free agency and might have left Portland empty-handed, and the 21-year-old Vonleh could still develop.

Not only did the younger Trail Blazers come together far more quickly than expected, winning 44 games and a playoff series, they did so under budget. Portland had enough cap space at the trade deadline to extract a first-rounder for eating Anderson Varejao‘s contract – the type of move usually reserved for tankers like the 76ers.

The 2016 offseason brought even more possibilities. Thanks to low cap holds for Crabbe, Leonard and Harkless, the Blazers were flush with cap space.

And they spent a big chunk of it on… Evan Turner.

Turner is an alright player, but I don’t think he’s worth $17.5 million per year in a vacuum – and Portland presents a tough fit.

His strengths – passing for his position, mid-range shot creation – matter less on team where the ball is frequently in Lillard’s or McCollum’s hands. Portland shouldn’t take the ball from Lillard and McCollum to give Turner more touches, either.

When off the ball, Turner’s poor outside shooting is a liability to efficient scoring and floor spacing. He made 24% of his 3-pointers last season and 30% for his career. Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts believes Turner will shoot better in Portland, but that optimism is usually wishful thinking. For his part, Turner sounds more focused on the mid-range, where he’s not efficient enough to take shots from the typical looks generated by Stotts’ space-strong scheme.

Portland could use defensive help, and Turner is fine at that end. But he’s not the stopper his 6-foot-7 frame would suggest. He’s just not quick or bouncy enough to stay with many opponents.

It just doesn’t add up – unless Olshey knows what he’s doing, which he might. After impressing so much in his other dealings, Olshey has put the spotlight on Turner this season – with the rest of us watching to see just how Turner will add $70 million of value to the Trail Blazers.

Giannis Antetokounmpo tells terrible joke at Bucks media day (video)

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 16:  Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks reacts to his foul during a 103-90 Los Angeles Clippers win at Staples Center on December 16, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Thankfully, Giannis Antetokounmpo has a lucrative career and doesn’t need  to make ends meet through stand-up comedy:

Mitch McGary: ‘I messed up in my career in college, and now I’m kind of messing up my career here’

2014 Oklahoma City Thunder Media Day
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Mitch McGary declared for the NBA draft rather than serve a year-long suspension for marijuana in college. The Thunder big man was suspended twice – for a total of 15 games – this offseason for violating the NBA’s marijuana policy.

Oklahoma City has 16 players, one more than the regular-season roster limit, and McGary appears to be the odd man out. He has one guaranteed season remaining on his contract, but his overall behavior hurts his chances of getting a second shot with another NBA team.

In this backdrop, McGary tries to make a case for himself.

McGary, via Erik Horne of The Oklahoman:

“I would love to stay here and play here with new guys coming in; it would be very tough for me to get minutes here,” McGary said. “I’d love to stay with this organization. This is hands down like the best organization that had treats for you, cares for you, does everything for you, pretty much hand-feeds you. I’ve known that from guys around the league have said this is the organization to be with, so obviously I don’t want to leave.”

“If someone is willing to give me an opportunity to play, I just want to play ball, that’s it. Enough with the shenanigans. Hey, I messed up in my career in college, and now I’m kind of messing up my career here. But I’ve always gotten over that adversity and that’s what makes me a stronger person, and I think I’ve grown from this, even though it’s only been a few weeks since I’ve gotten handed the other suspension.

Said McGary: “Everybody is going to make mistakes. But I just don’t want to let this define me as a player.

McGary has been suspended for at least 720 minutes (15 games). He has played 557 minutes in the NBA.

Brett Brown assures Nerlens Noel he’ll get paid if he plays inside

Boston Celtics Vs. Philadelphia 76ers Exhibition Game
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As Nerlens Noel pointed out, the 76ers have too many young, talented big men – which is the biggest reason Philadelphia probably won’t extend Noel’s contract by the Oct. 31 deadline.

That has to be a little disappointing for Noel, who didn’t ask to be drafted by a franchise more preoccupied with asset accumulation than producing a winning fit and has an injury that lends itself to taking guaranteed money now.

But this isn’t Noel’s last chance to get paid, and his coach doesn’t want him sulking while battling Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid for minutes and space.

Brett Brown, via Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

Brown wants him to focus on running rim to rim, scoring around the basket and being a defensive stopper.

“Personally, I don’t care if he ever makes a jump shot for the rest of his life,” the coach said. “I mean that. That’s not how his bread is buttered.”

“Nerlens has got elite gifts,” Brown said. “He’s as athletic and quick off the floor and quick rim to rim as anyone that I’ve coached, as any big man in the league.”

“Do your job and we will help you,” he added. “The league will reward that. The 76ers will reward that. He will be rewarded for playing like that.”

Brown is right. There’s no better way for Noel to earn money than by playing well. That means playing energetic defense, protecting the rim and hounding guards on hedges, and actively seeking easy looks near the basket on the other end.

If the 76ers trade him or Okafor before the season, Noel might even still get an extension. Absent that, he’ll head into restricted free agency.

If he’s coming off a year of playing to his strengths, it will be much more lucrative.