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ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: The Dallas Mavericks

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Last season: For the first time in his career, Dirk Nowitzki missed a chunk of the season due to major knee surgery. Dallas started 12-15 without their star German then promptly dropped 8-of-9 after his return, putting them in a deep hole. The result was the players grew “.500 beards” they let grow like they were on Duck Dynasty until they fought their way back to .500. It took most of the season but thy got there, eventually finishing 41-41, however that was not good enough to make the playoffs. It was the first time since 2000 Dallas missed the postseason.

Signature highlight from last season: It has to be Darren Collison’s ridiculously lucky game-tying three against the Thunder.

Key player changes: For the second straight summer the Mavericks swung for the fences and went after the biggest star available (Dwight Howard) — and the good news is he did decide to come to Texas… just to Houston.

So, Plan B: Monta Ellis. Not a great plan, but a plan that can put some points on the board. They also bring in Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Devin Harris (he’s baaaaack), DeJuan Blair, and Gal Mekel.

Gone are Elton Brand and Chris Kaman from the front line, Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo from the perimeter.

Keys to the Maverick’s season:

Can the Mavericks stop anybody from scoring on them? They were 20th in the NBA in defense last season allowing 104 points per 100 possessions, then they added Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon (not guys exactly known as defensive stoppers). Samuel Dalembert can be a solid rim protector in the paint when healthy, but nobody else along the front line (sorry Dirk) is much of a defender. This is not going to be a great defensive team. Still, if coach Rick Carlisle can’t get them to scrap on that end and finish closer to the league average it could keep them out of the playoff hunt.

Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki… can that work? For the past 13 seasons, Dirk Nowitzki has led the Dallas Mavericks in scoring average per game. This is the year that could be threatened because Monta Ellis is a fearless gunner, a volume scorer — but he is a far less efficient scorer and is not the guy who should be putting up more shots than Dirk. It’s an interesting little experiment down in Dallas — Ellis has never really been on a team where him scoring any way he could was not option No. 1 (maybe young, often injured Stephen Curry in Golden State changed that but it wasn’t that clear cut those first years) so how will he adjust? Can the steady and more conservative style of Jose Calderon combined with all the touches Nowitzki should get rein in Ellis’ bad shot selection?

So far this preseason the Ellis/Nowitzki pick-and-roll has shown some real promise — Nowitzki flairs out (or rolls) and that opens up lanes for Ellis to attack. Throw Calderon (also a very strong pick-and-roll point guard) in the mix and there is real offensive potential on this team. Still Nowitzki has to be the guy; I expect a big bounce-back season from him (I’m saying put him on your fantasy team).

What shakeups to the roster are coming? Mark Cuban still has Dallas big game hunting — they would love another star to pair along side the aging Nowitzki to make one more run. They have the expiring contracts of Shawn Marion and Vince Carter, plus some other nice young role players to throw into a deal. Expect Dallas to try to make moves and obviously if they can bag another star player that changes everything.

Why you should watch the Mavericks: Monta Ball! Well, sort of. This isn’t exactly going to be the Don Nelson/Steve Nash era Mavericks but this team is going to put up a lot of points and be entertaining. Nowitzki is still a pure scorer, Ellis will get his, Calderon will make Marion and Vince Carter look better than expected. This team is going to be fun to watch and it’s going to put up points.

Prediction: 46-36 and fighting for that eighth playoff slot in the West. This team has flaws and their defense could end up sending them to the lottery for a second straight year. However, I think this team gets that last spot (I’m not as high on the Lakers as some of the others here at PBT) and I believe on offense the Ellis/Nowitzki pairing is going to work better than some expect. This team is not as good as Mark Cuban seems to think it is, but it’s good enough to return to the postseason if everyone stays healthy.

Likely top-10 pick Dennis Smith Jr. of North Carolina State declares for draft

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This had long been expected, but now it is official.

North Carolina State freshman point guard Dennis Smith Jr. has declared for the NBA Draft. He made the announcement on ESPN saying playing in the NBA is his dream, reports the News & Observer.

“It was definitely an obtainable dream for me,” said in an interview on SportsCenter. “I knew I would chase it with all of my might.”

Smith is considered a top-10 pick (DraftExpress.com has him going seventh currently).

Smith had missed his senior year of high school ball with an ACL injury, but was named ACC Freshman of the Year after averaging 18.1 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. He had two triple-doubles as a freshman. He was also inconsistent. Smith had brilliant games and ones where he looked disinterested.

Smith is unquestionably explosive and athletic, and that makes him a threat both in the open court and getting to the rim off a pick-and-roll. He’s got good handles, he knows how to draw fouls, and you can see his potential to get buckets at the next level. His jump shot needs to be far more consistent to thrive at the next level, however. The questions about Smith are more about his ability to make good decisions and be a floor general. He knows how to survey the floor and create for himself, but can he figure out when to pass to set up teammates? Can he defend consistently? He needs smooth out the rough edges of his game, but the potential to be very good is there.

James Harden says playing in every game should matter in MVP voting

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James Harden has played in every Houston Rocket game this season so far. Russell Westbrook has done the same thing for Oklahoma City.

When voters sit down in a few weeks to choose the league’s Most Valuable Player — in one of the most wide-open races in memory, with Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James making legitimate cases as well — Harden says they should take playing every game into account. It’s the latest part of the rest discussion going on around the league. Here’s what Harden told Calvin Watkins of ESPN.

“Yeah, because you’re not leaving your teammates out there to dry, ” Harden said Tuesday morning, before the Rockets’ game against the Warriors. “For me, I worry about always having my teammates’ back and always being out there….

“I’m going to have [my teammates’] back and they know that they have mine as well,” said Harden, who is second in the league in points and first in assists. “For the coaching staff and the fans, especially here in Houston, the front office, I’m here to play.”

Both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard have had rest nights.

This injects Harden into the rest debate, where recently Harden’s teammate Patrick Beverley came out and said players are “disrespecting the game” when they rest. Gregg Popovich sees more nuance in the debate and certainly backs resting players. On the latest PBT Podcast, former Bull B.J. Armstrong told me that they didn’t have rest days back in his day, but players were kept out of games for things they could play through to get right for the playoffs, it was just listed differently. He added that the rest situation might have been different back in the day if the data about the increased chance of player injuries on the second night of a back-to-back (and it goes up from there with four games in five nights) had been available.

In this case, Harden lobbying for his case in the MVP voting. The thing is, his numbers make the case for him: Harden is averaging 29.4 points per game, leading the league with 11.3 assists a night, and he’s creating the most points per game 27.5 (buckets and direct assists. He has taken on the point guard duties in Mike D’Antoni’s offense and has taken on the largest load on offense he has in his career — and he has continued to do it efficiently.

However, one can make a strong statistical case for Westbrook (who carries a larger load for an OKC team that has less talent around its star than Houston), Leonard (best defender of the group), and LeBron (the Cavs recent struggles may doom his chances).

Little details are going to divide this group, and Harden is trying to get his point out there.

That said, the Rockets are almost certainly locked into the three seed in the West, and once it’s clear they are in that slot team management should discuss giving Harden a night off before the playoffs, to let his body rest. Whether he wants to or not.

Rajon Rondo is hilarious (photo)

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Is Rajon Rondo stubborn? Yes.

Is he petty? Yes.

Is he harsh? Yes.

But the Bulls point guard is also hilarious in his own way.

 

Sean Highkin of The Athletic:

Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek: “We can use some more defensive players”

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For all the flipping between the triangle and a more modern offense, despite ball stopping by Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony, the New York Knicks offense is 17th in the NBA for the season. Not good, but the middle of the pack, right around Oklahoma City, Miami, and Memphis — all playoff teams (or potential ones in Miami’s case).

The reason the Knicks season ends in seven games is their defense — 25th in the NBA. Put the triangle in (and get players who fit the system) or don’t, but that’s not the end of the court where the Knicks need to improve. And while system matters on defense, the fact of the matter the Knicks roster is loaded with poor and/or indifferent individual defenders.

Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek emphasized all this speaking to ESPN’s Ian Begley.

“I think if you look at our defense this year, we can use some more defensive players,” Hornacek said. “[Management] will look at that. [General manager] Steve [Mills] and [president] Phil [Jackson] and those guys will look at whatever can help us out. We know we need some help there.”

Admitting you have a problem is the first step. Now comes the time for action.

The Knicks are going to have a Top 10 draft pick (currently sixth) plus max-player money in free agency. Also, they are looking to move Anthony this summer (he has a no-trade clause so he will have to agree to it). All of which is to say they have a chance to reshape this roster into one that will have more of a defensive focus. Or any defensive focus for that matter.

It will be interesting to see if the Knicks target more defensive minded free agents this summer, ones who might fit the triangle offense such as Thabo Sefolosha, or to a lesser extent Tony Allen. It’s going to be a fascinating summer in New York.

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