Dirk Nowitzki

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.

Report: 76ers supporting, not blaming, Jahlil Okafor

Jahlil Okafor
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76ers rookie Jahlil Okafor fought a man in a Boston street.

The team has released a short, vague statement. CSN Philly:

“We are aware of the report and we are currently working to gather additional information. Until that time, we will have no further comment.”

But what do the 76ers really think?

Chris Broussard of ESPN:

I spoke with somebody close to him. They’ve talked to the 76ers. They’ve talked with the NBA.

The Sixers are very supportive of Okafor. They understand the situation, but they have to do their due diligence and look into it.

The Sixers are supporting him. They’re not blaming him. If they have to discipline, it still won’t sully him in their eyes.

Again, I’m told that they’re very supportive of him.

If the 76ers really support Okafor, they’ll do so publicly. Leaking their support anonymously doesn’t really move the needle.

I also find this report a little dubious, because Broussard only said he talked to someone close to Okafor. If the 76ers’ viewpoint came filtered through an Okafor rep, there could be a lot of spin – though it’s possible Broussard also spoke with someone from the team.

What choice do the 76ers have but to support Okafor, anyway? He’s a promising young player on a team that desperately needs hope. It seems he made a major mistake, but it’s not a career-ender. And as long as the 76ers are keeping him, they might as well stand by him.

However – based on what we’ve seen, which is obviously not everything – this incident should “sully him in their eyes.” He appeared to be the aggressor, and the team should be concerned by that. Perhaps, further investigation has provided extenuating circumstances, but absent new evidence, the 76ers should view him less favorably – and be proactive about helping him correct any underlying issues.

That’s the support Okafor needs from them.

Celtics president Danny Ainge on Brad Stevens: ‘He’s a keeper’

Brad Stevens

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has never finished a season with a winning record. He’s over .500 this year only because Boston came back to beat the lowly 76ers. He has never won a playoff game.

But Stevens – who signed a six-year, $22 million contract in 2013 – has plenty of job security.

Celtics president Danny Ainge, in a Q&A with Chris Forsberg of ESPN:

You’ve joked about it before, but are you ready to give him another six-year contract yet?

Ainge: [Laughs] Yeah.

You have to start thinking about that. Sure, we’re only in Year 3, but you can’t risk letting a good coach get away.

Ainge: No, listen, he’s a keeper. He’s great. He’s great to work with. Like I said, I think he’s going to be — if he stays in this game long enough — he’s going to be one of the great coaches.

I tend to agree with Ainge’s assessment. Stevens has looked like an excellent coach so far – implementing a sound defense, creating space on offense and communicating clearly with his players.

But Stevens has benefited tremendously from low expectations, arriving in Boston after Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen retired. Expectations sunk even lower when the Celtics traded Rajon Rondo last season.

That’s when Stevens appeared to do his best work, guiding a starless team to a 24-12 finish.

Expectations will keep rising, though. Some expected the Celtics to break out this year, but they’re just 8-7. Stevens faces the difficult task of managing a rotation full of pretty good – but no great – players. This might be his hardest NBA assignment yet.

Stevens has done plenty to earn praise from his boss. But to actually get a contract extension, he’ll have to keep meeting higher and higher expectations.

I believe Stevens is up to the challenge, but I’m not completely certain of it. He wouldn’t be the first coach to impress early in his tenure and then fizzle. Just look at how many Coach of the Year winners lost their jobs a short time later.

Again, I think Stevens will meet any reasonable expectations he faces. He just must actually do it to get a longer deal.

League executives, players wince watching this Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant

Over the last few days, we’ve written in more detail about Kobe Bryant‘s shooting troubles. He’s jacking up threes his fastest pace ever, he can’t create space to get off clean shots, he’s hitting 31.1 percent overall and 19.5 percent from three. There are flashes of vintage Kobe, but they are fleeting (and mostly because poor shot choices are falling). Byron Scott is still in Kobe’s corner, saying they just need to get the veteran better looks.

However, talk to people around the league about Kobe and you hear some variation of the phrase “hard to watch.” After 20 seasons, more than 55,000 minutes on the court, and coming off two major injuries, Kobe clearly is not the same player everyone admired for so long.

Over at the Los Angeles Times Mike Bresnahan and Broderick Turner got a number of sources to wince about Kobe for a story — except nobody wanted their name attached to attacking a legend of the game.

“Man, I don’t want to see Kobe go out like this, looking this bad and not able to do what he once could do,” said a retired guard who faced Bryant. “He doesn’t have anything else to prove to anybody. He was one of the greatest. I know he’s owed that $25 million, but he should just walk away now. He ain’t got it anymore.”

“He’s one of the few players in NBA history to have gotten everything possible out of his body. Now his body has nothing left to give,” (an Eastern Conference executive) said. “But that’s life in the NBA, in professional sports. At some point, the body just can’t do it anymore and Kobe’s body can’t do it anymore.”

One West scout said Bryant looked “disinterested” at times. A current player in the West went a step further.

“Yeah, I’ve seen him play and it’s disgusting,” he said. “He’s one of the best of all time. But he really hasn’t played that much in the last two or three years. He’s got nothing left. It’s sad to watch because he used to be so great, and I mean great.”

Kobe is not going to walk away mid-season, and nobody wants an injury to force him out of the game.

But it’s hard to see how anything is going to dramatically change. Kobe may shoot a little better than his current but it’s not likely going to change in a meaningful way. Which will just make things hard to watch for a full season.

Spurs to give Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili Friday night off in Denver

Manu Ginobili, Harrison Barnes, Tim Duncan
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The Spurs are 12-3 and comfortably in second place in the West, they have the best defense in the NBA allowing just 93.8 points per 100 possessions, and they have a top-10 offense to go with it.

So, time to start making sure guys are rested.

That is the first night of a back-to-back, with former Spurs’ assistant coach Mike Budenholzer and his Atlanta Hawks coming to San Antonio on Saturday. Popovich is saving his two veterans for that game.

Duncan and Ginobili have looked like they found the fountain of youth this season. Duncan is taking on less of the offense but has been very efficient in those moments. Ginobili has the impact he did a few years back in his bench role.

What Gregg Popovich cares about is them playing like that come the postseason. So they will rest on Friday.