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.

James Harden is playing with a bruised right knee

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James Harden, Chris Paul, and the Houston Rockets are on a 13-game winning streak. They have a 1.5 game lead over the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference. But it’s not all rosy in Space City.

Harden suffered a bruised right knee against the San Antonio Spurs on Friday, and almost had to sit out the Rockets’ win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday.

Speaking to reporters after the win over the Bucks, Harden said that he was in some pain but a doctor told him he would be able to play and that he would not make the condition worse.

Via ESPN:

“I wasn’t feeling well at all, but the doc came in and just told me that there’s going to be pain for a bit, but you can play through it,” Harden said. “It can’t get worse, but it’s going to be pretty painful until obviously you give it some time. Once he said that, I was like, ‘Let’s go.'”

“I wasn’t moving like I usually move, but we won,” said Harden.

If Harden wasn’t feeling well, it sure didn’t show. He had 31 points, although on 8-of-21 shooting against Milwaukee. Chris Paul chipped in with 25 points, six assists, and five rebounds.

It doesn’t sound like Harden will be missing a game any time soon, which is par for the course for him. He’s played in a minimum of 89 percent of his team’s regular season games since entering the league in 2009.

Meanwhile, the Rockets are blasting their way into 2018. They play the Warriors next on January 4.

Nuggets say Paul Millsap won’t return until after All-Star break

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The Western Conference has been a blast this season, with the Houston Rockets playing strong after the arrival of Chris Paul. The team has 13 straight wins, and a 1.5 game lead over the Golden State Warriors.

That’s just part of the results of the West getting a boatload of stars sent its way over the summer. One team is lacking their new addition, however, and his absence has been a quiet disappointment. The Denver Nuggets still sit in sixth place out West, but new forward Paul Millsap has been sidelined with a wrist injury.

The original timeline for Millsap said he would be out for three months, which would put him back around the beginning of March. That plan was confirmed by Nuggets head coach Mike Malone, who said that he expects Millsap will be out until at least the All-Star break, which starts on February 16.

Malone also seemed to indicate it’s possible Millsap is out longer than that.

Via Twitter:

At least Millsap is on schedule? It’s hard to tell inflection from text, but let’s just hope Malone’s “at the earliest” isn’t an indicator of slow recovery on Millsap’s part. The Nuggets certainly don’t need to rush Millsap back. They have a 16-13 record and instill more confidence than most the teams floundering below them in the standings.

LeBron James on talk with Lonzo Ball: “Some things could be held private”

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LeBron James was caught on a hot mic this week speaking with Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball. The conversation came after the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Lakers in Ohio, 121-112.

In their talk, LeBron told Ball that he needed to stay in his zone and be aggressive. Pretty generic stuff, to be honest.

Meanwhile, LeBron was asked about whether he thought having microphones record those types of conversations between players was good for the league. He was less than enthused.

Via Cleveland.com (response is at 0:50 in the video above):

Some things could be held private. Like my conversation with Lonzo. Everything doesn’t need to be said. Should be some type of privacy. I’m OK with it.

It does raise an interesting question in terms of player privacy and separation between media, fans, and players. On one hand, you could see how what they say on the floor, in a public arena meant for spectators, could be deemed public and therefore fair game.

But it’s also common for media not to publish — or for TV not to broadcast — the things players say during the game. We don’t hear trash talking, even if we see it, and if you’ve ever sat near the floor at an NBA game you hear a lot more colorful language than you do watching the game on TV.

However you come down player privacy on the court, it doesn’t seem like LeBron needed to speak with Ball in front of media like that. He could have spoken to him in the tunnels below the Q, or got his phone number and texted him. He could have sent him a DM on Twitter and it would have been more private.

It feels like there was a performative aspect to this, like LeBron wanted to create a mystery around his conversation with Lonzo but it got turned on its head. It’s just too bad what was said between them wasn’t actually that interesting.

LeBron James on possibly winning fifth MVP this season: ‘It would mean a lot’

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LeBron James is destroying the NBA’s traditional aging curve. Over the years and looking at thousands of players, we know that at certain ages and years in the league, guys start to decline. Look at the guys still in the league from the 2003 NBA draft: players still in the league, such as Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, are seeing their games deteriorate in their 15th NBA season. As expected.

Not LeBron.

About to turn 33 and having played more regular season games than Michael Jordan did, LeBron is averaging 28.1 points, 9.3 assists and 8.1 rebounds a game, with a true shooting percentage of 65.9 that would be a career high, and a PER of 31.5 that is right at his career high for a season (31.7). LeBron has not lost a step.

LeBron is in the middle of the too-early MVP conversation, where he and Houston’s James Harden have separated from the field a third of the way into the season. At shootaround Saturday LeBron said winning the NBA MVP for a fifth time would matter to him, but what he really likes doing is opening the door to future NBA players to blow up the aging curve. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“Team success is always the number one, but along the way if you’re able to accomplish some individual awards, individual achievements, it would mean a lot,” James said after Saturday’s practice. “I feel good. This is my 15th year, but this is one of the best years I’ve had as far as how I feel and I want to continue that. I want to kind of try to break the mold for the next generation. So just take the narrative out of ‘OK, you’re past your prime when you get [to] 31, or you’re past your prime in your 12th year in the league, or whatever the case may be.’ Hopefully I can break the mold so when the next guy comes, he can still get 200 or 300 million and be 33 years old. I’m serious. You guys are laughing, I’m serious. This is the mold I’m trying to break.”

He’s broken it.

Part of it is that today’s players know more about nutrition and training than past generations. They tend to take better care of their bodies, there are improved medical treatments, and much better diets — and nobody takes all that more seriously than LeBron.

Also, he is a physical freak of nature. Always has been.

It’s too early to have a serious MVP conversation, we have two-thirds of the season remaining, but as of now LeBron and Harden are the front runners (with guys such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis and others on the next tier). If LeBron can keep up this level of play, and continues to carry the Cavaliers to a top two record in the East, he will be one of the top vote-getters. No question.

And that would break a mold, too, and put him in a conversation with Michael Jordan again (Jordan won five MVPs, the oldest at age 35).