NBA Season Preview: The Dallas Mavericks

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Last season: 55-27, which was enough to nab the West’s second seed before losing a tight series to the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. It was Dallas’ tenth consecutive 50-win season, but also their fourth first-round exit over that same span.

Head Coach: Rick Carlisle, an excellent coach driven by detail, famous for both getting the most out of his roster and neglecting certain corners of it. Few coaches are as skilled in adapting their game plan mid-season, but Carlisle famously neglected to make Mavs rookie Rodrigue Beaubois a consistent part of the rotation despite his fantastic play, just as he neglected to let Tayshaun Prince sit at the adult table back in 2003.

Key Departures: Erick Dampier, Erick Dampier’s instantly expiring contract, Eduardo Najera, another year of production from an aging core.

Key Additions: Tyson Chandler, Dominique Jones, familiarity for Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood, and a more deserving role (and the accompanying minutes) for Rodrigue Beaubois.

Best case scenario: Dallas is the clear-cut No. 2 in the West for most of the season, and a Laker implosion vaunts Dallas into consideration as the conference’s “team-to-beat.”

For that to happen: Carlisle will need to find the optimal manner in which to combine all kinds of useful, versatile talents, and each of those pieces will need to perform up to their capabilities.

Dallas is so deep and talented that no one really needs to max out in order for the team to be successful this season, but each of the pieces does need to fit just so and fill in as Dirk Nowtizki’s second fiddle by committee. Tom Ziller of NBA FanHouse illustrated that last point beautifully in a September installment of The Works; the thing that separates the Lakers from the Mavs is not overall depth, but second-tier talent. Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Caron Butler, Shawn Marion, Brendan Haywood, Tyson Chandler, and Rodrigue Beaubois are effective and productive players, but they’re no Pau Gasol. Some aren’t even a Lamar Odom or a Ron Artest. Dallas has enough talent on its roster to finish the marathon regular season with an excellent time, but when things turn into an all-out sprint come April? The rotations tighten, the top players have to produce in spite of opposing teams teching specifically against them (and only them), and proper preparation allows opponents to exploit previously unknown (or ignored) weaknesses.

Say what you will about it being a two-superstar system or a three-superstar system or some alternative model, but Dirk Nowitzki needs a top-flight sidekick for the Mavs to be contenders, and no player currently under Mark Cuban’s employ was able to succeed in that capacity last season.

Then again, the same could probably be said of the 2006 Mavs, a team that battled through the West to make it all the way to the NBA finals, or the 2007 Mavs, a squad that won 67 regular season games before running into a match-up nightmare in the first round of the playoffs. This year’s Lakers provide a tougher opponent than anything the Mavs saw in ’06 or ’07, but overall, this Dallas team has more talent in all the right places.

They may not have Devin Harris, but they have a combination of Jason Kidd and Rodrigue Beaubois. They may not have Josh Howard, but they have a superior duo in Caron Butler and Shawn Marion. They may not have Erick Dampier and DeSagana Diop (just in case you happen to remember the days in which Diop was an actually effective defensive big), but they have Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler. This team has enough going for it to mount an impressive playoff run, and the biggest point of differentiation between this year’s team and the most successful Dallas models is the mere presence of the Lakers.

Take L.A. out of the picture — by injury, infighting, or simply a premature playoff exit — and Dallas has a shot. I’m not sure how the Mavs would get past the Celtics, Magic, or Heat even if they did manage to make an unexpected surge to the finals, but getting there would be something in itself.

More likely the Mavs will: Win 50+ games yet again, improve their standing (but not their position in the standings, where Dallas finished 2nd in the West) relative to a year ago, and still watch the Lakers waltz to the finals.

It’s nothing against the Mavs. This is a solid team, through and through. L.A. is just very, very good, and the rest of the West is formidable as well. So even if Dallas does have a successful season by most standards, they could still see their run ended by the superior outfit. You can blame the differences in approach, the personnel acquired, or the Pau Gasol trade, but barring a huge (and I do mean huge) boost from Rodrigue Beaubois and rookie Dominique Jones, Dallas will hang out in the waiting room with San Antonio, Portland, and the other would-be contenders in the West.

You can expect Dallas to improve in plenty of areas, regardless. A full training camp and season experience for Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood should help them feel more at home in Carlisle’s system, a point which shouldn’t be underestimated. Last year’s offense and defense — both of which ranged from ‘average’ to ‘good, not great’ — should improve with that familiarity and the additions of Chandler and Jones, but again, they likely won’t improve enough to significantly change the Mavs’ fate. Dallas will likely improve their rebounding rate from a season ago, if only because Dallas’ performance on the offensive glass last season was very disappointing (they ranked 26th in the league in offensive rebounding rate) even by this team’s standards, and Tyson Chandler happens to have a knack for hitting the glass on that end.

Also, Rodrigue Beaubois, and hopefully lots of him.

Ultimately, you’re looking at a squad that will be fairly similar to last year’s team in approach, but a tad superior in execution.

Prediction: 53-29. Good (better even, despite one fewer win from last season), but for those with eyes toward titles and titles alone, not good enough.

Michelle Roberts says if you don’t like player movement blame owners, too

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Last summer was one of the wildest offseasons in NBA history, maybe the wildest, and the headline was player empowerment. Anthony Davis pushed his way to the Lakers, Paul George forced his way out of Oklahoma City to go to the Clippers and join Kawhi Leonard, which soon had Russell Westbrook joining his old teammate James Harden in Houston. It led to frustration by some owners and changes in how the NBA will handle tampering.

Except, by choice is not how most players change teams. While AD or George has the leverage to make a power play — because of their exceptional talent — most of the time players are traded because the owner/team has all the power and can uproot players for whatever reason (basketball reasons sometimes, saving money other times). The stars have free agent options, rotation players much less so in that system.

Michelle Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players’ Association, wants you to remember that it’s not just player power that has led to the increase in player movement, as she told Mark Spears of The Undefeated.

Michele Roberts, told The Undefeated that she believes there is a “double standard” between how stars are viewed when they decide to move on compared with when franchises choose to make a major transaction, adding that team owners “continue to view players as property.”

“If you want to be critical of one, be critical of both,” Roberts said from the NBPA’s offices in Manhattan. “Those of us who made decisions to move, it’s really astounding to even consider what it feels like to be told in the middle of your life you are going to have to move. But that’s the business we’re in. …

“No one seems to spend a lot of time thinking about what it’s like to make those kinds of moves completely involuntarily. You volunteer to play or not play. But, yeah, if it’s still the case that if you think you’ve got to suck it up, player, then, hell, you’ve got to suck it up, team.”

She’s right. From Chris Paul to Blake Griffin, plenty of big stars have been moved against their will. The door swings both ways, but in those cases most fans tended to see why and like what the teams did. Those fans like it less when players do the same thing.

There’s also a classic labor vs. management angle to all this, which has political overtones.

For my money, how one views player movement tends to be part generational and part where you live.

Older fans remember days — or, at least think they remember days — when players stayed with teams for much or all of their career. It’s understandable, fans form a bond with players and want them to stay… while they’re still good and useful, after that fans beg ownership to get the “dead weight off the books.” Players before the late 1980s stayed with teams because they didn’t have a choice — for Bill Russell in the 60s or Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 1980s, free agency was not an option. And for every Kobe Bryant that did stay with a team, there were a lot more Wilts and Shaqs, who were traded several times and played with multiple teams.

Younger fans (generally, nothing is universal) are okay with the player movement, sometimes are more fans of a player than a team, and like the action and buzz of all the trades.

Location matters because if you’re in Oklahoma City there’s reason to not like what George did and the era of player empowerment. New Orleans fans can feel the same way (although part of that case is the “supermax” contract that owners wanted but really forced up the timeline on teams and players to make a decision on paying stars). But fans in Los Angeles or wherever players ultimately choose to go will feel differently. Fans want what’s best for their team, but there is no way in the star culture of the NBA to wash away the lure of big markets or of teaming up with another elite player.

The NBA dynamic is different from the NFL’s (for now), but it’s not changing. LeBron James helped usher in an era of player empowerment and it’s the new reality for the NBA, one the best franchises will adapt to rather than fight.

Evan Fournier says that Frank Ntilikina just ‘needs a real opportunity’

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New York Knicks fans haven’t had a lot to cheer for recently. The team traded away Kristaps Porzingis, who is thought to be the franchise cornerstone. Now they move forward with a young core, RJ Barrett, and tons of cap space.

So what does that mean for players who have been around in the Big Apple like Frank Ntilikina?

Based on how Ntilikina played in the 2019 FIBA World Cup for France this year, things might be looking up.

Ntilikina’s statistics weren’t eye-popping, but he was seen as a very solid player in a backcourt that helped propel France to the bronze medal in China.

To that end, fellow countrymen Evan Fournier thinks that all Ntilikina needs is a chance to shine.

Via Twitter:

Ntilikina’s season last year was marred by injuries, and he played in just 43 games. Still, he has the physical tools to be a useful NBA player, and he’s just 21 years old. With the surprisingly low-pressure situation in New York, it’s possible that extended time playing in the World Cup could help aid what Ntilikina is able to produce next season for the Knicks.

Report: Lakers receive DeMarcus Cousins disabled-player exception

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A chance at a championship. LeBron James. Anthony Davis. The Los Angeles market. Great weather.

The Lakers can offer plenty to anyone who gets bought out this season.

Now, the Lakers – who lost DeMarcus Cousins to a torn ACL – get a mechanism to offer post-buyout players more money.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The exception holds little value presently. It’s worth less than a full-season minimum salary for anyone with more than four years experience.

But minimum-salary and mid-level exceptions decline throughout the season. This exception does not.

So, on March 1, a team with only a minimum slot available can offer a free agent just between $233,459 and $666,546 (depending on the player’s experience level). The Lakers can offer $1.75 million.

This means an NBA-appointed doctor ruled Cousins is “substantially more likely than not” to be out through June 15. Given that prognosis, the Lakers could open a roster spot by waiving Cousins, who’s on a one-year deal and facing a domestic-violence charge. They’d still keep the exception.

If Cousins can return more quickly than expected, he’d be eligible to play, whether or not the Lakers use the exception.

Damian Lillard says he plans to play for Team USA in 2020 Olympics

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Stephen Curry said he wants to play for Team USA in the 2020 Olympics.

He isn’t the only star point guard eager for Tokyo.

Damian Lillard, via James McKern of news.com.au:

“I plan on being a part of that. I plan on playing,” Lillard said

Though neither Curry nor Lillard played for Team USA in this year’s World Cup, there’s a potentially large difference: Curry never agreed to play. Lillard did then withdrew. USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo indicated particular scorn for players who decommitted.

Of course, Colangelo also wants to win. That might require swallowing his pride and accepting players who withdrew this year. He has talked tough in the past about players who didn’t show his desired devotion to USA Basketball. Lillard got cut in 2014 then missed the 2016 Olympics citing injury. It can be difficult to determine which absences Colangelo forgives.

One factor working against Lillard: The Americans’ point guard pool is deep. Curry rates higher. Kemba Walker earned respect by playing in the World Cup. James Harden (who also withdrew from the World Cup) and Kyrie Irving also factor.

I expect Colangelo to operate on a sliding scale: The better the player, the less prior commitment to USA Basketball necessary. Lillard is an excellent player. We’ll see how far that gets him.

And whether he’ll even want to play next year. The reasons for playing – pride of representing your country, prestige marketing opportunities – are more obvious now. The reasons not to play – injury, fatigue, personal commitments – are more likely to emerge closer to the Games.