NBA Season Preview: Dallas Mavericks

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Last Season: Coming off their incredible championship season, the Mavericks let defensive anchor Tyson Chandler go to New York in order to retain future cap flexibility. While that decision certainly hurt the chances of a true title defense, the acquisition of Lamar Odom probably buried it altogether. Despite those massive offseason failings, the veteran Mavs grinded out the regular season and survived a few nagging injuries en route to a return appearance to the playoffs. The young Thunder would ultimately take out the reigning champs, but the Mavs put up a strong fight and proved once again that if you have Dirk Nowitzki, you have a chance.

Key Departures: The championship backcourt is now completely gone. Jason Terry was the Mavericks second best offensive option by a wide margin, and now he’s in Boston. That hurts, but Jason Kidd joining Chandler in New York also deprives the Mavs of some stability on both ends of the floor. Backup big man Ian Mahinmi is now in Indiana. Shipping Lamar Odom back to Los Angeles was addition by subtraction.

Key Additions: The Mavericks went into scramble mode after swinging and missing for Deron Williams, but considering the circumstances, they added some nice pieces. You could make a strong case that Elton Brand was the Defensive Player of the Year last season, and although he’s a different type of defender, he’ll fill a void that was left unfilled by Chandler’s departure last year. The Mavs also added Dirk’s German Olympic teammate Chris Kaman to the frontcourt, who should provide some stretch if he can somehow manage to finally stay healthy. Lightning bug Darren Collison will take over as starting point guard, and O.J. Mayo gets a chance to live up to the hype and fill the Jet’s shoes as a big time scorer.

Three Keys to the Mavericks season:

1) Will the defense be elite?

It’s not easy to build a top defense with so many rotating parts, but Rick Carlisle’s defensive schemes are more important than the individual personnel. Dallas ranked second in defensive efficiency in the West last season (8th overall) despite trotting out a few undesirable defenders on the wing (Terry and Vince Carter), missing Kidd for much of the year, and having no real “plus” defender regularly on the court outside of Shawn Marion and Delonte West. It’s scary, but the Mavericks should be even better defensively this season and really have legitimate top 5 defensive efficiency potential. Collison will provide plenty of ball pressure and annoy opposing point guards, while O.J. Mayo is capable of playing a very physical style of perimeter defense when he’s motivated to do so. Kaman and Brand have years of experience playing together from their Clipper days and should solidify the backline. The defensive ace in the hole here is second round draft pick Jae Crowder, who can help the Mavs tremendously when they employ the trapping schemes this defense is built on.

2) A few veterans are still there, but it’s time to focus on developing young talent.

What direction is this going? Dirk Nowitzki has at least one or two killer seasons left in him, but he’ll soon be approaching the twilight of his career. Although it may not always be pretty, the Mavs would be well served to really see what they have in guys like Rodrigue Beaubois, Jared Cunningham, Dominique Jones and Jae Crowder and begin to wean themselves off of Carter, Marion and West. The great Mavericks rebuild looks more and more inevitable by the day, but it can’t truly begin until the Mavericks know if they have future pieces in place right now.

3) Can Dirk carry even more of the load offensively?

Already a high usage player (29.21 usage percentage, 13th in league), Nowitzki will be relied upon even more than usual to pace the Mavericks offensively. Although a 34-year-old with knee trouble taking that much of the scoring load would typically set off all kinds of alarms, no one makes more impossible shots than Nowitzki. He’s indefensible in the sense that degree of difficulty means nothing to him, as evidenced by his insane shooting percentages from 16-23 feet over his career (50 percent last year), which is the most inefficient shot in basketball for regular humans. All that said, Nowitzki is already slated to miss time this season, and the Mavs are ill-equipped to handle that. Can O.J. Mayo step up as a number one option? It’s a scary thought, but it may be a reality for the Mavericks, who could sport one of the league’s worst offenses (20th in offensive efficiency last year with Terry) without Dirk’s magic touch.

What Mavericks fans should fear: Basketball purgatory. The Mavericks don’t have enough offensive punch to be considered among the West’s elite any more, even though their defense is good enough to have them battle it out with Utah and Minnesota for one of the last seeds out West. Dallas is a franchise truly tied to their one star — if Nowitzki is healthy and at his best, they’ve got a puncher’s chance against anyone. But with that blue sky looking less and less likely, the Mavericks may be headed for another first round exit or a narrow miss of the playoffs, and may have an ugly decision awaiting them that their fanbase won’t love.

How it likely works out: Carlisle and Nowitzki should keep the ship afloat for another year and have the Mavs contend for a playoff spot, but the big challenges will come during survival mode without Nowitzki. So long as their big star is still in big D, the Mavs can’t truly justify being a seller or a buyer at the deadline, so they may just have to punt this season and hope they don’t butcher another chance this summer to acquire a star.

Prediction: 43-39, winning the 8th seed in a battle with Minnesota down the stretch. Another first round tilt with the Thunder would likely be on deck, which would spell doom for the Mavs hopes at another miraculous playoff run.

Pelicans reportedly pick up option year on coach Alvin Gentry

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David Griffin, the guy with the hammer in New Orleans, likes Alvin Gentry. They have a relationship that goes back to Phoenix, where Gentry was the coach and Griffin was in the front office (and was eventually GM).

Gentry also has a style of play — he wants to run and be up-tempo. That should fit very well with soon-to-be No. 1 draft pick Zion Williamson.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise the Griffin and the Pelicans want to keep Gentry around, as reported by Malika Andrews of ESPN.

This is another smart, stabilizing move by Griffin. The Pelicans want to build an athletic, fast-paced team and Gentry is the right coach for that style.  Maybe it doesn’t pan out, maybe the Pelicans ultimately need to go another direction with their coach, but right now this seems a good fit.

Report: Utah “frontrunner” to land Mike Conley Jr. if Memphis trades him this week

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Utah feels like it is close — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. They look at the West next season, with a depleted Warriors team, and see an opening.

Yet when Utah fell to Houston 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this year, it was reminded of what is keeping the team from being truly elite, and another shot creator and shooter is at the top of that list.

Enter Mike Conley Jr. He averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three, and plays strong defense. Conley would be an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the spot.

The almost All-Star point guard out of Memphis is available via trade. He’s the kind of veteran floor general, shooter, and shot creator Utah could use. The Jazz and Grizzlies talked but couldn’t come to an agreement at the trade deadline, but the sides are talking again and conversations are “intensifying” in the run-up to the NBA Draft Thursday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Grizzlies are intensifying talks to potentially move franchise cornerstone Mike Conley Jr., league sources told The Athletic. Memphis has been in conversations with the Jazz and Utah is a frontrunner to acquire Conley should the Grizzlies trade the point guard during draft week, league sources said.

What would be in a trade package? Certainly the No. 23 pick in this draft, plus some young players the Grizzlies like (maybe Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neal, and even someone like Jae Crowder. Reports say Derick Favors is not part of the discussion.

While anything can happen the week of the draft — and things change quickly — don’t be surprised if some version of this trade gets done.

Kawhi Leonard wins day with last laugh — his viral laugh — at end of speech

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Kawhi Leonard just won again.

He won his second NBA title leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first crown. He earned his second Finals MVP in the process.

Then on Monday he had the last laugh and won the Raptors’ championship parade in Toronto by ending his speech with his laugh, the same one that went viral at the start of the season.

Of course, what Leonard will do on July 1 was a cloud hanging over the parade, Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry at one point started a “five more years” chant during the parade, which is the maximum number of years Toronto can re-sign Leonard for.

Leonard, exactly as we all should have expected, dodged the question, while praising his time in Toronto.

Unfortunately, this was a parade marred by more serious concerns.

How corrosive is tension between James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston?

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Golden State is not going to be contending for a title next season. Sorry Stephen, but you’re just not.

That throws open the doors to the West crown and, eventually, the NBA title, and teams will be lining up to take their shots. The Lakers just added Anthony Davis to go with LeBron James. Denver should improve and is looking for wing help. Utah feels just one playmaker away. The Clippers are big game hunting, and if they land one they become a threat.

Houston, however, should be at the front of that line… if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. Contract extension talks with coach Mike D’Antoni are stalled, and at ESPN Tim MacMahon put together a fascinating inside look at the tension between at his isolation-heavy and at his peak James Harden and the intense but declining Chris Paul.

But Paul noticeably lost a step last season, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.

“Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. “James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.'”…

It has reached a point, team sources say, where Paul cherishes the chance to play without Harden on the floor. On several occasions, according to team sources, Paul barked at D’Antoni to keep Harden on the bench while he was running the second unit. Harden simultaneously would lobby — or demand — to check back into the game.

There’s tension there, but is it corrosive to the point of the team unraveling? Or, as GM Daryl Morey and everyone else with the Rockets says, is this just blown out of proportion? Time will tell.

Two things to point out.

First, tension between two stars and alpha personalities is far from new in the NBA (or any other professional sport), and it does not mean a team is in trouble. These things can be worked out, they just flared up more in the wake of the round two loss to the Warriors.

Second, these guys are stuck with each other. Obviously, the Rockets aren’t trading Harden. They would be open to trading CP3, but at age 34 and owed $124 million over three more seasons, there are no takers (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener, which they don’t). The players around them may change, the coach could change, but Harden and Paul have years left together.

This team is so close to a title, it’s hard to envision them really coming apart at the seams next season. These guys are too professional for that… although in wild NBA crazier things have happened.