PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:
There was a time, just a few years ago, when the answer to this question was “it doesn’t matter, they have Dirk Nowitzki.”
It’s not anymore. Nowitzki is still good — he averaged 17.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists a game last season — but he has slipped from the ranks of “top-5, can carry a team all by himself” status. If you watched him last season, you saw him miss more open looks than anyone remembers. According to the shot tracking stats at NBA.com, Nowitzki hit 47 percent of his open looks on two-pointers last season — when the defender was 4-6 feet away — which is well down from 52 percent the season before. He hit just 42 percent of his open jumpers inside 10 feet. He missed more of his isolation jumpers. The shots just were not falling at the same rate as they did with the Mavs title team in 2011 or the next couple seasons, and at age 37 the slide is likely to continue.
Nowitzki needs help. And that’s where the health of Wesley Matthews and Chandler Parsons will decide the potential playoff fate of Dallas. (The health and play of Deron Williams will be the other key part of any playoff push.)
If healthy and playing near their peaks, Parsons and Matthews provide quality wing scoring and defensive options that Rick Carlisle would deploy brilliantly to space the floor and exploit mismatches. If D-Will and Nowitzki run a pick-and-pop, Matthews is spacing the floor at the arc and Parsons makes a smart cut to the basket, it’s not going to be easy to defend.
But will Parsons and Matthews be healthy enough to make that a reality?
Dallas went the full Bill Belichick on Parson’s injury, trying to keep secret what was actually done for reasons only they and the Illuminati know. It turns out to have been a hybrid microfracture surgery on a non-weight-bearing part of his knee, which is a good thing for Mavs fans. Parsons still is not cutting and jumping at full speed, but he should be able to play at the start of the season, if not very soon after.
Matthews is recovering from a torn Achilles and his timetable stretches out further. What Rick Carlisle said the other day seemed slightly misconstrued, he said Matthews will be back on the court by Christmas, but that is likely sooner. Matthews has tried to push for the start of the season, but Thanksgiving may be more realistic.
The bigger question is can these guys return to peak form quickly following their return?
History says no. Guys coming off microfracture tend to take some time to fully trust that knee again (as with other knee injuries) and they can be somewhat limited for a while. That timeline stretches out even further with guys coming back from a torn Achilles —most players are never quite as explosive or quick again, and even the few that have gotten the full measure of their athleticism back have taken a while to reach that point.
Dallas does not have much depth behind these two guys — Justin Anderson and John Jenkins are your primary backups. Williams can play some at the two if J.J. Barea is at the point (and I expect we will see a lot of guard-heavy lineups early in the season from Dallas), but none of these options are particularly threatening to opponents.
The other problem for Dallas is they are in the West — if they get off to a slow start without their two best wing players, it may be hard to dig out of the hole in the second half and get back into playoff contention.
Dallas likely will battle Utah and Phoenix for the eight seed in the West (this assumes that the Warriors, Clippers, Spurs, Rockets, Thunder, Grizzlies, and Pelicans will make it and fill in the top seven seeds in some order). It’s likely going to take 46 or more wins to make the cut.
If Dallas is going to get to that number, they need a lot of things to go right. Nowitzki can’t decline much, D-Will needs to bounce back, someone has to step up as a defensive stopper in the paint, and they are going to need big seasons out of Parsons and Matthews. I think those two will play well together and lift this team, particularly after the All-Star break when they are healthy and recovered. That should have Dallas in the mix for the playoffs in the West.
But I’ve got a feeling it will be too little, too late to earn an invite to the postseason dance by beating out younger, healthier teams.