Three questions the Dallas Mavericks must answer this season

Associated Press
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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer this season to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last season: 33-49, did not make playoffs

I know what you did last summer: The biggest move was drafting Dennis Smith Jr. at No. 9, a point guard who the Mavs are very high on (and who stood out at Summer League). They also re-signed the legend Dirk Nowitzki for two-years, $5 million per year, a discounted deal (with a player option for the second year). They also signed veterans Josh McRoberts and Jeff Withey,

THREE QUESTIONS THE MAVERICKS MUST ANSWER:

1) Just how good is Derrick Smith Jr.? Franchise cornerstone good? Dallas is rebuilding, they make no bones about it. There is going to be a season (or two) of goodbyes to the legendary Dirk Nowitzki, but this is really like the Lakers the final season of Kobe Bryant — they were selling the farewell, but for the franchise player development was what mattered. (Dirk will likely get in the way of that less than Kobe.)

How fast that rebuilding goes will start with just how good Smith is. He fell to No. 9 in part because he was coming off surgery and he was not quite himself in college, and Dallas was thrilled they had him higher on their board. By Summer League Smith felt right and was one of the most explosive rookies out there. A lot of fan bases were wondering how he slipped past them and down to ninth. Some owners were asking that, too. Is this another elite point guard who slid down the board?

Rick Carlisle will start Smith from Day 1 and has used the word cornerstone with him. Smith should be able to score, but can he do it efficiently at the next level? Can he be a playmaker? How will he handle being coached by Rick Carlisle, one of the best Xs and Os guys in the league but because of that a guy who can be hard on point guards? There are a lot of questions and it’s going to be a process, but we will start to get a sense of just how good Smith can be, and with that just how quickly the turnaround in Dallas might go.

2) Nerlens Noel bet on himself, that might be good for Dallas but is it good for Noel? Noel was one of the many players who misread the market this summer. The previous summer big men were overpaid — Bismack Biyambo got four years, $72 million; Timofey Mozgov four years, $64 million — and the athletic, shot-blocking big man thought it was his turn. When free agency opened Noel was offered four years, around $70 million — I heard that from sources and there have been multiple such reports — but when Noel asked for the max the deal went away. He ended up switching agents and singing the qualifying offer for a fraction of that money, but he will be a free agent next summer.

Noel can be a defensive force and shot blocker in the paint, but he has a limited offensive game — he can set the pick, roll, and finish an alley-oop. Think poor man’s DeAndre Jordan. However, Jordan worked because he had Chris Paul feeding him passes and knowing how to use his picks — can Noel start to develop that kind of chemistry with Smith? If so, he may have more value to the Mavs next summer. However, to start the season Noel is expected to come off the bench.

One quick aside, I doubt Noel will find a deal as good as four-years. $70 million next summer either, unless he has a breakout season. The reality is that the market is going to be tight next summer (only about eight teams will have max contract money, not all needing bigs) and on the market will be DeMarcus Cousins, maybe DeAndre Jordan (he is talking extension with the Clippers), Brook Lopez and others. By the time teams turn to Noel, there may not be much money left. It’s not 2016 anymore.

3) Can Harrison Barnes take the next step and be a good playmaker? Heading into last season, the question was if Barnes was worth the big contract — he was good as a role player in Golden State where he got good looks because of the gravity of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, but was he ready to be the No. 1 option? The answer was yes — Dallas ran a lot of the old Nowitzki plays for Barnes and it worked. Barnes averaged 19.2 points per game, had a solid true shooting percentage of 54.1%, he was fantastic shooting late in the shot clock, and he was one of the league’s better isolation scorers — nearly a quarter of his shots came in isolation and he average 0.93 points per possession that way according to Synergy Sports (a good number). He was also strong in the post.

The question for him now is can he be a distributor, too? Barnes told NBC Sports early last season he knew that was what he needed to do, but that this was something that would take game time to learn (you can’t simulate that the same way with drills). If he and Smith can develop chemistry and get guys like Seth Curry and Wesley Matthews (when healthy) good shots, this offense can start to click. The Mavericks are not going to be a playoff team, but if Smith and Barnes have some real chemistry they get there a lot sooner.

Thunder rookie Holmgren trying to focus on learning NBA during rehab

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Thunder rookie Chet Holmgren is experiencing the rehab process for the first time.

The No. 2 pick in the 2022 NBA draft suffered a right foot injury during a pro-am game in August while defending as LeBron James drove to the basket on a fast break. He had surgery, and the Thunder declared him out for the season.

“I’ve never had a serious injury in my life, so I didn’t really know, I had nothing to base it off of and compare to,” Holmgren said Thursday. “So when it happened, I had to get it looked at and see how serious it was. I didn’t imagine anything like this.”

Holmgren, a versatile 7-footer who had great moments during summer league, is dealing with being sidelined as the Thunder start training camp this week.

“Definitely something that I really had to put my mind to and spend some time to think on,” he said. “And kind of come to some conclusions on things and really settle my mind so I could kind of stop focusing on what happened and focus in on what’s going to happen, what I’ve got to do to get where I need to be.”

Even without practicing, he has already left an impression on his teammates.

“He’s a great guy,” guard Lu Dort said. “I can already feel a connection with me and the rest of the team. He’s a pretty vocal guy, too. He talks a lot, and that’s good for the team.”

Holmgren said his only workout limitation is that he can’t put weight on the injured foot. So, that forces him to focus on other aspects of the game. Coach Mark Daigneault said Holmgren has been working hard on film study.

“It just comes down to putting my mental energy towards it, learning how to really be a professional in areas off the court,” Holmgren said. “I’ve dedicated so much time to really hustling at my craft on the court. Now, this event is making me step back and kind of rework how how I do things. And one of those ways is to become professional with watching film and speaking with coaches, trying to learn, watching what’s happening and really being engaged, in trying to get better with different avenues.”

Holmgren has spoken with Joel Embiid about his injury. Embiid, the reigning NBA scoring champion, was the No. 3 pick in 2014 before missing his first two seasons with foot issues.

Holmgren hopes he can recover as well as Embiid.

“What I’m trying to do right now is just kind of soak up all the knowledge of how things are done around here, how they’re going to be done going forward,” Holmgren said. “So when I’m ready to get get back in there, I can just kind of seamlessly plug myself in.”

Holmgren is expected to be ready for the start of next season. He said he’s trying to keep his thoughts positive.

“It all comes down to keeping a level head because there’s so many ups and downs,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is a down. But I’ve got to keep my head level and focus on getting better. And no matter what the circumstances are, that’s the goal.”

Daigneault believes Holmgren’s mindset will net positive results.

“We’d like him to be out here,” Daigneault said. “But since he’s not, we’re certainly going to make a lot of investments, and the thing that makes me the most optimistic about that is the approach that he takes.”

Houston acquires 2025 2nd-round pick in eight-player trade with Thunder

Oklahoma City Thunder v Sacramento Kings
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ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski described this as a “cap-centric deal” since it helped the Thunder get around $10 million below the luxury tax, while Houston added a 2nd-round pick by taking on $1 million in cap space.

The Rockets acquired Derrick Favors, Ty Jerome, Moe Harkless, Theo Maledon and a protected 2025 2nd-round pick from the Hawks and sent David Nwaba, Sterling Brown, Trey Burke and Marquese Chriss to Oklahoma City.

The 2nd-rounder from Atlanta is protected 31-40, and it will become the second best 2026 2nd-round pick between the Mavericks, Thunder, and 76ers if it doesn’t convey in 2025.

A tweet from Jackson Gatlin of Locked On Rockets indicates that Houston will also receive $6.3 million in cash from the Thunder.

Previous reports indicated that Derrick Favors was unlikely to remain with the Thunder this season, while Ty Jerome wasn’t participating in training camp as his representatives worked with the team to find an exit strategy for him. Kelly Iko of The Athletic reported that Houston plans to waive Jerome. Harkless was traded for the third time this summer. He was dealt from Sacramento to Atlanta in July as part of the Kevin Huerter deal, and then was shipped to OKC for Vit Krejci earlier this week. Hopefully he’ll be able to settle in with Houston this season.

As he enters his seventh season, this will be the sixth team that Nwaba has suited up for. The journeyman has had a few solid seasons, including averaging 9.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.0 steals for Houston during the 2020-21 season. Among the players in the deal, he’s the most likely candidate to carve out a role on his new team next season.

Brown, Burke, and Chriss were already traded once this summer as part of the deal that said Christian Wood to Dallas. Now, they’ll be depth pieces in Oklahoma City if the team decides to keep them around.

Daily Thunder’s beat writer Brandon Rahbar pointed out that the trade wouldn’t have been possible without the Disabled Player Exception that the Thunder received because of Chet Holmgren’s injury.

Spurs’ Josh Primo out for preseason with left knee MCL sprain

Golden State Warriors v San Antonio Spurs
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Josh Primo is going to get his chance this season. The Spurs are rebuilding — even Gregg Popovich says not to bet on them to win the title — and Primo, entering his second season (and still 19), is one of the most promising young players on their roster, someone with the chance to be part of whatever will be built in San Antonio the future. He just needs more experience.

Unfortunately, he’s going to start this season half a step behind after missing most of training camp due to a sprained left MCL, the team announced Thursday. He is expected to return in time for the season opener, according to the team.

Promo, the No. 12 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, got into 50 games for the Spurs last season and averaged 5.8 points a game but wasn’t very efficient with his shot yet. He also spent a lot of time in the G-League (but then had to miss this past Summer League due to COVID).

With Dejounte Murray now in Atlanta, there is not only a starting spot open but also opportunities to run the offense — Primo is going to get a chance to show what he can do with that. It’s just not going to be for a little while due to his knee sprain.

Anthony Davis ‘excited’ to be Lakers’ No.1 offensive option, LeBron pushing him to do it

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Is Anthony Davis a No.1 offensive option on a championship team?

The Lakers made a massive bet in trading for Davis — both in good young players and picks — that he could help them win a title now and be the bridge to the future post-LeBron James. Davis was everything the Lakers hoped in the bubble and did win them banner No. 17. However, he has not stayed healthy or consistently played up to that standard.

New Lakers coach Darvin Ham is betting on Davis again and is going to run more of the offense through him this season. LeBron James reportedly backs Ham up. Can Davis stay healthy, find that form again and look like that bridge to the future? If he can’t, the Lakers have to reconsider their post-LeBron plans. That’s why there is pressure on Davis this season.

Davis is excited to prove he is ready for the role, he told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports. He added LeBron is pushing him to do it.

“I’m so excited that I’ve got goosebumps just thinking about this year,” Davis told Yahoo Sports this week. “I’m looking forward to a healthy year and doing what I know we can do.”…

Davis said James, 37, has been in his ear about taking over the reins of the team, while the rest of the roster would follow his lead.

The first step in Davis being that No.1 option: Staying healthy. He played 40 games last season and 36 the season before that. While some of that was due to fluke injuries, the history of Davis missing time is long.

When healthy, Davis is an unquestionably elite player — to use the bubble example, Davis was a defensive force in Orlando who knocked down midrange jumpers after facing up, averaging 27.7 points on a 66.5 true shooting percentage, plus grabbed 9.7 rebounds a game. That is the AD the Lakers need this season.

Which can be a lot of pressure, but Davis said he doesn’t feel that.

“But for me, I’m not putting any pressure on myself at all,” Davis said at media day. “I’m gonna go out there and play basketball, work hard, defend and do what the team needs to win basketball games. I’m not going to overthink and, you know, listen to what everybody else is saying and try to be this ‘whatever’ player they want me to be.”

“Whatever” the Lakers want Davis to be is the Top 10 player in the world he has shown for stretches in Los Angeles. If he can be consistent, that Davis helps the Lakers be more of a threat in the West. If Davis can’t be that guy, it could be another long season for Lakers nation.