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.