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Three questions the Dallas Mavericks must answer this season

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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.

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.