2018 Preview — Dallas Mavericks

2018-19 Dallas Mavericks


Projected Record: 35-47 (12th in West)

Over/Under: 34.5

2016: 24-58 (13th in West)


Key Additions:

  • Luca Doncic (Pick #3)
  • Jalen Brunson (Pick #33)
  • Ray Spalding (Pick #56)
  • Kostas Antetokounmpo (Pick #60)
  • DeAndre Jordan (Free Agency)
  • Devin Harris (Free Agency)
  • Ding Yanyuhang (Free Agency)

Key Subtractions:

  • Seth Curry
  • Doug McDermott
  • Yogi Ferrell
  • Nerlens Noel
  • Jonathan Motley
  • Kyle Collinsworth

Summary

Strengths:

  • Diverse offense with high upside
  • Luka Dončić and Dennis Smith Jr. have serious potential

Weaknesses:

  • Defense likely to be terrible
  • Lots of young players, which will make them volatile

The 2018-19 Dallas Mavericks have perfected the concept of “fun-bad.” Between the introduction of rookie phenom Luka Dončić, a second season for the electric Dennis Smith Jr., and a diverse group of offensive talents ranging from rookies Jalen Brunson and Ryan Broekhoff to elder statesmen Dirk Nowitzki and J.J. Barea, they’re going to put points on the board — even if they don’t get any stops in the process.

That is to say, the defense is the particularly big concern here. Dorian Finney-Smith has some solid potential as a wing stopper in the vein of, say, Luc Mbah a Moute, and advanced metrics adore Dwight Powell, but outside of that duo, there’s little to get excited about. Wes Matthews hasn’t been the same guy defensively since an Achilles injury sapped his mobility, Dončić may struggle initially to overcome a general lack of elite athleticism as a defender and DeAndre Jordan is no longer the defensive anchor he sometimes was in Los Angeles. As many points as the Mavs might be scoring, they’re likely to give up even more.

Then there’s Harrison Barnes, who seems to be miscast as a primary option for a Mavericks team with so many burgeoning playmakers. Barnes put together a few nice seasons as a fifth option on a couple loaded Warriors teams, but his Dallas iteration has become your stereotypical high-volume, average-efficiency wing scorer. Using 25% of the team’s possessions and chucking over 15 shots per game was fine when the Mavericks weren’t particularly interested in winning, but now that the team is starting to piece together the fruits of their ignominy, it seems less than conducive. Dallas was six points worse in net rating with Barnes on the court last season, but can they convince him to take a step back in favor of the new offensive hierarchy? It’s not like they’re going to find a buyer for the nearly $50 million he’s owed over the next two seasons.

There’s a temptation to bump the Mavericks up a few spots in the Western Conference this season, and I do understand it. People want fun teams to succeed. That said, I think the Mavericks are more like the Brooklyn Nets of the West; they’re on the right track, with a treasure trove of interesting young players and a strong coaching staff that should have them playing above their heads a little bit, but they’re not quite ready to turn those pieces into tangible results just yet — even with Dončić on board to run the show and former All-Star Jordan patrolling the paint.


Most Valuable Player: Luka Dončić

If you’ve spent much time in the hellscape that is Offseason NBA Twitter this summer, odds are you’ve seen more than your fair share of, ahh, “discourse” regarding the Mavs’ third overall pick. Dončić has been oddly polarizing — for most, it seems you either think he’s the greatest prospect in recent memory, or you think he’s vastly overrated by people who don’t “watch the games.”

I’m not exactly a member of either camp. I like Dončić quite a bit and would have considered him (or Jaren Jackson Jr.) with the first overall pick; he’s just a unique talent on the offensive end, who feels tailor-made for an NBA that can’t get enough versatile wings who can shoot, pass, and finish at the rim. At only 18 years old, he was making grown men look completely foolish in Euroleague play, and his learning curve shouldn’t be quite as steep as if he were coming from the NCAA.

That said, there are also valid concerns that are stuck in my head regarding Dončić, namely that he just isn’t an elite athlete. Some of his Euroleague highlights make him look worryingly slow. While his immense skill level will cover up any athletic deficiency on offense, it might be quite a bit harder for him to adapt to the all-important need for switchability in NBA defense. It’s been done before — a guy nicknamed “Slow-Mo” is an above-average defender in the NBA right now — but it’s still a challenge he’ll have to overcome.

X Factor: Dennis Smith Jr.

You know the season Donovan Mitchell had last year? That’s the kind of year I thought Dennis Smith Jr. was primed for when I tabbed him for Rookie of the Year last offseason.

Obviously things didn’t pan out that way, but Smith’s book is far from written. While he struggled mightily to adapt to a lead guard role as a rookie, shooting a miserable 29.2% from the field on the pull-up jumpers that made up 45% of his shot attempts, things will be different with the dawn of the Dončić era. Dončić is basically a point guard in his own right, and will open up a lot opportunities for Smith operate off the ball that he just didn’t have last season due to the lack of any other workable facilitators. He’ll allow the Mavs to set Smith up in situations he excelled at last season — Smith posted a respectable 53.9% effective field goal percentage on catch-and-shoot jumpers last year, and shot a blistering 64.2% within 10 feet of the basket. Both of those looks should be far more plentiful for him playing alongside Dončić.

While things appear to be lining up nicely on paper, though, it’s also up to Smith to make the necessary adjustments to succeed. He’s going to have to accept that the ball isn’t going to be in his hands quite as often this season, and when you’ve become accustomed to a usage percentage near 30%, that can be a tough pill to swallow. The Mavericks will no doubt be hoping Smith’s messy rookie season hasn’t engrained some bad habits — he’s too important to the long term outlook of the franchise.

Don’t Forget About: Dwight Powell

I’ve been a little all over the place with this “Don’t Forget About” section throughout this preview, because I don’t really have a concrete definition of who qualifies. By and large, it’s primarily meant for players who might be overlooked relative to the rest of the team, for one reason or another.

Powell was honestly the player who inspired this entire section, because in his four years in the NBA, he’s improved to an almost ridiculous extent — and it feels like nobody knows about it. He was a throw-in to the infamous Rajon Rondo trade, accompanying Rondo to Dallas in exchange for Jae Crowder, Brandan Wright and the draft pick that became Guerschon Yabusele, essentially just filler who wasn’t expected to stick around. Instead, three years later, Powell has become a mainstay in the Mavericks’ rotation.

There’s no real secret to what Powell does on the court: he’s a high-energy, athletic rim-runner. His efficiency has improved every season he’s played, as he’s learned to harness his athleticism into a dangerous above-the-rim game — he ranked in the top-20 in the NBA for total dunks last season, and converted 77% of his attempts at the rim. Powell also hoovers up rebounds on both ends of the floor, averaging nearly 10 boards per 36 minutes. While he’s not much of a rim protector, his quickness allows him to hold his own in space defensively, which will be a valuable attribute alongside the aging Nowitzki. He’s even developed a respectable three-point shot, knocking down 33% of his looks last season.

Powell is the kind of player who will never be a star — or even a starter, for that matter — but he can provide very positive presence for a team in his 20-25 minutes each night. Players like Powell can be a shot in the arm on a night when your team is lacking energy, and he has a malleable skillset that can fit nicely anywhere — Dončić is going to love tossing him lobs out of the pick-and-roll, and he’ll fit in basically any frontcourt combination Carlisle can draw up. Switchy bench lineups with Powell and Maxi Kleber could be particularly fun.

In other words, Powell is a fun, overlooked piece that deserves a small bit of the spotlight, and that’s what this segment is all about.


Second Opinion

Philip Spector (@advancedstats23)

I think the Mavericks are looking at win total in the low- to mid-30s this season, with the two most interesting storylines being Dennis Smith Jr’s second-season development and Luka Dončić’s play as a rookie. As a rookie, Smith’s performance was poor. He unsurprisingly struggled as an off-the-dribble shooter, but what was unexpected was his troubles finishing at the rim, where he was blocked a ton. The hope here is that he shows more craftiness into using both hands as a finisher, and makes smarter decisions. I’m interested to see how Ryan Broekhoff adjusts to the NBA, as he shot well overseas. Wesley Matthews (since his injury) and Harrison Barnes have not been conducive to team success, and both will still have significant roles this season, limiting the team’s upside.

Of course, the Mavs also signed DeAndre Jordan as a free agent, and his addition should help open up shooters and passing opportunities thanks to his gravity as a roll man — a particularly helpful trait for Luka.  The defense looks like it will continue to be a big issue, as DeAndre has started his decline on that end and they have maybe the worst collection of 1-2-3 positional defenders in the NBA. Dwight Powell did have a big uptick in defensive play last year, rating very well in some advanced stats, and it will be interesting to see if he can keep improving, as the defense could definitely use him.


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