For the first time since 1998, the Dallas Mavericks enter an NBA season without Dirk Nowitzki listed on their roster. With the retirement of The GEoAT (Greatest European of All-Time), there is certainly a void to be filled in the American Airlines Center. Luckily for the Mavs, they have plenty of talent on board to lead them back to winning ways.
Most franchises, rebuilding after the departure of a Hall Of Famer suffer and struggle. Dallas could prove to be one of the few exceptions to the rule, with some savvy moves made while managing the decline of Nowitzki (from roughly 2016 onwards) leading to a sense of optimism around their young European core of Rookie of the Year, Luka Dončić and his new(ish) teammate Kristaps Porzingis.
They may not be a lock to make the playoffs just yet, but this is a team on the rise. Perfectly poised to pique the interest of NBA fans and build on last year’s international attention, which saw their League Pass viewership leap by 34 percent (the second highest year-on-year increase in viewership throughout the league).
Last season represented the metaphoric passing of the torch as Nowitzki handed the reins of the franchise to Dončić. Expectations were not especially high and the resulting 33-49 record was about on par. Their 14th place finish in the Western Conference was a little misleading, with their record tying that of the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans (11th and 12th, respectively) and the opponents started the season with notably more firepower on their rosters.
Recognizing the need to build around Luka, General Manager Donnie Nelson executed a ballsy trade on January 31, sending DeAndre Jordan, Wesley Matthews and Dennis Smith Jr, alongside a couple of future first round picks, to the New York Knicks.
In return, Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway, Courtney Lee and Kristaps Porzingis made their way to The Lone Star State. Clearly, Porzingis is the prize catch here but what makes this move so ballsy is that Dallas have no real idea of what version of Porzingis they’re getting. The Latvian big man, recovering from a torn ACL (left leg), has not played since February 6, 2018.
Just days later, the Mavs moved on from Harrison Barnes, trading his expiring contract mid-game to the Sacramento Kings in exchange for Justin Jackson and Zach Randolph (the latter waived the next day). Barnes, once thought of as a potential star to transition from Dirk (remember the handcuffs photo when he signed?), averaged a solid (but not really expressive of the level of player they’d hoped he’d become) 18.7 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.6 assists in just over 2.5 seasons with Mavs.
The Mavs 2018-19 campaign can be summarised in three brief points:
- Honoring the final ride of Dirk
- Giving Luka as many reps as possible, ready for him to carry the franchise
- Make moves ahead of free agency to put the team in the best position to rebound quickly
The Mavs move into the 2019-2020 season with hopes of returning to the Playoffs, but they’re a team without established pedigree at this point. A team with potential that could be either squandered or capitalized upon (duh).
Having whiffed on landing marquee free agents in previous summers, the Mavs’ front office flipped the script and de-risked their chances of striking out in the summer again by doing most of their significant roster upgrades ahead of last season’s tradeline (as detailed above).
As a result, this summer was primarily about talent retention and plugging gaps with incremental upgrades to role-players. Re-signing Maxi Kleber alongside Dorian Finney-Smith, as well as extending Dwight Powell, which all happened early in July.
Kristaps Porzingis entered restricted free agency and Dallas were quick to max him out, despite the relative risks associated with his potential to return to full health and successfully ascend to expected levels of stardom.
Seth Curry, after a decent year in Portland, brings his ability to stretch the floor back to Dallas. Cult hero (and failed John Wick nemesis) Boban Marjanovic also arrives, providing relief in the block. Delon Wright arrived in a trade with Memphis and second round draft pick Isaiah Robby round out the significant new faces.
As it stands, the Mavs are laying claim to the fictional throne of most international team (weirdly, the honour has been historically held in-state by the Spurs). With seven international players, including four Europeans, the Mavs could easily roll out a unit of imports (JJ Barrea, Dončić, Kleber, Porzingis and Marjanović) for spells of a game.
But as lovely as that whimsical notion is, it’s unlikely to have an overarching impact on their performance this season. That said, the twin tower pairing of Boban and Kristaps (both 7-3) must have some chops salivating.
Expect this Dallas team to be a fun watch and – who knows? – with a little luck coupled with some good health, these guys could even play past mid-April. And that would be exactly the glimmer of hope they’d be looking for. A positive step, and a first taste of the postseason for their “big two”.
1.A big two?
One of the key narratives establishing itself ahead of the new season, is the notion that, rather than “super teams” and “big threes”, there is a glut of “big two” pairings throughout the league. So, do Luka and Kristaps already constitute a big two? And how will they operate together?
Having already drawn (the obvious, lazy and easy) comparisons to Dirk throughout his career, a healthy Kristaps and his style of play could very easily partner with Luka to provide one the most efficient and lethal pick and roll tandems in the league. At 24 and 20 respectively, these two (I cannot stress KP health assuming) have the potential to grow and become one of the most fear-invoking one-two-punches throughout the league for a long time… any one dreaming of Dirk and Nash 2.0 yet?
Rick Carlisle is a great coach and appears untouchable after delivering the franchise’s first (and only) title in 2011. However, since then, the team has not got past the first round of the Playoffs and missed the postseason altogether in each of the last three seasons.
Of course, this is not necessarily a true reflection of Carlisle and his abilities – after all the front office decreed not to keep the title winning roster together in 2011, and the team has been in a state of pseudo-flux ever since. From here on, with Dončić as the cornerstone, expectations will rise each year. Pressure will be on both to meld his two stars into an all-NBA tandem, while also load-managing Kristaps to help ensure long term health.
Owner Mark Cuban’s faith in his coach is strong though, re-upping his contract in March to run through 2023.
The Mavs were mediocre or worse in just about every statistical ranking last season – pace, offensive rating, defensive rating, effective field goal percentage and turnover percentage. Not entirely shocking, given the rudderless direction of recent season. Expect a number of those stats to improve this year, as the team finally has an identity and a future it can build around.
Luka Dončić | 21.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 6 apg
Despite opening last season with just three wins across their first ten games, Dončić quickly surpassed initial expectations with his court vision and poise (first game excluded…). Yes, his efficiency could have been better, but what did you expect from a rookie guard?
Thrown in at the deep end, he started all 72 games he suited up for – and for a coach whose relationships with his guards (particularly young guards) is notoriously bristly. Luka shone, ultimately displaying Rick Carlisle’s faith in him, finishing 11th in usage rate (30.5).
It transpires that having spent four seasons (three full) as a pro with Real Madrid, provided the wonder kid with a solid foundation to jump to the NBA. His averages of 21.2, 7.8 and 6 hadn’t been seen from a Rookie since Oscar Robertson in 1960-61 (via bball ref).
Sophomore slumps are relatively common, but any stagnation, let alone a backwards slide, would be a disappointment. Expectations are ramping up and Dončić will need to prove he can shoulder the load of a marquee player, for whom defenses are specifically engineered to control.
Kristaps Porzingis | DNP
Porzingis. Once the big apple of New York’s eye, comes into the 2019-20 season with a lot of question marks hanging above him. The fate of Dallas’s season and immediate future hangs, like the sword of Damocles, above the Latvian as he strives to achieve his true potential while the fan base tries to get comfortable with his a chequered injury history. Expect lots of winces every time the big guy meets contact.
Maxi Kleber | 6.8ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1 apg
Maxi Kleber, despite being significantly older than his NBA experience would suggest, continued to make big strides in his second full season. The 6’11 power forward upped his court time by 4.4 minutes per game and almost doubled the number of threes he took, hitting at a higher rate of .353.
His per 36 stats are in intriguing 11.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. And while it’s unlikely that Kleber ever gets near to that volume of minutes, he can be a reliable stretch big off the bench.
Dorian Finney-Smith | 7.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.2 apg
Finney-Smith’s route to the NBA from an undrafted collegiate, working his way onto a training camp roster to now, with three seasons already under his belt, signing a new three year deal in July, is a story of hard work and chasing dreams paying off.
2019-20 provides the 6’8 wing with his greatest chance to secure himself a starting role in the NBA. He has the skill-set of a much coveted 3 and D player, with great block, steal and rebounding (offensive and defensive) percentage stats amongst wings. His 32 percent click from three is passable despite ranking lowly for a wing, if he can improve this by a few percent, he will become a key weapon in Dallas’s arsenal.