At this time a year ago, there was a palpable buzz surrounding the Dallas Mavericks. They were coming off a surprisingly competitive seven-game first round series against the eventual NBA champions, they had signed one of the most coveted free agents on the market in Chandler Parsons and they were bringing back Tyson Chandler, the missing piece from their 2011 championship team. Most of the questions at Media Day in 2014 were about Chandler’s return to Dallas and whether or not the team could be a contender in the Western Conference.
Mavs Media Day in 2015 had a slightly different feel. Chandler is in Phoenix and most of the conversation centered around the guy who was supposed to replace him but wound up staying in Los Angeles. The team’s biggest acquisition is coming off a devastating Achilles injury and the other was paid $30 million by his old team to go away. Parsons repeatedly played the “Nobody Believes In Us” card. Maybe the best quote was the typically understated way Dirk Nowitzki summed up the situation at the center position: “Javale [McGee] is an unbelievable athlete. Zaza [Pachulia] has been around for long time. Sammy [Dalembert] had a decent year for us.”
Nevertheless, for all the gloom and doom surrounding the team in the Dallas area, there’s still plenty of optimism coming out of Mavs HQ. That tends to happen when a franchise has missed the playoffs once in the last 15 years. They still have Dirk, they still have Rick Carlisle and they have a lot of proven veterans with a chip on their shoulder. Here’s a look at the biggest storylines coming into the season for a proud franchise that doesn’t intend to go silently into the good night.
Everything in Dallas starts with the health of the team’s two highest paid-players - Parsons and Wesley Matthews. Parsons had what is now being dubbed as a “hybrid microfracture” surgery back in April during the first round of the playoffs. The team has been less than forthcoming about the details of the surgery and his recuperation but Parsons told the assembled media members that he wasn’t feeling any pain in his knee and that his biggest problem has been listening to the medical staff about not rushing back too quickly. And while everyone around the team has raved about Matthews work ethic and he has been telling people for months that he wants to play on Opening Night, a return sometime in December (which would still only be a nine-month recovery from his Achilles injury in March) seems more likely.
If the Mavs are going to have any chance of outperforming their pre-season expectations, they are going to need a clean bill of health for a lot of guys with injury red flags. Deron Williams blamed injuries as the biggest reason for his underwhelming performance in Brooklyn, saying that he didn’t have one healthy summer his whole time there. Dirk is 37 and the team is already talking about monitoring his minutes and limiting the number of back-to-backs he is playing in. McGee has battled serious leg injuries the last two seasons and won’t be ready for the start of training camp.
There’s talent on every roster in the NBA and enough good players around the league that almost everyone can point to some reason for optimism coming into the season. At the season’s end, when you look at the teams that underperformed and finished towards the bottom of the standings, almost all of them can point to one or two serious injuries that torpedoed their chances. The biggest worry for any team is that a few of their biggest players go down for a significant amount of time - the concern for the Mavs is there are so many possibilities on this roster, even before you get into the type of freak injuries that will inevitably pop up over the brutal grind of a six-month NBA season.
2. Three-Point Shooting
For as potent as the Mavs' offense could be last season, they were held back by a lack of three-point shooting from their starting backcourt. Neither Rajon Rondo nor Monta Ellis could threaten the defense from the perimeter, which allowed other teams to pack the paint and prevented either player from being effective when they didn’t have the ball in their hands. That, in turn, limited the amount of time that Parsons could play as the main initiator on offense, which was the primary reason that he came to Dallas in the first place.
“I just think we have a lot of very good basketball players. A lot of smart and savvy guys who know how to play the game. We have a lot of offensive weapons. As a PG that excites me - shooters at every position on this team,” said Williams. “Wes who can shoot the 3. Parsons. Dirk. At the end of the game when you run the pick and roll you have to pick your poison. I think that's where I can flourish.”
When their best players are all on the floor, the offensive synergy on this season’s team should be pretty high. It won’t be about Rondo and Monta taking turns on offense - everyone can spot up, attack the rim and create plays for everyone else. No coach in the league is better at creating offensive flow than Carlisle and he should have a ton of options when it comes to setting his line-ups and opening up the floor. Everyone in the starting line-up outside of their C’s has the green light to shoot 3’s and they bring more guys off the bench - Devin Harris, JJ Barea, Charlie Villanueva - who can throw up shots in a hurry. The modern NBA is all about three-point shooting and there should be few teams in the league who can shoot 3’s at a higher rate than Dallas.
3. Replacing Tyson Chandler
When asked about how a poor rebounding team replaces their most effective rebounder in Chandler, Carlisle said they would have to do it as a committee. That goes for everything that Chandler brought to the table last season - he was their best two-way player, their best interior defender and their best weapon in the screen/roll game once Brandan Wright was traded. Depending on the match-up on a given night, the Mavs could play as many as four different C’s - Zaza Pachulia, Javale McGee, Sam Dalembert and Jeremy Evans.
Each brings something different. Zaza is the most dependable, a proven veteran who can hold ground on the low block, score with his back to the basket and step out and knock down a mid-range jumper. Dalembert is the most traditional rim protector of the bunch. Evans could end up playing a role similar to Wright, as the small-ball 5 who can speed up the tempo of the game and catch a bunch of lobs at the rim.
McGee is the wild card, a super-long and hyper-athletic ball of energy who could theoretically perform all those roles over the course of an NBA game.
The Mavs' ceiling will depend in large part on McGee, which is an admittedly terrifying proposition for anyone surrounding the team to envision. He’s the one guy in their C platoon who can be a threat on the pick-and-roll and anchor the defense at the same time. At the age of 27 and in his 8th season in the league, it’s hard to have too much optimism that he will suddenly find himself but you never know when the lightbulb will turn on for seven-footers. He has been humbled and he wasn’t able to find a job last season after he was cut by the Philadelphia 76ers after the trade deadline. Even a guy as physically gifted as McGee gets only so many chances in the NBA and this may be his last chance to establish himself as a dependable NBA player.
4. A Youth Movement?
“This is probably the most competitive NBA training camp I’ve ever seen. We have 20 guys with guaranteed money so there are an awful lot of jobs up for grabs,” said Carlisle. “We have to get the team younger. We just do. We’re at that point.”
That’s an interesting quote coming from of the most notoriously youth-averse coaches in the league on a team whose projected starting line-up has an average age of 30.6 years old. Nevertheless, there are a lot of younger faces in training camp and there will be minutes available to them early in the season, especially given the health concerns of their top players. The Mavs are trying to find some hidden gems from three different categories - draft picks on their roster (Justin Anderson, Dwight Powell), young NBA veterans looking for a second chance (Jeremy Evans, John Jenkins) and undrafted guys trying to play their way into the league (Maurice Ndour, Jamil Wilson).
The one everyone is expecting to play the biggest role is Anderson, the No. 21 pick in this year’s draft. A three-year starter at UVA who was one of the best players at Summer League, Anderson already has an NBA ready body (6’6 230 with a 6’11 wingspan) and should be in the rotation from Day 1. He has the size to guard multiple positions and the shooting stroke to be effective off the ball, the two most important qualities for any role player in the modern NBA. The key for him will be limiting his mental mistakes and not making the type of unforced errors that have sent many rookies into Carlisle’s doghouse over the years.
It’s hard to know what, if anything, to expect from guys with limited NBA track records like Jenkins, Evans and Powell, much less complete unknowns like Wilson and Ndour. With so many of their big name veterans nursing themselves back to health, expect to see all those guys getting chances in the pre-season.
5. Dirk, Dirk, Dirk
In the end, as it has been for most of the last two decades in Dallas, it always comes back to Dirk Nowitzki. If there was a reward for the most morose moment of Media Day, it had to come from this quote from the soft-spoken German: “If you know me at all, you know I’m not going to announce [my retirement] a year before and have a farewell tour. That’s the worst thing. When I’m gone, I’m gone. That’s the way it’s going to go.”
Dirk went on to admit that he felt great at the start of last season and then went into a hole from November - March. The real concern for Mavs fans is that he didn’t have a very restful off-season as he spent most of the last two months getting ready for EuroBasket before playing five games in six days while unsuccessfully trying to get Germany out of the first round. That may be why Carlisle talked about capping his minutes at 26-28 a night this season, which would be his lowest number since his rookie season.
Dirk played in 77 games last season, a mark he will be very unlikely to reach going forward. And while he still played at an All-Star level, the signs of age were everywhere, most notably on defense. The Houston Rockets almost ran him off the floor in the playoffs, putting him in a pick-and-roll almost every single possession and there’s no Tyson Chandler or Al-Farouq Aminu around this season to cover up some of his athletic deficiencies. The starting frontcourt of Dirk and Zaza might be the slowest in the league and they will be playing behind two guys coming off leg surgeries and another who admitted at Media Day that he doesn’t have the athleticism to keep up with some of the top guys at his position anymore.
The Mavs can no longer count on going as far as Dirk can carry them, which might be the scariest thought of them all as a new season gets underway.