This is not the part of the season that produces meaning. Everyone would like to be the Warriors, soaring with Klay Thompson still confined to the practice gym, but few squads arrive ready-made. We still haven’t hit Christmas yet; this a time for experimenting with lineups, building on-court rapport, trying what might not work. It is okay to fail, for a while. You have in your head what you’re going to be and how it’s going to look, and then, whoops, discover you aren’t guarding the three-point line and your crunchtime offense is busted and so you scramble to make adjustments. It’s an illusion, maybe, that you’ll figure it all the way out. There are deficiencies, vibrations in the psychic fabric of 15 ballplayers that even Erik Spoelstra and Nick Nurse can’t compensate for. Talent wins out more often than not and people are volatile.

But coaches labor under the necessary delusion that progress is always being made, that they are close to cracking it. Nevermind if the meteor is screaming earthward and they’ve got, let’s see, a whistle, a clipboard, and a degree in communications from San Diego State. What will be troubling in March and season-ending in May is now merely a problem that hasn’t been solved yet. It’s called optimism, and it’s not just for PR departments.

Jason Kidd is predictably bullish, but the Dallas Mavericks are 14-and-14 and worrying. The record’s not bad but the Mavs started with a soft schedule and Luka Doncic, hobbled by a balky ankle since mid-November, is once again playing himself into shape. The underlying numbers—point differential, win percentage, the doomsday clock that ticks down toward Kristaps Porzingis’s next injury—argue that the team is mediocre. They’ve been shooting really poorly from three-point range lately. More than that, there is the impression, well-proved at this point, that this squad is basically Luka and a bunch of Guys. There is no second star, not even if you squint, and there’s not impressive depth to make up for it either. (No wonder they’ve kicked the tires on Kyrie Irving.) In a season when the Western Conference is wide open and you can make a case for a lot of contenders, the Mavs aren’t inspiring. It’s hard to imagine them going on a half-hot, half-lucky playoff run like the Suns did last spring. And so what are they accomplishing? What are they striving toward?

The franchise overhauled everything except the roster last offseason, canning the bickering shotgun-married couple in the front office and allowing Rick Carlisle, who had screwed up the A-number one part of his job by alienating Luka, to leave for Indiana. Fair enough. Donnie Nelson’s batting average wasn’t great, Bob Voulgaris wouldn’t stop propositioning random staffers about crypto, and Carlise seemed even more irascible than usual as last year drew to a close. Clear the vibes, get some fresh ideas in the building. And then hire… Jason Kidd? 

He was on his best behavior sitting on Frank Vogel’s bench for two years in Los Angeles, but Kidd’s track record of creating organizational discontent is extensive and Mirin Fader’s Giannis book, released over the summer, portrayed him as a petty taskmaster during his Milwaukee tenure. There is no such thing as a culture-building head coach—successful teams have good cultures and losing ones don’t—but some dudes are easier to play for than others. And some foster working environments that are just untenable. Think Nate Bjorkgren last season, Scott Skiles in year three of any of his stints. It would appear that Kidd is like that: impossible to get along with for any extended period of time.

And he’s not exactly a tactician, either. Carlisle might have been wearing everybody out, but he always put together pretty good to great offenses that leaned on his best players’ strengths. At some point two years ago, he simply decided that Luka was the entire mechanism and let the guy cook in space. In 2019-20, that made for a historically great offense and in 2020-21, it was still quite potent. This season, it’s been hard to tell what changes Kidd has made besides slowing the offense all the way down (ugh) and getting Kristaps Porzingis a few more post touches (double ugh). Defensively, the Mavs are inconsistent: sometimes solid and at others checked out. They’ve shown some 2-3 zone looks that haven’t convinced. Kidd’s not a strategic dunce, but he doesn’t add much. You won’t find many Dallas fans who will argue that he’s actually Figuring Stuff Out. It’s more like the tinkering your dad does on some household project that’s beyond him, before he finally gives up and calls an electrician.

The Mavs’ Wednesday night tilt against the Lakers was a regular season all-timer, purely entertaining in a way those two teams mostly haven’t been this year. No Luka, no problem. It was as if some higher power decided that this was going to be A Good One, and every player who strode onto the floor became beautifully energized. The strongest piece of evidence: Porzingis hasn’t done anything as spectacular as that one pass he threw since his early Knicks days. The big Latvian Waluigi was alive, at last.

You would like to think that the glow from that night will inspire Dallas toward realizing a better, more joyful version of themselves as we cruise into Christmas and the new year. There’s no point in dreaming of anything else, but it does feel at this juncture more like hope than anticipation. The Mavericks seem stuck and thoroughly frustrated, like they’ll still be frozen in place when the season truly gets going.