This offseason was supposed to be different. With a hip, young new general manager and a player-friendly (if not wife-friendly) head coach, the Dallas Mavericks were finally going to land that elusive free agent stud.
After unfulfilled trade speculation and another year of finishing second in the sweepstakes of at least one big-name player, the Mavs are once again poised to squander another year of prime Luka.
To be fair to the new front office, the off-season laundry list was long and daunting. It’s not as though the Mavs didn’t make moves, but none of them shifted the needle so far that the team will go from playoff contender to surefire title favorite.
The Mavs are counting on a few players to take the next step in their development, others to stay consistently healthy, for new head coach Jason Kidd to reinvigorate the defense, and — as has been the case every season since he was traded here — for Kristaps Porzingis to recapture his unicorn mojo.
As training camp began on Tuesday, Dallas has 16 players signed to guaranteed contracts. One will have to go before opening night. Here’s the hand Kidd has been dealt.
Guards: Sterling Brown, Jalen Brunson, Reggie Bullock, Trey Burke, Luka Doncic, Tim Hardaway Jr., Frank Ntilikina, Tyrell Terry
Forwards: Josh Green, Dorian Finney-Smith, Eugene Omoruyi, Kristaps Porzingis,
Centers: Moses Brown, Willie Cauley-Stein, Maxi Kleber, Boban Marjanovic, Dwight Powell
Without question, the easiest way for the Mavs to improve is for Kristaps to elevate his game. There wasn’t a player on the market with his ceiling — when he’s healthy and motivated. Last we checked in with KP, he was standing alone in the corner behind the three-point line kicking rocks and flipping a nickel because Luka didn’t trust him enough to hit a shot or make any impact at all. He appeared frustrated. On the other side of the court, he looked like a prissy coed waiting for his nails to dry.
On a recent episode of The Hoop Collective podcast, ESPN’s Tim MacMahon said KP is coming into camp this season with a renewed sense of optimism, thanks to Kidd taking the reins.
“I’ll say this: At the end of last year, Porzingis wanted to be traded,” MacMahon said. “My understanding is he feels like he has a fresh start with the coaching change. He’s had a healthy offseason. He’s been able to work not just on his game but on his body some more — that he’s coming back with a refreshed feel.”
This will be the first offseason the 7’3” Latvian will have entered and exited healthy. That has to be a good development for the Mavs, though pardon me if I hold my applause until the end of the season. He has two years and more than $69 million remaining on his contract. His success this season will not only determine his future in Dallas but how far the Mavericks can go.
The new Mavs signees address some major holes from last year’s squad. The front office went out and got Reggie Bullock, who shot 41% from deep last season and is a plus on the defensive side of the ball. They also signed Sterling Brown, who, despite being on a lottery-bound Houston Rockets team, shot a career-high 42.3% from beyond the arc and averaged a career-high in points per game (8.2) and rebounds (4.4). Those two players will surely benefit from the looks Doncic will get them on the wing while also giving Dallas some much-needed shooting depth on the roster.
Maxi Kleber was a shell of himself after returning from the COVID-19 list. He also battled an Achilles injury for most of the year. The big German’s defense regressed, though he did shoot a career-high 41% behind the arc. When he’s healthy, Kleber can guard all five positions and provide much-needed shot-blocking off switches. That’s where he can make his biggest impact. The three-pointers are nice, but Kleber is mostly a statue standing in the corner on offense. As The Athletic’s Tim Cato noted, “3.4 of his 4.2 average attempts came on ‘wide open’ scenarios, meaning him spacing the floor didn’t force the defense to collapse due to his spacing.” Still, three-pointers are the new coin of the realm in the modern NBA. I’ll take ’em.
If Dwight Powell returns to form, the Mavs will once again have an elite rim-runner — a key commodity when Luka has the ball. Powell can’t really guard traditional centers, doesn’t block shots, and is generally a poor rebounder, with the team’s defensive rebounding percentage falling to 71.3% when he was on the floor. What he can do is switch, catch passes from Luka, and posterize other players at the rim. A healthy Powell can provide a spark off the bench and guard bigger fours like John Collins and Zion Williams.
If you’re looking for a few wild cards who could make a huge difference on the team, young players like Josh Green and Tyrell Terry languished under grumpy ol’ Rick Carlisle, who hates rookies and probably gives out apples at Halloween. If Green reaches his potential, he can be a lockdown defender and reliable slasher on offense. His three-point game looked like a broken bubble machine, as he shot 16% from three and shot only a total of 25 threes on the year. Still, he occasionally showed us some really impressive flashes when it came to individual defensive plays, rebounding, and even distributing the ball.
Tyrell Terry has further to go to become a reliable NBA chess piece. For the Mavs, Terry saw the floor for a grand total of only 56 minutes over the course of just 11 games last season. When the Stanford product was assigned to the G-League, he averaged a respectable 15 points, five rebounds, and three assists while playing nearly 30 minutes per game for the Memphis Hustle. He weighs less than a newborn labradoodle, so he still needs to develop his body.
Recent Knicks cast-off Frank Ntilikina is another guy to watch. He was taken eighth overall in the 2017 draft but wasn’t a fit after the Knicks changed coaches and systems. He’s a top-tier defender who is trying to revive his career and become the reliable point guard former New York GM Phil Jackson thought he could be.
The main reason for optimism — and perhaps the rising sun — is Luka. If he’s healthy, the Mavs will be good. As long as he’s a Mav, there’s a reason to watch. I wish we were friends. I’d totally take a pee test for him. I’d even stop using drugs so I’d pass. I imagine we could be next-door neighbors and talk through cans connected by a string. If he ever committed vehicular manslaughter and I was in the car, I’d jump in the driver’s seat and take the fall.
Expect the Mavs to improve a little, but they’re still going to be stuck as one of the better also-rans. If the team seeds any higher than fifth in the Western Conference, a lot of things will have broken right — and KP will not have broken at all.