Writing this column for November never happened for a few reasons. First, knowing how this team could perform is really, really hard. With so many new pieces, predicting how specific games are going to go feels like an exercise in futility.
Second, if I'm being honest, I never want to predict the Mavericks before seeing them play because I'm always terrified that this is the year they'll finally fall off a cliff. This year more than any year since 2012-13, I was really worried that the Mavericks were toast. Too many things seemed to be going against them. Between off season turmoil, roster turnover, and huge injuries to key players, how on earth could they be *gulp* good?
Fortunately, as per the usual, my worries were wholly unjustified. The Mavericks finished November with a record of 11-8. Despite the feeling that Dallas gave away a few wins, this is a great start, and one that should really pay off later in the year, as the team gets acclimated to one another and Chandler Parsons heals (rather miraculously, I might add) from minor microfracture surgery.
December features 14 games -- eight at home and six on the road -- with two back-to-backs thrown in for good measure. After a West-heavy schedule in November, December has 10 matchups against Eastern conference squads and just four against the West. When looking ahead this month, I'll assign the games a difficulty level: Easy, Medium, Hard, and in some cases, Very Hard.
Tuesday, Dec. 1 at the Portland Trailblazers - Medium - Mavs win 115-112. A comeback overtime victory with classic Dirk showing up? That's as good a way to begin a month as any.
Friday, Dec. 4 vs the Houston Rockets - Medium - Did you know the last time the Dallas Mavericks played a regular season game against the Houston Rockets with at least one day of rest was January 29, 2014? That's right, every single game against the Rockets last season, and the first game against them this season, occurred on the second night of a back-to-back. After walloping the Rockets earlier this year despite being down three starters, the Mavericks will look to make it two in a row over their in-state rivals. In terms of talent, Houston is much better than they've played this season, yet they cannot seem to find a coherent winning strategy beyond "James Harden scores 40-plus points." Given a home game with two days rest, the Mavericks have no excuse not to win.
Sunday, Dec. 6 at the Washington Wizards - Medium - The Mavericks and the Wizards always seem to play a rough-and-tumble slug fest. With Washington struggling to open the season (at least compared to predictions, although they creamed Cleveland last night), this is a prime opportunity for Dallas to take advantage of a squad that has yet to jell. John Wall and Bradley Beal are always a challenge for Maverick guards. The only concern comes with the start time; odd as it may sound, NBA players get into a rhythm and playing a 5 p.m. CT is fairly different from the usual 7:30 p.m. I'd expect the Mavericks to start slow and then come on in the second half before closing out the Wizards.
Monday, Dec. 7 at the New York Knicks - Medium - If things play out how I hope to this point, Dallas will be on what should be at least a three-game win streak. The second night of a road back-to-back is never easy for an older team like Dallas, particularly with Matthews and/or Parsons sitting. Dirk Nowitzki LOVES to play in Madison Square Garden, and I'll bet he's itching to play against Kristaps Porzingis. The Latvian rookie is rightfully causing a stir in both New York and throughout the league, but the veteran Mavericks should be able to out work the rather talent-thin Knicks.
Wednesday, Dec. 9 vs the Atlanta Hawks - Hard - The potential recent gravy train for the Mavericks may come to a screeching halt against a talented and well-coached Hawks squad. Much like the San Antonio Spurs, the Hawks play an absurdly balanced brand of basketball backed up by talented players who understand their roles. Al Horford is a terribly difficult challenge for Dirk to try to guard (and he probably will have to, given that the other defensive assignment would be Paul Millsap). With Kent Bazemore, Kyle Korver, and Jeff Teague rounding out the starters, the Mavericks will need a monster effort to come away with the victory.
Saturday, Dec. 12 vs the Washington Wizards - Medium - This will be the second match up in just seven days between these two teams. The earlier assessment still holds: the Wizards are talented, but the Mavericks can beat them straight up -- particularly if they didn't manage to do the job a week ago.
Monday, Dec. 14 vs the Phoenix Suns - Medium - The Mavericks caught the Suns with their pants down in the season opener, shocking a Phoenix team that clearly underestimated Dallas. Though the Suns are not yet playing like a playoff team, the back court combination of Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight is enough to overwhelm the Mavericks. Luckily, the Suns will be playing the second night of a back-to-back, so the Mavericks should be able to win.
Wednesday, Dec. 16 at the Indiana Pacers - Hard - Ranking a game as "Hard" that features a team starting Ian Mahinmi feels bizarre, and yet here we are. The Pacers are one of the best teams in the East at the moment and are doing it with small-ball offense and a top ranked defense. That's right, a team playing Monta Ellis huge minutes has one of the top ranked defenses in the NBA. Frank Vogel clearly attended the Rick Carlisle school of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Oh, and I haven't mentioned early-season MVP candidate Paul George. The Mavericks can win this game, but it will take a total team effort and a creative approach to defending the Pacers offense. Hiding Dirk Nowitzki on defense will be key to Dallas getting out of Indiana with a victory.
Friday, Dec. 18 vs the Memphis Grizzlies - Hard - Memphis already bludgeoned Dallas without Zach Randolph. Assuming he's playing in this game, the Mavericks have their work cut out for them. Too many turnovers paired with poor shooting from Dallas allowed the Grizzlies to get out ahead early and stay that way for the entire game. The Mavericks will need a better defensive effort from the whole team and better offensive focus for Deron Williams if they want to win.
Tuesday, Dec. 22 at the Toronto Raptors - Medium - Kyle Lowry punished Dallas in their first matchup (27 points, 10 assists, 5 rebounds). Containing him offensively will be the key for Dallas to steal one on the road. Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas should still be out with a broken hand, so expect a very different, much smaller offensive look from Toronto. Dallas can take advantage of this offensively, as the Raptors have no player capable of sticking with Dirk Nowitzki. This is a pure toss up at the moment. If Dallas can contain Lowry and hit a few outside shots, they could leave Canada with a win.
Wednesday, Dec. 23 at the New Jersey Nets - Easy - The Nets are bad, and the Mavericks are not. Unless Dallas has simply no focus, they should come home for Christmas with a victory. Toss in the "revenge game" factor for Deron Williams, and I'm counting this one in the win column.
Saturday, Dec. 26 vs the Chicago Bulls - Hard - Last December, it was the matchup against the Bulls (a triple overtime victory) after which Dirk Nowitzki never seemed right for months afterwards. Chicago is another of the East's top teams and feature a front court rotation capable of giving the Mavericks fits. But Dallas has a real opportunity here. The Bulls have to play on Christmas Day on the road against the Oklahoma City Thunder, then come straight to Dallas for this game the next day. Despite the feel of a "Hard" game, the Mavericks should come away with a victory.
Monday, Dec. 28 vs the Milwakee Bucks - Medium - The Bucks are struggling early this season, despite having a talented roster. Their problems start and end with having a horrid guard rotation: Michael Carter-Williams is not good at basketball, and Jerryd Bayless is better suited to being a stand in for Lex Luthor. Milwaukee does have a talented front court, but oddly decided to pay Greg Monroe a ton of money to do a worse job of the same stuff Zaza Pachulia did. While the Bucks could right the ship by late December, I fully expect the Mavericks to win a close game here.
Wednesday, Dec. 30 vs the Golden State Warriors - DOOM - This is a loss. The Warriors are basketball machines sent from the future to destroy all in their paths. Golden State is a horrible matchup for the Mavericks for two reasons. First, Steph Curry is unguardable. Second, Dirk cannot hope to stay with Draymond Green. All other problems result from these two unquestionable facts. Could Dallas win? Sure--but hey, the sky could also turn purple (probably). But despite a guaranteed loss, tune in, because the Warriors are a basketball show the likes of which we may never see again.
The best case scenario for the Mavericks in December is 10-4. A 9-5 finish is perhaps what we should all hope for, given the schedule breaks (opponents being on back-to-backs, etc.). A strong December will go a long ways towards helping Dallas build a cushion for the regular season. Given the surprising start, anything less than a 8-6 finish would be disappointing, but as long as the Mavericks can keep their record above .500 in what's proving to be a very deep Western Conference race, we should be happy.