Editor’s note: This is part of SB Nation’s 2016-17 NBA preview series. You can find all of the team previews here.
Last Year's Record: 42-40
Key Losses: Chandler Parsons, Zaza Pachulia, Raymond Felton, David Lee, Javale McGee
Key Additions: Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Seth Curry, Quincy Acy
1. What significant moves were made during the off-season?
In a move that surprised many, Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson opted to let Chandler Parsons walk. Despite initially recruiting the Florida product as a pillar of the team’s post-Dirk future, the Dallas front office could not ignore Parsons’ 64 games and two knee surgeries, not even offering him a contract while Parsons ended up in Memphis.
In his place, the Mavericks signed a small forward who many perceive as the afterthought of the Golden State starting five, Harrison Barnes. Although no one doubts that Barnes is a solid NBA starter, there have been many questions as to whether someone who has never averaged more than 12 points per game is worth a $94 million contract and ready to step into a starring role. On one hand, there’s the argument that Barnes is a fourth or fifth option at best, a solid player who can play defense, hit open shots, but lacks the instinctive decision making that separates the stars from the rest of the league. On the other, Dallas insists and is hopeful that Barnes is simply a player whose full potential has been lacking a single ingredient that the Mavericks are happy to provide: the opportunity of a leading role.
Aside from the Barnes signing, the Mavericks also acquired Andrew Bogut. Although Zaza Pachulia’s effort will never be questioned, Dallas is confident that health permitting, they have upgraded at the center position.
Of particular note for the Mavericks is that for the first time in recent history, the team has shown a real commitment to the future, opting to fill out the roster with young, somewhat unproven talent with potential, rather than going for experienced but over-the-hill veterans. With the likes of Seth Curry and Quincy Acy joining Justin Anderson and Dwight Powell, Dallas has started building their bridge to the future without compromising the present.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
Between the trump card that is Dirk Nowitzki, and Rick Carlisle’s creativity, offense has rarely been a problem for these Mavs. However, for the first time in years, the team’s biggest strength will likely be defense. Anchored by Andrew Bogut who led the league in defensive plus-minus last year, Dallas will boast a surprisingly big starting line-up featuring two 7-footers, and only one person shorter than 6’5.
This is the end of the floor where Harrison Barnes’ length, versatility and durability will be welcomed, as he and Wes Matthews should form a formidable wing duo that won't require the painful cross-matching contortions that the Mavericks have relied on in past years. Seriously, Devin Harris should never have to guard Kevin Durant, like he did in the playoffs last May. Of particular interest is how Carlisle will experiment with both small ball, and defensive line-ups.
A Williams-Matthews-Anderson-Barnes-Powell lineup will be the most athletic group that the team has been able to put on the floor in years, and could potentially be a monster defensively with legitimate switching capabilities. Similarly, replace Powell with Dirk, and what the team loses in defense, Dallas would likely gain in offensive potency. If Anderson can find a consistent shooting stroke, teams would either be forced to defend all five positions for the shot and sacrifice open lanes, or protect the paint and risk a three point barrage.
Also, Dallas should have a much stronger season shooting the ball from beyond the arc. Although the team ranked only 23rd in the league last season, between Bogut’s savvy (bordering on illegal) screens, the addition of Barnes and Curry, and a full year of recovery since tearing his achilles tendon for Wesley Matthews, it would not be unreasonable to expect to see an upwards trend in three point accuracy for Dallas.
Lastly, the team should continue their strong free throw shooting. With Dirk, Deron, and Wes all shooting in the high 80s, and Barnes over 75 percent, there shouldn’t be many problems on the line.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
The team’s two biggest weaknesses are the uncertainty that comes with older, and injury prone players, and their lack of shot creators. Although the team’s relative youth movement has been noted, Dallas relies too heavily on a superstar that’s 38. Add to that mix a point guard and center in their 30s that have dealt with injury concerns for virtually their entire careers, and a shooting guard that despite showing an iron will, is still battling against history as he continues his career after what has been a fatal injury for most of his peers. The risk of injury looms large for all NBA teams, but there are few teams that are as susceptible as the Mavericks.
Presuming good health, a weakness that Dallas has been unable to address is the lack of shot creators on the roster. Although Nowitzki’s gravitational pull helps open up the floor, it is not ideal when the only proven creators off of the bounce on the roster are a notably less explosive Deron Williams, and J.J. Barea. Even when healthy, Wes Matthews was best as a post-up and catch-and-shoot threat, and Harrison Barnes has never been asked to do that. The Mavs are hoping — betting, even — that Barnes can develop that talent with opportunity, like he did in flashes in college. Still, Dallas will still have to rely on other methods of creating shots than dribble penetration, such as Dirk creating space, persistent screening action, and creative cutting.
Worth noting is that the team’s lack of rim protection could be a concern, especially if Bogut misses time. Dallas ranked 29th in the league last season in terms of blocked shots per game, and rim protection will likely never be a strength as long as Dirk is playing extended minutes. Dallas’ goal should be to inch towards the middle of the pack, relying on Andrew Bogut, Salah Mejri, and somewhat surprisingly Justin Anderson, who has shown a knack for chase down blocks.
4. What are the goals for this team?
Since winning the championship in 2011, Dallas’ goals heading into each season roughly follow the same trajectory. In the offseason, the team swings for the fences in trying to sign a superstar. Upon failing, the expectations readjust to simply making the playoffs, and seeing what happens.
Although a contingent of fans is cautiously optimistic about this year’s group, there is nothing substantive to show that the team’s goals should be any different than years past. With Golden State, San Antonio, and the Los Angeles Clippers as the frontrunners of the conference, Dallas will look to climb as high as they can to grab one of the five remaining playoff spots.
At this point, despite being written off year after year for the playoffs, Carlisle and Dirk have proven time and time again that they can carry virtually any roster into the playoffs. The question for this group is whether they’ll be able to advance for the first time in six years. An expected year would be another exit. A successful year would be a second round berth.
5. Which of the players belonging to the newfound youth movement of the team are likely to see regular minutes?
It’s exciting to see players like Seth Curry, Quincy and Dwight Powell excel in preseason, but we also remember how John Jenkins essentially won preseason MVP last year. One of Quincy Acy and Dwight Powell are the most likely to play regular minutes as members of the rotation, with Powell as the early favorite. For Acy, we talked earlier this week about how he could be more of an occasional role player.
Justin Anderson should get minutes, despite not turning 23 until next month. Carlisle has shown little patience over the years for young players who are prone to mistakes, but the team views Anderson very highly. A strong start to the season would likely mean minutes as the primary backup to Barnes, especially if Barnes shifts up to power forward pretty often. Based on the construction of this roster, an opportunity for 20 minutes a night is there for Justin Anderson; the question is whether he’s able to earn Carlisle’s trust on a full time basis.
6. What should be made of Seth Curry’s addition to the roster, especially given his strong preseason performance thus far?
Despite his great preseason, Curry starts the season on the outside of the rotation looking in. Carlisle has shown time and time again his preference for experience over youth, and as long as Devin Harris and J.J. Barea are on the roster, Curry will have to work to leapfrog those two. Jenkins had fans salivating last year, for example, and earned a lot of praise from the coaching staff, but ultimately didn’t even last the season.
7. Was Signing Harrison Barnes over Chandler Parsons the right choice?
Starting with the presumption that the Mavericks were going to sign someone to a max contract this offseason rather than hoarding cap space, signing Barnes instead of Parsons was definitely the right decision, both for the present and the future.
There’s problems with him as a player. Parsons caught fire from three point range for a short spurt last season, he is a streaky shooter, mediocre defender, and while adept at navigating screens, cannot be relied on to create off of the dribble. On top of that, durability for a player who is in his late 20s that has played more than 74 games only once in his career is a real concern.
On the other hand, Harrison Barnes has played fewer than 74 games in his career just once. His weaknesses have been reported on ad nauseam since he joined the team. He’s never put up big numbers, is not fluid on offense, and had a terrible showing in the NBA Finals this past year. In addition, he doesn’t have the court vision or passing ability of Parsons, and has yet to show himself as comfortable with the ball in his hands. That said, Barnes is more durable, athletic, has shown a true commitment to improving his craft, and most importantly is four years younger.
When it comes to the Parsons vs Barnes debate, I believe that the Mavs boiled it down to two questions. The first is whether both players are likely to be able to stay healthy, as it doesn’t matter how talented one is if they’re constantly injured. Barnes clearly had the advantage on this front. The second question, which hasn’t been talked about enough is the question of potential and growth.
For all of the talk of wanting to lead a team, and being ready to take on such a role, Parsons has yet to show that he is capable. Despite injuries, he had 66 and 61 games respectively in his two years to showcase his skills, and fell short. Dallas’ preference for Barnes then, is likely a product of recognizing that players rarely show massive improvements in their late 20s, that even if healthy, Parsons is not much more than a solid third starter on a playoff team, and that if they’re going to bet a max contract on someone to improve, that they’d rather bet on the 23 year old that has yet to show signs of stardom but hasn’t been given an opportunity instead of the 27 year old that has had plenty of chances but hasn’t come through.
Harrison Barnes may not be perfect or even ready for stardom, but he was the prudent choice.
8. Will Dallas make the playoffs this season?
Yes. Outside of Golden State as the consensus front runners, San Antonio’s sustained dominance, and the always-on-the-cusp Clippers, there are no other teams in the Western Conference that are locks for the playoffs. The next five spots will be competed for by a glut of teams: the Grizzlies, Thunder, Blazers, Jazz, Rockets and the Mavericks, with the Pelicans as the wildcard.
The best case scenario for Dallas would be playing the role of Portland last season, surprising the league out of the gates, and then slowing down mid-season before finishing strong as the No. 5 seed.
The more likely scenario is that playoff implications loom until the last few days of the season, and Dallas finishes with one of the final two spots.
The worst case scenario is that the team faces injury problems throughout the season, and fails to qualify for the postseason for just the second time in 17 years.
With a healthy roster, Dallas will likely make the postseason. But enough with the speculating, let the season start already!