Mavericks basketball is back and at an interesting point — this might be one of the most anticipated seasons in years and the team will almost assuredly be a lottery team.
A lot of that is from the natural buzz around stud rookie Dennis Smith Jr, the first young franchise building block the Mavericks have drafted since probably Dirk Nowitzki himself back in 1998. Dallas also wrapped up a much cheerier preseason compared to a year ago, going 4-2.
There’s generally not much you can take away from preseason, but there are a few things we noticed that give us some insight into the regular season, which tips off tonight against Atlanta.
Nerlens Noel is still a question mark
There’s no question about Noel’s ability, he’s really good! He proved it last year in his limited time in Dallas. Whenever he steps on the court, he does lots of good things.
But we saw in the preseason that the Noel situation hasn’t worked itself out yet. He’s coming off the bench, and we’re still not sure what his role is going to be.
This is supposed to be Noel’s “prove it” season, to earn the max deal he wanted last summer. While Noel undoubtedly plays more when the games count, his usage is going to be up and down. He averaged 16.3 minutes per game in five preseason games and before you chirp about preseason minutes being low for everyone, Dirk — 39-year-old Dirk — averaged 21.3 minutes per game in four preseason games.
As anticipated, it’s going to be really hard for Noel to break the 30 minute mark in games where Dirk plays, simply because Dirk is still so crucial to what the Mavericks are doing on offense. Combine that with Noel potentially sitting out crunch-time and we’re heading toward the awkward scenario where Noel performs just as well as he did last season, doesn’t get enough minutes to boost his traditional stats and we’re right back to arguing over his worth.
Dirk is still Dirk
Ho-hum, just shooting over 50 percent from the field, over 43 percent from three and looking every bit like the legend that he is this preseason. It’s never wise to worry about Dirk being Dirk, but it’s always good to get a reminder that (as Mavs play-by-play announcer Mark Followill likes to say) he’s still Dirk Nowitzki.
Dirk is still Dirk :(
The basketball reasons for Dirk at the five make all the sense in the world. The NBA is going smaller, Dirk can’t chase perimeter fours and he’s still a fairly solid post defender and rebounder.
Dirk being the primary rim protector, though, is still tough to watch. In the limited time Dirk was on the floor this preseason, the opposing team got a wide-open look any time they ran an action involving him. It’s just really tough for the other four Mavs on the floor to keep up and to clean up any mistakes or slow rotations from Dirk. Keep an eye on how well teams shoot against the Mavs later in the shot clock compared to early on — teams that stay patient and keep moving the ball from side to side will eventually get a good look against the Dirk-at-center Mavs lineups.
The bench will be fun and funky
Oh boy, Rick Carlisle is going to get so weird with his bench.
The Mavs have a really weird depth chart, it’s all bigs and point guards. The only wings on the roster are Harrison Barnes and Dorian Finney-Smith, and Barnes is going to be playing the four a ton. That means Devin Harris, a 6’4 point guard, will be playing backup wing for this team a lot.
That also means the bench backcourt when Seth Curry returns from injury will be two point guards who are both under six feet tall (Yogi Ferrell is listed at 6’0, but he’s not). Leave it to the Mavs to take the NBA’s positional revolution a bit too seriously and somehow play lineups that will be both too big (Noel playing with Dwight Powell + Dirk) and too small (three-point-guard lineups!).
Luckily, these weird, some would say whackadoodle, bench lineups will be super fun to watch. Harris looked as healthy as he’s been in years, and when the Mavs put their three-point-guard lineups against opposing benches, they can really run circles against the unsuspecting opposition. It’s the type of lineup that would never survive more than five minutes in a playoff series but during the up-and-down, practice-and-scouting-at-a-minimum regular season? Sure! Let’s go nuts.
Gian Clavell absolutely won his spot onto the roster
Heading into this preseason, the roster was pretty much set, and there wasn’t going to be as much competition as last year.
That didn’t mean there wasn’t roster tidying to do, and the Mavs still had their final two-way roster spot after signing Jonathan Motley to the first over the summer. That spot was won by Gian Clavell.
It’s a somewhat weird place to be. Clavell definitively won that spot, averaging a little over eight points per game in limited minutes this preseason, shooting 39 percent from three on a healthy number of attempts. The undrafted free agent out of Colorado State looked like a seasoned scorer, coming off screens and raining down triples and nail pull up jumpers.
The weird part is that, yes, Clavell is another short guard. On a roster full of short guards, that wasn’t nessecarily the most ideal use of the spot. P.J. Dozier, a long and defense-minded wing out of South Carolina, would have been preferred, but the Mavs coaching staff decided he didn’t do enough and you can’t argue what Clavell did in the games. He stood out from all the other roster flotsam. Clavell earned it.
Dozier getting immediately scooped up onto the Thunder’s roster after the Mavericks cut him last week was a little disconcerting, especially when you compare the two franchises’ draft history, but Clavell is here (for 45 days, per the terms of two-way contracts) and maybe he’ll get a chance to contribute.
The Mavericks offense is too good for a 33-win team
This wasn’t necessarily learned from the six-game preseason sample, but the Dallas offense is going to be damn good and it’s going to catch sleepy teams off guard.
With Dirk at center and a healthy Seth Curry in the backcourt, the Mavs become really hard to guard. Smith is the downhill threat the roster desperately needed a year ago to collapse defenses and every other player in the lineup knows how to shoot, move the ball to where it needs to go or probe deeper to contort defenses even more.
With a rookie at point, there will be some hiccups, but this offense will absolutely pull the pants down on some unsuspecting Eastern Conference teams and maybe even some teams in the West that are a little woozy from a long road trip or tight schedule.
Dennis Smith Jr. is the truth
At times it feels like we throw too much onto Smith’s shoulders. This fan base is so desperate for meaningful youth in this franchise that we may have built up unrealistic expectations for guys like Justin Anderson and Jae Crowder.
Smith will not crumble under this heightened pressure. Everything about his game screams that he’s ready for the NBA, and while there will be the customary bad defense and turnovers that come with every rookie in this league, the highs will be so much higher than the lows.
We’ll remember the first monster dunk in traffic, the first 10-assist game, the first time he takes over in crunch time. This preseason didn’t show any cracks in Smith’s game after an impressive Summer League. He put up 10 points per game, shot 45.5 percent from three and racked up four assists in 21.1 minutes per game. He’s ready.
Take it in and enjoy it. Forget the random clunker in November or the first time Carlisle plays J.J. Barea over him in crunch time. That’s just part of the learning process. Smith is going to kill it.