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9 things to watch for as the Mavericks gear up for preseason play

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Dallas enters the preseason with a potential Rookie of the Year and another season of Dirk Nowitzki.

Dallas Mavericks Media Day Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Despite the Dallas Mavericks having just endured one of their worst seasons in nearly two decades, the team’s upcoming season is one of the most anticipated in years. That’s what a stud rookie point guard can do.

After a quiet off-season, Dallas doesn’t have as much uncertainty around the roster as they did a year ago. With so many returning players, the roster seems relatively clear and the rotation somewhat set.

Even so, there are still things to sort through and questions to answer as the Mavericks open the preseason against the Milwaukee Bucks.

How are we going to keep our clothes on while watching Dennis Smith Jr?

Dennis Smith Jr. is the truth.

He’s one of the front-runners for the Rookie of the Year award, put up awesome numbers in college despite being surrounded by mediocre talent and absolutely balled out during Summer League.

Smith is still on track to start according to coach Rick Carlisle, and it’ll be exciting to see Smith’s first real shot at NBA competition in a more structured setting than the hectic Summer League. There is seemingly no limit on the expectations for what Smith can do playing alongside really good finishers — Dirk and Nerlens Noel setting screens for him will be unlike anything he’s ever experienced. Wesley Matthews will be able to spot up more, Harrison Barnes won’t have to isolate as much. Even though the Mavericks were really bad in general last season, there are still quality players on this team. Smith will have a wealth of options to pass to or free him up down the lane. It’ll be fascinating to see how he adjusts to his first real NBA test this preseason.

So what’s going on with Nerlens Noel?

Almost every stop of the Noel train since the Mavs made the dynamite trade to bring him in back in February has been troubling. Why can’t this be easy?

Noel didn’t explode off the stat sheet during his short time with Dallas last season, but he was absolutely and assuredly very good despite the Mavs still working with the Dirk-at-center lineup and trying to keep Noel’s minutes down for his health. Noel was probably the best performing Maverick on the roster after the trade on per-minute production and influence.

Once the off-season started, Noel, a restricted free agent, rightfully went to go look for a max offer sheet after players much worse than Noel got huge contracts due to the exploding cap. Unfortunately, the cap did not increase as much as anticipated this year, and many mid-tier free agents got squeezed out when they were looking to take advantage of the spending spree. Opposing teams just could not tie up that much money in Noel when the Mavericks were very likely to match.

Noel kept looking for that max offer sheet...and kept looking...and looking. Eventually, the market dried out and it was very clear the Mavericks had won and lucked into not having to match a gigantic contract. The Mavs offered a very reasonable four-year, $70 million contract on July 1, but there were no attempts to reconvene once it was clear Noel wasn’t getting a max offer sheet from another team. Things were dead quiet, Noel switched agents and signed the one-year qualifying offer, looking to “prove” his max worth. It wasn’t great.

When Mavs media day finally rolled around last week, the disappointment of Noel signing the qualifying offer had subsided. He was going to get even more opportunities to show why he is such a special player for the modern NBA, the Mavs would realize that, yes, he is worth keeping around for the next four years and everything would be OK.

About that.

Carlisle said on media day that he is toying with the idea of bringing Noel off the bench to keep Dirk at the five. Almost every basketball reason supports the decision, since Dirk just can’t keep up with today’s quicker fours. It makes sense, except when you realize basketball isn’t played in a vacuum and things matter on and off the court.

So now we wait and see what happens with Noel. Does Carlisle stay true to his word and bring him off the bench? With Dirk’s need for rest and maintenance, he’ll be in and out of the lineup so it might be hard to get a read exactly which way Carlisle is leaning. Regardless it’ll be interesting to see how Carlisle deploys Noel and which lineups he uses him. We won’t get all the answers about Noel this preseason, but the picture should be a little clearer.

So who is starting next to Smith?

When Seth Curry was inserted into the lineup halfway through last season, the Mavericks dramatically picked up their play thanks to Curry’s offensive boost and Dirk’s move to the five opening up the floor.

While Curry had a great year on the whole, he really shined in the starting lineup working as a secondary ball-handler with either Deron Williams or Yogi Ferrell as the lead guard.

Curry thrived when he wasn’t the primary initiator, attacking a scattered defense from the weak side against hard closeouts and working in another pick and roll. His defense was also a boost; he was one of the more active defenders on the roster outside of Wes Matthews.

It seemed like a slam dunk when Carlisle said Dirk might start at center that the Mavs would go right back to Seth starting as well next to Smith. However, Ferrell has been working with the starters so far, perhaps to ease Smith’s transition into the starting role. A point guard safety blanket so to speak.

It’s a good problem to have, as both options make sense. Both Curry and Ferrell are terrific spot-up shooters. Curry’s size probably lends better defense, so it’ll be interesting to see how the starting back-court shakes out as the preseason wears on.

Which fringe players are sticking around?

The Mavericks enter the preseason with 20 players on the roster, so some fat has to be trimmed before the regular season tips off.

Unlike last year, there are even fewer open spots available. There are about 14 players that seem like locks for the roster, leaving just one open spot. Included in that group of fringe players are P.J. Dozier, Maalik Wayns, Maximilian Kleber, Brandon Ashley and Gian Clavell.

The Mavs have a ton of guards — Smith, Curry, Ferrell, J.J. Barea, Devin Harris and even Matthews are all locks, of course. Dallas also has a lot of bigs on the roster with Dirk, Noel, Josh McRoberts, Dwight Powell, Salah Mejri and Jeff Withey.

Dallas needs size on the wings desperately, especially if Carlisle is committed to Dirk at the five. Harrison Barnes is going to play a lot at the four this year, so that means Dorian Finney-Smith is really the only truly experienced wing on the roster. That can be a problem.

Keep an eye on Dozier. He’s got great size at 6’6 with a 6’11 wingspan. He was a defensive terror on a South Carolina team that made the Final Four and could be an ideal fit for a modern, switching NBA defense. Of course, he can’t shoot, so there’s a reason he’s signed as an undrafted free agent.

Dirk stays healthy and pure

It bares repeating — if the Mavericks truly believe they can be a dark-horse playoff contender, all of that revolves around the health and play of the 37-year-old franchise star. Please just knock down a few trailing threes and take a seat on the bench this preseason, Dirk.

How are the backup bigs shaking out?

With Dirk starting, that throws a wrench into potential playing time for most of the Mavs backup bigs.

That leaves Noel, Mejri, Powell, McRoberts and Withey as veteran bigs who will all be coming off the bench. Combine that with the need to play Barnes at the four to maximize his skills, and it leads to a logjam for all these bigs.

McRoberts might never play, with poor health plaguing him for years. He was mainly brought on as an expiring contract so don’t be surprised if he rarely sees the floor. But this is Carlisle we’re talking about, so he might average 20 minutes a night.

Mejri, Powell and Withey are all fighting for backup-five minutes with Noel and now Dirk. The Mavs desperately want Powell to find a jumper so he can play four and give Barnes a break from guarding bigs, but he’s consistently shown he’s best off as a rim-diving bench five, despite his bad rim defense. Mejri and Withey are basically the same player, so it begs the question of whether both of them finish the season with the Mavs.

If Dallas can get anything out of McRoberts, that could be a huge win that will help keep Barnes fresh and not expending so much energy playing the four on defense. The rebounding and defense really zapped a lot out of Barnes, since his effort is unquestionable.

Yogi Part 2

Quietly lost in the Mavericks drafting of Smith, the Noel situation and the return of Dirk was that the Mavericks actually had a player on one of the NBA’s All-Rookie teams.

The last time the Mavs had a rookie make one of those teams was back in 2004 when Josh Howard and Marqius Daniels made it. That was thirteen years ago.

Ferrell made it by averaging a little over 11 points per game and shooting over 40 percent from three while starting 29 games for the Mavs. That seems like it should be a bigger deal than it was made out to be, especially when you consider Ferrell was a 10-day contract signing when the Mavs brought him to the team.

It’ll be interesting to see how Ferrell adjusts and potentially gets better with a full training camp in Dallas. Ferrell’s three-point stroke is absolutely legit and a full season of Noel, the hopeful health of Dirk and Smith there to give him another attacker to play next to should let him thrive. Ferrell might not match his total production from last year since he doesn’t need to play as much, but his plus/minus and per-minute production should be as good if not better than a year ago.

How’s Dorian Finney-Smith’s shot looking?

Finney-Smith was a much needed undrafted find for a Mavs team that just didn’t have that many wings on the roster.

While Finney-Smith played a lot and had his moments, his numbers just don’t look great. His three-point shot fell off in the second half of last year, and while his defense never wavered, his offense just didn’t let him see the floor as much as he probably needed to given the Mavericks roster.

Finney-Smith has been retooling his shot mechanics this summer, and unfortunately it did not show in the Summer League — Finney-Smith was dreadful shooting the ball in Vegas. That’s to be expected for someone overhauling their shot, but hopefully there will be better results starting in the preseason. The Mavericks really need some good minutes from him this year.

Any insight into the Mavs closing lineup

While it will be almost impossible to decode this during the preseason, as all the important rotation players will be planted firmly on the bench when the last five minutes of the fourth quarter roll around, there could still be some clues to what will be an important sub-plot this season: the Mavs’ closing lineup.

If Dirk starts at center and Carlisle wants Dirk at the five this year, does that mean Noel’s minutes are cut short as Dirk at center starts and closes games? If Carlisle wants Dirk at the five, that means one of Barnes, Dirk and Noel won’t play in crunch time. It’s not hard to guess who gets left out.

That’s important because it’ll limit the minutes of Noel and prevent him from fully getting to “prove it” when it comes to his max worth. Maybe Carlisle busts out a more traditional Barnes, Dirk and Noel frontcourt but that seems unlikely if Dirk starts at center.

While we won’t see any of these players near the floor in the fourth quarter of any preaseason games, we can see insights based on Carlisle’s substitution patterns throughout the first half and which lineup closes out the first half in the dress rehearsal games.

For a Mavericks team that couldn’t have been more irrelevant last season (outside of Dirk’s historic 30k moment), there’s a ton of buzz around this team. The preseason will be the first chance to see if the excitement is worth it.