More than half of this NBA season is behind us, and through 43 games, the Dallas Mavericks have a 15-28 record after a rough opening stretch. Although the back half of the schedule looks a lot less grueling than the half they’ve already endured, it’s hard to envision this team rattling off enough wins to sneak into the playoffs. The Mavs are now looking at missing the playoffs for a second consecutive season, something that hasn’t happened since 1999-2000 season.
But as bad as that sounds, and as lacking as the Mavericks’ roster may seem in overall talent right now, this team could be closer to a turnaround than conventional wisdom holds. Let me explain.
The Mavs are awfully close to winning in a lot of these games
Unfortunately, close doesn’t cut it unless you know how to close out games. So far this season, the Mavs have played in 28 “clutch games” or games that are within five points with five minutes left in the game. That’s the most out of any other team in the NBA right now. The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers are the next closest to Dallas, having played in 27 clutch games each. The difference? Boston is 20-7 in its clutch games and Philadelphia is 14-13, whereas Dallas has a gut-wrenching 7-21 record in clutch situations.
The Mavericks are good enough to hang with anybody, they just can’t close most games without a true number one option. We expect Dennis Smith Jr. to eventually be that guy, and barring an unforeseen injury, that will happen at some point, but he’s still just a rookie and has a long way to go. Harrison Barnes is an excellent player who can get you 20 points on any given night, but I’m not sure how much higher his ceiling can go. Barnes is still young and will probably continue to improve, marginally, in the next few seasons, but it would be great if the Mavs could add some top-tier talent to lessen his load a little bit.
Losing so many games in the clutch is painful, but the fact that Dallas getting so close and only has four players on the roster that are 30-plus years old is a promising sign. As bad as it’s been so far, the Mavs seem to be trending upward in this deparpent, having won 6 of its last 9 clutch games.
A little fortune in the offseason can change everything
Before you groan about the idea of the Mavericks chasing free agents again, know that I’m also referring to the NBA Draft. Dallas is seeing firsthand with Smith Jr. what keeping your lottery pick can do for you. In past years, the Mavericks may have been tempted to trade down in order to create a little more cap space for free agency, but that approach has proved ineffective with no “big fish” free agents taking the bait.
The DeAndre Jordan debacle a few years ago was super weird, and it left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. But DeAndre not coming to Dallas wasn’t the worst part. No, the worst part was that the Mavericks literally put all its eggs in one basket that summer. It was literally DeAndre Jordan or bust, and the team has been picking up the pieces from that decision ever since.
This summer, however, the Mavs have a lot more roster stability. They have two clear building blocks in Harrison Barnes and Smith Jr. Barnes is on the books for two more years after this season, and they’ll have Smith Jr. on a cheap rookie deal for three seasons after this one. Dwight Powell’s contract is a little too much, but he’s been playing some great basketball this season and still has two more years on his deal. Maxi Kleber was a great find on a cheap deal, and unless something changes, you’d expect at least one of Seth Curry or Yogi Ferrell to be back with the Mavericks next season.
The point is, there’s some roster continuity to work with this time around in free agency. The Mavs won’t have to sell free agents on mere ideas anymore; they’ve actually got some players on longer deals now. It’s a long shot that any big name free agent chooses Dallas this summer, but with all that’s happened since the title in 2011, this franchise is overdue to catch a break in this department. Being one of the few teams with cap space heading into an offseason that has been projected as a potential “nuclear winter” for free agents figures to help out Dallas, too. Am I saying the Mavs are the most attractive destination out there? Definitely not — but they might be the most attractive destination with cap space before it’s all said and done.
Finally striking gold with big-time players like DeMarcus Cousins or Paul George this summer may be unlikely, but what does the team really have to lose this time? The Mavericks will almost certainly hold on to their first-round pick again this year, regardless of what the offseason plans are. So why not take another swing? Who knows, the Mavs just might surprise us this time around. Dallas has ridden the heroic shoulders of Dirk Nowitzki for years. Now the Mavericks need to find that next alpha dog to get them over the hump in crunch-time situations.
Roster-building via trade this season
The trade deadline is now less than a month away, and the only Mavs-related rumor out there is the one about potentially swapping Nerlens Noel for Julius Randle (we weren’t surprised by that one). The only downside to that deal is that the Mavericks would probably have to cancel their big free-agent shopping plans due to the salary they’d be taking on.
As February 8 draws nearer, other opportunities are sure to arise for the Mavs. Could Dallas find a way to add another first-round draft pick? What about adding a young, versatile player like Jabari Parker, who has loads of potential, but just can’t stay healthy?
The Mavericks’ vets have really played some great basketball this season, and they could be very valuable to a contender looking to bolster its roster heading into the playoffs. The problem for Dallas is, at what price are you willing sacrifice loyalty for future assets? It’s pretty clear, in my opinion, that Barea and Devin Harris don’t want to go anywhere. Even if Wesley Matthews were okay with going to a contender, there’s not many teams that would take him on with his $18 million player option for next season.
With the Mavs being so guard-heavy, something will eventually have to give. If Dallas insists on keeping its vets, does that make players like Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell expendable? Rick Carlisle briefly mentioned in a pregame radio show a few months back that Ferrell may not have been in the rotation at the beginning of the season if Curry hadn’t been injured. Maybe the injury concerns with Curry have changed that a little bit, but the fact remains that Dallas can’t keep every guard they have and improve the roster’s overall talent.
Whether it’s finding the right trade, going after a free agent or drafting, retaining and developing your own talent, a winning culture could go a long way for the Mavericks, both now and in the future. This team is competing night in and night out because of that winning mindset, they just don’t currently have the talent to get over the hump. A break here or there, and the team could be competing again sooner rather than later.
There were likely be a handful of opportunities for the Mavericks as the trade deadline approaches and again this summer during the draft and free agency. We’ll just have to sit back and hope both Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson do what’s best for the team going forward.