DALLAS — It’s late in the first quarter and the game is already slipping away from the Mavericks.
After a spirited first few minutes, the Warriors are taking control. Dennis Smith Jr. brings the ball up the court as the Mavericks flow right into their patented secondary break action — Smith hits the trailing Dirk Nowitzki at the top of the key, Dirk swings the ball to the other end of the floor to J.J. Barea as Dwight Powell comes from under the basket to set a ball screen.
Dirk fades to the wing as Barea and Powell run the two-man game. The attention Dirk draws as he moves to the wing plus the speed in which Barea and Powell run the pick and roll catches the Warriors napping. Barea tosses a lob and Powell finishes the alley-oop with a two-handed slam.
The Warriors ended up winning anyway. Nothing about this is surprising — the Warriors are in the middle of one of the greatest runs in NBA history and the Mavericks are, uhm, transitioning to the next era and all the unknowns that contains.
What’s also not surprising is that between that lob and the final buzzer the Mavericks never relented. Golden State never led by more than 10 for the rest of the game and multiple times throughout the night the Mavericks had it at a one-point game. Hell, they even had a lead late in the third quarter. They went on a 10-0 run in the final minutes of the fourth quarter to tie the game with about 12 seconds left before Steph Curry ended things with a game-winning three. That’s these Mavericks in a nutshell. They will run their stuff as hard as they can, every possession, talent-gap be damned. They will catch good teams napping and bad teams with their pants down.
They will also lose to super-bad Kings and Hawks teams at home, get overwhelmed by the Brooklyn Nets and casually drop a game to the Suns. There’s a reason this team only has 13 wins right now, even with a recent four-game win streak.
The record doesn’t matter though. Preparing a team to play as hard and as smart as possible is the only thing Rick Carlisle knows, tanking be damned.
“I’m really pleased by the way we played, with how hard we played and kept coming and kept coming,” Carlisle said after the game.
The Mavericks are a super weird team. They are the sixth-worst team in the NBA but have a point differential better than two teams ahead of them in the standings. They are 13-26 but their second-unit lineup of Barea, Yogi Ferrell, Devin Harris, Dirk and Powell is not only the best lineup on the team, it’s one of the best lineups in the NBA! Of all the five-man groups that have logged at least 160 minutes so far this season, that Mavs group has the best net rating. That’s pretty crazy for a team that won’t sniff 40 wins.
Look up and down the Mavericks’ schedule and you won’t see many double-digit losses. In fact, of the Mavericks 26 losses, only nine of them are by double digits. But of the Mavericks’ 13 wins, six of them are by double-digits. Think about that for a second. The Mavericks, who will likely finish with a top-10 and maybe even top-5 draft pick, have a higher rate of double-digit wins than double-digit losses.
You can thank the unnatural amount of veterans on the team. Most rebuilding teams feature lotto picks and undrafted free agent flotsam. The Mavericks instead have four over-30 vets who have all had major playoff success. Unfortunately, none of those vets are top-20 players, with Dirk nearing retirement and Barea, Harris and Wesley Matthews always topping out as really solid role players. That’s why the Mavericks lose a lot of games despite always keeping them close. They have a mix of youth, athleticism and experience plus a top-three coach to even the odds against more talented teams, but when crunch time comes they don’t have the dynamism of a franchise player to push them over the edge. They’re hoping that’s who Smith becomes, but we’re a long ways away from that.
It also puts the team in a really weird position. The Mavericks, technically, should be losing most of these games. Those over-30 vets won’t be around when Smith reaches his plateau, and the Mavericks’ roster is almost hilariously barren of blue-chip talent thanks to the back-to-back roster dumpster fires of the Rajon Rondo trade and the DeAndre Jordan indecision. Smith and Barnes are the obvious two building blocks but after that it gets murky. Yogi Ferrell and Dorian Finney-Smith are fun finds, but also undrafted four-year college players — their ceiling is limited. Maxi Kleber looks like he has something, but who knows. Dwight Powell has grown a lot, but he’s a 26-year-old, four-year college player. The leaps for him will be smaller and smaller every offseason.
Past that, what else is there to build on? Seth Curry is older than you think and hasn’t played a game all year with a shin injury. Nerlens Noel is in the Phantom Zone. Dallas has only one first-round pick it drafted this decade on its roster and that’s Smith. The cupboard is bare. Dallas finding dudes at the fringe of the free-agent landscape is great, but it’s not going to get the team back to where it was. That requires top-tier talent and you only get that from striking it rich in free agency (barf) or accumulating top draft picks.
The Mavericks looked like a lock for a top-three pick a month ago but have now climbed to the sixth spot and are rising fast. Despite Dallas’ anemic start, there’s a good chance they could once again be looking at picking nine or 10 overall, much like last season. Unlike last year, though, this year’s draft looks more top-heavy. The draft is a crapshoot and franchise-changing players have been picked outside the top-five plenty of times, like the flame-throwing point guard who ended the Mavs on Wednesday night. But when you look at the big picture, is it that unreasonable to be upset the Mavericks might miss out on a chance at a potentially franchise-altering talent like DeAndre Ayton, Luke Doncic, Marvin Bagley, Michael Porter or Mohamed Bamba, all because 33-year-old J.J. Barea had a career season?
That’s where this gets tricky. From a distance and from the outside looking in, the choice is easy — the Mavericks should lose lots of games. Then you get inside the locker room, you talk to the players and the choice becomes a little harder. It’s like that scene at the end of The Dark Knight where the civilians and prisoners have the choice of blowing up the other group for the chance to save themselves. When push comes to shove and someone finally decides to pull the trigger, he can’t. It’s hard.
Dirk has been pretty solemn after a couple of these close losses and after every game he still answers questions like the Mavericks are right there, so close to jumping back into the race. It’s all he knows and it’s hard to blame him. Listening to Wes talk about losses pissing him off, it’s tough.
“This is who we were supposed to be all along,” Wes said after the game. “We don’t really have a moral victory here that we took the champs to a one-possession game. We felt in our hearts we were supposed to win that one.
“We’re not happy, right now.”
It’s really easy to forget these players are human and that maybe losing games isn’t all that fun. It’s easy to say Dallas should be shopping players like Wes, Barea and Harris at the trade deadline, but then you remember these players have families and lives in Dallas that they might not want to pick up and move. Harris has played nine of his 13 seasons in Dallas and his brother passed away earlier this season. If he doesn’t want to leave, is it a good look to your team’s rep to ship him off?
Those are the difficult questions the Mavs front office is paid to answer. Dallas needs a top pick in the worst way, but they’re up against a roster that forces them to play their good older players and a proud team culture (thanks to Dirk and Carlisle) that forces them to try to win. Smith, Ferrell, Powell and Kleber are all getting minutes. The vets aren’t really blocking the progress of any young foundation piece sitting on the bench, now that Noel has disappeared. Injuries and roster imbalance have forced the Mavs’ hand. Carlisle doesn’t know how to coach any other way, and in the end it’s probably a big win that he and Smith have connected so well. Hopefully the culture and framework the team is trying to fit Smith into pays off when the rest of the roster catches up to Smith’s talent. It just might be a longer wait than we thought.
Early in the second quarter, Dirk has basically entered a time machine.
In three-straight possessions, Dirk scores on back-to-back post-ups and assists Powell on a corner three. For a brief, five-minute stretch, Dirk looks like he’s 28 again. Like he’s the Dirk that could drag this roster to 55 wins.
After the Powell three, there’s a dead ball a few possessions later. It’s time for Dirk to take a rest and he walks slowly to the bench. Mavs head athletic trainer Casey Smith is there to greet Dirk as he passes by Carlisle and he gives Dirk a big high-five and slap on the chest. Dirk slowly nods as he creeps back to his seat.
The Mavs are down 43-38. Still more work for Carlisle and Dirk to do. The Mavericks will fight every possession, every game, until the season is over. For better and, maybe, for worse.