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The Mavericks have to crawl before they can walk

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After an off-season of hype and raised expectations, the reality of a still-rebuilding team slapped the Mavericks in the face on opening night.

Dallas Mavericks v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Editor’s note: The Morning After is a feature for in-depth follow-ups on games that are interesting, intriguing or exciting — win or lose. It won’t be a regular thing (who cares about blowouts to the Warriors, etc.) but for certain moments we deem worthy, we’ll drop in.

Sometimes it’s really easy to forget how hard it is to go from a bad team to a good team.

The Dallas Mavericks won 24 games last year. They responded to that with massive talent boost to the roster in the form of DeAndre Jordan and Luka Doncic. It’s hard to put into words the upgrades that Doncic and Jordan are to a Mavericks starting lineup from a year ago that was truly anemic. Jordan is the best center the Mavs have had in five years and Doncic the best prospect since Dirk over 20 years ago.

It’s easy to get consumed in the hype and the hope because it’s fun. There’s nothing much to gain for your basketball soul by ho-humming two of the bigger off-season moves in franchise history, reminding yourself that these things take time. Believing in something more is much more fun. Who am I to judge? Life’s too short — go crazy.

Unfortunately basketball doesn’t actually work like that. The Mavericks found that out the hard way against the Suns on opening night, to the tune of a 121-100 thumping. While the visions of Dirk riding off into the sunset with one final playoff run danced in our heads, the reality is the Mavericks won 24 games last year. To go from that number to a significant improvement like say 38, 40 or even more, it’s going to take time. It’s not going to happen overnight.

Especially when you consider where the Mavs were at this point a year ago. Dennis Smith Jr. was their only blue-chip prospect and the roster around him was mostly filled with OK 30-year-old role players and undrafted flotsam. Despite all the improvements the Mavericks made this summer, Smith and Doncic are still the only first round picks the Mavericks drafted this decade on the roster. Meanwhile the Suns have six of those players. Of the six, four of them were given major minutes against the Mavs and combined for 88 of the Suns 121 points. The point is, the Mavericks need more of those guys. It’s the natural course of a rebuild, despite how quickly the Mavericks hope to blow past it.

So there will be lumps, like tonight. The Mavericks are incorporating new pieces among a rash of injuries and shakey wing depth. Phoenix had a killer wing rotation of Trevor Ariza, Devin Booker, Josh Jackson and T.J. Warren to throw at Dallas. The Mavs counter was Doncic, Dorian Finney-Smith and...well, that’s about it. Barnes is hurt and Ryan Broekhoff is an undrafted free agent. For all the improvements the Mavericks have made, they just can’t replace what years of first round picks can do to a roster. The only thing that can fix that is time.

That doesn’t mean we have to stop dreaming. Dallas showed off the first piece of its tantalizing future tonight and we can sleep with visions of Doncic’s wildly great passing and Smith’s rocket-boosted hops. We just have to be ready for the rude wake up calls every now and again. Onto the notes:

  • In the three preseason games against NBA teams the Mavericks played, they allowed three-point make totals of 13, 9 and 19 respectively. In total for those three games, opponents hit 44-of-106 threes (41.5 percent). They allowed at least 112 points in all three of those games. In related news, the Suns scored 121 points and went 19-of-34 from three. The Mavericks defense is a problem in big, bold capital letters. As much as Jordan can help at the rim, the Suns just whirled the ball past the Mavs perimeter defenders and freely got off shots from deep at will. Booker had 35 and killed them in the fourth with some back-breaking, difficult bombs but it’s not surprising Booker was comfortable with those shots when you consider how comfortable the Mavs allowed him to be in the first three quarters. While Booker wasn’t scoring at will, get got clean looks all night, along with his teammates. The Mavs just don’t have a stable of reliable perimeter defenders, especially with Barnes out. Before the injuries, you could count on Wesley Matthews, Barnes and maybe Dorian Finney-Smith. Wes looked three steps slow tonight and Barnes was out, leaving Finney-Smith as the sole wing defender. He played great on that end, about the best he could do considering the circumstances but the Mavericks just don’t have anyone else. Doncic is a rookie and just not going to get there this season, despite his good instincts. It also doesn’t help that the Mavs are switching more than they have in the past, which means more communication. That can be hard to nail down this early in the season and with so many new parts, so maybe it gets better as the team gels. The Suns dribbled wherever they wanted to tonight and it lead to a lot of kick-out, in rhythm threes. It was no surprise the Suns started canning harder shots as the night wore on — make shooters comfortable early and they’ll kill you all night.
  • This was truly a nightmare game from Dennis Smith Jr. He’s had worse statlines (13 points on 6-of-19 shooting tonight) but just the way he looked was extremely discouraging. Every shot Smith took outside of the paint looked extremely awkward and his mechanics on his jumper seemed to disappear. He had no balance and seemed off-kilter even when he had time and space to fire. To often it seemed like Smith dribbled into something and then didn’t know what to do, launching an ill-advised jumper or just straight-up stopping down a possession by picking up his dribble near the free throw line after running a pick and roll. What made things worse was his inability to finish at the rim. This was a problem last season, although Smith gradually improved at the rim every month. Tonight felt like five steps back as Smith bounced open finishes off the backboard and couldn’t connect on the floater he’s been working on all summer. He also somehow finished with zero free throw attempts, which is unacceptable. Smith got boned by the officials last season to be fair but tonight Smith seemed to go out of his way to contort his body to avoid contact. The Suns do have Ayton and a crop of rangey wings to bother Smith, but this was extremely discouraging. Smith has to be better. It was also super weird to see Smith guard Booker down the stretch in the fourth quarter and Booker promptly roasted him. Smith never stood a chance.. It seemed like maybe they had Smith on Booker so that Finney-Smith could switch onto him since Booker was using the pick and roll with another wing. Booker was smart enough to realize it though and just cooked Smith on his own instead.
  • It seems weird to not mention Doncic until the third bullet point, but things went about expected for him. His shot abandoned him, as he missed all his jumpers, but the flashy passing, the smooth handle and the steady demeanor we saw from Doncic all preseason was still here against the Suns. Doncic spoon-fed DeAndre Jordan in the first half and looked gassed by the second, coming up way short on his threes and missing a pair of free throws. Still though, nothing alarming, even with the rough shooting night. Doncic looks like he belongs.
  • I thought we were going to get a monster Jordan game tonight, since he had a quick eight points in the first quarter thanks to Doncic’s pick and roll mastery. Then after that first quarter Jordan disappeared. It was strange. He didn’t seem to roll as hard and his screens seemed to matter less as the night went on and it was especially apparent when Dwight Powell made Ayton look like he was moving in quicksand during the second half. Jordan still finished with 11 and 12 and a blocked shot, but the Suns took him out of the game far too easily after that first quarter. There’s not much Jordan can do to fix the Mavs atrocious three-point defense, but it would have been nice to just see a little more oomf from him as the game spiraled away. If teams are going to spread the Mavs out and bomb them from three, Jordan’s value gets nuked a bit. It reminded me of the 2014-2015 season when Tyson Chandler felt like he was on an island, expected to clean up every single mistake. Jordan can’t do that.
  • The most amazing moment of the game was when eight minutes into the season, Rick Carlisle went to a three point guard lineup, putting J.J. Barea, Jalen Brunson and Devin Harris on the floor at the same time. Carlisle is trolling me at this point.
  • Honestly, it’s not that surprising when you consider how starved for wings the Mavs are. They don’t really have much of a choice. To make matters worse, Harris injured his lower body earlier than usual, although it allowed Brunson to get some burn and make some plays.
  • Speaking of Brunson, it was nice to see him hit a three and hold his own on the floor. The Mavs had multiple quality options at wing when it was their turn to draft near the top of the second round, but they picked another short guard instead. To be fair, this short guard was one of college basketball’s best players and just about every expert regarded Brunson a steal at where the Mavs took him. So I understand what the Mavs were thinking, especially since this could be Barea’s final season in Dallas. It’s just nice to see Brunson play well, even if it’s going to be really hard for the Mavs to string together quality defensive possessions with him and Barea on the floor at the same time.
  • Not much to say about Dwight Powell, expect he’s still the wonderful lightening bug rim-runner that he was a season ago. Not sure about the lineups Carlisle was throwing out there with him and Maxi Kleber. Both of those bigs are light on their feet, but it seems like an odd fit. Not sure it can be sustainable defensively, since one of Kleber or Powell are likely guarding a wing.
  • The bench desperately misses Dirk Nowitzki’s floor spacing, but I was pleasantly surprised to see Barea look effective without his German crutch. I was hoping to see if Carlisle would play Doncic with the bench lineups to act as a mini-Dirk replacement for that unit, but alas, Doncic’s foul trouble in the first half kept him glued to the bench. He tinkered with it in the second half and that will be something to watch as the season progresses.
  • Here’s a dirty secret — the Mavs aren’t really a good shooting team without Barnes and Dirk. Doncic and Barea appear to be the only reliable shooters now and Doncic will be streaky this season. That’s why it’s so important for Brunson to make shots and to see if Broekhoff can give you anything. He didn’t tonight (three points in four minutes).
  • Easily one of the most enjoyable parts of the night was watching the opening minutes and realizing the Mavericks finally aren’t at a physical disadvantage as soon as the game starts. Dallas has the skeleton of a current and good NBA team now with Doncic sharing the starting lineup with another forward.
  • With no Harris, the rotation was off. That’s probably why Powell and Kleber shared the floor together. Broekhoff only got four minutes, so Doncic and Finney-Smith were the only wings to get minutes tonight. Dallas desperately needs Barnes back. Yeah, yeah, that’s going to be a broken record.
  • Despite the overall turd performance, I was genuinely excited about what I saw tonight (outside of Smith and Wes). Doncic looks legit and Jordan is a perfect pick and roll partner for him. Finney-Smith lived up to his off-season hype (for one game at least) and the Mavericks at least looked like a team with direction and promise. Doncic is only going to get better, Smith can’t be any worse and Barnes will be back soon to help calm things down. That’s something, at least.