DeAndre Jordan walked right up next to Dennis Smith Jr. after Smith air-balled and then bricked free throws in ugly succession at the end of the first half. He wrapped his arm around the second-year point guard, leaned in and started talking.
Smith cracked a smile, as did Jordan. The two walked off the court, toward the locker room with the Mavericks leading a depleted Knicks roster by three. It would have been a sweet moment if the Mavericks maintained the lead and snapped their losing skid. However, at the end of a wildly brutal third quarter, the lead was gone. There were no more smiles — just sighs, shrugs and blank stares as an undrafted rookie on a two-way contract buried the Mavericks for their sixth-straight loss. Those smiles seem hallow now.
Dallas couldn’t stop New York at home on Friday night. They haven’t stopped much of anyone so far this season. After a summer of self-proclaimed promise and hype, it was a cruel reminder that this is what a rebuild looks like and no matter how hard you try, you can’t speed it up.
It was easier to mask the previous losses — most of them hotly contested against good, playoff caliber teams. There’s no shame in barely losing to the Raptors or Jazz just a season removed from a 24-win death march. But against the Knicks? The Knicks who entered the game with the same record as the Mavericks, missing their star and first-round pick due to injury? This one hurt, significantly more than the others.
Rick Carlisle’s cadence made it obvious. He wasn’t fire and brimstone but instead muted and despondent. In place of anger, there was disappointment, maybe a hint of self-doubt.
“It starts with me, OK,” Carlisle said. “I take responsibility for this game and the way our team is struggling. I’m the leader of this thing and I’ve got to do a better job of getting these guys playing harder, playing more together.
“What we did tonight was very disappointing.”
In a vacuum, it all makes sense. Dallas wasn’t good last year but they had some things, mainly older veterans better suited for role playing rather than star turns. If they could just add a difference maker, someone who could take over games and put everyone else in their proper place, maybe they had something. Luka Doncic is supposed to be that guy, and he looks the part so far this season. Remember what Carlisle said on draft night? “First draft picks are of very little interest to me,” he said. “We need to take this group and move forward.”
They rounded that move off with Jordan, a quality roll man to work with Doncic and make Smith’s life easier. It was easy for some to get swept up that this team would make a substantial leap, one that is very hard to do in the NBA.
Consider this a reality check.
That’s not to say you can’t be disappointed in what the Mavericks are doing, but just remember what this team is trying to build from. About three years ago, the Mavericks roster had practically nothing — the Rajon Rondo trade and the initial Jordan fiasco left the team’s cupboard bone dry. Despite the Mavs proclamations that they were done with this losing nonsense and were ready to win again, they still field a roster with only two first-round picks drafted this decade. The Sacramento Kings have seven. The Phoenix Suns have six. Dallas is still woefully short on homegrown talent and that only gets fixed with time and patience for a team with their free agent history.
This is going to take time. It always was. Especially for Smith, who is for the first time playing with a teammate his own age who plays his position better than him. Smith had a great scoring game with 23 points, but once again look flustered at times with six turnovers, zero assists and some poor defense against the Knicks’ Allonzo Trier, the aforementioned undrafted, two-way contract guard who put up 23 points of his own but on just 10 shots.
It was clear how the team felt after the loss despite practically none of them being in the locker room when the media were let in. For a team with two young talents that aren’t used to getting drilled for most of their basketball playing life, this is a struggle.
“Remain positive, we try to talk about things that we can improve on but you don’t want to be negative,” Jordan said about keeping his younger teammates heads up. “You’ve got to remain positive and optimistic but also we’ve got to continue trying to correct some things while we’re doing it.”
Perhaps most frustrating about tonight was that while it’s easier to be patient with the younger guys, it’s hard to feign that for the veterans. Jordan had an invisible four points and 10 rebounds. Wesley Matthews looked uneven and unhelpful with his nine points on six shots. J.J. Barea had an ugly night pounding the ball into the court and missing four of his five shots, most of them wild layup attempts after heavy isolation dribbling.
Hell, the only time Jordan stood out during play was when he almost brained Doncic to steal a rebound from him. Perhaps he can put his arm over his shoulders too?
This is fine I’m sure pic.twitter.com/K2KP3BKhjK— Big Doncic Energy (@KirkSeriousFace) November 3, 2018
Meanwhile Doncic had another good offensive night with 18 points, nine rebounds and six assists but looked sluggish on defense and once again didn’t really seem to control the offense until it was too late. It’s becoming a weird pattern but Carlisle was in no mood to talk individuals after a loss like tonight’s.
“I’m so much more focused on defense that the questions about offense to me are very insignificant,” Carlisle said when asked about Doncic’s role right now. “We gave up 55 percent shooting again. It’s become too commonplace and that’s not going to get it. I know we can do better.”
Even with tonight’s ghastly showing, it’s too soon to make any wild proclamations. Any talk of moving on from Smith is premature and Doncic looks about as legit as hoped for. The veterans that are clogging things up like Matthews, Barea and to an extent Jordan will likely not be on the team next year. This was always going to be a transition year, with how the contracts are lined up. Whether you’re OK with the Mavericks somewhat softly punting a season with Doncic and Smith on their rookie contracts is up for debate, although Jordan was a big splash. It just hasn’t been enough. Nothing really has.
“The answer is obviously no,” Carlisle said when asked if the Mavericks effort level is high enough to win NBA games. “We’ve got to do better. At this point we’ve got to get angry, we’ve got to get more together. We’ve got to have two good practice days, that’s where we’re at.”