The length of an NBA season provides plenty of unexpected twists and turns. And while we’re only a quarter of the way through, typically teams start to show their true potential — or lack thereof — around this time.
Looking back, at the end of October we watched a Mavericks team fueled by some optimism and anticipation wrap up the month in embarrassing fashion. Going a gross 2-6, including losses to lottery leaders Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks, there was little reason to have optimism about this season. Our internal conversations featured plenty of debates on the merits of shipping off Dennis Smith Jr., buying out veterans, and how hard the Mavs should consider tanking for Zion Williamson.
This was a team that desperately needed some pride and identity, and it wouldn’t be found in the first month of the regular season.
One month later...
How did we get here?
First, let’s acknowledge that the Mavericks have faced a slumping Utah Jazz team, an unhealthy Golden State Warriors roster, and a lost and unhealthy Houston Rockets group in this stretch. But last season’s Mavericks, and even the Mavericks of the beginning of this season, would not have been capable of closing out those fortuitous opportunities. So great, we’ve covered it.
But outside of that, what are the tangible things that turned the Mavs into one of the hottest teams in the league?
It begins with chemistry. Multiple players, both newcomers and returning, have been learning new roles, at-large and in specific lineups. And that just takes time. Early in the season the Mavericks were without core starter Harrison Barnes. And while he hasn’t come in and dominated many games, his absence forced other players (namely Wesley Matthews), into odd responsibilities. As those issues have been ironed out, and players readjust to new roles, the team looks more cohesive.
Next, the Mavericks’ team defense, specifically along the perimeter, has improved. In October, Dallas was allowing teams to shoot an almost ungodly 48 percent from the three point line. In November opponents shot 29 percent from deep. The season average of 36 percent still places them near the back of the league, but that number coming back down to earth has kept them in games they were playing catch up on early in the year.
Additionally, the Mavericks have one of the stoutest benches in the league — a unit that has been strengthened by the return of Devin Harris. A staple to the Rick Carlisle-J.J. Barea led bench magic squad, Harris injured himself early in the season opener against the Suns, and didn’t return until November 10th facing the Oklahoma City Thunder. He doesn’t always pack the stat sheet (though he had two standout games verse the Brooklyn Nets and the Houston Rockets) but he’s key to the function of the bench success. A great example of someone knowing their role and finding consistency in it.
Carlisle has found ways over the years to use bench units as secret weapons, exploiting other top-heavy teams that just try to bide their time while starters rest. This season, he’s found unique ways of placing Wesley Matthews with this group, putting Dorian Finney-Smith in a perfect role with the starters after they rest. The Mavericks lead the league in bench Net Rating at 7.1, a full two points ahead of Indiana Pacers at second. And they lead in plus-minus at 4.7, well ahead of trailing teams. Since Devin Harris’ return, the Mavericks have gone 7-1.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Rick Carlisle has opted to run the half court offense through Luka Doncic. The biggest storyline this season for the long term future of the Mavericks is how the rookie phenom and last season’s lottery pick Dennis Smith Jr. can coexist on offense together. Lots of growing pains have ensued. And when DSJ sat out against the Boston Celtics, there was a glimpse of a future Mavericks lineup centered around Doncic solely. In actuality, the Mavs have found ways to use versions of this all month. In November, Doncic’s usage rate went from 24.9 to 27.1 — a slight bump, but enough to feel the impact.
Wednesday night against the Houston Rockets, we saw what a Doncic-DSJ future could look like: Smith pushing the ball in transition, leveraging his athleticism to attack in bursts, then Doncic carving up opponents in the half court. This can and should be utilized the rest of the year.
The Mavs, who are currently in the top ten in both offensive and defensive rating, will have a heavier workload in December: 16 games, split evenly between home and road, with a tough four game west coast road trip that includes a Portland Trail Blazers/Golden State Warriors back-to-back. It’s months like these that define playoff caliber teams, and separates them from wannabes. The Mavericks simply have to win the close ones and the gimmes. They must defend home court, and take advantage of an opponent’s off night.
Because of the two drastically different months of this season, it can be hard to pinpoint what this team really is. They’ve managed to surprise in a lot of unique ways, good and bad, and December may be the month that brings some clarity.
And oh right, the 40 year old elephant in the room
The Mavericks and Dirk Nowitzki were hoping for his return to come at the end of November. That’s not happening, and the timetable often feels just as muddy as it did two months ago.
Mark Cuban on when Dirk will be ready to make season debut: “Within the next few weeks. That’s my bet.”— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) November 28, 2018
But there has been progress, and that’s important. And when the time comes for the Mavericks legend to hit the floor for his 21st season, Carlisle will have to determine where those minutes come from. An educated guess says it comes from some combination of Maxi Kleber or Dwight Powell, and not just one or the other. Both players have been dynamic together — you hate to lose Kleber’s rim protection and occasional outside shot, or Dwight Powell’s rim running and energy. But Dirk still changes the gravity on the floor just by standing still. And we HAVE to see a Doncic-Dirk pick and roll.
For Carlisle, finding minutes for Dirk is a good problem, and is just one more step on a fun and somewhat unexpected path in this young season.