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Stakes are high as the Mavericks enter the home stretch

The season is more than halfway over, but there is a lot still to unfold in Dallas.

Dallas Mavericks v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

In the blink of an eye, there’s less than two months left in the NBA regular season.

It’s hard to believe that the 2017-18 Dallas Mavericks are worse than last year’s version, given the seemingly inescapable hold injuries had on key players that season. But through 58 games, these Mavericks are five games worse than last year with another lottery pick looming.

Dallas isn’t mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, but Mark Cuban’s recent admission puts the final nail in the coffin of any hopeful, if severely misguided, postseason thoughts.

However, the last 24 games are chock-full of storylines and developments worth paying attention to.

The Tank Race

The Mavericks are currently 18-40 and are on pace to win about 25 games. That would have given the organization the third-best lottery odds last season. This season is wildly different. At the All-Star break, the bottom eight teams are within three games of each other, and that’s not including the New York Knicks who are falling fast after losing Kristaps Porzingis for the season. Six teams have just 18 wins. And while no team is flat-out tanking, Sam Hinkie style, many teams are very bad with nothing to play for.

Unfortunately, after a grueling beginning to the season, Dallas faces one of the easiest schedules remaining. Maybe the Mavericks string together some wins down the stretch to push them up the standings, or maybe Kyle Collinsworth gets promoted to tank commander and valiantly battles an easy schedule head on. Either way, the Mavericks final place in the pecking order is very much up in the air heading into the post-All-Star stretch.

Nerlens Noel? I haven’t heard that name in years.

This time last year, the Mavericks’ braintrust was preparing to make a deal to bring a 23-year-old, former lottery pick center to Dallas for Justin Anderson and a protected first. That center had his warts, which was why his team was willing to trade him for relatively little. But his tantalizing skill set far outweighed his blemishes.

What a difference a year makes.

But even after turning down a multi-year contract, eating a hot dog at halftime, scripted PR stunts and perfectly timed thumb surgery, Noel is set to come back after the All-Star break and is expected to contribute.

The whole situation is perplexing, but the fact of the matter is Noel will likely play soon, and that opens up possibilities that seemed farfetched before. Was Noel’s thumb the cause of his poor play at the beginning of the season? If he plays well, will the two parties engage in contract negotiations again? A lot could unfold on the Noel front in the final months of the season.

Doug McDermott’s role

The Mavericks were once again active at the trade deadline, shipping the beloved Devin Harris for a rarity on this roster: a wing with size and shooting. Three games into his Mavericks tenure, McDermott is averaging seven points, three rebounds and three assists playing 25 minutes per night. He’s struggled to find his stroke, but as a career 39 percent three-point shooter, that’s the least of Rick Carlisle’s worries. McDermott’s ability to play off the ball has been encouraging, and he looks like a natural fit in Carlisle’s offense. He’s recorded three or more assists in two games already, after reaching that mark only three times in 55 games with the Knicks. The former lottery pick is a restricted free agent this offseason but will carry a $9.8 million cap hit, so the Mavericks will be forced to quickly reach a deal or renounce his rights. McDermott could play himself into a contract or free agency down the stretch.

Dennis Smith Jr.’s growth

By most accounts Smith Jr. has had a fantastic rookie season. The ninth overall pick has averaged 15 points, four rebounds and five assists in 30 minutes per game. He’s shown an ability to get to the paint at will and take advantage of the paint touches, finding open teammates or finishing at the rim. He’s displayed his explosive athleticism in the open court on several breathtaking plays. Overall, he’s shown the framework that an all-star caliber career is present.

But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t taken his lumps. For starters, he’s shot the ball poorly, and that’s being nice (39 percent from the field and 32 percent from three). The Mavericks are better offensively without him. And he’s slowly learning that he’s not a superior athlete in the NBA like he was in college. All those growing pains are expected of a rookie point guard, though.

In the final 24 games, Smith Jr. will likely be playing less and less with Dirk Nowitzki, Wesley Matthews and possibly even Harrison Barnes. But he’ll be playing more with Dwight Powell, McDermott and hopefully Johnathan Motley. His leadership and ability to elevate his team will be put to the test, but all signs point to him rising to the occasion.

Speaking of Johnathan Motley...

It’s a bit strange that the Mavericks called up Motley before the All-Star break but never gave him substantial playing time. Even when Rick Carlisle opted to sit the veterans against the Houston Rockets last Sunday, Motley still only received four minutes of run. Since Motley is on a two-way contract, he only has 45 days, and time is ticking.

In 27 games with the Texas Legends, Motley has been a beast. He’s averaging 21 points and grabbing 10 rebounds playing 32 minutes per game. At 6’10, Motley has the prototypical size of an NBA four but could even play the five in some lineups. He has a relentless motor and thrives off hustle plays. He’s been listed on the Mavericks injury report with an ankle injury, but he seemed fine in the four minutes he played last week. Obviously, minutes are earned with Rick Carlisle, but it’s unfair to speculate without knowing the full scope. Hopefully Motely gets valuable NBA experience during the final months of the season. He could be a piece of the Mavericks’ future, but he has to play to find that out.

Cherishing Dirk

When Dirk signed his two-year, $10 million contract last July, he left the door open. His intent was to always play 20 years with one team, and after this season, he will have done just that. But when questioned about next season, he has always said it hinges on his health. So far, so good. The only game the Big German has missed was due to rest (AKA tanking). In every other game, he’s averaging 12 points and six rebounds while shooting 43 percent from three.

While the points would be the lowest mark since his rookie season, canning 43 percent of his threes would be a career best. At 39 years old! In his 20th season! He’s healthy and contributing, so it seems certain he’s coming back. But after the Mavericks’ loss to the Sacramento Kings, Dirk pumped the brakes on that notion speaking to the media. “It is never a decision I was going to make during the year,” Nowitzki said. “Just play the year out. Sit together with some of my close ones and family and make the decision.”

One thing Dirk has made clear about his impending retirement is that he doesn’t want a Kobe-esque farewell tour. If Dirk does, in fact, decide to hang them up next season, he will have played out the final year of his two-year deal. Ultimately, Dirk will go out on his terms, and he deserves that. And next season is not guaranteed, so let’s enjoy him while we can.