Let’s be honest with each other for a moment: it’s hard to watch Mavericks games right now.
The thrill of watching Dennis Smith Jr. show off new tricks is still there, but the novelty of the rookie has worn off a tad. The Mavericks aren’t making a playoff push (obviously) and outside of Smith, the Mavs don’t have a ton of young blue-chippers on the roster. Watching games feels like a slow burn.
So finding things to watch for in the final 14 games seems like a tall order. However, basketball is precious and the Mavericks are still doing things, so there are things worth paying attention to. Dallas is preparing to enter a very interesting summer, one where they should have another top-10 pick and loads of cap space in a league where cap space is precious. The Mavs still have evaluations to make, because there’s a decent chance the roster gets a talent overhaul this summer.
With that in mind, here are some things to watch as the Mavs close out the season:
Where’s that tank headed?
Entering tonight’s game against Toronto, the Mavericks are currently the seventh worst team in the league with a 22-46 record. The worst team, Memphis, has an 18-49 record. With six teams between Dallas and Memphis, it’ll be really difficult for the Mavericks to tumble back down into a good chance at a number one overall pick. It’ll be especially harder since the Mavericks are no longer focusing as much on “player development” as Rick Carlisle said after a tankerific Clippers loss, while all the teams below them have long since waived the white flag.
Ever since Mark Cuban’s tanking comments over the All-Star break, the Mavericks have been determined to win games. The team slumped pretty hard going into the break and it’s obvious Cuban’s comments lit a fire under them. It also shined the league’s flashlight on the Mavs, as lineups that consisted of Maxi Kleber and Salah Mejri up front disappeared. In the 10 games since the break, the Mavs have a minus-0.8 net rating, good for 19th in the league. That’s three spots higher than the Mavs’ ranking for the season as a whole. In the past five games, in which Dallas has won three of four? They have the 10th best net rating in the league at 4.5.
This is a hard topic to talk about. The Mavericks are proud of the locker room culture they’ve established and don’t want losing habits seeping into the minds of young players like Smith, Yogi Ferrell and even Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith. You would think, however, that there’s a balance to be struck. Players are always going to play hard, regardless. Rick Carlisle, Dirk Nowitzki and Wesley Matthews won’t allow players to slack off during practice or even perform poorly in-game. So what’s the harm in rolling out more lineups with Kleber, Kyle Collinsworth, Jonathan Motley and Jameel Warney? There’s not even a guarantee the Mavericks would lose those games if those guys got more burn and some of the vets either sat out or scaled back their minutes — Carlisle is just too good at times.
So it seems strange the Mavericks aren’t trying to have their cake and eat it too, since if there’s ever a team that’s equipped to absorb the stench of losing games, it’s this very respected Mavericks locker room. Who knows what will happen in the draft lottery, maybe the Mavericks get lucky. But it’s not hard to understand the frustrations of a fan base that had visions of a franchise game-changer like DeAndre Ayton or Luka Doncic dancing in their head after the Mavericks spent a majority of the season with one of the three worst records in basketball. Great players can be drafted anywhere in the first round (and even second). No arguments there. But this is more about the math — the better the chance you give yourself at the number one pick, the better the chance you have of drafting a franchise-altering talent.
Alas, it appears the Mavericks are going to keep sticking with what they’ve done all season, so it’s perhaps a moot point now. Hopefully the Mavericks can find another gem in the back-half of the top-10 like they did last year. But if you’re watching the Mavs down the stretch to see the tank roll down the road, you’ll most likely be disappointed.
The continuing saga of Nerlens Noel
I’m not going to rehash all of my takes about Noel from the summer and training camp, where it was obvious the Mavericks weren’t going to give Noel a fair shake. Noel has plenty of blame to place on himself, but player development is a two-way street and with the Mavericks losing a lot of games this season, it was inexcusable to not roll out Noel and see what he has to offer, even if he’s been aloof for his time on the floor.
So instead of going back into this, let’s focus on the here and now. Noel is back in the rotation, finally, after being benched and then having thumb surgery. (I guess he’s learned the plays now?) In the last seven games, Noel is averaging 4.7 points and 5.8 rebounds in 18.3 minutes per game. His per-36 numbers are once again fantastic, and Noel has done the things he’s always done when he’s gotten back onto the floor since the All-Star break: protecting the rim, showing deft hands on defense, running the floor like a gazelle and showing off some sneaky passing. There’s also been the out-of-position defense and the aloofness, as mentioned before. Take what you can get with Noel at this point and just be thankful Carlisle hasn’t yanked him off the court forever.
Noel is still the only big on the roster that can make a play like this:
But also follow it up with this:
Even with the blunders, Noel has been one of the better Mavs in the last seven games. When he’s on the court, the Mavs post an even four net rating. When he’s off the floor, it dips to a 0.8. Dallas is having trouble scoring in the limited time Noel has seen action since he’s returned, but the defense is as strong as ever. Using a lineup with Harrison Barnes and Noel up front and Smith and Ferrell in the backcourt, the Mavs ran the tanking Knicks off the floor during the third quarter of their game on Monday. Noel has always had this potential, so it’s fun to see the Mavericks decide to put him back on the floor. It’d be cool if we didn’t have to deal with the BS from the start of the season til now, but better late than never?
How funny is it, though ,that Noel was benched then hurt for the entire stretch where the Mavs were still hanging on to slim hopes of a playoff run, and now that they’re eliminated, Noel has returned to help spark the team to a winning stretch of games? The Mavericks are super weird.
Is Doug McDermott for real?
Here are McDermott’s stats since being traded to the Mavs at the deadline: 9.8 points, 2.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists per game on 47.3/52.3/85.7 shooting splits. Yes, that isn’t a typo. McDermott is shooting 52.3 percent on threes and taking 3.4 a game. He’s been molten lava hot since the Mavs traded for him.
That’s not too surprising when you consider how nicely McDermott fits in Carlisle’s offense. Carlisle’s flowing, read-and-react offense has always boosted players who could shoot, move without the ball and make the extra pass or read when necessary. McDermott isn’t a playmaker, but he’s averaging more assists per game with the Mavs than he did for any full season prior to this and he’s running off screens and pin downs like a maniac.
He’s firing threes and making clean passes off catches from prior action, in addition to attacking closeouts with some extra oomf. I always pegged McDermott as an off-ball, ho-hum shooter. Instead, he makes a play like this once or twice a game:
McDermott will be a restricted free agent this summer and his cap situation is weird, since he has a $9 million cap hold. The Mavericks might not want that number floating around while they hunt for players, so maybe McDermott is a one-year flyer. If the Mavs do find a way to bring him back, he’ll be a fun bench piece who, crucially, is taller than 6’4. McDermott’s defense and rebounding haven’t wowed, but he seems like a perfectly serviceable bench guy and a dude that could help space the floor for Smith as he grows in the pick and roll.
Enjoying the final moments of Dennis Smith Jr.’s rookie season
Smith hasn’t been a great rookie, but rookie starting point guards rarely wow you with their efficiency or defense. The fact that Smith looks the part and has gotten better in other ways has been encouraging.
While his shooting numbers are still poor, he’s improved at the rim over the course of the season and is increasingly comfortable going to the basket and finishing with his left hand. Before the All-Star break, Smith was shooting 54 percent in the restricted area. Since the All-Star break he’s up to 59 percent, and he looks much smoother when trying to score in the paint.
It’s likely Smith finishes the season under 40 percent from the field and right around 30 percent from three. He takes a lot of bad jumpers, but again, that’s expected of a starting point guard who was 19 when the season started. The most important thing about Smith’s game is that he doesn’t seem overwhelmed by the moment and he’s taken well to Carlisle’s coaching. In the last 10 games, the Mavericks have a positive net-rating when he’s on the floor, according to NBA.com, and while the numbers are better when he’s off the floor, he was a giant negative when on the court earlier in the season.
He’s getting better, the team is getting better when he’s out there and the Mavericks are finally experimenting with bigger perimeter lineups that will help Smith on the defensive end, as well as giving him a bit more space to work with in those 1-5 high-pick-and-roll sets he loves to run.
The future “lineup of death?”
Since the All-Star break, the five-man group of Smith, Ferrell, Barnes, McDermott and Noel have played 24 minutes together. In that (very small) amount of time, the numbers are staggering: 106.5 offensive rating and 69.1 defensive rating (a 37.3 net rating). Those are obviously unsustainable numbers and the Mavericks have played a lot of teams that have given up, but it’s still neat to see the Mavericks finally roll out a modern NBA lineup and have it work.
Smith and Ferrell are underzied in the backcourt, but instead of putting another guard next to Barnes, McDermott gives them some size on the wing. With Noel rim running around Smith pick and rolls, Ferrell and McDermott being deadly shooters and Barnes filling the gaps where need be, the lineup has a ton of fun potential. It’s been a long time since the Mavericks have played a 6’8 and a 6’9 player at the three and four with both being credible threats from deep. It’s a lineup that doesn’t feel like the Mavericks are using smoke and mirrors to get by, it feels like a lineup that is legitimately doing good things. It looks like a lineup of the future.
Good on the Mavericks for trying this out. If they’re going to win most of these last 14 games, at least they’re doing it with a lineup that resembles what the good teams in the NBA are doing and have been doing for a couple of years.