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6 things that could get the Mavericks back to the playoffs

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A lot of things will have to go the Mavs’ way to get back into the postseason, but it’s definitely possible, and Dallas has a lot of flexibility this summer.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

After nearly two decades of basketball excellence, the Dallas Mavericks find themselves in a place the franchise hasn't been since the turn of the millennium — consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance. The Mavs are still trying to pick up all the pieces of multiple offseason plans that haven’t panned out.

The good news is that the Mavs seem to be on the right path back to prominence, with a renewed sense of importance for the NBA Draft. Last year, they selected one of the best players available at No. 9 in Dennis Smith Jr. This year, the Mavs have an even higher pick, and will look to pair another young, talented prospect with Smith Jr.

Add to that — for the first time in a long time, the Mavs have a lot of flexibility heading into this offseason. Whether via trades or free agency, I believe they could be due for a franchise-altering summer. Here’s how.

The continued rise of Dennis Smith Jr.

Smith Jr. had an electrifying rookie season, and the best part of it was that he actually got better as the season progressed. He finished the season averaging 15 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds per game in less than 30 minutes per contest. Efficiency was Smith Jr.’s biggest weakness in his first season, but that can be attributed to getting blocked at the rim and not getting foul calls.

Both of those things, along with slightly tweaking his shot form (his actual release looks good), can easily be improved this summer, and it already looks as if he’s heading in the right direction.

As far as getting blocked at the rim goes, Smith Jr. will need to go back and learn from his film. There were times where he simply didn’t take it to the rim hard enough, or where he could've faked to one side and then finished on the other. These are things that the elite point guards do, and on more than one occasion, Smith showed that he is capable of doing it.

Efficiency aside, Smith Jr. putting up the numbers he did in less than 30 minutes per game (29.7), while also having a 28.9-percent usage percentage is pretty impressive. He was asked to carry a similar load as fellow rookie Donovan Mitchell, only without the luxury of having a center like Rudy Gobert. Smith Jr.’s numbers looked similar to Russell Westbrook’s rookie season, and while that doesn’t necessarily mean that Smith Jr. will end up having the same kind of career as Westbrook, I think it gives the Mavs hope that they have a special player on their hands. Smith Jr.’s development and continued familiarity in Rick Carlisle’s system should lead to a better sophomore year in the NBA.

Chemistry could lead the Mavs to more clutch wins

This past season, the Mavs tied for the second most clutch games played, which means 50 of its 82 games had a point differential of five points or less with five minutes remaining. Although Dallas didn’t play the most clutch games, the Mavs had, by far, the worst record in those games, going 12-38. Unless there’s big trade of some kind, I think roster continuity (at least with the guys that actually play meaningful minutes) will help the Mavs’ chemistry, which, in turn, could help them close out tight games better than they did in 2017-18.

If Smith Jr. stays healthy, this next season would be the first time since Jason Kidd that the Mavs have had the same starting point guard for at least two full consecutive seasons. I believe chemistry overall matters, but it especially matters when it comes to your starting floor general. We should expect to see more poise and less crunch-time mistakes with this team next season.

Hitting a home run in the NBA Draft

After having the third best odds at winning the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, the Mavs were undoubtedly disappointed to come out of the lottery with the No. 5 pick. However, this year’s draft is very deep, and there’s a chance that the Mavs could still add a franchise-changing talent. Most mock drafts out there right now have the Mavs linked to Texas Longhorns’ freak-of-nature big man, Mo Bamba. The latest draft rumors, though, indicate that one of Luka Doncic, Marvin Bagley III or Jaren Jackson Jr. could fall in the Mavs’ lap at No. 5. And all of that doesn’t even factor in the rising stock of Michael Porter Jr., who is considered to be the biggest wild card of this draft.

If we were to re-do last year’s draft, I bet you that Mitchell goes in the top-5, rather than falling to the Utah Jazz at No. 13. A Mitchell-type home run in this year’s draft would really put the Mavs ahead of schedule in this rebuilding process and help them push back into the postseason.

Keeping an eye out for opportunistic trades

Staying with the draft, another way the Mavs could help their playoff chances and their rebuild would be by adding another first round pick, especially if it’s a lottery pick. With Denver Nugget’s Nikola Jokic getting close to a contract extension, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski recently said that the team may be looking to throw in the No. 14 overall pick in this year’s draft for a team willing to take on Kenneth Faried, giving Denver some cap relief.

Another intriguing scenario to keep an eye on is Chandler Parsons and the Memphis Grizzlies. It has been reported that Memphis is gauging the trade market to unload Parsons’ remaining $49-million contract over the next two seasons. Memphis would reportedly be willing to trade its No. 4 overall pick to make that happen, but as Marc Stein noted, the Grizzlies would still want to stay in the high lottery. This means the Mavs would, more than likely, have to do a pick swap to get a deal done, and I’m not sure taking on Parsons is worth moving up a single spot in the draft.

With other teams out there having horrible salary cap situations, you’d hope the Mavs are keeping tabs on any potential fire sales. Teams that immediately come to mind are the Washington Wizards, Miami Heat and Detroit Pistons. A good player acquired via trade could be another step in the right direction for Dallas.

A “big fish” free agent may not be needed

The Mavericks are one of only five teams with significant cap space heading into this summer’s free agency period — which gives them an opportunity to make a big impact.

I don’t necessarily think they have to get a top free agent like DeMarcus Cousins — I could see them making some smaller moves to improve the roster. For example, Portland Trail Blazers’ big man, Jusuf Nurkic could be a really high-quality move for Dallas. Tyreke Evans and Will Barton are some other quality guys that will be on the market this summer.

Dallas has too much flexibility this offseason to not bring in some roster upgrades for Carlisle to experiment with. And who knows? If Dallas does decide to go star-chasing again this summer, maybe this will finally be the year.

Parity in the Western Conference and a potentially changing landscape

Although the Western Conference is viewed as an impossible gauntlet at times, I believe it is top heavy. You currently have the Golden State Warriors, the Houston Rockets and then everybody else. Don’t believe me? This past season, the Warriors finished as the 2-seed, and they were still nine full games ahead of the 3-seed Trail Blazers. There were only seven games separating spots 3-through-10. Although some of the teams in that middle-of-the-pack range figure to get better, some teams also could fall off depending on their own offseason moves.

The Oklahoma City Thunder, for example, ended up as the 4-seed last season, but they were also two games away from missing the playoffs altogether. Paul George is set to be an unrestricted free agent, and there’s no guarantee that the Thunder can make up for his production if he signs with another team. A blow like that could push OKC out of the playoff race. There has also been speculation among NBA execs that the Thunder should consider trading Russell Westbrook.

The San Antonio Spurs barely skidded into the playoffs, and there has been a ton of drama surrounding the franchise’s relationship with Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs’ star is going to be eligible for a max contract extension this summer, and if he and the team can’t settle on an agreement, the Spurs could decide to trade Leonard now. If a move like that happens, don’t be surprised if the Spurs are left on the outside of the playoffs looking in for the first time in two decades.

Then you have teams like the Clippers, Lakers, Kings and Nuggets, none of which are guaranteed to take a step forward. If things fall the right way for the Mavs this summer, I think they will surprise a lot of people next season with how competitive they’ll be for one of those final playoff spots.

Hoping for the stars to align

That’s a lot of things that have to go right for the Mavs to get back to the playoffs. But if the Mavs exhaust all their options and a couple of things break their way this summer, brighter days are on the horizon. Let’s send Dirk out the way he deserves.