Heading into the 2020-21 NBA season, the Dallas Mavericks are a team looking to improve on their short but exciting playoff run last summer. Yet, one of the biggest questions facing the team is its health.
Former All-Star Kristaps Porzingis will miss the start of the season as he continues to rehab after undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus. With Porzingis sidelined, the health of Dwight Powell, who is returning after a torn Achilles, becomes paramount. How well he plays could determine how the Mavericks fare as the regular season gets underway.
“With KP being out early, Powell has played the entire training camp. He’s gotten almost all his reps with the first unit and he’s doing really well,” Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle said.
Having Powell back in the starting lineup should be a boon for the Mavericks’ offense. The team, which posted historic offensive output a season ago, was at its best and most potent when Powell was on the floor. He appears in half of the team’s best five-man lineups that played 60 minutes or more. None of those lineups had an offensive rating below 108.
Powell and the Mavericks were humming along until his season came screeching to a halt on January 21. That’s the day he ruptured his right Achilles tendon, ending his season.
His long road to recovery began a few days later as he underwent surgery. To his benefit, the bizarre twists the NBA endured in the coming months reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic helped Powell’s recovery and allowed him to be ready for the start of this season.
“As far as my rehab, things have been going good,” Powell said. “Everything is on track; everything is on schedule, thankfully. No hiccups. I’m ready to get going.”
In fact, even though he couldn’t play, Powell credits his time in the bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida as helping him process and cope with his rehab. It’s there where he had shared a number of firsts — running backwards, dunking — with his teammates around to support him.
“Just the nature of and the structure of the bubble and every day how rigid our schedule was,” Powell said, “I was able to focus in and listen closely to my body and relearn some of those movement patterns and relearn how to trust this new physical structure that’s in my body.”
Rehabilitation wasn’t the only thing occupying Powell in Orlando. When the Milwaukee Bucks started a wildcat strike after the shooting of Jacob Blake by a police officer, Powell stepped into his role as the Mavericks’ liaison to the National Basketball Players Association.
In every meeting that the players held to decide their next move or whether to continue the season, Powell was there. After a few tumultuous days and an intervention from former President Barack Obama, the players decided that the best way to voice their opinion on racial injustice was to continue playing.
“The things we were able to accomplish in the bubble were great, I think,” Powell said. “Across the board, players, staff, coaches used our voices and used that platform to bring about some change and also to start some serious conversations that we have to continue to work on going through this next season and the future—for really the rest of our careers and our lives.”
There are those who don’t think the players and their leadership went far enough, however. The players went into their strike without a clear list of demands, which weakened their hand, some say.
“There’s a symbolic impact like John Carlos and Tommy Smith that affects consciousness in unprecedented ways when you have an international stage,” Dr. Cornel West said on a recent episode of the podcast Bad Faith. But he asserts that the pressure on the players from outside interests—money, owners, Obama—co-opted their message.
As such, the conversation shifted away from the power the players wielded at the time. Had it remained focused, it may have lent itself to “a whole different kind of discourse, which is very important, independent of the more tangible, concrete concessions that they might be able to make.”
Still, the players were able to enact some change. The NBA ran get-out-the-vote advertisements during games and arenas around the country were converted into polling centers for the November elections. In Dallas, the American Airlines Center, where the Mavericks play, served as the largest voting location in the county and saw a record number of voters.
Even with the support of his teammates in the bubble, Powell found recovery difficult. It wasn’t the rebab that bothered him, necessarily, it was simply not being able to participate.
“The biggest thing I noticed watching and not playing was how much I missed playing,” Powell said. “You kind of try your hardest not to but you tend to take for granted that ability to just be out there with your guys and compete with your guys.”
Now, Powell is back on the floor again, competing with the rest of the team. How he holds up through the rigors of the contracted season has yet to be seen, but simply being back has an impact. Beyond his ability on the floor, he’s a leader in the locker room and in the broader league.
Whether he plans to pursue that leadership role is neither here nor there at the moment. Rather than look too far ahead, Powell is concentrating on getting ready for the fast approaching regular-season. He isn’t worried about his role on the floor — with or without Porzingis — he just wants to do what he can to help the team be successful. The goal for him is simple.
“In terms of the future, my objective here is to win as many games as possible and to compete with these guys and for this city,” Powell said. “That’s my only focus right now.”