One would have to imagine that, in the course of determining how and if the NBA would return to action, a decision had to be made about whether the league would jump straight into the playoffs or if they would have some semblance of a regular season. One would further imagine that, during this deliberation, Adam Silver looked at the league standings, saw Zion Williamson and the Pelicans were a few games out of 8th place and said, “I think we should have more regular season.” And now here we are!
Teams have eight games to work themselves into game shape, prepare for the tribulations of post-season basketball, and do some last minute jostling for seeding. While the East may see some movement, it’s largely a conference of the Bucks and then everyone else. In the West, the Mavericks find themselves sitting at seven and looking up a potential first-round matchup with the two-seed Clippers. However, outside of perhaps the Lakers sitting in the top spot by 5.5 games, the eight games of regulation basketball provide plenty of room for chaos in seeds two through seven.
Dallas is the low man on the totem pole currently, but are a mere 2.5 games behind the fourth seed Jazz. In fact, according to the math from The Ringer, there’s only a 47 percent chance the Mavericks stick at number seven, i.e. just better than a coin-flips chance at moving up. Granted, based on our franchise history of atrocious lottery luck, Mavs’ fans shouldn’t be putting too much faith in the odds alone. (Dallas has never moved up in the draft lottery.)
Moving up would certainly be a moral victory of sorts, and would indicate some solid momentum for the teams heading into the playoffs, what’s more important than the seeding is who they’ll be playing against.
Dallas hasn’t seen a lot of sustained success against some of the bests of the West this season, going just 5-10 against teams seeded above them. There’s a reason they’re currently sitting at seven, after all.
Of those teams, Dallas is winless against the Jazz and the Clippers, going 0-2 against both, so it stands to reason those are teams they’d like to avoid if possible. In fact, the only potential matchup with which the Mavericks have a winning record against this season is the third seeded Denver Nuggets, going 2-1 against them. It makes a certain amount of sense. Denver is a team run uniquely through their big man and superstar, Nikola Jokic, and finding some big bodies to matchup against a comparatively unathletic big man is an order of magnitude more manageable than trying to fend off two elite wing players like they have on the Clippers in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
Obviously the Mavs can only control themselves, and no matter who fate decides they’ll play, the team will surely offer the similar raft of soundbytes (“Yhey’re a great team. We’re going to have to play our game. We think we can beat anyone if we’re playing our best,” etc, etc). But if you were to ask them off the record, I’d say there’s little doubt they wouldn’t rather play Denver or Oklahoma City versus a team like the Clippers or Houston Rockets, whose small ball lineups are a little too close for comfort to what the Mavericks are trying to do, and would test their limits, defensively.
The 8 game schedule
Dallas’ path to the playoffs looks like this: Houston, Phoenix, Sacramento, LA Clippers, Milwaukee, Utah, Portland, and Phoenix again. That string of games puts the Mavericks dead-center in terms of the team’s remaining strength of schedule — 11th out of 22.
Trying to assign wins and losses to these games is a largely pointless exercise, but you have to think that any team playing at a playoff level will be able to easily dispatch a Sacramento team who has seemingly been ravaged more by COVID-19 than any other team, and a Phoenix team so laughably far out of 8th place that they’re probably mad they’re even in Orlando in the first place.
Outside of that, each game is going to be a true test for this youth-led Mavericks team.
Houston, July 31
The first game back and about as unpredictable a game as you could imagine. What will these teams look like in the first bout of competitive play? What will Houston’s lineup look like? What’s an appropriate over/under number for the two teams who’ve made the most three pointers in the league this season and who both have a feigned interest in playing defense, at best?
This game could absolutely go either way, but with any luck, we’ll see a fully healthy Dallas team bring back the NBA’s top offense without missing a beat. Is that enough to get past whatever mad-hattery agenda Mike D’Antoni is cooking up? Your guess is as good as mine.
Phoenix and Sacramento, August 2 & 4
Quite possibly the best possible scenario. The Houston game is going to be a shootout, but after that the Mavericks will get to settle in, finalize lineups and grab some wins against a couple teams more interested in a lottery pick than having the opportunity to get swept into the off-season by the LeBron/Anthony Davis Lakers.
Put these two wins in pencil.
LA Clippers, August 6
With any luck, Dallas could find itself 3-0 in the restart and feeling confident against this potential postseason preview game. As mentioned, the Mavericks lost both games against the Clippers in the regular season. A Paul George-less matchup saw the Mavericks come close, losing by just three, but the full strength Kawhi/George version of the team gave Dallas its second-worst loss of the season: a 15-point defeat at home in Dallas. (Strangely, by far Dallas’ worst loss of the season came against Phoenix who beat them by 29 POINTS, so, I’m sorry what I said before, Phoenix.)
Playing well in this game and actually beating a team they’ve yet to beat thus far would do a lot for the whole “we think we can beat anybody” stance we’ve seen them take.
Milwaukee, August 8
The win against Milwaukee was one of the Mavericks’ best of the season against a team at the height of their powers and on an 18-game win streak. That it came without Luka Doncic in the lineup makes it all that much more surprising.
Needless to say, you want to win every game, but when you do lose, doing it against a team who’s dominating its conference while being led by the likely league MVP is nothing to hang your head over. Perhaps whatever secret sauce Rick Carlise bottled up for their surprise win back in December is still good come August.
Utah, August 10
Utah is a good team, but it is a bit surprising that Dallas has gone winless against the Jazz. Nothing against Donovan Mitchell or Rudy Gobert, but nothing about how Utah is built or how it plays screams “Mavericks Killer.”
Utah, currently sitting in the fourth seed, is going to find itself in a similar position as the Mavericks — fighting it out in the muck for those four through seven spots. By this time, halfway through the restart, we’ll hopefully have a better picture of what the seeding picture is going to look like, so there’s a chance teams at this point are beginning to cast an eye to the future when they’re deciding just how hard they’d like to try to win.
Portland, August 11
The Mavericks only back-to-back in the restart comes against a Portland team who, after making a Damien Lillard-powered run to the conference finals last season, now finds itself 3.5 games back of the eighth seed and having to fight to make the playoffs.
There’s a possibility that, by this point, Portland might be simply playing for pride on the off chance that they’ve been mathematically eliminated. That could be a blessing for a Dallas team coming off a tough game the night before, especially if they find themselves playing well and within reach of a more beneficial seeding.
Phoenix August 13
There’s a 50/50 shot that the Mavericks will even want to win this game at this point. Why fight for the fifth seed to play a fourth seed Rockets when you could lose and be a 6th seed against a third seed Nuggets, for example? It’s not like home-court advantage matters anymore in the bubble.
In that case, it’ll be shades of the 2017-18 season, when the two teams faced off in the final game of the season with Phoenix locked in to the number one overall pick, and the Mavs still trying to lose one more time and slink below the Orlando Magic.
The Suns did us all a favor by winning that game on the back of a career game by Alec Peters (no longer in the NBA) and evening the Mavericks lottery odds with Atlanta… only for the Hawks to jump Dallas in the lottery, requiring us to part with an additional first rounder to move up to third and draft Luka Doncic. Never trust the odds!