It is a common, if folksy, idea that in the NBA teams have to “pay their dues” in the post season. In order to reach the top of the mountain where anything is possible — and other such cliches — team must build up some playoff calluses. Find their sea legs. Get some seasoning, so to speak.
That a team has to lose in the playoffs to know what it takes to win in the playoffs is now axiom. Seems reasonable enough. However, common knowledge, such that it is, doesn’t always apply in uncommon times.
If ever there was an uncommon time for the NBA, it’s now — inside the bubble. In many respects, it’s surprising that it’s working as well as it is despite Lou Williams best efforts. In this uncertain time where NBA practices take place in ballrooms, playoff experience has likely never been a more unreliable metric than what we’re going to be seeing in this year’s incarnation.
Moreover, why should the birthright struggles of a young, ascending team apply to the Dallas Mavericks? Besides, they’re not as inexperienced as they seem.
Players are asked adnauseam about life in the bubble and what effect it’s had on themselves and the team, and the responses can almost entirely be condensed down in to “we’re just here to focus as a team and play basketball.”
The thing about players, though, is that they are liars.
Some of them could barely adjust to hotel meal catering without complaining about it through tweets and Instagram posts. And we’re to believe these same people aren’t affected by a complete uprooting of their daily lives and routines? Unlikely.
It’s not hard to conceive that, in a normal season, after an 82-game slog, the mental toughness gained by prior years of playoff experience could certainly play a role in a team’s post-season performance. To that end, the Mavericks are led by vets like J.J. Barea and Courtney Lee — the latter of whom won’t be playing in Orlando, but is with the team — to impart as much playoff know how as they can to a team lead by the youthful Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis.
Delon Wright has accumulated his fair share of playoff experience in his time with the Toronto Raptors, and Seth Curry, Boban Marjanovic, and Tim Hardaway Jr. also bring some level of familiarity to NBA playoff basketball to the roster.
That said, playoff experience, for as relevant as it has or hasn’t been in the past to team post-season success, has likely never been a more unreliable metric than what we’re going to be seeing in this year’s incarnation.
Teams haven’t spent the past 8 months travelling, playing back to backs, and playing through nagging injuries. Almost the opposite, in fact. Assuming the players were responsible with the 4 months that passed in between real games, they should be entering this home stretch fully healthy, focused and in shape.
What’s more, the playoff atmosphere created by areas packed with screaming fans — at least a part of the home-field advantage that comes with a top four seeding — is all but gone, replaced by piped in crowd noise and virtual seats filled with fans seemingly stuck in one giant Zoom call. This is unlikely to be a situation where swells in arena ambiance is fueling teams on a comeback trail or looking for an important defense stop late in the game.
Also, not for nothing, but just because Luka doesn’t have NBA playoff experience, doesn’t mean he doesn’t have post season basketball experience. I hate to trot out this descriptor again this late in to Doncic’s NBA career, but this is a guy who’s played against grown men since he was 16, and who was drafted after winning a EuroLeague Championship and being name the EuroLeage Final Four and League MVP. Maybe The EuroLeague playoffs crowd experience doesn’t hold up against the NBA playoffs, but they’re certainly a level above playing in front of a bunch of grainy webcam fans.
As the Mavs get back on the court for meaningful basketball on Friday, they’ll find themselves sitting in the 7th seed, behind 5 teams returning from last year’s playoffs, plus the 1-seeded Los Angeles Lakers who just happened to add a player named Anothy Davis since last season when they were absent from championship contention.
Teams like the Los Angeles Clippers are led by players like Paul George and NBA Champion/Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. The Houston Rockets have a hungry James Harden and fellow league MVP Russell Westbrook. Even the Oklahoma City Thunder has Chris Paul with something to prove.
Looking up at the standings, the path ahead won’t be easy. There’s just no getting around the fact that the Mavericks roster will be at a deficit when it comes to playoff acumen, no matter how many pep-talks Barea and Lee give the young guns in the locker room.
However, what’s also unquestionable is that we’ve never had a situation like this. Prepare for the Rick Carlisle all-guard lineup. Prepare for playoff Luka. Prepare for a record-setting offensive output. Prepare for chaos.