Luka Doncic’s sophomore season with the Dallas Mavericks was special. The team ended up being better than anyone thought possible with Doncic taking a leap much sooner than expected. Dallas had an MVP candidate and an electric, though fragile, number two in Kristaps Porzingis.
The Mavericks lost in six games to the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round. But it didn’t matter, because for the first time in years there was hope. Fans considered the season a success and looked towards a bright future.
But in Doncic’s third season the mood shifted. The Mavericks brought back essentially the same roster for 2020-21. Injuries and health issues derailed what many thought could be a strong regular season run. The Mavericks’ front office seemed to take a lackadaisical approach to the standings, sitting multiple starters at what seemed like random times for winnable games.
The Mavericks only slightly improved from the prior season, moving up to the fifth seed and getting that as a result of a tie breaker. But the Clippers were waiting for them again in the playoffs. The Mavericks fell in the first round, this time in seven games. What seemed like success just ten months before suddenly felt like failure.
Now a new season looms, and if there is still wide-eyed hope, it’s fragile. Yet again, the Mavericks decided against an overhaul of the roster, instead settling for subtle tweaks. It’s a risk, because another first round loss won’t be considered a disappointment. It’ll be an outright disaster.
That’s the way it is when you have a perennial MVP candidate on the roster. The Mavericks will expect to compete for championships every year that Doncic is healthy. Or, at the very least, should seem to be making progress toward the Finals. If they don’t take a step forward this season, fans, already on edge, may quickly sour on the entire Mavericks organization.
With the roster staying so consistent, however, there’ll be an easy scapegoat this year. Longtime coach Rick Carlisle resigned this offseason, and Jason Kidd took his place. If there are early struggles, Kidd will be on the hot seat almost immediately. Already a controversial hire, the expectations surrounding Kidd are high. Anything short of exceeding the previous two years’ results will be looked on as a failure.
He’s inheriting a tough situation in that sense. He’s not taking over a championship machine already humming along or trying to guide a bad team into the playoffs. No, Kidd has the hardest coaching situation in sports—trying to make a good team great. If he can’t take the Mavericks to the next level, the fans will surely turn on him quickly.
That won’t matter, of course, because only Mark Cuban’s expectations really matter. In theory Nico Harrison and Michael Finley make personnel decisions, but Cuban is the really who decides whether Kidd or the players on the roster have been successful. The Mavericks have been a pillar of organizational stability the last ten years with very little to show for it. But in the 2000s, Dallas cycled through three coaches and turned over their roster almost annually. That was all driven by Cuban’s desire to win. It’s possible he’ll return to his freewheeling ways going forward, especially if Doncic makes it clear his expectations aren’t met.
This time of year you’re probably wondering what your expectations should be for this team as a fan. Obviously you want them to win a championship, like you do every year. But we all know that’s not realistic, at least at the moment. So at the end of this season, what could the Mavericks accomplish that would make you feel satisfied?
This is a good time to use the famous Sylvia Plath line “If you expect nothing from somebody you are never disappointed.” But I won’t. Not only is that dispiriting, cynical way to live, it’s a completely joyless way to follow a basketball team. There’s a difference between being realistic and always expecting the worst. Remember, at the end of the day, this is entertainment. Watching the Mavericks play should be fun.
So I’ll pass on Sylvia’s worldview, at least for now. Check with me again in mid-January. Instead, I’ll lean toward author Donald Miller, who wrote “When you stop expecting people to be perfect, you can like them for who they are.” Not only is that a psychologically healthy way to approach life, it’s a great way to think when watching the Mavericks.
The 2021-22 Dallas Mavericks won’t be a perfect team. They’re not a juggernaut about to lay waste to the NBA and cruise to a championship. But they’re going to be fun. They’re going to win a lot of games in the regular season. They’ll probably score a lot of points doing it.
But because they didn’t change the core problems on the roster that can be exploited in a playoff series—a lack of secondary playmaking, subpar defense on the perimeter—the results in the postseason will likely be similar. Maybe the Mavericks will make the second round because they’ll match up with an inferior opponent thanks to better seeding. But the ceiling is capped by a roster that hasn’t been able to defeat rosters that are legitimate championship contenders.
An avalanche of expectations will be crashing down on the Dallas Mavericks this season. Luka Doncic wants out of the first round. Jason Kidd has to prove he’s improved his coaching acumen since his time in Milwaukee. Mark Cuban needs to show his young franchise cornerstone he’s willing to do whatever it takes to win. There’s an entire fanbase starved for the type of success they became accustomed to while Dirk Nowitzki owned the court at the American Airlines Center.
If some of those expectations fall short, count on plenty of drama in Dallas in 2022.