When asked how this Media Day feels different to him than last year, Dallas Mavericks Head Coach Jason Kidd causally brushed aside any notion that today was anything other than another “first day of school”. But Kidd’s coaching staff finds themselves returning intact - outside of Greg St. Jean being elevated to replace Igor Kokoskov. They also see the majority of last year’s rotation returning - with one notable exception in Jalen Brunson. Given that level of continuity, as well as the additions aimed to shore up areas of weakness, Kidd and his crew have the chance to build upon last year’s success.
It’s a new squad compared to last season’s team
“This is a different team,” Kidd stated. “C-Wood can score the ball. JaVale can roll with the best of ‘em. And we all know Luka’s playmaking. And getting Timmy back... Don’t know if we’re going to try to create 40 3’s like we did in the playoffs because that’s what we needed to do to win. But those shots will present themselves.”
During the season it is part of a head coach’s job to keep the front-facing communication to the outside world on a positive slant. At one post-game presser after another, you have heard Kidd (and every other savvy coach in the league) block and parry negative questions with sunny-side-up optimism. It can make you wonder if they (coaches and front office execs) see what we see as fans. Today’s answers show that last season’s front-court weaknesses were noted by both Kidd and the front office.
Defense takes center stage, again
The additions of Christian Wood via trade and new starting Center JaVale McGee should pay immediate dividends in the rebounding battle. The Mavericks ranked 23rd in contested rebounds last season according to NBA.com. Expect that ranking to improve considerably.
We can also look forward to fewer drives to the basket by opposing guards. For all their defensive improvement last season, the Mavs ranked 9th worst in opponent field goal percentage from under 5 feet from the basket at 63.9 percent. Despite his hustle and heart, Dwight Powell does not strike fear into opposing defenses when they calculate the cost-benefit analysis of attacking the basket on a given play. Starting the game with JaVale McGee (27th in blocks per game) at the 5 and adding in Christian Wood’s presence (45th in blocks per game) as a weak side shot blocker will give Dallas more than just Maxi Kleber (43rd in blocks per game) to deter in-game layup lines.
The Mavericks are aware of the third ball handler conundrum
The most consistent drum beat from the off-season is the consistent concern about another ball handler to help carry the load. Kidd and his staff have clearly been thinking about this as well, noting that “when go you on vacation, you kind of simulate a lot of those questions in the sense of a lot of guys don’t play 82 games and so having Spencer and Luka out gives Frank and Josh an opportunity.”
Last season’s starting lineup in the road opener against the Hawks did not include Jalen Brunson. The schedule began with JB coming off the bench but injuries and his overall maturation meant that just a few weeks into the season he was a fixture in the starting lineup. Dinwiddie’s arrival meant Jason Kidd could blanket most games with two of his three point-guards at any one time.
Starting this season, Kidd has opted against returning Hardaway to the starting lineup and instead will move Spencer Dinwiddie to the starting backcourt next to Doncic. This means Kidd loves the two-playmaker lineup. It also means we will inevitably see the ball in the hands of less experienced initiators early in the season.
This goes to the heart of losing Jalen Brunson. How do the Mavericks function when both of their remaining playmakers from last year’s team are off the floor at the same time? The answer Kidd gave today elevates Frank Ntilikina and Josh Green into the ball handler conversation. While the coaching staff would love for one or both of these players to advance their facilitation game up a few notches, there’s a reason why this answer may not be comforting to Mavs fans.
The prevailing wisdom is that this issue will be addressed via trade but in the meantime, it's fun to remember that last year at this time Trey Burke was the third-string point guard. Depth is tested at strange times during the regular season. It is hard to forget Burke coming up huge in another matchup with the Hawks. Just days before the Dinwiddie trade, Luka and Brunson both picked up five fouls only to see Burke come in, play pretty well, and pick up five fouls himself. If either half of the starting backcourt leaves a game with injury or foul trouble, we may well see Frank, Josh, or even Theo Pinson in some big spots.
Christian Wood should fit in just fine, including on the defensive end
It’s clear Kidd knows Christian Wood is a unique and valuable offensive talent. Wood is a rare 20/10 player who can score from all three levels with more fluidity than Mavericks fans are accustomed to out of a front-court player. He’s going to be fun to watch. Kidd notes that, “I want C-Wood to be himself. I’m not asking him to do anything he hasn’t done. He’s been in this league. He understands how to score the ball.”
The kicker here is his level of buy-in on the defensive end. Kidd went on to say, “Team defense is something that we’ll help him with as we go along here - and he’s capable of doing it. We’ll hold him accountable to that.”
If you are playing for a lottery-bound Rockets team, you can take it easy on defense for a few possessions here and there without losing your starting spot or any minutes. This won’t be the case in Dallas.
The open question is whether Wood provides the hustle and grit defensively to match his all-star level offensive skill set. Hearing that Kidd plans to hold him accountable should be sweet music to the ears of Mavericks fans everywhere.
JaVale McGee is going to matter, it’s mainly a question of how
It’s safe to say JaVale McGee was not the free agent target on top of Mavericks fans' wish list but he may have been the very best outcome given the lack of salary cap space and trade assets. Kidd stated, “it was something we felt we needed last year to protect (the rim) and offensively, being able to roll with the best of ‘em and to be able to punish the switch. We really believe JaVale can do that.”
The mid-level exception was used to fill a glaring need. Starting centers who can switch on the perimeter with a modicum of effectiveness are a rare breed. If McGee can be a more impactful version of Dwight Powell and play 15-20 minutes a night depending on matchups, we may look back on this signing with the sort of awe and gratitude the Reggie Bullock signing fostered amongst the fanbase in the second half and playoffs last season.
Expectations are high, but the Mavericks are ready for what’s to come
Fans want to win and as much as last year’s outcome may have been an overachievement in the eyes of many in the national media, the Dallas faithful will be hungry for another deep playoff run. It is understandable that Kidd attempts to recalibrate expectations, when he said simply “We’re gonna have fun. We’re gonna play defense. And we have one of the best players in the world.”
The next step in the progression is a Luka Doncic-led finals team. Kidd noted earlier, “ A lot of times people think you start where you ended and we’re not going to start in the Western Conference Finals.” Is it possible they make a run again? Absolutely. But we all should remember the ups and downs on the way to the 2011 Championship.
Led by a rising superstar, the Dallas Mavericks reached the Western Conference Finals only to fall to a more experienced team - in 2003. Dallas has ample reasons to be optimistic twenty years later yet history gives us an indication that the ascendance to basketball immortality may not be a straight line.
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