As our editor Josh Bowe recently said, training camp is the most fun time for a fanbase. The mood in Dallas has completely flipped from pure disappointment to renewed optimism. When you have Luka Doncic on your team there are always going to be expectations. But after a great off-season, those expectations have moved up a wrung on the ladder.
This does not mean that the expectation now is a championship. Most likely the Dallas Mavericks are not going to win it all this year. It’s more plausible to expect this team to win a playoff series or at the very least be competitive if they end up playing a team like the Denver Nuggets in the first round. That will be a successful season, and to get there it is going to take the best outcome in three different areas.
Luka Doncic’s thigh
The first and most important factor in Dallas’ success is Luka Doncic’s health. He has had a chronic thigh issue dating back to March of last year. “It’s not okay”, Doncic said after re-aggravating it during the FIBA World Cup. The Slovenian star has played in 330 out of a potential 393 games in his career (84 percent), so he is no stranger to playing through nicks and bumps. Because Doncic has been playing with no restrictions for the entirety of the summer and training camp, it is probably an injury with little risk of hurting it further. Despite that, it’s going to play a big role in the Mavericks’ season.
Coach Jason Kidd has already stated that Doncic is “probably not 100 percent”, and says they’re trying to get him closer to that as the season approaches. Doncic at 80 percent is still a top 10 player in the league, but when he’s fully healthy, he is in the top three. A leg injury hinders one of the best parts of his game, which is his ability to attack downhill. Doncic has been top three in drives and top five in field goal percentage on drives (out of players with more than 10 drives per game) each of the last four seasons. If Dallas is getting him at 80 percent, they lose a lot on offense. If he plays through it the whole year, you have to assume by the end of the season he will be dwindled down closer to 70 percent.
Between the World Cup, the overseas preseason games, and the two-a-day practices Jason Kidd has laid out for his team during training camp, Doncic will have been through the wringer before the season even begins. If his thigh issue really is as bad as he says it is, it will be crucial for him to get to 100 percent before he pushes himself over the limit.
Kyrie Irving’s headspace
When Irving was drafted out of Duke 12 years ago, his otherworldly handle and unique talent dominated the discourse around him. The legend of Uncle Drew grew further when he won a championship with Cleveland in 2016. Over the course of the last seven years, the narrative has been quite different, and his basketball skill no longer shines through the cloud that his off-the-court conduct has created. Dallas is his fourth team since that title and each time Irving has jumped ship, it has happened the same way.
Only a year removed from winning the NBA Finals, Irving requested a trade from the Cavaliers to be “the man” somewhere else. That destination was Boston where Irving played a season and a half before he publicly made it clear that he was committed to the Celtics long-term. Then, just eight months later, Irving left Boston to sign with Brooklyn. Once again, Irving played three injury-riddled seasons in a Nets uniform before verbally committing to the Nets. Just a half-season later, Irving requested out of Brooklyn.
That is how he made his way to Dallas, and that brings us to his comments from media availability last week. In these, he expressed his love for the organization and even went so far as to say that he wishes the Mavericks drafted him. These comments are great, and I am sure right now Irving feels at home in Dallas. However, it is not anything new. These comments do not hold a lot of water given his recent past. Whether or not Irving wanes on his situation in Dallas, this year has the power to alter not just this season’s trajectory, but the path for years to come as well.
The play of the rookies
The most fascinating news out of training camp so far has been the acknowledgment that rookies Olivier-Maxence Prosper and Dereck Lively II will have big roles. For Lively, the reasons to start him are clear. The decision to give Prosper a chance is more surprising given the handful of veteran forwards the Mavericks have at their disposal. Kidd has long been known for his player development and these two guys are his next big project. Both possess skill sets Dallas desperately needs.
After the Mavericks have seen their assets disappear before their eyes over the last year, hitting on both of these young guys would accelerate their success tenfold. With only one first-round pick until 2031, there is not much wiggle room to acquire the pieces they need to round out the roster. If the rookies can be productive in year one, the expectations could rise even higher this season.