The Mavs get an upfront view of one of the most interesting teams in the West in the first week of the season, as they travel to New Orleans on Saturday to face a Pellies team that hasn't played since Opening Night. New Orleans is counting on the addition of Omer Asik, a return to health for several of their key contributors as well as continued internal improvement from Anthony Davis to get them into the playoffs. It won't be an easy task, but they have enough talent to match up with just about any team in the league, especially at home.
They made short work of a depleted Orlando Magic team on Tuesday, winning in an 101-84 rout that was highlighted by a typically preposterous stat-line from Davis -- 26 points, 17 rebounds, 9 blocks, 3 steals and 2 assists on 10-22 shooting. If he's going to put up stats like that all season, there's no telling what the Pellies are capable of. Davis is a 21-year old entering his third season in the league and he already appears capable of being in the MVP race and pushing for a spot on the first-team All-NBA squad.
And while he consumes most of the media oxygen surrounding this team, there is plenty of talent around him. The Pellies starting line-up features two guys who were lottery picks - Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon - and two guys they gave up lottery picks to acquire -- Jrue Holiday and Omer Asik. Add a 6'9 pure shooter with a legitimate chance to win Sixth Man of the Year - Ryan Anderson - and this is a team that expects to win right now. If they under-perform early, Monty Williams could be on the hot-seat.
They are widely projected to finish last in the Southwest Division, which says as much about the quality of the division as anything else. The Mavs have 4 games against the Pellies, 4 games against the Spurs, 4 games against the Rockets and 4 games against the Grizzlies and every one of them could be a battle this season. It's only the first week, but how they look against New Orleans should tell us something about their standing in what should be a very crowded and intense competition for playoff spots out West.
PG - Jrue Holiday - A former All-Star who fell off the map last season after playing in only 34 games. He's not a flashy player and he doesn't put up a ton of stats, but he's one of the most complete point guards in the NBA. At 6'4 210, he's a huge guard with the ability to defend both back-court positions at a high level, run the offense and distribute the ball, shoot over the top of smaller defenders and make an impact on the glass and the passing lanes. The only concern is his tendency to fall in love with the long 2, which may be an after-effect from years playing under Doug Collins in Philadelphia.
SG - Eric Gordon - He was widely considered one of the best young SG's in the NBA when he was in Los Angeles, but injuries have robbed him of a lot of his explosiveness and he's been somewhat of a malcontent in his three years in New Orleans. It feels like he's been around forever but he's still only 25. While he's only 6'4, his wide frame (215 pounds) and long arms (6'9 wingspan) allow him to play much bigger than his size. There's a lot of Monta Ellis in his game and he should be a very interesting match-up for the Mavs SG.
SF - Tyreke Evans - Like Gordon, Evans is a very talented player who has never quite lived up to the expectations surrounding him when he first came into the NBA. As a result, a lot of people let the player people thought he could become overshadow the very good player that he has turned into. Evans still can't shoot, but he's one of the most effective slashers in the league and he's a better passer than he's given credit for. This should be a very interesting match-up for Chandler Parsons, who is much taller but isn't nearly as strong as the 6'6 220 Evans.
PF - Anthony Davis - What can you say about this guy? He's the future of the PF position and the future may have already arrived. At 6'11 220 with a 7'4 wingspan, he's an elite athlete with a phenomenal nose for the basketball who looks like he was grown in a basketball laboratory. Tyson Chandler will likely start the game on him, but everyone on the Mavs frontcourt will get a chance against Davis at some point. Watch out for when they slide Davis to the 5 and play him with Ryan Anderson, because they become almost impossible to defend.
C - Omer Asik - The Pellies big off-season acquisition, Asik is the guy they are counting on to get them over the hump in the West. He's not the most skilled guy in the world, but he's an enormous human being (7'0 255) who moves his feet really well and has the length to block out the sun with his arms. While he's not very effective on offense outside of the paint, Asik's size and activity allows him to wander into a few points and make himself a nuisance on the glass. If Dirk or Brandan Wright is on him, they have to work hard to box him out.
PF - Ryan Anderson - Another guy looking to bounce back from an injury plagued season, as Anderson played in only 22 games last year. There are a lot of stretch 4's running around the league but few stretch the floor as well as Anderson. He's a pure shooter who can blow open a game really quickly. He had 22 points in 22 minutes against Orlando - all of a sudden, he started walking into a few transition 3's and the game became a rout. He's not just a shooter, as he is also an excellent rebounder who can score with his back to the basket.
PG/SG - Austin Rivers - This is where depth becomes an issue for New Orleans, as they don't have anyone they can rely on outside of their top 6 players. Rivers is a score-first combo guard who is slowly becoming more of a complete player, but the Pellies decision not to pick up his fourth-year option tells you all you need to know about his progress in the NBA. The keys for him this season are going to be shooting 3's, not turning the ball over and holding his own on defense. Either way, taking him with the No. 10 overall pick in 2012 was a substantial own goal in their rebuilding effort.
PG/SG - Jimmer Fredette - The Jimmer is a second-round talent who was taken in the lottery, which has distorted the perception of his career and what type of player he could become. While he's been on three teams in his first four seasons in the NBA, that's not all that unusual for an undersized gunner who doesn't play much defense. This might be his best chance to be a rotation player - coming off the bench and hoisting a bunch of 3's for a team that can hide him on D is a role that makes sense for him.
SG/SF - Johnny Salmons - A 35-year old in his 14th season in the NBA whose near the end of his rope. At 6'6 210, he's a versatile player who can swing between all three perimeter positions, but he's no longer really capable of doing any one thing - whether it's score, shoot, pass or defend - at a high level. If he's out there, he's just eating minutes until the Pellies first-unit guys can get back in the game.
C - Alexis Ajinca - The former Maverick great is the odd man out of the Pellies front-court rotation, a backup C and fourth big man who is there to protect the rim, rebound and get out of the way on offense if any of their guys get in foul trouble. He's only going to be useful against teams with a lot of size upfront who want to run offense through the post, so it's unlikely he gets much run against Dallas.
Russ Smith, Luke Babbitt, Jeff Withey, Darius Miller, Patric Young - Young players still trying to carve out a niche for themselves in the NBA. With the uncertainty surrounding spots 7-9 in the rotation in New Orleans, they could all have their chances this season. They are essentially waiting for the guys ahead of them to mess up.
Three Things to Watch:
1. Dirk vs. Davis: It's the ghost of Christmas Past and Christmas Future at the PF position, as two of the most unique 7'0 in the history of the NBA square off. Dirk is unlikely to see much of Davis, but Davis will likely get the assignment on defense so Asik can stay in the paint. He might be the only player in the league with the length to bother Dirk's shot, so this should be a really fun match-up to watch.
2. Perimeter defense: The Pellies have a number of athletic young guards who like to take the ball to the rim - they are built around Evans, Holiday and Gordon driving and kicking to Davis, Asik and Anderson. If the Mavs can stay in front of those guys and make them score from the perimeter, they should be in good shape. That is easier said than done, though, given the guys they have guarding them.
3. The second units: Rick Carlisle is one of the more creative coaches in the league and he has a lot more options on the bench than Monty Williams, who is essentially trying to stagger the minutes of his top 6 guys and buy time on the floor with everyone else. The turning point in the game on Saturday might be who can win the small-ball line-ups when Davis and Brandan Wright are both at the 5 position.