Assessing the Dallas Mavericks' 1-8 Start

Well, there you have it, National TV Audience. You just got your first glimpse of the 2017-18 Dallas Mavericks, who got blown out by the Clippers in a game that was over before halftime. You won't have to see these Mavericks on your television again until December 12th, and then hilariously again two nights later before being tucked safely away from national TV until late January. But if you're reading this, you're probably not trying to avoid the Mavericks. No, like me and other masochistic MFFLs, you've been watching every agonizing moment of this young season. And though there have been good times (Dennis Smith Jr.!) sprinkled throughout, every night but one has ended the same so far this year. With another loss.

We're two weeks into the season and the Dallas Mavericks have managed to maintain their stranglehold on the league's worst record. There are actually three other teams who only have one win through the first 10% or so of the year, and although it is often said that misery loves company, they will do little to make the Mavericks feel better about their plight. That's because two of those teams, Sacramento and Atlanta, have gotten their one win against (you guessed it) the Mavericks. And the other team? Well, the Chicago Bulls got their win against the aforementioned Atlanta Hawks, so by the transitive property they are better than the Mavericks. You might point out that the Mavericks got their win against a potential playoff team in the Memphis Grizzlies, but the Grizzlies are the only team the Mavericks have played twice. And so, of course, Memphis won the rematch. I was feeling pretty poorly about the season about this time last week, but if I was getting a scratchy feeling in my throat then, I'm definitely sneezing and coughing now.

Like most Mavs fans, I've spent the past two decades in an intense one-sided relationship with Dirk Nowitzki, where everything he does matters an immense amount to me and, in return, I don't care if he knows whether or not I exist. Being a sports fan sounds kind of like being a stalker when I put it that way, but I digress. Dirk has always been a defensive liability, and as he's aged it's become worse, but so far this year it's painful to watch him even attempt to play defense. He can barely move out there, so he does his best to maintain position in the defensive scheme. But the moment he's forced to defend a drive to the basket, Dirk may as well be a broomstick. With Dirk leaving a large part of the paint open for the opposing team, and the Mavericks trotting out undersized guards who the rest of the league can shoot over with ease, it's no wonder opponents' eFG% is over 55%, good for 29th in the league.

The Mavs defensive problems stem from their inability to stop drives, which leaves shooters and cutters open all over the floor. Teams pick-and-roll the Mavs into mismatches, drive and kick, swing the ball from side to side and get a wide-open shot. The Mavericks have been noticeably lazy closing out to shooters and with their size at guard, opposing shooters have been as comfortable as they would be in a practice session. When opponents do miss, the Mavericks have allowed too many offensive rebounds, giving second chances which they cannot afford to. And when the Mavericks get it back, they've been turning it over carelessly, often miscommunicating on simple passing reads (like a receiver in football reading to cut inside, but the quarterback reads to throw outside, and the resulting interception thrown straight into the arms of the defender makes it look like neither knows what they were doing) and just as often making lazy passes that defenders steal with relative ease. The Mavericks do not have the talent to overcome fundamental problems like this, and their record reflects that.

The team is shooting poorly as well, and with the rest of their problems, not knocking down shots has been making any chance the Mavericks have had of getting wins astronomically difficult. They're actually 4th in the league in 3PT% at 38.9%, but their good outside shooting has been offset by their 2PT% of 44.3%, 28th in the league. Harrison Barnes seems to simply play 1-on-1 every fifth or sixth possession and otherwise is content to disappear from games on a whim like he's Batman and the Mavericks are Commissioner Gordon. Dwight Powell is roughly 0-63 from the field to start the year, and I don't care what his actual stats say, I haven't seen that guy make a shot yet. Nerlens Noel is still currently locked in a slap fight with Rick Carlisle, in a relationship that, like an unhappy couple stuck sharing a lease on an apartment, currently has each begrudgingly admitting they need the other for just a few more months.  Without Seth Curry and with a bench lacking any legitimate scoring beyond JJ Barea, the Mavs offense looks to be in about as dire straits as the defense. And with a November schedule seemingly designed by Dwayne Wade between his 433rd and 434th free throws in the 2006 finals, it's a good bet that things will get worse before they get better.

There are some things to be positive about though. Dennis Smith continues to show flashes of what he may become, and he is reason enough to keep watching Dallas this year no matter how abysmal their record may become. Dirk has started to come out of his shooting slump, and no matter what, it will always be beautiful to watch That Dude swish a fadeaway off of one leg. Wes Matthews has been consistent, which if anything may give him some trade value if the Mavs end up going that route, and JJ Barea has played well off the bench in the role he's always thrived in on the Mavericks. And though their record is the franchise's worst start to a season in their history, there are plenty of reasons to believe this team is better than the first half of this article suggested.

Against Atlanta in the first game of the season, the Mavericks and Hawks were tied with 1:13 remaining in the game. Against Sacramento two nights later, Dallas went on a 12-0 run in the 4th to take the lead briefly before finding themselves down 3 with less than a minute to play. They forced Zach Randolph into a miss, but allowed Buddy Hield to get the offensive rebound and ended up losing the game by 5. Against Memphis on the second night of a back-to-back on the road, the Mavericks came back from down 19 to take the lead with less than 4 minutes in the 4th quarter. On a broken play, Mike Conley caught a deflected ball a few feet beyond the top of the key and drained a three as the shot clock expired, giving the Grizzlies momentum to finish the game and win by five. Two nights later, with Dallas down two, Yogi Ferrel went to the free throw line at the end of the game against the 76ers, and missed the free throws, sending the Mavericks to another loss. Then, on the road against Utah, Dallas played a great first half and led by 9 points at halftime before turning into a shell of themselves and getting blown out of the building in the second half.

The Mavericks are 1-8, and were blown out by Houston, Golden State, and the Clippers. But it's easy to see how they could be 3-6 or 4-5 if a couple of things had gone their way down the stretch. I guess now I know what Timberwolves fans have felt like the last couple of years. Sure, it can be tough to find joy in watching the Mavericks lose, and I'll be seeing them (most likely lose) in person when they play the Wizards in DC on Tuesday. But I'll still be there wearing my #41 jersey and cheering on the greatest Maverick who ever wore the blue and white (and sometimes marvelous ugly green), and getting my first glimpse of Dennis Smith Jr. dunking on some poor soul's head. It will make me feel angry if we lose, like all losses, because the moment that ball is tipped and a game starts, I can't help but believe that there's a way we can win. That's what being a fan is, and we get 73 more tip-offs this season to imagine what can happen.


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