I dive into some of the conversations had on media day between Dallas Mavericks' beat reporters and players, and then ask how they compare to other teams in an incredibly competitive Western Conference.
Monday's media day featured over two hours of personal interviews that aired on Mavs.com with most of the players on the roster and Rick Carlisle. The day gave Dallas Mavericks fans a lot to think about before the season gets underway in (thankfully) just a few weeks. The Mavericks will start their preseason schedule next Monday, October 2nd, against an intriguing Milwaukee Bucks team. Mavs fans can all take a longing look at the one who got away, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who Donnie Nelson famously wanted to draft in 2013 before Mark Cuban sold the Mavs' 1st round choice to preserve a few grains of that powder he always wanted to keep dry. All regrets aside, the team has an exciting rookie prospect for the first time in what seems an epoch, and it will be the first opportunity we get to see Dennis Smith Jr. since his dominant run in the summer league.
Dennis Smith Jr.
Notwithstanding the saga of Nerlens Noel this offseason and his eventual signing of a qualifying offer, Dennis Smith Jr. has been the focus of the organization. He is an incredible athlete and a young prospect with an extremely high ceiling, but projecting what a rookie will be, even ones that are drafted in the lottery and have an incredible pedigree is more often than not a fool's errand. For every highly touted prospect who becomes an All-Star, there's three that end up joining the long line of players saddled with the unfortunate reputation of being a 'bust.' Not that I'm trying to curse a player who many think (and I genuinely believe) will be the next cornerstone of the Mavericks franchise, but keep expectations in check when it comes to these sorts of things. So before deciding Dennis Smith Jr. is going to be a great player, I just want to sit back and watch him become one.
Smith impressed in his interview with Mark Followill and Chuck Cooperstein early Monday afternoon, once again demonstrating his maturity and work ethic. By now, Mavs fans know about his strong family background and humble beginnings. Two traits that nearly always portend that a player will have every opportunity to meet their potential. He spoke with the confidence of a young man who knows he is good at what he does, but the humility of a person who also knows they have plenty to work on to be as good as they want to be. It's a joy to watch him. I marvel at the fact that it's a 19-year-old speaking and not a man of many more years. I can say with absolute certainty that I was significantly behind his development as a person at the same age. It is great to see how far ahead of most of his peers he already is in that respect.
Moving on from Smith, though, I was most impressed by the interview with Harrison Barnes. Barnes is a player who is being a little lost in the mix with all the focus on Smith, Noel, and Dirk. Barnes may be the most important player on this team. If they plan on crashing the playoffs party this season, he has to be their best player. His interview showed Barnes to be a remarkably intelligent, thoughtful and likable person. He has also got jokes! When asked about how the team plans to change last year's habit of starting games slowly and getting behind early, Barnes quipped that "the games started at 730, but the Mavericks showed up at about 8." That line drew a pretty good laugh out of me, and I was often transfixed listening to Barnes talk. When you're fortunate enough to have coaching mentors like Roy Williams, Steve Kerr and now Rick Carlisle, it makes for one hell of a basketball mind, and it shows.
Barnes said he wants to focus on improving the parts of his game most lacking last season, notably his rebounding and assist numbers. Barnes has never been asked to be a playmaker for others in his career, and last season he wasn't asked to do it either. But going forward, the Mavericks need him to evolve into the player many people thought he would become when he came out of high school in 2010 as the number one recruit in the country. That means using his body and athletic gifts to more aggressively pursue rebounds, and his basketball intelligence to help make his teammates better. After listening to him, it's easy to talk yourself into him becoming an all-star caliber player, but he has yet to show us tangibly how he has improved over the summer. We will just have to be patient and wait for him to put his words into action.
One of the things consistently brought up in the interviews was the Mavericks' commitment to having a successful season by the standards of the organization. That means making the playoffs and winning games in the playoffs. It's a sports cliche to hear teams say they had their best offseason and are in their best shape, so it's difficult to put stock in those comments. They sounded convincing when they spoke about it, though. Wes Matthews was especially poignant about the team's performance last year and the shame the team often felt. He was just as hopeful when he expressed they had to be successful this year, because as he put it, "Why were we up at 5:15 every morning if not to get better?" Every player expressed how especially committed they were this summer to improve, and after hearing it ten times, it became less of a typical sports cliche and more of a focused mantra of the team. Coach Carlisle said that it was true the players spent more time together working out, playing pick-up and just plain hanging out than any team he had ever coached. Coach Carlisle is a man who is typically stoic, but he was quite animated in his optimism.
It's easy to be optimistic at the beginning of the year, though. There are 29 other optimistic teams in the league. Being a realist isn't always the easiest thing to do when it comes to the team you cheer for, but it's a necessary evil of seeing the big picture. The Mavericks should build for a (cue incredibly sad face) post-Dirk reality. In the West, we can safely say Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Houston are almost assuredly, barring catastrophic injury, going to be high-level playoff teams and will be the first four seeds in some order. After those four, you have an enormously improved Minnesota team. The still-good Utah Jazz despite the loss of Gordon Hayward. A Portland team that isn't going anywhere.
The Memphis Grizzlies everyone seems to be forgetting about but hasn't missed the playoffs in 7 years. A Denver Nuggets team that projects to be excellent. The Pelicans could be a disaster waiting to happen (sorry Anthony Davis but let's be honest), and a Clippers team that lost Chris Paul but could easily still be a 50-win team with the talent they got in exchange for the Mercurial Point God. If I'm wrong about New Orleans and they manage to be good despite all of Demarcus Cousins' efforts, that's an additional seven teams fighting for four spots. You're not going to find many people who believe Dallas is better than even one or two of those teams. So making the playoffs is going to be a longer climb than when Jon and the Wildlings scaled the Wall way back in Season 3. Remember? When the Warg cuts the rope near the top and---oh right, you're not here to talk about Game of Thrones, my bad.
The Mavericks are getting lost a bit in the chaos of all the other additions to teams in the West, and that's certainly understandable. If you look closely, you'll see an organization that has had continued success for two decades and has an immense amount of pride. You'll see a head coach that is one of the very best in the league and always gets the most from his teams. You'll see a first ballot Hall-of-Famer entering perhaps (say it is not so, we'll see you next year big guy) his final season in the NBA, playing for the only franchise he's ever known. You'll see more young talent on this Mavericks squad, starting with a center who can do all the things Carlisle asked Tyson Chandler to do when the Mavs won their only title in 2011.
Noel is also seven years younger than Chandler was then. You'll see the best draft prospect the Mavericks have had since the Big German himself. And you'll see a group of men who feel humiliated by last year's season, with everything to prove to a league that has virtually swept them over to the list of teams, not in contention. Perhaps, given all of that, a few of the teams mentioned above (all of which are projected to be better than Dallas) should be a bit more worried about this team than they are currently.
Well, I suppose the only way to make them sweat is to lace them up and roll the ball onto the court. The season starts October 18, with the Mavericks hosting the Hawks. I can't wait.