2018-19 Preview: Dallas Mavericks

In 19-year-old rookie forward Luka Doncic, the Mavericks have the next Dirk Nowitzki—franchise star for (hopefully) the next two decades—in training while they still have the old Dirk, now aged 40, on roster in this historic, symbolic season where Nowitzki passes the torch to Doncic.

Whereas the Slovenian has a similar shot to the German, Doncic’s game may go beyond Nowitzki. The 6-7, 218-pound rook is more a modern-day merger of LeBron James meets Magic Johnson meets Dirk, in that he has the court vision, ballhandling skills and pure shot of the best in the business.

Like Nowitzki as a rookie, Doncic won’t be quite ready to carry the load, so Dallas will be bringing him along slowly while a cast of vets like Harrison Barnes, DeAndre Jordan and second-year hopeful Dennis Smith Jr. will do most of the heavy lifting. While some might think Dallas could compete this season, it’ll be all about grooming Doncic into the role he will inherit.

 2018-19 Mavericks  Ballhandlers  Wings  Bigs
 Returners  Dennis Smith Jr., J.J. Barea, Devin Harris  Harrison Barnes, Wesley Matthews, Dorian Finney-Smith  Dirk Nowitzki, Dwight Powell, Maxi Kleber, Salah Mejri
 Newcomers  Jalen Brunson  Luka Doncic, Ryan Broekhoff  DeAndre Jordan, Ray Spalding
 Gone  Yogi Ferrell, Aaron Harrison  Doug McDermott, Kyle Collinsworth  Nerlens Noel
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Offense: Whether the ball is in Dennis Smith Jr.’s hands, J.J. Barea’s grip or Doncic’s palm, Dallas has a line of attack unlike any other team in Mavericks past. We are not saying they are more efficient than Hall of Famer Jason Kidd’s 2011 NBA champion Mavs that set up Finals MVP Nowitzki and teammates to maximum efficiency in the playoffs. We are just saying the potential to grow and go there is indeed present in Dallas with relentless gunslinger Smith, quick-as-a-hiccup playmaker Barea and EuroLeBron a.k.a. Doncic. Mix in Devin Harris, whose Dallas playmaking days goes back to the 2006 NBA Finals, and you have an assortment of point guards forced to play other positions just so head coach Rick Carlisle can get all his finishers on the floor.

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Nowitzki still has gas in the tank, as his .575 true shooting percentage and .401 three-point percentage indicate, he just doesn’t have as big of a tank anymore. Expect another dip in minutes for the future Hall of Famer. Harrison Barnes returns as the team leading scorer and usage ballhandler. Barnes has developed into an adequate go-to scorer, but is probably best in his old Golden State role as a facilitator. Ditto for workhorse wing Wesley Matthews, who is the consummate pro in filling in any missing role, but is most effective as a catch-and-shoot three-point marksman. Mix in rim-rattling finishers DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Powell and you have a pair of bigs who will open up their own chapter of Lob City in Texas.

Defense: Even as Nowitzki is passing the torch to Doncic, three-time All-NBA center and two-time All-Defense honoree Jordan will be the undisputed leader of this Dallas D, a role the Mavericks were hoping he could fill when they pursued him—leading to the infamous change of heart that played out on Twitter—as a free agent in 2015. Hopefully, D.J. can return this franchise to its former top 10 defensive status when great rebounding rim protector Tyson Chandler led the Mavs’ D to the 2011 NBA championship. Jordan has the same skills at age 30. It certainly makes things easier that the new Dallas center has one of the game’s great defensive communicators Nowitzki to play alongside.

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Mix that with Dallas’ long-limbed wings and feisty guards, and we should also see massive improvement to Dallas’ mediocre on D from the 2017-18 season. In fact, Carlisle is counting on it, entrusting his thirty-something veterans Jordan and Matthews in leading the bigs, middles and littles by word as well as the example they set as competitors. Matthews himself has already said the wings and guards will be looking to gamble for steals more, knowing that Jordan has their back, although Carlisle does not want them to develop any bad habits in becoming overly dependent on an All-Defense shotblocker.

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Upside: In 19-year-old Doncic, 20-year-old Smith Jr. and 22-year-old Brunson, Carlisle has three aces in the hole that can really take this organization to the next level in a matter of a couple seasons. In Doncic, Dallas has a EuroLeague MVP and champion who already has the court knowledge of an NBA veteran, as does College Player of the Year Brunson, who helped lead Villanova to a pair of NCAA championships his freshman and junior seasons. In Smith, Dallas has a guard whose athleticism eclipses the aforementioned, not to mention most of the prospects at his position throughout the League. You want a team with upside? Come to Dallas.

Durability: Players who suffered serious injuries in the past have been able to use their time in Dallas as a healing period and have come through their situations better for it. Matthews, Barnes and Smith all eclipsed the 2000-minute mark, despite playing for a 24-win squad, while Nowitzki cleared 1900 minutes despite being 39 years old. Newbies Doncic and Brunson come to Dallas with the rep of already playing extended seasons wherever they won in previous stops. As for the rest of the Mavs, expect young guns like Maxi Kleber, Dorian Finney-Smith and Powell to get in wherever they fit in, playing whatever minutes necessary to get Dallas to the finish line.

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Synergy: For a team going through a rebuild, Dallas has a surprising number of veterans who have long worn the Mavericks colors, from lifer Nowitzki (56,570 regular season and postseason minutes in Dallas) to Harris (12,568) to Barea (11,847) to Matthews (7448) to Barnes (5447). It is rare that you have five members of the same 24-win team meet The 5,000 Minute Rule—normally that is reserved for championship contenders. It just serves notice that when you mix these vets with prospects like Doncic, Smith and Brunson, do not be surprised if you see double-digit wins improvement in this former 24-win squad.

Experience: Dirk ranks right up their with LeBron James, Tony Parker and Dwyane Wade when it comes to logging postseason playing time. He brings with him fellow ring-bearers, such as 2015 NBA champion Barnes, 2011 NBA champ Barea, not to mention 2006 NBA Finalist Harris. Carlisle is one of the six active head coaches who has coached an NBA championship team, which puts him in pretty select company in this 30-team league. It is this type of culture which provides the perfect setting for young Mavs Doncic, Smith and Brunson to grow.

Win Frame: 39-43 wins