NBA back! To prepare for a new season, we’re breaking down one team per day, each day, until tipoff on October 17.
Team: Dallas Mavericks
Coach: Rick Carlisle (10th season)
Last Season: 33-49 (11th place in the Western Conference)
Notable Additions: Dennis Smith Jr. (draft)
Notable Subtractions: None
Vegas Over/Under: 35.5 wins
Best-Case Scenario: Dennis Smith Jr. wins Rookie of the Year and leads the Mavs back to the playoffs.
The Mavs are coming off a season where they missed the playoffs for only the second time in the last 17 years. The upside is that they picked a good year to be bad. They finished with their highest pick (no. 9 overall) since 2004, which they used on Smith. An über-athletic point guard from NC State, Smith can get to the rim at will. Everyone at Mavs media day was talking about a dunk he put on Nerlens Noel during a pickup game this summer. He slipped in the draft due to an inconsistent freshman season, but he looked every bit the part of a starting point guard at summer league. He distributed the ball out of the pick-and-roll, knocked down jumpers off the dribble, and even competed on defense. Yogi Ferrell became a rookie sensation last season when he was given the keys to Rick Carlisle’s offense. Smith is a bigger, faster, and more explosive version of Yogi.
Carlisle will let Smith run, and the Mavs have all the pieces for him to succeed right away. Playing with Dirk Nowitzki at the 5 will create wide-open driving lanes for him. Opposing centers have to guard Dirk at the 3-point line, so there won’t be anyone to help when Smith attacks the rim. That, in turn, should make life easier for everyone else on the Mavs roster. Harrison Barnes and Seth Curry won’t have to shoulder as much of an offensive burden in the half court. Wesley Matthews and Nerlens Noel can convert open looks and concentrate on defense. The formula for a successful season in Dallas is for Smith to improve the veterans on offense while they cover for him on defense. If he looks like a future star, the Mavs might finally be able to sign a big-name free agent next summer, when they will likely be chasing DeMarcus Cousins.
Worst-Case Scenario: Carlisle falls out of love with his rookie point guard, while Noel’s contract situation poisons his relationship with the team.
Carlisle is a perfectionist who has traditionally been hard on rookies. He doesn’t have much patience for the mental mistakes young players make. Smith, for all his talent, couldn’t lift NC State out of the bottom of the ACC last season. He was only an average 3-point shooter, and he could struggle to punish NBA defenses if they go under screens and force him to consistently beat them from behind the deeper 3-point line. The less said about his defense in college the better, and the challenge will be much greater at the next level. Even hiding him off the ball could be difficult. His 6-foot-3 wingspan means he can’t challenge the shots of taller guards, and tracking them around screens will require more defensive awareness than he showed at NC State. With four other point guards on the roster, including Carlisle favorite J.J. Barea, the old-school coach will be tempted to go with a steadier hand.
Noel is the other big question mark. He turned down a four-year, $70 million contract in the offseason and took a one-year qualifying offer instead, which will make him an unrestricted free agent next summer. Carlisle said at media day that he would bring Noel off the bench, which will limit his playing time and prevent him from racking up the type of stats he will need to get a max contract. The move makes sense from a basketball perspective, since Dirk is better as a 5 at this point in his career. However, it’s hard to believe the Mavs wouldn’t have started Noel if he had committed to the franchise long term. The relationship between the two sides will be difficult to manage. Dallas needs Noel to anchor the defense and play a more limited offensive role as a rim-runner, not try to showcase every aspect of his game to other teams. If Smith isn’t ready to lead a team and Noel checks out mentally, the Mavs could end up right where they were last season. And if they are picking at no. 9 again, this year’s draft isn’t projected to be nearly as deep.
TL;DR: Rick Carlisle will either turn Dennis Smith Jr. into a star, or he will strangle him. Maybe both.