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The Mavericks Could Be Better Than You Think, Sooner Than You Think

Luka Doncic has arrived (in preseason). In his Mavs debut, the Slovenian wunderkind showed glimpses of why things are suddenly looking up in Dallas.

Associated Press/Ringer illustration

I felt major FOMO on Saturday. As I watched Steph Curry and Klay Thompson rain 3s at Oracle Arena, Luka Doncic was making his Mavericks debut in Dallas. It was only an exhibition against a middling team from China led by Justin Hamilton. And Doncic, the no. 3 overall pick, has already played better games on bigger stages against better competition overseas. But after two teams passed on Doncic on draft day, and a third gave up Doncic’s rights in a trade, a divide was created around the 19-year-old Slovenian’s career before he ever played a second in the NBA.

Saturday, Doncic quickly confirmed why so many gushed over his game leading into the draft: He dropped 16 points on 5-for-7 shooting with two assists, six rebounds, and three blocks. There is nothing more exciting than the feeling of hope a new star player can bring to a franchise, and Doncic provided that to Dallas in his first game in a Mavs uniform.

Luka’s performance Saturday doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Doncic sent NBA Twitter into a frenzy when he executed a behind-the-back crossover and kissed a tough fadeaway off the glass, but his defender on the play was Hamilton, a journeyman who didn’t play in the NBA last season. Still, the game was a reminder of why the Mavs traded up on draft night to get him. After back-to-back years in the lottery and walking the line between a proper send-off for Dirk Nowitzki and turning the page to a new era, the future looks bright again in Dallas. And because of talented young players like Doncic and upcoming cap flexibility, it might not take the Mavs all that long to get back into the playoff mix.

As noted to me by The Ringer’s Jason Gallagher, a passionate Mavericks fan, the team was 12-38 last season in games that were within five points in the final five minutes. If that seems like a lot of close losses, it’s because it is. No other team has had more than 37 since 1996-97, the first recorded season for this stat. (The teams with 37 are the 2006-07 Celtics and the 2012-13 Wizards.) The Mavs won only 24 games last season, which helped their lottery odds, but they were outscored by only 3.3 points per 100 possessions, which usually equates to about 33 wins. So, they still weren’t good. But they also weren’t terrible.

The Mavs were a gritty group driven by a blend of proven veterans like Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews and undrafted free agents fighting for a chance such as Salah Mejri and Maxi Kleber. They shot a ton of 3s, and trailed only the Rockets and Nets in shares of field goal attempts from downtown. Their half-court offense was actually solid, ranking 12th in points per possession, per Synergy. But their defense couldn’t get stops, and they played at such a slow, deliberate pace that their transition chances were limited. Now point guard Dennis Smith Jr., the no. 9 pick from 2017, is one year older after an impressive rookie season, and they’ve added Doncic and DeAndre Jordan, both of whom can help solve their primary issues on each end of the floor.

The Mavs attempted the league’s lowest share of shot attempts in the restricted area, according to Cleaning the Glass, and they were 27th in free throw rate. Doncic is advanced at using his hefty frame to create and absorb contact while attacking the rim; it’s a necessary skill, since he lacks the foot speed to blow by opponents and the verticality to dunk through traffic. And you already know Jordan is a backboard destroyer.

Jordan signed a one-year, $22.9 million contract with the Mavericks and will play the Tyson Chandler role at center: screening and initiating dribble handoffs, then flying to the rim for explosive dunks. Jordan gives Doncic and Smith a major target in Rick Carlisle’s offense, which tended to lean heavily on the pick-and-roll during Chandler’s seasons with the Mavs. If Dallas wants to adopt Houston’s extreme system, it certainly has the pieces to give it a try with Jordan starring as Clint Capela, and Doncic and Smith as versions of James Harden and Chris Paul. With Barnes, Matthews, and a collection of younger players, the Mavs can fill the gaps with 3-and-D talent.

Jordan will help Doncic and Smith, and Doncic and Smith will help each other. Smith has been a ball-dominant player his entire life, but he’s produced when called upon off the ball. He shot 36.8 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s and excelled on cuts. He logged only 23 possessions cutting last season, and shot 13-for-16 on plays that led to lobs. Doncic can alleviate the pressure on Smith to run the offense, so it’ll be on Smith to see openings in the defense and cut for easy baskets. Doncic can find him.

If there’s one thing Doncic didn’t get to show in his debut, it’s his passing. Doncic is already advanced at reading pick-and-rolls, changing speeds, and creating angles to throw dagger passers above and through the defense. Smith is also no slouch; his dunks will get him on highlight reels, but he’s a shifty ball handler who has progressed since college in making quick decisions. Jalen Brunson, the third pick of this year’s second round, is another young player at point guard. In today’s age of positionless basketball, it’s a major bonus to have four or five players on the court who can run the offense.

The Western Conference is so stacked that Dallas will top out as a scrappy, lovable team that can finish somewhere around 10th place. A team with Barnes as its best player isn’t a West playoff team. With that said, Barnes, something of a forgotten man since leaving Golden State, defends well and is used in a variety of offensive roles. If Dallas’s young players do develop into stars, then Barnes will be the perfect glue guy just like he was in Golden State, only with additional iso-scoring skills.

Barnes can become an unrestricted free agent next summer if he declines his $25.1 million player option. Dwight Powell also has a player option, and Jordan will be an unrestricted free agent again. But even if Barnes and Powell both opt in, and if Jordan is re-signed to a Capela-esque contract (around $18 million annually), the Mavs will have the ability to create enough cap space to sign a player to a max contract in both 2019 and 2020. In the NFL, having a productive quarterback still on a cheap rookie contract allows funds to be spent at other positions. The same is true with the NBA—look no further than the Celtics, who benefit from having Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, among others, on rookie deals, so they can splurge elsewhere. The Mavericks don’t resemble a destination today, but if Doncic and Smith—and their 2019 first-rounder, if it lands within the first five picks—become impactful players while on their rookie contracts, Dallas will suddenly have appeal.

The Mavericks have been big-name hunters in the past. In 2012, they tried to sign Deron Williams and push for Dwight Howard in a trade. It didn’t work. (Crisis averted.) In 2013, they wanted Chris Paul and Howard. (Paul stayed with the Clippers, and Howard chose the Rockets.) In 2015, they verbally agreed to sign Jordan. (But you know what happened there.) Jordan, now 30 years old, is one of their only big free-agent signings in years; Matthews and Chandler Parsons were the others, but both were limited by major injuries. It remains to be seen if they can become major players on the open market. But they’ll have the means to make a run at a max player again in the next two summers, and, this time around, they’ll have some young blood to use as part of a pitch.

There’s a long season ahead for the Mavericks in what could be Nowitzki’s farewell tour. Dallas would need a lot to break right to make the playoffs. But if the team is competitive again, and Doncic replicates his success during the regular season, there will be more games like Saturday’s that provide hope for the Mavs’ future.