Break out your Ben Simmons hand trackers—the NBA is back. We’re counting down the days until the 2018-19 season tips off on October 16 by taking a hard look at the floor and ceiling of every team in the league. This year, each Best Case, Worst Case capsule is also accompanied by The Ringer’s preseason ranking, our staff’s best guess about where that team will finish this season. We look forward to your emotionless, considered responses.
Ringer Preseason Ranking: 23
Last Season: 24-58
Notable Additions: Luka Doncic (draft), DeAndre Jordan (free agency), Devin Harris (free agency), Jalen Brunson (draft)
Notable Subtractions: Yogi Ferrell (free agency), Doug McDermott (free agency)
Vegas Over/Under: 34.5
Team MVP: Luka Doncic
Best-Case Scenario : Doncic is the European prince who was promised. He lives up to the hype, clicks with Dennis Smith Jr., and leads the Mavs to the playoffs.
Doncic is one of the most polarizing rookies to enter the league in years. Optimists see a supersized point guard (6-foot-7 and 228 pounds) who has done things no 19-year-old ever has. Pessimists see a finished product without enough athleticism to be a primary option in the NBA. The Mavs are in the former category after giving up a future first-round pick with only top-five protections to acquire the no. 3 overall selection in the 2018 draft.
Dallas has the pieces around Doncic to make it work. DeAndre Jordan is a perfect pick-and-roll partner who can also clean up some of Doncic’s defensive mistakes. They have Dennis Smith Jr., the no. 9 overall pick in last year’s draft, as a secondary ball handler, and Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews as 3-and-D swingmen. The Mavs want to be a North Texas version of the Rockets with Doncic as James Harden, Smith as Chris Paul, Jordan as Clint Capela, and Matthews and Barnes as Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker. They won’t be that good, but they do have a plausible path to 40-plus wins this season.
Smith might be a bigger unknown than Doncic. His rookie season went about as well as could be expected for a 20-year-old point guard on a bad team. He averaged 15.2 points on 39.5 percent shooting and 5.2 assists versus 2.8 turnovers per game. Dallas needs him to be more efficient while adjusting to playing off the ball, which is something he has never done before. The number to watch is his 3-point shooting percentage, as he shot only 31.3 percent from behind the arc on 4.9 attempts per game last season. If Smith can knock down 3s off passes from Doncic, and Doncic can do the same off passes from Smith, Dallas will be tough to stop.
Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle is tough on young players (just ask Nerlens Noel), but he trusted Smith enough to give him the keys to the offense in Year 1. Carlisle, an X’s-and-O’s mastermind, will once again squeeze every bit of productivity out of the bench, which now includes Dirk Nowitzki. All that really matters, though, is the relationship between Doncic and Smith, both on and off the court. They could take the baton from Dirk and become franchise cornerstones, or break apart like Jason Kidd, Jamal Mashburn, and Jimmy Jackson in the mid-’90s.
Worst-Case Scenario: Doncic has a disappointing debut, Smith doesn’t improve, and neither looks like a future All-Star.
Doncic didn’t face many defenders who could match up with him in Europe. Most players with that type of size and speed are already in the NBA. There were times in the EuroLeague playoffs when he struggled to create separation against teams with athletic big men who switched screens against him. Doncic had trouble beating Thanasis Antetokounmpo off the dribble. Wait until he sees Giannis.
Doncic was a streaky 3-point shooter last season (31 percent from 3 on 4.8 attempts per game). He has to consistently knock down those shots in the NBA to force defenders to press up on him. If guys like Andre Roberson can play a step off Doncic, he could have trouble getting into the teeth of the defense, which was the strength of his game overseas. It’s hard to see him being a bust, but he’s not going to reach the heights the Mavs are expecting until his shooting improves.
Smith has even more ground to make up. Not only was he an inconsistent shooter as a rookie, his athleticism didn’t translate to finishing at the rim. He also rarely got to the line and had a minuscule .188 free throw rate. Smith was almost too athletic for his own good. He often attempted impossible midair shots instead of just accepting contact and finishing through bigger players. Of course, the downside of a player his size (6-foot-3 and 195 pounds) taking hits in the air is the landing. Smith tore an ACL in high school. If he does that again, his career could be in jeopardy.
The Mavs have never had much patience under owner Mark Cuban. They can’t afford to be wrong on Smith or Doncic because they have only minimal protections on their first-round pick in 2019. Both guys need to look like future stars for Dallas to be a player in free agency, and even that is no guarantee. The 76ers had no luck this summer despite having Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. The Mavs are swinging for the fences. But they may just end up striking out.
TL;DR: Everything depends on the partnership between Doncic and Smith. There’s no way to know how well it will work until we see them on the court together.