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Reintroducing the Contenders: Dallas Mavericks

Can Luka Doncic defy the odds in the postseason, too? We’re looking back and ahead for Dallas going into the NBA’s restart.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Four months is a long time. So we’re getting reacquainted with the title race by looking at the nine NBA teams with at least a 1 percent chance of winning the title, according to our in-house playoff odds (a.k.a. Zach Kram), plus the 76ers, who defy all math and logic, leading up to reopening night on July 30.

The Basics

Team: Dallas Mavericks
Record: 40-27 (seventh in Western Conference)
Numbers: 115.8 ORtg (first in NBA), 110.0 DRtg (17th), 5.8 net rating (sixth)
Seeding opponents (in order of schedule): Rockets, Suns, Kings, Clippers, Bucks, Jazz, Trail Blazers, Suns

Last Time, on the Mavericks …

With Luka Doncic ascending to superstardom, the Mavericks were on pace to set an NBA record for offensive efficiency, climbing to the top of a leaderboard populated by the Durant-era Warriors, Showtime Lakers, and Jordan Bulls. On an individual level, Doncic was in the middle of one of the best-ever seasons for a second-year player, with only LeBron James, David Robinson, and Shaquille O’Neal in his league in several advanced stats.

Dallas hadn’t turned its prodigious point differential into a better spot in the standings because of a poor record in close games: They lost more games decided by three points or fewer (nine) than any other team. But with Doncic back from injury and Kristaps Porzingis rounding into form after a slow start with his new team, the Mavericks were poised to make a run up the Western Conference standings before the season hit pause.

How They’ve Spent Their Quarantine

Jalen Brunson underwent shoulder surgery in March, meaning the reserve guard will miss playing in the Orlando bubble; one of his potential replacements, Courtney Lee, is out after injuring his calf during the hiatus. The Mavericks will also be without center Willie Cauley-Stein, who opted out after coming to Dallas in a midseason trade. He’d played only 12.1 minutes per game with his new team, however, reaching double-digit points just once, as he struggled to crack Rick Carlisle’s rotation.

Also, this last bit technically came on the final night before quarantine began, but Boban Marjanovic scored 31 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in a victory over the Nuggets the same night that Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. Boban was the first Maverick other than Doncic and Dirk Nowitzki to reach those figures in 28 years.

Seeding-Games Goal: Get Out of the Clippers’ Way

Besides the teams fighting to get into the playoffs as a no. 8 or 9 seed, the Mavericks have the most important seeding task over the next few weeks. Right now, the seventh-seeded team would face the Clippers in the first round; against any other potential first-round opponent, the Mavericks might even be favored, given their impressive advanced stats and the lack of home-court advantage for a higher seed, but defeating the Clippers would be a far tougher task. L.A. has waves of wings to throw at Doncic on defense, while Dallas doesn’t possess the depth to guard both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. In the one meeting between the two teams this season with all stars healthy, Leonard and George combined for 54 points while Doncic managed just 22 on 4-for-14 shooting from the field.

The good news for the Mavericks is that they’re able to track down a number of different teams in the standings. They trail the Thunder and Rockets by 1.5 games, the Jazz by 2.5, and the Nuggets by four. I calculate about a 50-50 chance that they move up versus staying in the 7-spot.

Biggest On-Court Bubble Question: Who Fills Out the Big Man Rotation?

Without the injured Dwight Powell and Cauley-Stein, the Mavs roster includes just three players taller than 6-foot-7. And of those three, while Porzingis and Maxi Kleber are locks to play big minutes in the playoffs, Marjanovic hasn’t proved himself as a playoff-caliber defender; he’s never played 20 minutes in a postseason game.

Since Powell’s injury, the team’s most frequent starting lineup includes guards Seth Curry, Doncic, and Tim Hardaway Jr., plus Porzingis and 6-foot-7 Dorian Finney-Smith in the frontcourt. That lineup has run rampant, scoring 120.7 points per 100 possessions with a plus-11.0 net rating. But who does Carlisle trust when two of the Porzingis–Kleber–Finney-Smith trio are on the bench? Options include the 6-foot-7 Justin Jackson and the 6-foot-6 Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a wing in size but a big man in offensive profile. Or maybe Carlisle just doesn’t worry about size—wouldn’t a Rockets vs. Mavericks series of supersmall Texas teams be fun?

Player in the Spotlight: Seth Curry

With brother Steph and his last-place Warriors done for the season, Seth is the Curry family’s only hope to extend its Finals streak to six. More seriously, Seth Curry could break out in his own right with a few sweet-shooting games this summer. He’s actually the active leader in career 3-point percentage, at 44.3 percent (his brother, the slacker, is only at 43.5 percent, albeit on far trickier looks), and he was enjoying the best stretch of his career right before the break. In his last dozen games before the shutdown, Curry averaged 19.4 points while shooting 56 percent on 6.5 3-point attempts per game.

He could prove a vital outlet for the Dallas offense this postseason as defenses key on Doncic, potentially springing the same sort of traps and double-teams that James Harden faces on a nightly basis. And best of all, for familial bragging purposes, he won’t be eliminated at his brother’s hand like last season, when Steph’s Warriors swept Seth’s Trail Blazers in the conference finals.

On a Scale From Wizards to 10, Where 10 Is the Best Shot at a Title, What Are the Mavericks’ Odds of Winning the 2020 Title?

Only a 3 to win the title—even if they can avoid the Clippers in the first round, they still might need to beat the Clippers, Lakers, and Bucks in a row to win it all. But Dallas can make trouble for more veteran teams this summer while Doncic gets his feet wet in the playoff pool—he’ll be back again plenty more in seasons to come.