Technically speaking, the quarter mark of the season came at the halfway point of the Los Angeles Clippers game on Sunday. Although we are a game and a half past that moment as of last night, I think it is still acceptable to consider that we are right at a quarter of the way through the season and needing to review how things have gone so far.
In just 22 games the Mavs have made me feel excited, nervous, angry and punch-drunk (among many other good and not-so-good emotions). But hey, that’s sports right. If it didn’t make us feel something, why would we watch? In a way, even those bad feelings (those that don’t have me jumping up from my couch, but instead have my dogs running for the hills as I yell expletives at whichever player/ref/coach is upsetting me) are refreshing this year. After the past 2 dark and hopeless years where the Mavericks most intriguing fight could be considered “losing with a strategy”, any hope of a playoff run was all but forgotten. It’s good to feel that hope again. After all, those expletives are meant out of love. I’m genuinely excited for where this thing is headed, and I think it would be safe to say most of Mavs nation is as well.
What Has Worked
There’s been more than a few surprises so far to this young season. Going into the year there were plenty of things to be excited about, and as things have started to unfold there have been a few things that have stood out more than others:
The Dallas Mavericks Bench
If you have watched a single game this year, it is more than likely you have had the pleasure of seeing a J.J. Barea pick and roll. Or, if you were even more fortunate, maybe you got to see a momentum-shifting Maxi Kleber block. OR, if you were able to get the great Donnie Nelson to smile down upon on you, you have been able to witness Dorian Finney-Smith’s massive increase in three-point and defensive efficiency. If the last scenario is the case then Donnie must be smiling down on all of us this season, as Doe-Doe is currently shooting a stellar 39.2% from deep, trailing only Harrison Barnes on the team.
The Dallas bench players have, at many points this year, played better basketball than the Dallas starters. That’s not a knock on the Dallas starters necessarily, but rather a praise for the job the bench has done. Given that, most the time, the bench players are playing against other bench players, the fact that they are playing “starter level” basketball has typically ended up as an advantage for Dallas. Looking at NBA.com, the lineup consisting of Devin Harris, J.J. Barea, Dwight Powell, Finney-Smith, and Maxi Kleber has the highest +/ – rating out of ANY of the Mavericks lineups, including all starters and any lineups they are apart of, that have played at least 6 games together with a 3.8. To take it a step further, the Dallas Bench has the highest net rating in the league at a whopping 5.8. To put that in perspective, the Pacers bench is the next highest Net Rating with a 4.3.
The most exciting part about the way the bench has played so far this year? With Dirk coming back soon, it’s hard to imagine the Dallas reserves slowing down anytime soon.
Luka, Luka, Luka
I had high expectations for Luka coming into this year – as most people did – and he has surpassed every. single. one of them. The fact that the Mavs can facilitate the offense through him and pretty much hand him the keys to the organization, at 19 years old, has worked well so far for the Mavericks. There have been a couple of games where he hasn’t quite looked locked in, and there are those turnover issues (he currently is 7th worst in the league), but as the game slows down for him over the next few months/years it will be exciting to see how he is able to evolve his game from here.
Luka is a lock as the Rookie of the Year if he even just continues playing the way he currently is and doesn’t grow, as long as he doesn’t regress either which I truly don’t see happening. I think we all expect him to get better, as he should. He is only 19 years old! And he is a Maverick. Let’s continue to relish that moment, as it looks like it will be one that we enjoy for years to come.
Turning Defense into Offense, and Vice-Versa
After the first nine games of this year, I did not think I would be praising this Dallas defense at any point during the year. Those first nine games had the Mavericks looking like one of the worst defensive teams in the league, falling into 22nd in Defensive rating. To put it simply, they looked hopeless, slow and lost. Then, something happened. The Mavs immediately went on a 7-2 win streak to even out their record at 9-9, fueled by their defensive play. Since that first nine-game stretch, the Mavs Defensive rating has been the 4th best in the league. They are energetic, they are hungry and it looks like they frankly just enjoy shutting down other teams. The best part about what the defense is doing is that it is helping set up the offense for the team at the other end of the floor. The Mavericks play at a middle of the pack pace, but that’s up considerably over the past couple of years where they mostly played half court basketball. That increase in pace is due in large part to the number of transition opportunities the defense has been able to create either through a turnover or a long defensive rebound and quick outlet.
Not only, though, has the defense been able to turn to offense, but in the case of Dennis Smith Jr. the offense has turned into some defense. The arrival of Luka Doncic has undoubtedly put a strain on the growth of DSJ’s offensive growth, for the time being. According to CleaningtheGlass.com, Dennis’s usage percentage has dropped 5% from 31% (one of the higher usage percents in the league last year), to 26% (still higher than 3/4ths of the league, but more in line with where it should be for a player at his current offensive talent level). All that has done, however, has caused Dennis to focus on other things in his game – most notably his defensive game. There are plenty of stats out there to prove this argument, but instead, I’ll just leave this short video here:
What to Watch For
As the season moves ever onward, it will be interesting to see how the Mavericks sustain their early success. Obviously, there has been some fortunate luck along the way: The ease of schedule (according to the ESPN.com the Mavs have had the 6th easiest schedule so far this year and are actually 1 game behind their expected win percentage), the fact that they played so many top-tier teams with missing All-Star caliber players, the complete lack of back-back games (only had 2 so far this year), just to name a couple that I have seen and heard. As Dallas either climbs or descends the playoff ladder out West, it will be interesting to see how a few storylines unfold:
This is the most obvious selection and one that will be the most closely monitored on a national/worldwide scale. Luka is in some extremely rare company when it comes to production, a close eye will need to be kept on how he grows. He hasn’t had much down time so far this year. With the exception of a couple of games, Luka has been the main guy on the Dallas offense and has excelled with that responsibility. Luka is second on the team in usage percentage, behind only J.J. Barea, and although he has been playing so well he still has so much room to grow.
When Luka does hit a slump or a rough period of games, how will he respond? He plays like a vet and handles himself as one as well so it is easy to hope that he responds like a true superstar, but riding the ups and downs of a long NBA season is new to him and the whole world will be watching as he continues to flesh out his game on the world stage. His shot has been there for the most part and he has been able to hide the fact that he is turning the ball over at an alarming high clip, which will be the first to respond?
The Development of Dennis
DSJ’s most recent contributions on the defensive end have been great, but what other facets of his game will he be able to expand on? Going into the season, I thought Dennis needed to become a better shooter (something he has done so far, increasing his FG% to 44%, up from 39.5% last year. He has also increased his 3p% to a respectable 36% from 31% last year). In addition to shooting it better, though, I felt like Dennis needed to become better moving off the ball, something that he hasn’t done much to improve on. It will be interesting to watch if he can sustain his better field goal percentages and shot selection, while also staying active on the defensive end.
The Return of Dirk
Before the season began, I had mentioned that I wanted to see Dirk chase a sixth man of the year award. While that award may still come to Dallas, though it is looking more like J.J.’s race now, I no longer care so much if Dirk chases that award. I just want to see the big fella play. I will be watching for how Carlisle decides to acclimate Dirk into his rotations. Over the past 11-12 games, it really does seem that Rick and the team have started to understand how they can each fill their individual roles the most efficient way possible, surely throwing a Hall of Famer into the mix won’t throw anything off, right? Unfortunately, I think it will be a bit of a bumpy return the first few games as he gets acclimated to some of his new teammates and his new role off the bench, but ultimately once he gets settled in it will be fun to watch him coming off the bench and running the pick and roll with his old pal J.J., who may be running it better than anybody in the league right now.
The first 22 games have been exciting. Though they may have started off a bit worrisome, the Mavs are currently one of the hottest teams in the league, with the best rookie in the league and have yet to return their all-time leading scorer. They are leaning heavily on a young core for production, and on older vets for leadership, and the formula is producing a young, tough, hungry monster that is growing in strength and size directly related to the size of their confidence. It’s hard to think they will stay this hot all year, but I think it is fair to believe that we are getting a glimpse into what the future holds. Now we will just have to see how soon that future reveals itself.