I wasn’t able to see the Mavericks squeak by the Magic last night, since my scheduled flight was delayed by a couple of hours after the pilot, for reasons never fully explained, put the flaps up just as the wheels were leaving the runway. But between my son, ESPN, and my own cursory reading of the box score, I got the gist. Since I’ve seen all or most of all the other six contests, I feel like I can make a few observations on where the team stands now at this super early stage.
- Luka Doncic is Already Great and Could Get Even Better. At least for a half, last night was sort of an off game for the 20-year-old Slovenian point guard (which is what he is, no matter how he’s listed in the program or on your fantasy team), and my guy still had a 27-7-7 line. Incredible, and that’s coming after two monster triple-doubles, and he just missed two others this season. He’s already a star, already starting to have people wondering about how many players in the league are better than him right now. If he never gets any better than he is right at this moment, he is a 10-time All-Star and maybe gets an MVP or two depending on how the team does. But here is the thing: it’s obvious he can get better. Overall, while Luka is in much better shape than he was in his rookie season, he could still take his fitness to another level. It takes most great players a couple of off-seasons to fully acclimate to NBA conditioning, through weight training and cardio and everything else, but also diet and sleep. Specifically, his decision-making in the fourth quarter could get a touch sharper, and if he even improved his three-point shooting by two or three percent, he would be near unstoppable. Number wise, once everyone on the team —especially Kristaps Porzingis; more on him in a second — gets used to his passes, his assist totals should go up by a couple a game, which is kind of crazy to think about, given where he already is. TL;DR: LUKA IS DOPE.
- Kristaps Porzingis Won’t Be Fully Operational Until Mid-Season. I’m not saying some of the games he’s had so far are a mirage, but I think on a few occasions the raw numbers overshadow where he’s actually at. He is still shaking off the rust of an almost-two-year absence, and that shows every time he corrals a pass from Doncic a beat too late or sometimes not at all, letting it trickle off his fingers and out of bounds. He is more of a spot-up shooter than he should be, too. The Mavs did a good job of getting him involved early in the first couple of games, calling for deep post-ups to sort of force him inside, but have gotten away from that lately. I’d like to see more of that, and more of him rolling to the basket instead of popping out behind the arc. I believe it will come. I think once he and Luka get more comfortable playing with each other and once Porzingis gets more comfortable with his rebuilt knee and bulked-up body, the two-man game between the Mavs’ two stars will be a migraine for opposing teams. You can see a glimmer right now, but it’s more like a Polaroid three-quarters developed, if that.
- I Have No Idea What the Rotation Is. Part of that is Rick Carlisle, who always seems to have someone in his doghouse. Part of that is injuries; Dwight Powell missed a couple of games and is still on a minutes restriction and J.J. Barea played for the first time all season last night. Part of that is a stated goal to be fluid and react to the facts on the ground, so to speak. But at some point it is all going to be a problem. As Dirk Nowitzki has often said, the NBA is a confidence league, and I’m not sure how a lot of these guys are going to react to constantly being shuffled in and out of the lineup. Honestly, seven games in, only three players have had a consistent role: Doncic, Porzingis, and Dorian Finney-Smith, who seems to be something of a security blanket for Carlisle (and is at least doing a bit more on offense than in years past). If J.J. starts getting real minutes again, I don’t know what that does to Jalen Brunson’s minutes, and he’s been a real plus off the bench this season. I think Justin Jackson has been great whenever he plays, but will Carlisle give him enough minutes? Same with Delon Wright. Same with Seth Curry, most of the time. I think the Mavs are way deeper than expected, and that’s a good problem, but like I said, it is going to be a problem.
- The Mavs’ Free Throw Shooting Will Cost Them More Games. It’s not great and it’s especially terrible in the fourth quarter. It’s maybe cost them a perfect season so far — they didn’t lose to the Blazers and Lakers only because of free throw shooting, but it was a huge factor — and it’s not just big men. Curry clanked two last night, Doncic has missed some, and the blame really is team wide. Because the Mavs were the first team to employ a free throw coach (Gary Boren) and because of the presence of Steve Nash and Dirk, they have the reputation of a good free-throw-shooting team and that doesn’t 100-percent match reality. I don’t know if it’s something that can be fixed during the season, but I hope so.
- The Team is Real. Get invested. I’m not guaranteeing a playoff spot, but I am all but willing to do that. Given the insurance fire in Golden State, Sacramento regressing, Zion Williamson’s injury putting New Orleans on the edge of a lost season, and no one but the L.A. teams really looking great (give me another couple of weeks before I trust Minnesota and Phoenix), there is more room for a Mavs team on the way up than some may have thought at the beginning of this. Right now, it’s a good start. If this can come together even a little bit more, it could be the cushion that separates them from everyone else. I am more excited than I’ve been since probably around 2014. The Lakers game caused me to lose sleep, if that shows you where I’m at right now. Join me?