The Mavericks are back … and things are different. Gone are Rick Carlisle and Donnie Nelson; in are Jason Kidd and Nico Harrison as part of the most radical shakeup the organization has seen in well over a decade.
But we knew that. What we don’t know is how this season will play out. Jake Kemp and I will have words on that over the next two days, but for now, I wanted to bring in someone with a whole lot of Mavs perspective: StrongSide’s own Brian Dameris, who once served as the team’s director of basketball development and whom you can hear on The Ticket and with Mavs play-by-play man Mark Followill on the Take Dat Wit You pod, as well as watch on Bally Sports Southwest.
He makes the case for why you should feel optimistic about Kidd, whips out his crystal ball to tell us if Goran Dragic will ever wind up a Dallas Maverick, and sets the bar for what needs to happen for this to be a successful season. Plus, Kristaps Porzingis. A lot of Kristaps Porzingis.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. We’ll check back in with him at the quarter mark.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room. It would be really reductive to say the entire season depends on Kristaps Porzingis … but a lot of the season depends on Kristaps Porzingis. We can at least try to narrow the scope a bit: what is your realistic expectation of what he provides this year — and if he provides that, how good is this team?
Let me put it this way. If you remember Dirk when he was with Don Nelson, he played kind of a facing-the-basket, trailing-three-pointers style of play. Avery Johnson came in and basically said, “I’m going to turn you into Tim Duncan, I’m going to put your back to the basket, and you’re going to learn to play a traditional power forward position,” which took him a while to get adjusted to. And then [Rick] Carlisle came in and said, “I’m going to combine the best of both those worlds. I’m not just going to slowly make you Tim Duncan; I’m also not going to leave you out by the three-point line.” And that resulted in who Dirk was in 2011, who was not only able to hit the shots from deep and drag those defenders out but also look at how they won Game 2 and how they won Game 4: basically dump it in to him and let him back somebody in and do a left-handed layup, which were things he couldn’t in 2004.
I think Porzingis is kind of the same model. He played primarily inside in New York, and he played primarily outside under Carlisle. If JKidd can take that and basically combine them and optimize him to where he is the Unicorn, he’s harder to guard. He’s not just a unicorn, he’s not just a decoy defended by larger wings but he’s somebody who can establish himself in the post, kind of hit that Dirk fadeaway, dive more to the basket and add the outside game, because you don’t want to take that away, then I think that is really the optimal solution.
And then the defensive side, you’ve seen this in the first couple of games: he’s kind of back to pre-injury movement and mobility. Last year, he was a statue out there and that’s why you eventually had to play a traditional center with him instead of him at the 5. You’ve already seen the first two preseason games — the first game, two blocks; the second game, three blocks. And that’s just in a half of each game. That shows his mobility and why he’s called The Unicorn because on defense, he can control the rim and be a rim protector, and on offense, he can stretch out or be a guy who can play inside.
If he can do that and show the glimpses of what he’s shown early throughout the season and be a borderline All-Star, then you’re talking about a significant increase in the number of games you win, which takes you from being a five through eight seed to a two, three, four, five team.
The other guy who will loom over this whole year is, of course, Jason Kidd. There are reasons for skepticism going in, all of which have been well documented by now. But since the season’s about to start, let’s go in with some optimism. What is the case for Jason Kidd being the right fit here?
I think the key thing — and Mark Cuban has talked about it — is it’s relationships over Xs and Os. Rick was probably one of the best Xs and Os guys out there, and still is, but he obviously lacked in the relationship business. JKidd can come in and, especially with Luka, who’s a point guard and sees the court effortlessly, say, “I was you.” Remember, JKidd had a temperamental relationship with his coaches, especially early on in his career. So he is now on the other side and knows exactly what an All-Star-caliber player who thinks he can do everything feels and sees and reacts to a coach.
So, yes, he’s had a bumpy road in his first two stops, but I do think that the L.A. experience taught him a lot in two ways. One, working under Frank Vogel, who is a very soft-spoken, not in your face kind of coach. He learned, hey, I can still get respect from my players without having to do some of the things we heard about in the excerpts from the Giannis book that raised some eyebrows. And then, being with LeBron and seeing a LeBron praising him and absolutely loving JKidd, how you deal with a superstar as a coach? He had Giannis, but Giannis was early in his career. In Brooklyn, he had some older players who were really on their way out: Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and those guys. LeBron is the guy who commands the respect in the room, and he was able to bond with him in a way that helped him being on that side of the fence.
So I think both of those things plus, obviously, when you talk about this new board or cabinet that JKidd mentioned of Michael Finley, Dirk, Casey Smith, Don Kalkstein, Keith Grant, Nico Harrison, obviously, Cuban — they all have history with Jason, they know him, they like him. This is familiar territory for him with a lot of people staff-wise, front office-wise. The fit is comfortable. To me, I think it was the best decision, and I think that considering what he’s learned even schematically: he’s not going to run the same defense he ran in Milwaukee. He’s obviously going to adjust that here, play to Luka’s strengths, kind of give him the cheat codes to ramp up his game even more levels. I’m excited bout the possibilities.
I’ll have you put on your Nostradamus hat, or maybe your hot-take hat, for a second. We have heard the rumors for months. Does Goran Dragic end the season a Dallas Maverick?
I think so. It’s just a matter of when. I don’t think, frankly, it matters if it’s done until the trade deadline. Goran hasn’t played 50-some-odd games the last several years. He’s not a guy you need for the regular season; he’s a guy you need for the playoffs. So if he’s not extending himself too much and getting injured up in Toronto, I’m happy to see him play there and come here around the deadline, be here for the stretch run, be here for that kind of fourth-quarter outlet and playmaking that you need come playoff time. Because you saw it in the bubble: he was absolutely essential for Miami’s run to the Finals that year, and obviously he’s got the fit with Luka.
Toronto doesn’t have an incentive to do that deal now. Why would they, why give him away? He’s an asset. They can wait to see if there’s an injury somewhere in the league. We’ve seen player empowerment work, and we’ve seen it not work so well with Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons. But he’s at the point where he’s kind of earned [a say]. Bill Duffy is his agent, is also Luka’s agent, and Dragic has made it known he wants to be here. I think if something can be struck, that will happen at some point, but it’ll probably be down the road.
Relative to where this team is in its development, what would constitute a successful season?
I think it’s playing better defense. This team’s going to be great offensively no matter what; they’re going to be in the top 10. So they can be a No. 10 defense — not a top-10 defense, just be a No. 10 defense — then you’re increasing your wins by a huge magnitude.
So I want to see the offense be a little more diverse, be a little more of the vertical game with the centers rolling and what you see Atlanta doing somewhat. I think that’s why you see Dwight Powell starting. So it’s not just Luka and four guys around the three-point line, which becomes easy to defend and Luka gets tired and we see that same scenario play over and over again.
That’s your defense and offense answer. Big picture, this team’s obviously got to get out of the first round. They’ve got to show they’ve got what it takes to advance further, and I think those things on both ends of the floor will contribute to that.
We’re going to reconvene at the quarter mark, but until then, what is the biggest question you want answered in the early going?
I want to see what happens with the center position and Porzingis. Right now, they’re starting Powell, but it’s really a three-headed monster with Willie Cauley-Stein and Boban Marjanovic, situationally. I want to see which of those guys steps up and really demands that role, and whether they close with one of those guys or close with Luka with KP at the 5.
And then just seeing how KP is this year, working through that “Is he going to be featured more in the post or in the midrange?” Is that going to be while Luka’s in there? You saw in the first couple of games he’s still trying to figure that out, and obviously that’s a work in progress. But if he can become a 22-, 24-points and 11-rebounds guy, with a couple of blocks? That’s great.
If KP can stay healthy — and, remember, his injuries were all contact injuries; it’s not something structural in who he is — and if they’re committed to playing a traditional 5, and that player can give them something, I am going to be looking at how that plays out with KP moving inside with those guys because their 5s don’t stretch at all. So are you clogging up that lane a bit much? Is there a crowd in there? That’s going to be stuff to look at early.