During Monday’s show, our 77 Minutes in Heaven host Tim Cato asked me and fellow StrongSider Austin Ngaruiya to predict the Mavericks’ season by way of a few over-under bets. The final one was the real the juice: would the Mavericks exceed 50.5 wins? That number, mind you, was higher than the 48.5 set by Las Vegas. None of the three of us batted an eyelash when we said “yes.”
Do not take this as gambling advice, because it is typically unwise to bet against Vegas to the tune of two full wins. But such is the collective confidence in Luka Doncic, who I believe has ascended to the Dirk Nowitzki plane of guaranteeing any moderately above-average roster 50 wins each season, provided he stays healthy.
And such is the weight of expectations.
Brian Dameris wrote about this in depth yesterday because, fairly or not, expectations will be the theme of the 2022-23 season in Dallas. Last year’s Western Conference Finals run marked the end to this team’s embryonic stage—a necessary, important step that comes at the cost of whatever carefree vibes accompanied it. You, like me, may consider it foolish to believe sports imitate life all that often, but in this respect they do: with maturation comes a sort of loss of innocence. It’s the byproduct of everyone around an up-and-coming team demanding more and more, faster and faster. That halcyon stage the Rangers are in (or were, at least, until Ray Davis cleaned house this summer), where each pitter-patter out of the muck merits a smile? Dead and gone for these Mavericks.
To be clear, we are a ways away from the corrosive 2007–2010 period of the Nowitzki era, when everyone was angry and everything short of an NBA title was a nuisance. If you were there, you remember. Nothing else mattered the way it should have, not even the apex of the greatest athlete to ever play in this city, to such a degree that the 2011 triumph was tinged with relief almost as much as joy—a great release of four years of angst. That playoff run? The celebration? The overdue course correction in the national conversation about Dirk? All fantastic. But the time leading up to them mostly sucked.
At some point, we’ll return there, provided Doncic sticks around long enough. It shouldn’t be that way, but it will. This is how sports work now—not just in Dallas, but everywhere, because this is how tribalism works. If the road ahead comes with too many forks for everyone’s collective liking, it makes for a convenient entrée to nonstop bloviating about the team’s trajectory and the next move and Luka’s legacy and his supporting cast’s aptitude and if Dallas can be a destination city in free agency. Even if he secures an NBA championship in the correct timeframe, nebulous as that concept is, the demand then shifts to bringing home a second. It won’t be very fun.
Again, we’re not there yet. The accompaniment to perceived shortcomings this season will be annoyance and mild grumbling, both of which are understandable in a sports city that’s as passionate and ambitious as this one. The challenge, for the Mavs and for everyone watching them, is making this time joyous, too.
Which shouldn’t be difficult when the team’s best player may double as the NBA’s best as soon as this season. If you read Iztok Franko this offseason, you know that’s where we are now with Luka Doncic. We are along for the ride and wondering just how absurdly high it might go. The nightly spectacle of watching him manipulate a century-old sport in a manner that is different from anyone before him matters as much, if not more, than the bottom-line production. This is what it means to be considered “generational” the way Doncic accurately has been since he was a teenager. It is excellence on its own merit, not strictly in the context of its results.
Beyond Doncic’s continued ascent to the very top of the league, there are other matters to consider. The nightly ups and downs that will come as a very good team reorients itself without Jalen Brunson. The learning and relearning of who they are as they deal with Brunson’s absence and manage the integrations of Christian Wood, JaVale McGee, and perhaps even the precocious Jaden Hardy, too. Remember, also, that this is still just Jason Kidd’s second season as coach.
The outcome might not be to everyone’s liking. In fact, as Brian pointed out, there’s a scenario for this team to take a step forward in quality but backward in finish. Such is life in a souped-up Western Conference, where the defending-champion Warriors’ core will be augmented with another year of seasoning from its up-and-coming understudies; where the top-seeded Suns, flawed though they may be, brought everyone back; where Denver and the Los Angeles Clippers will be bona fide title contenders now that their superstars are healthy; where a Memphis team with gobs of young talent continues to mature and the same might well be said for New Orleans with Zion Williamson on the floor; and where Minnesota pushed the chips in to compensate for Utah cashing out. These Mavericks could, in theory, boast a better winning percentage and still find themselves in the play-in game.
Setbacks are liable to happen as a young team continues to grow up. But so, too, are sparks of progress. And for now, those remain too bright to be dimmed by the shroud of expectations.