Tuesday, January 31, 2023 Jan 31, 2023
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Basketball

The Mavs Have a New Foe: Expectations

They finally won a playoff series. Then they won another. But progress isn't linear in the NBA.
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The Mavericks enter the season with far more weight on their shoulders than this time a year ago. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Seinfeld is the best television comedy ever. Period. I have the box set, have seen all the episodes, have my favorites (“The Outing”), and even have attended trivia nights to test my knowledge. (Some people really know their Seinfeld, as my poor performance indicates.) The series finale, though, stunk. But did it even stand a chance? With expectations based on what we had seen previously, the bar was so high that I am not sure anything could have cleared it. 

After an unexpected run to the Western Conference Finals last season, the Mavericks now have the burden of expectations hoisted upon them. The days of selling hope are over. What can we expect from this year’s squad? And, more important, what should we expect?   

The NBA has tiers of teams with varying agendas. There are the “all in/win now” franchises, who have mortgaged future assets and have no choice but to go for it. The Nets, Sixers, Bucks, Timberwolves, Clippers, Suns, and others fit here. On the flip side are the “Tanking for Victor” teams who will run out G-League rosters in March and April in hope of securing more Ping-Pong balls. Think Rockets, Pacers, Magic, and Spurs, among others. Then there is everyone in between. Some are in purgatory (the Kings perennially), while others, such as the Mavs, are trending up but not yet fully formed. It’s important to remember what tier the Mavericks are on as we weigh expectations.

Building a championship team is a high-wire act of balancing short and long-term objectives. Getting a generational talent? Check. Now the Mavericks must build around Luka Doncic and build the right way. Go too fast, mortgage the future and bring in ill-fitting, expensive, veteran pieces, and you run the risk of becoming the Pelicans of several years ago and having Anthony Davis demand a trade. Go too slow and you risk being Cleveland when LeBron James left (the first time). Tinker too much, never get it quite right, and you have James Harden asking out of Houston.   

The biggest development in the Mavericks’ offseason was obviously the departure of Jalen Brunson, who emerged as the team’s second-best player. We can be left to wonder if he would have stayed for similar money to what he got in New York, but the question is whether that would have been a prudent move long-term. Doncic’s extension kicks in this year, and there are only so many players making in excess of $20 million who you can have on a roster and still field a team around them or have the ability to acquire top talent. We all want an All-Star caliber player to come in and help take the load off of Luka. How realistic would that have been with Brunson eating up so much of the cap? Or could he turn into that player? These are the questions Nico Harrison juggled this summer. Brunson’s departure is undoubtedly a loss, but in considering how you need to build long-term, the perspective changes.

Jason Kidd addressed expectations on Media Day, saying, “We have to try to be realistic.” Last year isn’t this year. As Iztok Franko pointed out, there are schematic changes to the way the Mavs will play without Brunson. He fit well with Luka, and that can be a challenging task for a ball-handler. Kidd knows all this. The first 25 games will be used to identify the best rotations and schemes. As Kidd said, “This is a different test. A different team.”

And a different league. A team source acknowledged to me the challenge: the league is deep this year, especially in the West. The Pelicans have Zion Williamson back. The Timberwolves acquired Rudy Gobert. Memphis is rising. Golden State is going to punch hard (OK, lame joke). Phoenix had the best regular-season record last year. The Clippers are healthy. Denver has the two-time defending MVP plus the returns of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. And the Lakers have to be better, right? It’s not just what the Mavericks are doing; it’s everyone else, too.

A recent survey in The Athletic asked fans how far the Mavericks needed to go for this season to be considered successful. The top response, with 46 percent of the vote, was “Conference Finals.” I don’t think a “Western Conference Finals or bust” mentality is the right way to look at it. The Mavericks maxed out who they were last year, and the front office knows that, even as good as these players are, there is still work to be done with this roster. Building the right team around Luka, at the right pace, is the most important goal for this organization. 

Of course, the Mavs could easily trade their two available first-round picks (2027 and 2029) for a short-term solution, but that would hamstring efforts down the road. Opportunity cost in the NBA is one of the biggest drivers of success and failure. Minnesota decided Gobert was the missing piece. The cost: four first-round draft choices. It’d better work because the Timberwolves have no cap room or picks for the foreseeable future.  

Progress isn’t linear. This isn’t to say I expect the Mavs to have a down year or that we shouldn’t care about wins and losses. I’m just saying we shouldn’t panic if there is a losing streak in December. The wunderkind is 23 years old. Dallas has “that guy,” and the organization has a floor because of it.  Kidd has reestablished a much-needed culture of accountability and resiliency as well as a commitment to the defensive end. Harrison has shown he can make bold moves. Winning increases expectations; there’s no dodging that. But let’s not get so laser focused climbing the ladder that the organization is scaling the wrong wall. My expectations aren’t solely about June 2023. They are also about the next 10 Junes. And hopefully at least one of them ends better than that Seinfeld finale.

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Brian Dameris

Brian Dameris

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Brian Dameris writes about the Mavericks for StrongSide. He is the former Director of Basketball Development for the Dallas Mavericks…

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