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Basketball

We Know How This Mavericks Season Ends, and It Won’t Be Pretty

Yes, they won last night. But the problems run a lot deeper, and they aren't going away.
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This is not the way this season was supposed to go. Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The vibes are extremely—I don’t know. Grubby? Defiled? Filthy? They are definitely not immaculate. Not even just OK. They are bad. This is bad. Everything is bad.

There have been probably a dozen games this season where the expectation afterward was that the team had finally figured it out and was ready, finally, to pick up at least somewhere close to where it left off last season. But that idea has never lasted more than another game, maybe two. 

To be clear: no one was expecting a title run or even a return trip to the Western Conference finals. Or they shouldn’t have been. But a competitive effort in the playoffs, maybe even a series win? Something to build on? Absolutely. And after each one of those corner-turning games, that’s what seemed to lay ahead.

When Maxi Kleber hit the game-winning three against the Lakers a couple of weeks ago, it felt like montage time: the team pulling together as it finished the regular season with a flourish and headed into the playoffs with a head of steam and some “Hey, crazier things have happened” energy. 

Instead, what followed were desultory losses to the Grizzlies and Warriors, both winnable games against teams the Mavs were jockeying with for playoff positioning. And then: two absolutely unconscionable defeats to a Charlotte Hornets team that was only really still playing because there were games left on the schedule. 

The first loss to the Hornets was bad enough, especially since Charlotte was on the second game of a back-to-back and on the road and also terrible. Every Mavs fan I follow on Twitter was inconsolable, and all the players should have been (and maybe were). But then the Mavs went to Charlotte for the return date and basically played the exact same: a flat start that let the Hornets build up a big first-quarter lead that more or less sealed the deal. 

The loss left Dallas three games under .500 and a game out of the last play-in spot. The situation sounds a little more dire than it actually is since the West is so bunched up. They could reel off a few wins in the next week and safely get into the playoffs, and this would all end up being a much-ado situation. They already got one last night, in a blowout of a bad Indiana team playing without its two best players.

But.

Do you really feel like the Mavericks will get those few wins? (Better question: do you feel like they should? We’ll get there in a minute.) Or, instead, does this seem like where this season has been headed all along and up until now we have all been fooling ourselves? 

I mean, Jalen Brunson left, and no one was brought in to replace him. The Mavs undercut their most promising offseason acquisition (Christian Wood) with their only notable free-agent signing (Javale McGee). Dorian Finney-Smith’s super-country underdog charm went to Brooklyn in exchange for Kyrie Irving. (Who somehow has been just fine?) And after a positive first year on the bench, Jason Kidd has been a prickly, hostile presence all season long. Where did anyone expect the good vibes to come from?

This reminds me a bit of the season after the Dirk-era Mavs went to the Western Conference finals for the first time. An incredibly fun and tight-knit squad in which everyone knew his role gave way to Antoine Walker and Antawn Jamison and the trash-bag uniforms. That team won more than 50 games, but it was an all-time bad hang, right up there with the ill-fated Rajon Rondo experiment. 

The organization at least figured out immediately that it was going in the wrong direction and corrected its course, ditching Walker and Jamison. The players they got in return (Jason Terry and Devin Harris) helped the team land in the NBA Finals just two seasons later. Yes, it took another five years after that for Dallas to win a title, but still. It happened.

We can only hope for a similar outcome this time around. Part of that probably involves giving up on the rest of this year. Resting Luka Doncic and/or Irving and seeing if they can lose enough to 1) keep their first-round draft pick and 2) get lucky once they do. Even if you don’t believe in tanking, you should stop waiting for this team to come around, because it probably won’t. In other words: stop waiting for some version of last year’s squad to emerge. (And, hey, I get it: I was waiting for that, too, until probably the Memphis game.)

There won’t be a playoff run to build on, so if you need something to give you hope, think about the big leap that Josh Green made this season, or Jaden Hardy’s promising rookie year. Go watch that insane 60-point, 20-rebound triple-double Luka had, or that wild game-tying shot he hit off an intentionally missed free throw, or that absurd pass he made last night. Think about how it’s bound to get better.

Because it can’t get much worse. 

Author

Zac Crain

Zac Crain

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Zac, senior editor of D Magazine, has written about the explosion in West, Texas; legendary country singer Charley Pride; Tony…
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