DALLAS – Now that Dirk Nowitzki has shuffled off into retirement after 21 years on the same job with the same team, the Dallas Mavericks suddenly find themselves searching for ways to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2016 without the services of the best player to ever don one of their uniforms.
But in 20-year old Luka Doncic and 23-year old Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavs believe they have a pair of bonafide young superstars in the making who will serve as dynamic building blocks for their franchise going forward.
In a way, Doncic and Porzingis reminds Donnie Nelson of June 24, 1998, when both Steve Nash and Nowitzki wound up with the Mavs in separate draft day trades. From that day forward, that duo – along with Michael Finley – led the Mavs out of the doldrums and into the NBA spotlight.
That’s what the Mavs are anticipating from Doncic and Porzingis.
“It’s like back to the future almost,” said Nelson, who is the Mavs’ president of basketball operations. “We started a few years back with a similar floppy-headed European (in Nowitzki) and a point guard from Canada (in Nash).
“I think that Luka and KP can really do some magical cool stuff here that we’ll hopefully enjoy for 22 years.”
With Doncic and Porzingis, along with a possible lottery pick and a substantial amount of money available to spend during free agency, the Mavs know with some good fortune they could be back in the playoff mix as soon as next season.
“Obviously we feel really good about some of the young pieces,” Nelson said. “We’re looking at those opportunities and possibilities as we speak.
“We’re looking to take this situation to a whole different stratosphere. We want to get back to the playoffs as quickly as possible.”
The Mavs won 33 games this season, a year after winning 24 games, and a year after winning 33 games during the 2016-’17 season. It’s a downward trend that the Mavs expect to stop next season.
“In the three solid years of a rebuild, this is hard work,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “It doesn’t happen overnight.
“This is a situation where everyone’s got to continue to band together and working towards building this thing up. We’ve got a lot to be optimistic about, but there’s an amazing amount of work that needs to happen this summer and move forward into training camp next year.”
Carlisle noted that he has some “terrific pieces to a puzzle that we’re going to continue to work to solve,” and added that he’s hopeful about possibly being a postseason participant.
“It’s a slow arduous climb, and you’ve got to have good luck along the way,” Carlisle said. “I feel this year we had some good luck and some good fortune with moves and flexibility.
“We’ll have to take advantage of those things this summer. But this is going to be all about a young core of players coming together and to push each other and have a common goal just to build this franchise back to where we need it to be.”
So, who will pick up the baton and lead the way for the Mavs now that Nowitzki has retired?
“That baton is bigger than a baseball bat,” Nelson said. “You do it by committee knowing that it’s probably not going to be just one, two or three (players). It’s going to be veterans that will be back in that locker room teaching our young guys.
“We’ve always had really good chemistry and I think our young pieces kind of fall right into that camp. I think the thing that we’re internally most excited about is we have a nice group of young very talented players that, as Dirk, we think will be representative of this city for a long, long period of time.”
Ironically, after Nowitzki finished his exit interview with the media on Thursday, he was soon followed by Doncic, who is chomping at the bit to take over the Mavs’ ship.
“I was ready when I came here,” Doncic said. “We have a lot of great players on our team.
“Coach said last night after the game (in San Antonio), ‘We’re doing something special here.’ I think we’re all ready.”
Doncic sure played this season like he has the talent and the discipline to carry a team. The heavy favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award, Doncic averaged 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and six assists per game while also collecting 24 double-doubles and eight triple-doubles in an outstanding year this season.
Meanwhile, Doncic acknowledged that he couldn’t say what fans can expect when he and Porzingis are finally on the court together next season.
“All I can tell you is we’re going to fight, we’re going to work hard, we’re going to try to get into the playoffs,” Doncic said. “I’m not promising that, but we’ll try everything to do it.”
Indeed, the Mavs hope Doncic and Porzingis can combine to form one of the best one-two punches in the NBA.
“You have two guys that love to share the ball, they can make the big shot — total team guys,” Nelson said. “So (having Doncic is) almost like having a quarterback in a small forward’s body that can slide to the (point guard, shooting guard) and (small forward) spots.
“And KP can slide to the power forward or center (positions), so it gives us a lot of versatility.”
The Mavs acquired Porzingis on Jan. 31 in a trade with the New York Knicks. The 7-3 forward/center hasn’t played since undergoing surgery on his left anterior cruciate ligament, which he tore during a Feb. 6, 2018 game against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Porzingis did some live five-on-five scrimmages with the Mavs’ first team late in the season, and management has no qualms about the state of his health. In the meantime, proprietor Mark Cuban was empathic about the importance of the upcoming offseason.
“It’s huge for us, obviously,” Cuban said. “Hopefully, Luka gets better and works hard, KP gets healthy and works hard, and we add some good pieces.”
As far as next season goes, Carlisle doesn’t have a crystal ball, but he likes the young pieces he has to work with, including Dwight Powell, Jalen Brunson, Justin Jackson, Tim Hardaway Jr., Maxi Kleber, Dorian Finney-Smith, Ryan Broekhoff, Doncic and Porzingis.
However, Carlisle threw up the caution flag.
“We cannot sit here and feel like this is going to be a turnkey operation,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to continue to do, and I’m extremely optimistic and I look forward to spending time with these guys this summer, staying in contact with them and working towards continuing to lift this franchise back up to where it needs to be. “