DALLAS – When the Dallas Mavericks pull up a chair to the NBA Draft and free agency tables this summer, there are two important ingredients they’ll be searching for in their quest to get back into the postseason.
Leadership and good character.
That’s the message according to Donnie Nelson, the Mavs’ long-time general manager and one of the people expected to help turn the Mavs into a championship contender again.
Nelson went out of his way to discuss the leadership skills and character Harrison Barnes, Dennis Smith Jr., Wesley Matthews and J.J. Barea exhibited this season. Then his attention turned to Dirk Nowitzki, the quinnessential leader of the Mavs who plans to return next year for an unprecedented 21st season.
Nelson even got emotional when talking about what Nowitzki means to the Mavs, to the city of Dallas and to Nelson personally. He pointed out how the Mavs are “just truly blessed” to have a player of such stature who has been a part of their lineage for two decades, and who has been like the conductor of a band during the team’s latest rebuilding process.
“What (Nowitzki) does for this city and this organization is unique and special,” Nelson said. “It’s a period of rebuilding in a guy that’s been through that, and he knows what it’s like to see his point guard booed in his own building – Steve Nash went through that (booing in 1999).
“(Nowitzki) knows what it’s like to, in year one and two, get thrown around like a rag doll and earn your stripes in the NBA. So for him to step up again for this city and this franchise is inspirational to everyone. That’s the kind of leadership and character that Harrison Barnes has in his DNA, and Wesley Matthews and J.J. Barea. Those are the things that are very special and unique about this team, and those are the things that we’re looking for in this year’s free agency and draft.”
The NBA Draft Lottery is May 15 and that will determine where the Mavs will pick in the June 21 NBA Draft. Meanwhile, the free agency moratorium period that allows teams to start negotiating verbal agreements with players begins on July 1.
Until then, Nelson has mapped out an impactful plan to get the Mavs back into the playoff picture. And it starts with players that are already wearing the Mavs’ uniforms.
“We’re committed to the right people in that locker room that are going to take this franchise to the next phase,” Nelson said. “We know we have that in some of our young players. That would be Dennis Smith Jr. as the quarterback and a first-year guy that’s been thrown into a difficult situation.
“Harrison Barnes is young and that other leader in that locker room carrying that baton through this rebuilding phase.”
Like last summer, when the Mavs used the No. 9 overall selection to draft a can’t-miss prospect in Smith, they know they can’t miss again in this year’s draft, which will see Dallas pick no lower than sixth overall.
“It’s critical that we again have a real nice draft pick,” Nelson said. “We’re not sure where we’re going to pick, but it’s another nice opportunity to add the third piece.”
Smith, who averaged 15.2 points and 5.2 assists this season and became the apple of the fans’ eyes with his penchant for manufacturing jaw-dropping dunks at a moment’s notice, is thoroughly convinced that the Mavs will draft a player who will become a fixture in their rotation next season.
“I believe that we can do a pretty good job of drafting,” Smith said. “You know I’m blessed to be a part of this organization and they’ve shown that they know talent, so I’m sure we’ll get somebody really good.”
Smith even offered to reach out and help the Mavs recruit some free agents if they ask him to.
“I’m about winning,” Smith said. “They’ve got a good eye for talent. . .But if I can help to get that guy, I’m all for it.”
Needless to say, Nelson may take Smith up on that offer.
“We’re going to be very, very active in free agency, but I think if there’s a common theme in what you see, it’s character,” Nelson said. “And character has been there all year long in this locker room.”
And when it comes to “character’ and the Mavs, Nowitzki is at the top of that laundry list. Nowitzki, who turns 40 on June 19, was the undisputed ringleader when the Mavs defeated the Miami Heat in six games and captured the 2011 NBA title.
“It’s Dirk that certainly knows what it’s like to sip from the (championship) cup, and he knows what it’s like to start out in a not great situation 20 years ago,” Nelson said. “He’s been from the lowest of lows, going to the Finals and having that cup ripped from his hands (by the Heat in 2006), and he’s experienced the high of going through tough times and knowing what it takes to build teams into championship caliber.
“We’re going through that right now. I can tell you that the chemistry and the character in that locker room is as good as it’s ever been.”
And that chemistry and character – and leadership – are intangibles the Mavs are counting on to help get them back in their customary seat at the playoff table.
“When you have guys like Dirk, Wesley Matthews – who is our gladiator – J.J. Barea, Harrison Barnes, you’re talking about quality professional athletes at the very, very highest level,” Nelson said. “Those are the guys that are going to pull us through, with a great coach (in Rick Carlisle).
“You guys know that in my humble opinion Rick is the best in the business. Those are the things that are going to get us through this period of time as quickly as possible, and we’re looking forward to that moment.”