Mavs saw improvement throughout the season, but know there is still plenty of work still to be done

Exit Interview Highlights

Check out what the players, Rick Carlisle, and Donnie Nelson had to say at exit interviews!

DALLAS – As the Dallas Mavericks venture into their second consecutive offseason without a playoff berth, the stern message from coach Rick Carlisle to his players and coaching staff during Wednesday’s exit interviews was direct and to the point.

“We’ve got to get better,” Carlisle said. “Everyone has to get better – players, coaches. It’s a big summer for us with the draft and free agency.

“Make no mistake, we made a lot of progress in a lot of areas this year. A lot of individual guys got better.”

Still, the Mavs finished the season with a 24-58 record – or 23 games away from the last Western Conference playoff spot. And Carlisle knows that’s not good enough, especially with the winning culture the Mavs are accustomed to.

“When you’re at 24 wins and you look at the Western Conference standings and the teams that are fighting for the eighth position are at 47 or 48 wins, there’s a long ways to go,” Carlisle said. “So we’re going to have to have a great summer in all areas and we’re going to have to come back real strong.”

Forward Dirk Nowitzki announced Tuesday that he plans to return next year for his 21st season. Meanwhile, point guard Dennis Smith Jr., who finished his solid rookie season with averages of 15.2 points and 5.2 assists in 29.7 minutes, has his sights set squarely on being a postseason participant next season.

“I think we’ll get in next season,” said Smith, who was the ninth overall pick of last year’s NBA Draft. “That’s the goal. Everybody’s looking forward to next year and we don’t want to be out at this time next year.

“I want to keep playing and make it to the postseason. That’s the goal for next year.”

Forward Harrison Barnes said it’s imperative that the Mavs find a way to punch their playoff ticket next season. Anything else, Barnes insist, is not an option.

“We have to get better,” said Barnes, who averaged a team-high 18.9 points this season. “We had a lot of guys who were here two years ago and we kind of had that progress, and then this year we weren’t able to build from there.

“So coming off this season we can’t have another 24 (win) postseason-less season.”

Fortunately for the Mavs, the odds are stacked in their favor that they’ll have at least a Top 5 pick in the NBA Draft, which will be held June 21. And depending on how lucky the Mavs fare, they could land the No. 1 overall pick when the NBA Draft Lottery takes place on May 15.

Add that high draft pick and a quality free agent, and the Mavs believe they’ll be right back in the playoff conversation as soon as next year.

“I believe that we’re going to get a pick higher than what I was last year,” Smith said. “It’s a really good draft class (with) some good young guys in college right now.

“So if we can bring one of them in, I just look forward to a big year next year. Bring some more swag in, so it should be exciting.”

Asked to explain what is swag, Smith said: “Some energy, some confidence. You’ve got to have something to you. Look good, feel good, play good.”

Looking, feeling and playoff good are also attributes Barnes cooked up for the Mavs for next season.

“We made some progress, but at the end of the day our season has to show up in the wins and losses column,” Barnes said. That’s what’s got to be our next step.

“We now have had two years of good effort, so close, building and those types of things, but eventually it’s going to have to start trending upward. Building processes are tough. There’s no easy way around that, but to hopefully cut down in that time where you’re going from competing to rebuilding is how much we can improve individually this offseason.”

General manager Donnie Nelson drew a parallel between what’s transpiring with the Mavs now and what occurred two decades ago and acknowledged that the glass is again overwhelmingly half-full.

“Ironically, 20 years ago when we first got here to start building this thing it started with a point guard (in Steve Nash), it started with Michael Finley, which is our modern day Harrison Barnes, and it started with a floppy-haired German (in Dirk Nowitzki) that ended up being pretty good,” Nelson said. “The excitement of the future of this year ‘s draft, Dennis Smith, Harrison, young building blocks as well as Dwight Powell and some of our other young players that are fighting for roster minutes and rotational minutes, is an exciting part of the franchise moving forward.”

Finley joined the Mavs in a Dec. 26, 1996 trade that involved sending Jason Kidd to the Phoenix Suns. And the Mavs acquired Nowitzki and Nash on draft day trades on June 24, 1998.

Once that particular rebuilding process was complete, the Mavs advanced to the playoffs 15 out of 16 years from 2001-’16. Fast forward to today, that’s the same path management sees the Mavs traveling starting next season.

“We do not want to go back to what we just experienced,” Nelson said. “That’s unanimous from the top on down.

“When you go through re-tooling or rebuilding situations like we’re going through now, it’s done with the right people (and) it’s done with the right character pieces.”

Guard Wesley Matthews was adamant about the challenges facing the Mavs next season, saying, “We’ve all got to look in the mirror and get back in the gym, get back to work — top to bottom. And make a stand right now and say that we’re not going to have this kind of conversation next year.”