A year after seriously moving the NBA needle and qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2016, the Dallas Mavericks have rightfully set some lofty goals for themselves this season.
“But I’m not going to get into that publicly,” coach Rick Carlisle said following Tuesday’s practice session. “We have high standards as an organization. We did some good things last year. This year is going to be harder. (Opposing) teams are better.”
How much better?
“Golden State’s got a lot of their team back,” Carlisle said. “A lot of other teams in the West have gotten better. It looks like the (Los Angeles) Lakers have gotten better, it looks like the (Los Angeles) Clippers have strengthen their team. Denver is a year more experienced. They’ve added some really good pieces. Portland is healthy. It’s going to be a tough, tough year. Very challenging, but you’ve got to love the challenge.”
The Mavs are coming off a season in which they went 43-32, finished seventh in the Western Conference and lost to the Clippers in six games in the first round of the playoffs. Point guard Luka Doncic rose to prominence after starting in the NBA All-Star Game, being chosen first-team all-NBA and finishing fourth in the race for the league’s coveted Most Valuable Player trophy.
Along with forward/center Kristaps Porzingis, center Dwight Powell, forwards Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dorian Finney-Smith, and Doncic’s newest backcourt mate – Josh Richardson – the Mavs believe they’ll be right in the thick of the championship race this season. Especially since they have one of the deepest benches in the NBA.
“It’s always easy to say the expectation is the championship, but that is our goal,” reserve guard Trey Burke said. “We believe it, we believe that we have the talent here to compete for a championship.
“I think we have a lot of short-term goals that we want to accomplish before we can look toward the championship, and I think that starts tomorrow.”
The Mavs open the regular season on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on the road against the much-improved Phoenix Suns. And it will undoubtedly be unlike last season, which was halted on March 11 due to the coronavirus pandemic, re-started in July inside the bubble in Orlando, and completed on Oct. 11 when the Lakers defeated the Miami Heat for the championship.
But this season teams will not be in a bubble, and that could impact the way things turn out.
“Our preparation has been the same as it was headed into Orlando,” Carlisle said. “The length of the training camp is about the same. The difference is we’re in our home market instead of doing training camp down there (in Orlando).
“This is a season where you’re going to have to be very nimble, you’re going to have to be able to adjust and pivot very quickly, because there’s going to be unexpected things going on. I wouldn’t say that our preparation has really been different on the floor, but certainly now with the new testing for the players — the rapid testing for the players — that creates a different set of logistics. You just have to have a great attitude about it.”
The Mavs certainly have a great attitude about the new players they landed over the offseason. In addition to Richardson, they also acquired veterans James Johnson and Wes Iwundu, along with rookies Josh Green and Tyrell Terry. They also signed rookies Nate Hinton and Tyler Bey to two-way contracts.
Players gone from last year’s squad include JJ Barea, Seth Curry, Justin Jackson, Delon Wright, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Courtney Lee, Josh Reaves and Antonius Cleveland. And after halfway flipping the roster, the Mavs entered training camp putting a higher emphasis on defense, because they figured that would increase their chances of winning an NBA title.
So, after training camp and three preseason games, how’s that defense doing?
“The defense is not where we want it to be, clearly,” Carlisle said. “We gave up 114 points per game (in preseason), we didn’t do a good enough job in transition or with points in the paint. We made more of an emphasis on it the last few days, but we’re going to have to stay on top of that.
“I think overall there’s an appearance that it is better, but our numbers in preseason weren’t what I’d like them to be. So the last three days of practice we’ve been working extremely hard on transition defense and bearing down defensively. When your defense is better, your offense is going to be better.”
Richardson is a pit-bull type defender who was a key offseason acquisition for the Mavs and is expected to help bolster the team’s defense. And he’s more than prepared for the challenge.
“I’m just kind of approaching it like any other season,” Richardson said. “It’s not like we’re going to a bubble again — that’s probably the most different season that we’ll ever see.
“Honestly, we’re traveling (Tuesday) like a regular game, like a regular season, so I’m just treating it normally and not over-thinking it.”
More than anything, Richardson, who spent all five of his previous NBA seasons in the Eastern Conference for the Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers, knows how burdensome life can be trying to contain some of the ultra-talented guards in the Western Conference.
“Both conferences present different challenges,” Richardson said. “I’ve been in the East (since 2015) and it’s very physical and it’s different and it has its own crop of stars over there.
“But in the West, there’s never a night off, so that’s how I’m approaching it. I’m approaching it like every game is make-or-break, and I feel like that’s kind of how our team is approaching it.”
After facing the Suns, the Mavs will continue their rugged three-game road trip with a Christmas Day contest in Los Angeles against the defending world champion Lakers. Then they’ll stay in LA to play the Clippers on Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. before their home opener on Dec. 30 against the Charlotte Hornets.
‘The Suns are a good team, man,” Richardson said. “I feel like if we can just slow them down in transition, kind of make it a half-court game for them and get physical and make their buckets tough, I think we can give ourselves a better chance than if we just try to track-meet it the whole game.”
Chosen No. 18 overall in last month’s NBA Draft, Green – he played his college ball at the University of Arizona — is another player the Mavs are expecting great things from this season and beyond. But with no summer league, a shortened training camp and preseason schedule, and a shorter time to learn Carlisle’s playbook, Green knows he and other rookies may make more mistakes early on than they normally would make.
“You can’t expect to come out in these preseason games or practices and just go out there and not make any mistakes,” Green said. “I think you have to accept the mistakes you make and be out to grow off of them and to continue to develop.
“So for me I think it’s just to continue to develop my game and learn as much as I can and just become the best player I can be. I’m looking forward to getting out on the court and just treating (Wednesday’s game) like other game. For me I feel like every game, just come with the same mindset and be ready to go.”
Unfortunately for the Mavs, Porzingis won’t be ready to play until some time next month. The six-year veteran is currently rehabbing after undergoing surgery on Oct. 9 to address a lateral meniscus injury of his right knee.
Meanwhile, being better defenders and discovering ways to effectively close out games are at the forefront of the Mavs’ to-do list for this season. And with Doncic and Porzingis as their two bright, young superstars, the Mavs truly believe that any conversation that includes candidates to win this season’s NBA championship should also include them.
“Chemistry-wise, man, this is one of the best teams I’ve been on,” Burke said. “This early, as well as we’ve meshed, it’s crazy. So, I think the sky is the limit for this team.
“Where will it go? I don’t know, but it looks good. It looks really good.”