DALLAS — With Raymond Felton slated to miss the first four games of the 2014-15 schedule and fellow veteran Devin Harris thriving in a reserve role a season ago, the stars may be aligning for newcomer Jameer Nelson to be the Dallas Mavericks’ starting point guard on Opening Night.
Handed a four-game suspension by the league for pleading guilty to attempted criminal possession of a weapon and criminal possession of a firearm while in New York prior to being dealt to Dallas on the eve of June’s NBA Draft, Felton will undoubted be looking forward to a fresh start with the Mavericks. However, after starting 611 of his 667 total career games during stints with Charlotte, Denver, Portland and New York, Felton will miss out on a chance to challenge for the first-unit lead guard spot vacated by the departing Jose Calderon.
“I demonstrated poor judgment and I take full responsibility for my actions,” Felton said in a statement shortly after news of his suspension broke on Aug. 7. “Moving forward, I’m eager to get to Dallas, to start fresh and make a positive impact in the Dallas metropolitan area.”
The 6-foot-1 Felton is hungry to prove himself after a lackluster ’13-14 season with the Knicks, averaging a career-low 9.7 points per game, 5.6 assists an outing and connecting on just 39.5 percent from the field, his lowest shooting percentage since his second season in the league. He’ll now be forced to wait to prove that he can get back to the elite level he displayed during the 2010-11 campaign, when the fifth overall selection in the ’05 draft put up nearly career numbers across the board while averaging 17.1 points, 9.0 assists and 1.8 steals for the Knicks.
Felton’s suspension brings the Opening Night battle down to second-year guard Gal Mekel, Harris and Nelson.
In Mekel, the Mavs have a former two-time Israeli MVP who saw limited playing time as a rookie before undergoing surgery to repair a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee on Jan. 17 that ended his season. Mekel could use more seasoning, averaging just 2.4 points and 2.0 assists while shooting only 34.9 percent from the field and 25.0 percent from behind the three-point arc during his 31 appearances last year. And with proven veterans ahead of him, Mekel will likely have an uphill climb to crack the rotation.
Meanwhile, Harris may once again be called upon to lead the Mavericks’ second unit, especially after the Dallas bench took a hit with the free-agent departure of Vince Carter.
Harris missed the first 41 games last season but battled back from toe surgery to average 7.9 points and 4.5 assists in his 40 outings. He also provided the Mavs with a huge lift off the bench during their first-round playoff series, averaging 11.4 points and 3.9 assists as the Dallas team pushed the eventual NBA champion San Antonio Spurs to seven games.
Still, despite re-signing with the team this summer, even Harris envisions himself coming off the bench this upcoming season after earning the trust of Mavs coach Rick Carlisle by providing instant offense and perimeter defense.
“We’re deeper at the point guard position than we were a year ago with Jameer, myself and Raymond Felton, a lot of veteran guys, and I think we’re deeper,” Harris explained in an interview last week with SiriusXM NBA Radio.
He added: “They haven’t really defined it as who’s going to start. I know [Carlisle] wants to use a three-guard rotation to play a little (more) uptempo than we did last year. I think he likes me coming off the bench, which I’m fine with, and maybe closing out some games. But I think he’s going to use all three of us in different types of roles.”
Which brings us to Nelson, who signed with Dallas this summer during free agency after spending his entire 10-year career with the Orlando Magic.
Nelson holds career averages of 12.6 points, 5.4 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.0 steals, making 556 starts with the Magic. He also left Orlando as the franchise’s all-time leader in assists with 3,501, ranking second in games played (651) and field goals attempted (7,033), third in minutes played (19,038), three-pointers made (874) and three-pointers attempted (2,335), fourth in scoring (8,184 points) and field goals made (3,109) and fifth in steals (619).
The former St. Joseph’s standout was also an All-Star during the ’08-09 season, when he averaged 16.7 points, 3.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists while shooting 50.3 percent from the field and 45.3 percent from three-point range. And with Nelson likely to assume the starting job entering the grueling 82-game schedule, the Mavericks hope he can recapture his All-Star form prior to the season opener on Oct. 28 in San Antonio.