Mavs are ‘in the trenches,’ looking forward to battling back to winning basketball

NEW YORK – The Dallas Mavericks have suddenly found themselves nestled in a nice little groove that would have put them in playoff contention if they didn’t start the season with a 9-25 record.

With the regular season ending in less than a month, over the past eight games the Mavs have posted a respectable 4-4 record. By contrast, five teams that will qualify for the playoffs if the postseason started today are playing the same level of basketball – or worst – than the Mavs have over the last eight games.

That includes Cleveland (4-4), Philadelphia (4-4), Minnesota (4-4), Washington (3-5) and Milwaukee (3-5). Also, San Antonio (3-5) and Denver (4-4) are hovering over the outer edges of the Western Conference playoff picture and are neck-and-neck with the Mavs over the past eight games.

While the Mavs may be in obvious rebuilding mode, coach Rick Carlisle insists their competitive juices are still flowing freely. Hence, the number of wins and improved play over the last eight contests.

“It takes on a different form in our situation,” Carlisle said, in reference to rebuilding. “Look, I have chosen to be here. I have a long deal.

“I know that we were probably going to hit a lower point. It’s just part of the cycle of the NBA, but I’m not going to bail on my owner who’s been so good to me. And the other part of this, too, is that this is a challenge that I’ve never been a part of, and that is to truly rebuild a team.”

For the Mavs, a tradition-rich franchise that advanced to the playoffs 15 out of 16 years from 2001-’16, losing is not a part of their culture that they want to become accustomed to. But with rebuilding, unfortunately, losing is intertwined and invariably becomes part of the painful process of being able to consistently win again.

“Yeah, you take a lot of losses,” Carlisle said. “That part is no fun. But to accomplish this, which is going to take time, it’s going to be a difficult task and it has to be handled the right way.

“But when we get there it will be one of the most meaningful things that I’ve been involved with.”

The Mavs (22-46) opened a four-game road trip this past Tuesday with a 110-97 triumph over the New York Knicks. Carlisle gave his club today off, and then they’ll travel to Toronto on Thursday and play the Raptors on Friday at 6:30 p.m.

Despite headed to the NBA Draft Lottery on May 15, the Mavs’ hunger to stack up some wins still remains intact. The way the ping-pong balls bounce that day will be extremely meaningful.

“We keep playing hard,” forward Dirk Nowitzki said. “There’s obviously some teams that’s going for some losses now, and we’re one of the teams that still want to win and see where we end up in the draft.

“We’re still playing, we want to have a winning culture for our young guys and show them how to play, and the work ethic and how to play to win. So that is very important to us.”

Forward Harrison Barnes, who tallied a game-high 30 points in the win over the Knicks, had a simple answer on how to rebuild quickly.

“At the end of the day,” Barnes said, “the best way to get better is to get wins and to have guys getting that experience.”

Carlisle, who is in his 16th season as an NBA head coach – including his 10th with the Mavs – won an NBA title with the Mavs in 2011. The goal for Carlisle, obviously, is to find a way to get the Mavs back on the NBA’s biggest stage and capture another championship banner that can be raised into the American Airlines Center rafters.

It’s a challenge that the 58-year old Carlisle has been more than willing to accept.

“I’ve been around long enough to know that the job of head coaching in the NBA isn’t as simple as jumping from city to city looking for good talent to coach and get wins,” Carlisle said. “For me, after everything that I’ve been through with (Mavs owner) Mark (Cuban) and what he’s done for me — and I’ve done some good things for him along the way — and (general manager) Donnie (Nelson), this is a bigger picture.

“This is a deeper landscape than that. We’re in this for the long haul.”

That means the Mavs may have to take two steps backwards in other to take a step forward. Carlisle just wants everyone to be patient and trust the process.

“It’s work, but there’s no less interest in coming in every day,” Carlisle said. “There’s even more work, because the work now becomes more tipped to the player development side with our younger guys, and that’s in the trenches work.

“But those guys are in the trenches with us.”

The Mavs are banking on that work in the trenches paying off handsomely in the foreseeable future.

Notes: With the day off today in New York, rookie forward Jameel Warney got to go home and get some good food and have some fellowship with his family and friends. Warney grew up in the New York area and played college ball at nearby Stony Brook University. “I went home (Monday), so I’ll probably go home again (today) and see my family,” Warney said. Asked if he’s going to insist on having another home cooked meal, Warney smiled and said: “Definitely! You already know it.” Warney finished with eight points and three rebounds in 12 minutes during the win over the Knicks. “Great to see,” coach Rick Carlisle said of Warney. “The kid is a great kid, solid player. He earned his shot. I wanted to get him a chance to get in there early.” Warney signed a 10-day contract with the Mavs this past Sunday, and was in his season playing for the G-League’s Texas Legends. But to play in the NBA and in Madision Square Garden, Warney said: “I’m happy to be in New York and I’m happy to have my family and friends of Stony Brook and the community come out here and support me.”. .Friday’s game in Toronto will pit coach Rick Carlisle against Raptors coach Dwane Casey, who was Carlisle’s defensive coordinator when the Mavs won the 2011 NBA title. Carlisle and Casey are fast friends. The Raptors have the best record in the Eastern Conference and third-best record in the NBA at 50-17.

Injury updates

Seth Curry (left leg surgery) – out
Wesley Matthews (fractured right proximal fibula) – out
Salah Mejri (right hamstring strain) — questionable

Rick Carlisle jumps on DAC on 103.3 FM ESPN

Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle appeared on DAC on 103.3 FM ESPN Radio yesterday for his weekly appearance to talk Mavs/Cavs, Devin Harris, the win in Washington and more. Check out the full audio below, with some of the top moments transcribed to follow.

On the win in Washington: We made the decision early that we wanted to be a more up-tempo team, and we were getting the ball up and down, but we were really having trouble guarding people. So the game against Washington, we really did a great job as a team of running on misses. Look, you’re not gonna be able to create misses unless you get in a strong position to defend early in the clock. So our tempo-ing of the game was very good, our execution of offense was good, and when we did get stops, Smith, Barea, Ferrell, and Harris were pushing it. We just got a lot of good things happening. When you go through this kind of period, you relish these opportunities on the road against good teams to try to get things on track, and this was an opportunity our guys took advantage of.

On pushing the right buttons as a coach through this start: I don’t really view this as button-pushing. This is relationships and it’s communication, and there’s trust involved. We’ve got to really be together, going through a difficult time. The guys on the team are terrific people. We rallied in that practice in Washington, and the win was a big win. These last couple days I believe we’ve had positive practices. Then you turn around and play guys like Cleveland and Oklahoma City back-to-back. The guys that are pushing the tough buttons are the schedule-makers.

On Devin Harris and his brother Bruce, who tragically passed away last month: I cannot say enough about the Harris family and their strength, Mr. and Mrs. Harris, Devin’s dad and mom, are just such strong people and people of faith. We all went through this with him. Devin is such a team-oriented guy. If people knew everything that he went through to make his way back to Dallas — he gave up a lot of money, he gave up a lot of opportunity at other places, promises of this, promises of that — he certainly could’ve been a starter other places. But he loves Dallas. When he was drafted here, my understanding is he and his brother were living here, and then his family basically ended up moving to Dallas. Even though they’re from Milwaukee originally, they’re pretty much based here now. This has become the hub of the family.

On what Devin is going through: As much as you like to hope that there can be closure, I just can’t possibly imagine what he’s going through. It appears to me that his teammates and the profession of competing and playing basketball has been a healthy diversion from really a catastrophic personal situation.

DAC airs weekdays on 103.3 FM from 3-6 p.m. Carlisle appears every Friday at 4:43.

Rick Carlisle, The Mad Scientist

Dennis Smith Jr. made some veteran plays in win at Atlanta

There are some hard truths we must all accept when we talk about young players. They’re going to make plays that will make us get out of our seats, and they’re going to make plays that will make us shake our heads.

The inescapable truth is that Dennis Smith Jr. is only 19 years old, and he won’t turn 20 until Thanksgiving. He’s the second-youngest Maverick ever, and on opening night he’ll be the youngest starter in franchise history. Smith has described training camp as challenging. Rick Carlisle has said the rookie is going to make mistakes that he must learn from. That’s part of the process in this league, especially when you play the most difficult position there is.

So far through five preseason games, he certainly has made some errors, but he’s also come a long way in a very short period of time. On Monday against Orlando, he recorded 16 points, seven assists, six rebounds, a steal, and a block. Thursday in Atlanta, he finished with nine points and three assists before exiting with a sprained ankle Carlisle described as not serious.

These last two performances have been mature enough to make Smith appear more like a 25-year-old than a 19-year-old. You’ve got to be careful when expecting too much from rookie point guards because they’re digesting a ton of new information and assuming a heck of a lot of responsibility, and it’s still just the preseason, but these last two games Smith has looked like the kind of player who can handle that burden. He’s living up to the hype.

The most tangible way he’s already making an impact is by pushing the tempo. The Mavs are playing at a pace of 104.01 possessions per 48 minutes when Smith has been on the floor this preseason, a notch above the team’s 102.32 pace overall. Preseason games are typically played at a faster pace than regular-season contests, but Carlisle’s goal is for the Mavericks to run, run, and run some more this season largely because of who’s playing point.

“Most teams would like you to walk it up because it kind of plays into their defense,” Carlisle said. “It lets them get set up and keep focusing on the ball as it moves around. For (Dennis), it just makes the game harder for him to go slow, and it’s an easier game if he can keep that vertical pressure on the defense.”

That term — “vertical pressure” — is not something that’s been too familiar to the Mavericks the last couple seasons. That means getting up the floor moving toward the basket, driving into the paint, and looking to generate points. Dallas ranked 21st in drives per game last season, but the Mavs have been at their best in recent seasons when they’ve had players who can break teams down on the perimeter and get into the lane.

Here’s what he’s talking about.

Smith collected the loose ball himself on the defensive end and pushed the ball up the floor, beginning his drive just five seconds into the shot clock. Notice that the Hawks don’t have any rim protection established before his drive, and Jeff Withey is pulling the opposing center out of the lane and closer to the 3-point lane. (Smith wisely paused to allow Withey back into the play, forcing his defender to pay him attention.) There’s a clear path to the basket open for the taking, and Smith was not only quick enough to find it, but athletic enough to finish over the defender at the rim. That’s an incredible play that most 19-year-olds simply can’t make and it was made possible in part because he got up the floor so early.

“We want to push it every single time, even if there’s a score,” Carlisle said. “The quicker you get it over halfcourt, the greater chance you have to make an early vertical attack on the basket, and it conserves more time to finish out a possession.”

Young players are often criticized for being able to play at only one speed, but Smith has demonstrated he can probe to find open spaces. The next play happens much later in the shot clock against a set defense, but Smith is able to patiently cross over and hesitate to get into the teeth of the defense.

There’s a lot happening in what looks like a pretty simple play. First, Smith sets up a pick-and-roll with Nerlens Noel, forcing Dennis Schroder to defend on Smith’s left side in anticipation of the screen. Smith sees that right is the better way to go, so he quickly crosses over and begins his drive. He then mixes in a quick hesitation dribble to get Dewayne Dedmon thinking about the possibility of a lob to Noel, but the extra few inches of space were all Smith needed to get off a shot himself. He’s so explosive that Dedmon could barely even offer a contest.

Once defenses begin to show Smith more respect, that’s going to open up better looks for his teammates. For example, below Smith finds Maxi Kleber for 3.

Both defenders involved in the pick-and-roll stick with Smith, leaving Ersan Ilyasova to tag against the rolling Withey. Three Hawks defenders are committed to just two Mavs, meaning there’s someone open, and Smith was able to find him with an accurate pass.

“In this league, I’ve got to attack first, and then make my reads from there,” Smith said. “It’s tough for defenders to stay in front of me. If I can beat my man and make the defense collapse, I’m smart enough to make the right read out of that.”

These are the kinds of plays that really good veteran point guards make several times every single night, no matter who’s guarding them. Smith has shown throughout the preseason that he’s capable of making some awe-inspiring plays, but lately he’s showing that he can make the so-called simple ones, too. If he can consistently generate good looks both for himself and his teammates the way he did against Orlando and Atlanta, he could put up some impressive individual numbers and, more importantly, the Mavericks offense is going to fill it up. The 19-year-old hasn’t really looked his age, and in this case that’s a good thing.

NBA GMs vote Dennis Smith Jr. biggest draft steal, Rick Carlisle best at in-game adjustments

In NBA.com’s annual survey, NBA GMs voted Mavs rookie Dennis Smith Jr. the biggest steal on draft night. The 19-year-old rookie earned 37 percent of the vote.

Smith was the ninth overall pick on draft night and the fifth player at his own position selected. The first-year player who passes like a point guard and dunks like a forward dazzled at the Las Vegas Summer League, averaging 17.3 points and 4.2 assists per game as the Mavs advanced to the semifinals.

Were it not for an ACL injury he suffered in high school, it’s hard to imagine how much higher Smith might have been drafted. In addition, his NC State team didn’t qualify for the NCAA Tournament last season, which may have played a role in him slipping to No. 9. The Mavs did their due diligence throughout the scouting process, however, and drafted him anyway. So far, Smith has done nothing but eat, sleep, and breathe basketball, spending plenty of time in the gym and the film room with head coach Rick Carlisle.

Carlisle also earned some recognition in the survey, once again receiving the nod as the coach who makes the best in-game adjustments. Carlisle received 34 percent of the vote, narrowly beating out Boston’s Brad Stevens (31 percent).

This is Carlisle’s 10th season at the helm as Mavs head coach, and he’s increasingly gaining more respect around the league as one of the best minds. He also earned votes for best coach, the best motivator of people, and the coach who runs the best offense.

Mavs fans will of course hope that Carlisle can bring the best out of Smith in his rookie season to prove GMs around the league right. If those two click, this could be a fun, successful team for years to come.

Frequenting the film room has helped Dennis Smith Jr. ‘keep trucking’ through fast-paced training camp

The NBA is hard for 29-year-olds. It’s hard to imagine how impossible it must seem to a 19-year-old, let alone a teenage point guard with high expectations and plenty of veteran teammates to feed.

But that’s the situation Mavs rookie Dennis Smith Jr. finds himself in right now. The preseason favorite for Rookie of the Year starred at the Las Vegas Summer League playing against mostly his fellow first-year peers, but the real test began with his first week of training camp at the helm of an offense featuring the No. 6 all-time scorer, an emerging go-to player, and more space and shooting than most other offenses in the league.

That sounds like a dream scenario for a first-year player, as Smith will be able to lean on the most reliable jump-shooting 7-footer in league history and plenty of other guards who are able to make plays off the dribble. It certainly will help him once he’s able to find his footing, and that’s part of the reason people are so eager to see him play. But an education is still an education, and just one week into his pro career, Smith still has plenty to learn.

“Not too much is coming easy right now, which is good,” Smith admitted last week. “It’s beauty in the struggle.”

Smith has been on a steady diet of practice and one-on-one film sessions with head coach Rick Carlisle throughout camp so far, and the rookie has wisely taken those meetings very seriously. He went so far as to thank Carlisle personally after one practice last week for spending all that time with him.

Other veteran guards on the team like Devin Harris and J.J. Barea have said it won’t be an exceptionally smooth road for the 19-year-old, at least in the early going. Fortunately for Smith, however, he has those two in his corner, and they’ve been there before. The pick-and-roll might come natural for the No. 9 overall pick in the 2017 draft, but learning how to dictate pace, change speeds, and locate and deliver the ball to teammates in their favorite spots are just some of the prerequisites for being a premier point guard. That’s the level Smith hopes to reach.

“I’ve got to make my mistakes full-speed ahead, and I’ve just gotta keep trucking,” Smith said. “It’s gonna happen. You can’t really learn anything if you don’t make mistakes.”

Added Carlisle: “He’s making some spectacular plays, and there’s always gonna be mistakes you have to learn from. But his attitude his great. The physical element he brings to the team is really unlike anything we’ve had at the point guard position.”

A week of two-a-days, weightlifting, and some time in the team theater watching game tape from last season’s team is all good and well, but until the actual games begin there’s only so much Smith could have learned. That changed on Friday, when the Mavs scrimmaged in front of a crowd at American Airlines Center. Smith shot 1 of 7 from the field, adding three rebounds and two assists against one turnover. He nearly brought the house down with a thunderous dunk attempt that rimmed out near the end of the game.

The Mavs enjoyed a day off on Saturday, but first thing Sunday morning Smith was back in the film room with Carlisle, reviewing tape from the exhibition with the teenager who seems wise beyond his years.

“We watched film with him (Sunday) morning and showed him some good things having to do with tempo and spacing, and yesterday during practice he made really good adjustments,” Carlisle said after Monday’s shootaround. “The learning curve is pretty steep, but we’re trying to keep things as simple as possible, and he’s just gotta keep making those adjustments.”

Smith said one of the primary functions of those film sessions is to gain an understanding of how the Mavs played last season, with Carlisle showing ways Smith can push the tempo within those same sets. Dallas is hoping to ramp up the pace this season, and one way to do that is by starting Dirk Nowitzki at center. They’ll also often play two-point guard sets, which should take some of the playmaking load off Smith’s shoulders. But for a team that ranked 21st in drives and 25th in points per game from drives last season, Smith is going to have to pick up a lot of that slack himself.

That first opportunity will come tonight, when the Mavs play the Milwaukee Bucks in the first preseason game of the year. Smith will be going up against reigning Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, which will add an interesting subtext to things. Another, cooler layer: The Bucks are coached by Jason Kidd, whose floor-general capabilities helped lead the Mavs to a championship six years ago. His shoes have frankly yet to be filled long-term since his departure in 2012, but hopefully Smith can one day do that.

While Smith is a spectacular player, he’s still got a long way to go to reach that level. The good thing, though, is that the rookie so far has been willing to put in the work both on the floor and in the classroom to reach that level. This first game is just step one.

“Tonight is where things really are on display, so we’ll find out a lot more (against Milwaukee),” Carlisle said. “He’ll learn an awful lot in a very short period of time.”

Rick Carlisle plays piano on 103.3 FM ESPN

There are no words. Almost literally.

During his weekly appearance with Dennis and Cowlishaw on 103.3 FM ESPN, Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle put his phone on speaker and played some of his favorite tunes on the piano, including Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is,” and more.

Listen to the full interview/concert below. Carlisle is not just one of the best basketball minds in the NBA, but he’s also a man of many talents — although, as he confesses, he can’t really even read music, outside of some chords here and there.

Cowlishaw & Dennis appear weekdays from 3-6 p.m. on 103.3 FM ESPN Radio.