DALLAS – There are two valid reasons why Dallas Mavericks fans probably lost valuable sleep over the summer while anxiously waiting the upcoming season.
Luka Doncic and DeAndre Jordan.
Doncic is the talent-rich rookie guard from Slovenia who the Mavs acquired in a draft-day trade with the Atlanta Hawks this past June. The 6-8, 218-pounder was the regular season Most Valuable Player in the EuroLeague while playing for Real Madrid last fall, and also went home with the coveted MVP of the EuroLeague Final Four championship series, which his team won.
To hear some insiders tell it, in Doncic, it is as if the Mavs have acquired a taller version of Jason Kidd, who led Dallas to a championship in 2011 and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame earlier this month.
“Luka has been playing in the gym with the guys every day and he’s looked great,” forward Dirk Nowitzki said. “He’s a big body guard, he can move, he can shoot, he’s got unbelievable passing skills.
“He’s got passes through the legs and behind the back in scrimmages already, so I think we’re going to have a lot of fun watching him over the years grow even more. He’s fun to watch.”
For the Mavs, the really fun part will be watching the maturation of Doncic in the backcourt with point guard Dennis Smith Jr., who showed amazing grace and talent when he burst onto the scene as a rookie last year.
“Obviously we’re all really excited about Luka and him pairing up with Dennis,” said Donnie Nelson, the Mavs’ president of basketball operations. “Two young guys in the backcourt – fire and ice component.
“I think they’re really going to play off each other well.”
In those intimate scrimmages Nowitzki was referring to, veteran guard Devin Harris has noticed how the 20-year old Smith and the 19-year old Doncic are already feeding off each other and looking like a well-oiled machine.
“I think they’re starting to get a feel for each other right now,” Harris said. “Obviously Luka is a talent, and he does a lot of things well.
“I know Dennis will be playing a little bit off the ball a little bit more, so he’s trying to get used to that and we’re trying to help him with that transition. But I think he’s more athletic than he was last year, so with those two together it’ll be fun to watch.”
It’s a watch party that not only have the fans anticipating something special happening this season and beyond, but the Mavs players themselves are all giddy about the possibilities.
“I think the sky’s the limit for (Doncic) and Dennis together,” Nowitzki said. “I think they’re going to be great together.
“Dennis is real explosive, Luka is the passer and playing a little more under control. So I think they’re going to be playing off each other really, really well and we’re looking forward to them growing alongside each other hopefully for a long, long time.”
The Mavs believe the growth of Smith and Doncic will be aided by the addition of Jordan, who finally left the Los Angeles Clippers and signed a one-year free agent contract with Dallas this past July. Jordan joins the Mavs armed with an impressive resume.
A native of Houston, Jordan led the NBA in rebounding in 2014 and ’15, was first-team all-defense in ’15 and ’16, all-NBA first team in ’16, and made the All-Star team in ’17. In short, the former Texas A&M product is one of the premier centers in the NBA today and is the proverbial shot-blocking, rebounder and massive interior defender the Mavs so desperately need.
“He’s one of the best centers in the league, so add that to his shot-blocking, rebounding and finishes above the rim,” center/forward Dwight Powell said. “He’s another dynamic roller that can help us out.”
The Mavs could care less that Jordan gave them a verbal commitment to sign a free agent with them in the summer of 2015, yet spurned them at the 11th hour and instead deciding to re-sign with the Clippers. All they care about is that he’s a part of their franchise right now.
“I think we’re going to all make him feel welcome,” Nowitzki said. “He’s from Teas, so he’s going to love the community.
“I think he’s going to be great, I think he’s going to fit in great with coach’s system. The (center) is always running and rolling and protecting the rim, so we’re looking forward to him really fitting in.”
Nowitzki started a lot of games at the center position last season, and said he’s not opposed to coming off the bench so the Mavs can start a front line that would include Harrison Barnes, Wesley Matthews and Jordan.
“I heard he’s in great shape, he’s skinny and he’s ready to roll,” Nowitzki said of Jordan. “So we’re looking forward to hopefully a great season, and he’s going to fit in well.”
Regardless of who comes off the bench, with reserves such as J. J. Barea, Dorian Finney-Smith, Salah Mejri, Maxi Kleber, Powell and Harris, the Mavs know they have a deep bench. Especially when rookies Jalen Brunson, Ray Spalding and Kostas Antetokounmpo are added to the equation.
The Mavs are particularly high on Finney-Smith, who played in just 21 games last year, with most of the 61 games he missed due to left knee quadriceps tendinitis. The word on the streets is that Finney-Smith is a couple of jump shots away from being a solid all-around player.
“This year Dorian’s health is in a much better place and I expect him to have a great year,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “He’s one of our best perimeter defenders and he’s also a very good post defender.
“And offensively, he’s worked very hard on his shooting consistency, so I expect him to have a terrific year.”
The additions of Doncic and Jordan has the Mavs thinking playoffs. It’s a spot the Mavs haven’t been in since the 2015-’16 season when they lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder in five games in the postseason’s opening round.
“It’s obviously always the goal,” Powell said. “That’s something we’re working towards every single day.
“That’s something that’s been on all of our minds this whole offseason, so I’m excited to start working towards that.”
That work starts Saturday with the first day of practice, which comes after Friday’s Media Day. And by the time the regular start starts Oct. 17 in Phoenix, the Mavs could invariably have six players on their roster that’s 25 years old or younger and five that’s over 30 years old.
“I’ve been playing pickup games the last couple of weeks and I didn’t realize how young we really are,” Harris said. “The last couple of years we’ve been kind of the oldest team.
“We’ve got some young guys that really can play. I’m excited to see what they can do.”
The Mavs were 24-58 last year and on paper should be exponentially better than that this season. But with LeBron James leaving Cleveland and joining a 35-win Los Angeles Lakers squad that missed the postseason last year, securing one of the eight Western Conference playoff spots likely will be a difficult task.
“I think we have a good team, but the West is loaded,” said Nowitzki, who will be entering his 21st season. “Now LeBron came over to the West as well, so there are a lot of great, great players in the West.
“It’s going to be a fight every game, but I think we’re up for it. We have the depth for it. We should have a good bench with J.J. and Devin coming back and some of the other guys, so I think we should be OK, but it’s going to be hard.”
Sept. 21: Media Day
Sept. 22-28: Training camp
Sept. 29: Preseason opener at home vs. Beijing
Oct. 17: Regular season opener at Phoenix
Oct. 20: Regular season home opener vs. Minnesota