It’s been a sad and depressing start to the season for the Dallas Mavericks. Even with their 113-99 win over the Washington Wizards, which snapped a six-game skid, they still find themselves rooted to the bottom of the Western Conference at 2-10.
This was supposed to be the plan, though. They opted against signing any notable free agents over the summer because they acknowledged they were in a rebuilding cycle and wanted to maximize their chances of getting another high draft pick.
They seem to have nailed this year’s pick when they drafted Dennis Smith Jr. with number nine overall. Smith has already shown flashes of brilliance thanks to his breathtaking athleticism and looks like he has the potential to be one of the draft’s transcendent talents. But still, not even the promise of Smith can take away from the fact that it has been a wildly disappointing season in Dallas.
And that's due to two big reasons in particular.
It’s been coming for a few years, but Dirk Nowitzki has well and truly fallen off a cliff. The 39-year-old is averaging just 10.5 points on 39 percent shooting with 5.5 rebounds in 24.5 minutes, which would easily be his lowest totals since his rookie year.
Dirk’s advanced numbers also bear out this sad fact. His PER is 11.8, nearly five points down from last season, while his true shooting percentage is 49 percent, another substantial drop from last year’s 53 percent. Add his already awful defense to that steep drop-off offensively, and what you have left is a subpar NBA player.
Dirk’s absence due to an Achilles injury was a big reason for the Mavs’ slow start last season as they began 2-13 through 15 games. They were back to being semi-competitive once he returned, though. He gave them the injection of offense they needed desperately, particularly with his shooting. Even at 38 years of age, he was still able to come up with an offensive explosion every once in a while.
Sadly, this version of Dirk can’t deliver those types of performances anymore, which is bad news for a Mavs team that is lacking any other above-average offensive players besides Harrison Barnes and Smith from time to time.
The writing is seemingly on the wall for Nowitzki, who may be playing out the final season of his incredible career. And much like his contemporaries Paul Pierce and Kobe Bryant, it is ending in less-than-ideal fashion. That’s the sad reality of growing old in the NBA.
Dirk isn’t the only high-profile Dallas frontcourt player who’s having a poor season, though.
Noel the non-factor
In one of the more perplexing free agency moves from last summer, Nerlens Noel refused what had been a seemingly reasonable long-term contract offer from the Mavs and instead held out for close to $20 million despite a tepid market for big men. Noel’s hard-line stance eventually resulted in him signing the qualifying offer, giving him another shot to find that big contract as an unrestricted free agent next offseason.
However, it is increasingly looking like Noel will get nowhere near the deal he’s expecting given how his season is playing out. He’s averaging just 5.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game in a mere 17.2 minutes. Things hit a new low against the Wizards as he played a season-low six minutes while Salah Mejri had 10 points, 12 rebounds, and 5 blocks in 25 minutes.
Whether this lack of playing time is the Mavs’ way of getting back at Noel for how those contract negotiations went or if Noel just isn’t playing well enough to earn minutes, the fact of the matter is he hasn’t been a significant contributor for the Mavs in a position of need. Once viewed as a promising young asset who could become part of the next great Mavs team when they traded for him last season, it is becoming more likely that Noel walks away from Dallas.
So where does this all leave the Mavs? Not in a good place. They will almost surely shop veteran Wesley Matthews for more assets later in the season, but with a looming $18-million player option next season, he may be tough to move.
With Nowitzki limping along and playing like a shell of his old self, Noel being pushed aside, and Dwight Powell (who’s being paid $9 million) averaging 4 points and 4 rebounds, Mejri could be the most reliable frontcourt player they have.
Vets J.J. Barea and Devin Harris somehow remain semi-serviceable, as does Yogi Ferrell, but they don’t figure into the team’s long-term future. Aside from Smith, Barnes, and perhaps the injured Seth Curry (who’s a free agent this summer), no one else in this Mavs team figures to be a long-term piece of the puzzle.
It’s a depressing situation which could become even worse if head coach Rick Carlisle manages to do what he’s been known to do and makes all those disjointed pieces competitive enough to rob them of a top-five pick. If being good enough means Dirk digging deep and playing competently one last time or Noel being released from the doghouse and showing his potential, it might be somewhat defensible.
But with a future as unclear as it is looking at the moment, it will likely be better for the Mavs to remain rooted to the bottom of the NBA standings and get that prized pick, no matter how hard it might be to endure seeing Dirk go out in such a depressing manner.
How can Dallas turn things arond? Comment below!