For nearly two decades, predicting the Dallas Mavericks to make the NBA playoffs has been more procedural than bold. They've missed the postseason only twice since 2001—an impressive feat in the Western Conference, which is arguably the most unforgiving and dogged division in all of professional sports.
Their most recent season, however, ended in April with just 33 wins and an offense that ranked 23rd in the league. Their third-leading scorer, Wesley Matthews, made only 39.3 percent of his shots. And yet, while just about every other team took a meaningful step forward this summer, Dallas exercised fiscal restraint, drafting Dennis Smith Jr. and trading for Josh McRoberts. They've yet to re-sign Nerlens Noel, though he is unlikely to play elsewhere next season.
Looking at this information, a sensible person will conclude that Dallas is once again headed for the lottery, that this is a transitional phase in the organization's life cycle and they're on the ground floor of a lengthy rebuild. And indeed, the projections are bleak: ESPN's Kevin Pelton has the Mavericks finishing 11th in the West with 34.6 wins.
But last year's struggle can partly be explained by how fast and far Dallas fell in the season's opening weeks, which included a 2-13 start. Thanks to illness and injury, Dirk Nowitzki only appeared in six of the Mavs' first 30 games, leading ownership to cut costs and reshuffle priorities. It was a bridge year in which new faces like Noel and Harrison Barnes assimilated into the team's culture. Continuity didn't exist: Dallas had 26 starting lineups, with 24 different players seeing the court. (The New Orleans Pelicans were the only other Western Conference team that suited up at least 20 players.)
Things will be a bit more comfortable this season. An intriguing midseason acquisition, Noel played only 122 total minutes beside Nowitzki and Barnes in 2016-17. Those three will have more of an opportunity to formulate some chemistry this season. Noel will also fortify a defense that was already as effective as any other in the league at keeping opponents away from the basket. Last season, the Mavs had a top-ten defense with the 23-year-old on the court.
Assuming Noel (who, again, is still technically a restricted free agent) starts at center on opening night, the Mavericks will have a modernized rotation able to withstand any health issues Nowitzki has this season. Already, leaning too hard on a 39-year-old seven-footer who can't play defense is risky. Even with his legendary gravitational pull and effective shot-making ability, the Mavericks had a negative net rating when Nowitzki was on the court last year—the first time that's happened since 1999.
It's fair to view any contributions from the aging icon as a bonus, but Nowitzki is still a relevant instrument in coach Rick Carlisle's orchestra. Having a big who drags opposing rim protectors away from the basket is increasingly valuable in the NBA's ongoing evolution, and there's no reason why Nowitzki can't, at the very least, pick-and-pop defenses into submission until he's 45—particularly when paired with a roll man like Noel.
Elsewhere, optimism seeps through Dallas's roster, some of which indirectly falls on the rookie Smith's raw shoulders. That's unsettling, for sure, but it's also a morale boost. The ninth overall pick in this year's draft, Smith is a dynamic torpedo whose near-mythical athleticism has drawn frequent comparisons to reigning MVP and scoring champion Russell Westbrook. He's a strong Rookie of the Year candidate with enough potential to eventually assume the torch Nowitzki carried for 20 years.
But that's the future. Until then, rookies are rookies, and Smith will have to conquer a steep learning curve at the league's most competitive position.
The big question: Will Carlisle unhitch himself from a tendency to drill-instruct every possession? The Mavs finished with a higher three-point rate than the Golden State Warriors while making outside shots at about a league-average clip last season (that's good), but they were also 29th in pace and, according to Synergy Sports, posted the 27th most efficient attack in transition (that's bad).
If Carlisle lets Smith play with freedom, his strengths should translate to the NBA and add new dimensions to Dallas's sluggish methods. The Mavericks finally have someone who can push off opposing misses and slice a backpedaling defense before it knows what hit it. He'll create opportunities, and his influence will pop up in teammates' numbers more so than his own.
Older guards like J.J. Barea, 33, and Devin Harris, 34, will be more spry in reduced minutes off the bench, as Smith, Seth Curry, and Yogi Ferrell can provide more playmaking and scoring options in vigorous spurts. The latter two no longer sparkle, but they're reliable and competent.
Looking higher on the team's pecking order, Barnes's role will never be as specific as it was in Golden State, but the Mavs have surrounded him with personnel who can broaden his repertoire beyond the iso face-ups and inefficient long twos he harnessed last season. Two years ago, one out of every five of his points came on a fast break. Last year, it was one out of every 20.
We should expect natural improvement from a player who was only 24 in his first season as a go-to scorer. He'll spend even more time as a small-ball four and showcase some of the switchy versatility on the defensive end that made him such a valuable cog on the best regular-season team in history two years ago.
Dallas has lineups now that will lessen his individual burden and let him thrive in space, with Noel at the five, Matthews, Curry (who made 47 percent of his uncontested threes last year), and Smith. The Mavs' role players complement one another by either spacing the floor, diving through the paint, or drawing help defenders on the block. No one on the bench is worth writing home about, but their responsibilities will be tighter than last season.
Of all the teams positioned to fight for a playoff spot in the Western Conference this season, the Mavs are best equipped to exceed expectations. A lot is riding on Smith, but an All-Star appearance from the rookie isn't necessary—he just needs to loosen things up for everybody else by attacking the rim as often as he can. (Smith should be able to boost Dallas from having the second-lowest free-throw rate in the league, which they managed last season.) That, coupled with a better Barnes, a serviceable Matthews, an ascendant Noel, and Nowitzki donating whatever he has left could be enough for a surprise postseason appearance.
The odds are stacked against them, but Dallas has quietly assembled the ingredients of a dangerous team.