Is it time to bury the Mavericks?
A meditation on a horrific weekend for Dallas. PLUS: the duality of Jordan Poole, continued confusion around the Heat and "the LeBron James of feet" according to LeBron James.
Good morning. Let’s basketball.
Memory of the Garden at Etten, Vincent van Gogh, 1888
This is how the Dallas Mavericks’ season dies: with a dagger alley-oop dunk by rejected Mavericks prospect Dennis Smith Jr. for the 25-51 Charlotte Hornets, who pick up their second win in three days over the full-strength would-be contenders, eulogized with gusto by Eric Collins.
All that’s missing is a “hum diddly dee.”
“This is how the Dallas Mavericks’ season dies” — that’s me joining the chorus of exaggeration around the Mavericks. But they just lost to the Charlotte Hornets twice this weekend to fall into 11th place in the West! That feels fatal and final, even though it’s really not. It feels like a pure and unsubtle rejection by the Basketball Gods: “You are not welcome in our tournament, not even the kids’ table. Try again next year.”
On Friday in Dallas, the Hornets ripped out to a 19-point first half lead. It got real close in the fourth as the Mavericks played with something like desperation, but the damage was done and the Hornets held on.
This is what Luka Doncic sounded like after the game.
Best wishes to Luka about the off-court issues he’s facing, about which I will not speculate. The basketball being this unfulfilling can’t help, of course. Dallas had a chance at vengeance just 36 hours later in a Sunday matinee. You know how that one ends. How it started:
Yes, Charlotte was up 30-12 in the first quarter … after conceding a big lead to this mediocre team in the first quarter two days ago, and losing. That’s 12 points in about 10.5 minutes for a team that was supposed to threaten for the top offensive slot in the league after trading for Kyrie Irving. But for a hideous team aiming for a top draft pick, Charlotte’s defense is actually quite good. In fact, the Hornets have the league’s No. 1 defense since the All-Star break!
Luka eventually got hot, but started the game 0/6. No other Mavericks broke out of their funk on Sunday: Luka shot 41% from the floor and the rest of the team shot 36%.
Those numbers, in a must-win game, against the fourth worst team in the entire league missing their biggest star (LaMelo Ball, not Nick Richards, who picked up a DNP). The Mavericks’ weekend is truly unbelievable in a league where little surprises fans these days.
The Mavericks fall to 3-7 in games in which both Luka and Kyrie play, which is not necessarily an indictment of Kyrie or Luka or the pairing, though it’s not a ringing endorsement either. The biggest problem here is that
a) the dudes are both banged up, perhaps moreso than most other NBA stars right now, and
b) the Mavericks’ team construction is highly flawed.
Remember when Maxi Kleber’s defense was going to really help Dallas survive having two of the least consistent perimeter defenders on the floor, despite Kleber coming off the bench and not being a rim protector? It hasn’t happened: just look at the Stephen Curry dagger last week and the DSJ dagger on Sunday.
Remember when Josh Green’s ascension was going to fill the gaps created by the outgoing talent lost in the Kyrie deal? That’s been spotty at best; Green was a -25 in 14 minutes on Sunday, which is frankly hard to pull off. He had 2 points, 3 fouls and 1 steal.
Remember when Jaden Hardy was going to be a difference-maker given how he stepped up as Luka and Kyrie dealt with untimely injuries? He’s been as inconsistent as you’d expect a 20-year-old second-rounder to be. He put up a 3-1-3 line in 13 minutes on Sunday.
Dwight Powell is still your starting center, which is exceptionally bad news for your defense. Jason Kidd pulled him less than four minutes into the game and never let him see the court again.
The contagion of these awful vibes extend forward, too.
How bad did those two losses feel to the Mavericks faithful?
Seven games left and reasonable Mavericks fans want to pull the plug. It’s a reasonable reaction to the mounting evidence that these Mavericks are unserious. But unless there’s something we don’t know about that which ails Luka, or the injuries to Luka and/or Kyrie stand the risk of going catastrophic with too much physical stress, there’s no way this happens. The Mavericks are only one game out of the play-in, and having made the Western Conference Finals a year ago and facing a Kyrie free agency and a summer of Luka discontent, it just can’t possibly be on the table to pack up the season based on two brutal losses to a bad opponent in late March. It may be pragmatic, but it shows no resilience and no belief. It’s not possibly on the table (again, unless there’s something more we don’t know about Luka’s injury or mindset, or Kyrie’s injury).
The Mavericks are only a game out of the play-in, and all we’ve heard all season — something Nuggets, Grizzlies and Kings fans are no doubt sick of hearing, in fact — is that the West is wide open. If ever a low seed were able to make a run, it’d be this season. What surely makes this pain feel more acute is the fact that all season the Mavericks were floating in that 3-7 range in the West, confounded by hovering around .500 but reasonably assured that they’d rise to the top of the pack thanks to Luka’s supreme excellence. The Irving trade gave some fans notions of even more. Then injuries struck, and the reality of a shallow roster compounded the problems, and then the problem metastasized in a home-and-home against the Hornets of all teams, and here we are. Trouble mounted slowly, then all at once.
According to Playoff Status, the Mavericks are now a little worse than 50-50 to make the play-in. If they do make it, odds are that they will need to win two road games just to get into a series with the Nuggets. That’s brutal.
But all that said … a 50-50 shot at the play-in right now is still not that bad. It’s not where the Mavericks wanted to be, or thought they’d be. But not all is lost … yet. Again according to Playoff Status, the Mavericks could go 4-3 and have a reasonable shot (75%) at making the play-in. Going 5-2 gives them a 98% probability of getting into the play-in. They just actually need to win some games now.
Cue up the funeral dirge if you like — you can have it on standby in case Dallas loses without Luka on Monday — but there could possibly still be a little life in these Mavericks. If ever there were a season for which we shouldn’t write off Western Conference teams with living legends suiting up, it’s this one. Ask the Suns, the Warriors, the Lakers, the Clippers. Everyone here is still alive, until they aren’t.