NBA Preview: Can Nowitzki still carry the Mavericks?

Dirk Nowitzki (Kathy Willens/AP)

GM: Donnie Nelson
Head coach: Rick Carlisle
2016-17 record: 33-49 (11th in the Western Conference)
2016-17 result: Didn’t make the playoffs
Key departures: none
Key acquisitions: Dennis Smith Jr.

The Dallas Mavericks are faced with a tough task as they try to maximize the final years of Dirk Nowitzki’s career.

In 2016-17, they posted a 33-49 record, registering their worst win percentage since the 1998-99 season, a time in which Mark Cuban didn’t even own the team. Their poor fortunes landed them a lottery pick in Dennis Smith Jr., who put on a show in Summer League and dropped 16 points and 10 assists in his regular season debut on Wednesday.

Besides their high draft pick, the Mavericks didn’t have the off-season they were expecting. They saw Nerlens Noel reject a four-year, $70 million deal in favour of a qualifying offer that will allow him to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2018.

Carlisle said heading into this season that he’s now fine bringing Noel off the bench, which could throw a wrench in their locker room. It’s the last thing they would want to have, especially with Nowitzki entering his 20th year in the league with the expectation that he’ll now start as centre.

Potential Breakout Player

It’s unfortunate that the Mavericks and Noel weren’t able to come to a long-term deal this summer, after they traded for the former lottery pick (sixth overall) right before last year’s deadline. If their relationship becomes sour, Dwight Powell’s role should increase since he can provide them a presence around the rim on both ends.

The Canadian centre was drafted in the same 2013 class as Noel, but picked in the second-round (45th overall) and could be well on his way to posting career-highs in points and field goal percentage for the third straight year.

He had one 21-point game last year, knocking down an impressive four of his eight three-point attempts. As someone who does shoot a career 75 per cent from the free throw line, there is hope that Powell could one day become a shooter that can spread the floor. If that happens this year, the four-year, $37 million deal he signed in the summer of 2016 will start to look like a bargain.

What a successful 2017-18 season would look like

When you have a future Hall of Famer on your team, the goal should be to win as much, and as soon as possible. If the Mavericks find their rhythm, and if Nowitzki stays healthy, they could emerge as a dark-horse candidate for the eight seed in what should be a loaded race in the West.

They have a championship caliber coach in Rick Carlisle, and a player in Harrison Barnes who proved he could be a first-option after leading them with 19.2 points a game on 46.8 per cent shooting in 2016-17. He should only continue to improve as he gets to used to being “the guy”, after developing a winning pedigree as a former starter on the Warriors’ 2015 Championship squad.

Along with Barnes, the Mavericks will have two more athletic wings in their rookie Smith Jr. and veteran Wesley Matthews. But they’ll need the former Portland Trail Blazer to step up his game, after shooting less than 40 per cent from the field in 2016-17. If not, the Mavericks could very well be poised to finish near the bottom of the West as they try their luck in the lottery.


It’s sad to think that at 39 years old, Nowitzki will have to be the Mavericks’ X-Factor. But if they want to be successful, they’ll need the seven-foot-one German sniper to appear in more than 54 games like he did in 2016-17.

The Mavericks’ roster is still built around their former 13-time all-star, and if they want to give Smith Jr. a chance to thrive with open driving lanes so he can attack the rim, they’ll need Nowitzki’s career 38.1 per cent three-point shooting to spread the floor.

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