Prediction: The beautiful, brutal Western Conference will keep the Mavericks from the playoffs
DALLAS - Within the vacuum that can sometimes be preseason basketball, the Dallas Mavericks probably have you all fired up entering tonight's NBA opener with Washington here at the AAC.
You’re entitled. Up until last year it looked like the post-Dirk Nowitzki era had post-apocalyptic landscape written all over it (and after seeing Tenacious D’s performance of their album Post Apocalypto, well, if that’s the future you want no part of it). But since then the Mavericks drafted Luka Doncic, the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year, and traded for Kristaps Porzingis, who has impressed mightily this preseason. I’ve now made my peace with the number of first-round picks the Mavs had to give up to acquire both of them (three, unless Donnie Nelson turned over another one that I’m not aware of). The early returns lead me to believe the pain will be worth the pleasure down the road.
But the vacuum of the past few weeks doesn’t mean other things aren’t happening around the NBA. There are 29 other teams, and 14 other teams competing with the Mavs for eight precious spots in the postseason out of the Western Conference. Doncic and Porzingis can’t do it alone, and they’re the centerpieces of a solid, complementary roster that may not necessarily make you basketball-weak-in-the-knees but is functional enough to get the job done.
But is all this excitement, improvement and positivity enough to get the Mavericks to the playoffs for the first time since 2016? I know what you’re thinking — that’s SO LONG.
Brother, try the 10 seasons I went without a playoff berth as a Mavs fan growing up. That’s SO LONG.
Most of my colleagues are bullish about the Mavericks making the playoffs this year. Many NBA observers are, too. Heck, some without a shred of NBA expertise have even bought in (looking at you Colin Cowherd). Allow me to be the Debbie Downer of the group.
I don’t believe the Mavericks will make the playoffs this season.
It’s not because Doncic will take a step back in his sophomore season (he might, but I’m not counting on it). It’s not because Porzingis might wear himself out with the rigors of his first 82-game season (we hope) in three seasons. It’s not because players like Jalen Brunson, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Justin Jackson won’t pull their weight. It’s not because the offseason signings of Seth Curry and Delon Wright aren’t solid.
It’s because this beautiful, brutal Western Conference won’t allow it for one more year.
The NBA’s Western Conference is the toughest conference or league in any of the four major professional sports, in my opinion. Quantifying that is hard, of course. But the Western Conference has won 14 of the last 21 NBA Finals. Of those seven Eastern Conference champions, five had either LeBron James or Dwyane Wade on the roster (and in two cases both).
But let’s use last year’s standings for some context too. The Mavs won 33 games and were in 14th place in the West. Only one team in the West, Phoenix, had fewer than 30 wins. There were four such teams in the East last year, and another — Washington — with one less win than Dallas.
Then, there’s this. The East’s final playoff team, Detroit, was .500. The West’s final playoff team, the Los Angeles Clippers, were seven games above .500.
The Mavs were 15 games out of the final playoff spot a year ago. Does the presence of Porzingis, the offseason signings and the general improvement of the rest of the roster provide a 15-game bump? Maybe.
But that assumes the Mavs got better while everyone else stood in place. That’s not the case. This is the Western Conference, people. That’s never the case.
Let’s review last year’s Top 8, shall we?
The Warriors? Well, no Kevin Durant anymore. No more Andre Igoudala. No Klay Thompson for at least part of the year. But they’ve still got Steph Curry, they’ve still got Draymond Green and Steve Kerr’s inimitable ability to make it all work. And, then, oh yeah, Jordan Poole, who’s been lighting up the preseason. Plus, they flat stole Willie Cauley-Stein from Sacramento.
The Nuggets? Let’s max extend Jamal Murray, trade for Oklahoma City’s Jerami Grant (13 points, five rebounds last year) and draft some length in the appropriately alliterative Bol Bol.
The Trail Blazers? Well, you lose a lot of depth, but you turn that into trades for Hassan Whiteside and Kent Bazemore, sign Pau Gasol and let it simmer while Nassir Little develops. Oh, and Dame and CJ. They’re still in town (Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, respectively)
The Rockets? You go all in, dump Chris Paul on OKC for Russell Westbrook and don’t touch a smidge of your depth while doing it. Then you get Tyson Chandler (oh, hello again, TY), Ben McLemore and Anthony Bennett because they’re veteran guys looking to make a run. Oh, and your GM causes an international incident.
The Jazz? Exercise the option on Donovan Mitchell’s deal. You deal Derrick Favors and Kyle Korver. You get Mike Conley and Bojan Bodganovic in return. Then you sign Jeff Green and Emmanuel Mudiay.
The Spurs? C’mon, it’s the Spurs. It’s Gregg Popovich. They’ll figure it out by the Rodeo Road Trip. Always do. But just to help out, they kept Rudy Gay and traded for Demarre Carroll. Plus they drafted another Euro who will probably end up being Tony Parker in a few years, with their luck.
The Clippers? You may have heard they signed reigning NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and traded for forward Paul George. The Clippers were the No. 8 team in the West last year.
I left out the Thunder, which was the No. 6 seed. OKC was the only team in the Western Conference playoffs last year to take enough of a tumble this offseason to slide out of the playoff picture entirely, in my opinion. But GM Sam Presti has his draft picks to keep him warm at night. Even at that, there’s enough talent in OKC to not completely write them off.
So seven teams with enough talent, barring injuries, to remain in the playoff hunt? That’s why we love the Western Conference.
But the Mavs weren’t just looking up at those teams last year. They were looking up at five others.
The Kings? Either I’ve been spending too much time on the Twitter feed of our colleague, TJ Macias, or the Kings have one of the best young cores in the league — Marvin Bagley III, De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield. Now toss in Harrison Barnes for a full season. And Trevor Ariza rolls into town to provide valuable depth. Losing Stein to the Warriors hurts, though.
The Lakers? LeBron James is healthy. The Lakers FINALLY got Anthony Davis. Danny Green and Avery Bradley give the Lakers valuable experience to replace the youth they gave up for Davis. If only Demarcus Cousins hadn’t torn his ACL. But even without him the Lakers are markedly better.
The Timberwolves? Los Lobos swung some deals for depth and drafted Texas Tech swingman Jarrett Culver to augment a young core led by Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins. They may not be appreciably better this season, but they didn’t get markedly worse.
The Grizzlies? Well they went Flip or Flop on the roster and, well, they could have done a lot worse than Dwight Howard, Igoudala, Josh Jackson, Grayson Allen, Jae Crowder, De’Anthony Melton, Tyus Jones, Solomon Hill and Miles Plumlee. The centerpiece of the offseason is No. 2 pick Ja Morant. Memphis even swung a deal to get Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke. It’s the Grizzlies. They’re always pesky, especially when it comes to the Mavs.
And the Pelicans? Well, there’s that Zion Williamson guy, who will miss some time to start the season. But Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram were part of the Davis deal, Favors is in town and somehow the Pels convinced JJ Redick to sign. Everyone also forgets the Pels had three first-round picks and the other two — forward Jaxson Hayes and guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker — were solid gets, too.
The only team behind Dallas last year? The Suns. Well it’s still hard to know what to make of them, but the supporting case surrounding last year’s No. 1 pick, DeAndre Ayton, should be better with Ricky Rubio, Dario Saric, Aron Baynes, Jevon Carter and Frank Kaminsky. Plus UNC’s Cameron Johnson was one of two first-round picks.
And just for context, here’s the Mavs’ full offseason:
Added Curry, Wright, Boban Marjanovic and Antonius Cleveland (Cleveland is on a two-way contract);
Drafted Isaiah Roby;
Lost Nowitzki, Trey Burke and Kostas Antetokounmpo;
Re-signed Porzingis, Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber.
Did the Mavs get appreciably better than five teams in the Western Conference this past offseason? That’s the big question. Because the Mavs will be better in 2019-20. But will they be better enough? Or did I just make up that last phrase?
Should you be excited about this team? Absolutely. Should you be stoked about the potential for KP annihilating defenders on pick-and-roll action with Doncic? Certainly. Should you be intrigued by the futures of players like Jackson, Brunson, Kleber, Dwight Powell and Finney-Smith? You bet. Should you be keeping an eye on what Wright and Curry can do for this team? Uh-huh.
Should you be surprised if this Mavs team misses the playoffs by a game or two come April?
No, you shouldn’t. And it won’t be their fault necessarily. This is the beautiful, brutal Western Conference. Just about everyone got better. Just about everyone has a shot. Just about everyone’s going to have fun.
But not everyone gets to play past Game No. 82. And for a fourth straight season, I think that will be the Mavs, once again.