With a similar roster and young talent continuing to develop in preparation for the post-Dirk Nowitzki era, the Mavericks are in the middle of a rebuild while also being a team that’s hungry to compete. Returning the majority of their core from last year, they’ll look to move past a disappointing season and into a better direction.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
In some ways, when I look at the Mavs, I see a team in almost the same predicament as the Sacramento Kings. The Mavs have seemingly lost their way over the past few years, but are still widely considered to be a well-run team led by an intelligent front office. Unfortunately for them, the golden era of the franchise is behind. As Dirk rides off into the sunset, the hope for Mark Cuban is that Harrison Barnes, Wesley Matthews and Dennis Smith, Jr. can prove themselves capable building blocks to help his team get to the next level out West.
Obviously, I would have included Nerlens Noel in that conversation, but history has shown us that players seldom accept a one-year qualifying offer only to re-sign with their incumbent team the following season. Fortunately for the Mavs, they will enjoy the benefit of Noel attempting to prove himself worthy of a max deal this coming season. I doubt it’ll be enough to make them competitive in the tough Southwest, though, and am sure this season will be the first time the Mavs fail to qualify for the postseason in consecutive years since they failed to do so in 1999 and 2000.
5th Place — Southwest Division
— Moke Hamilton
The days of Dirk Nowitzki dominating for the Dallas Mavericks are gone, but by early accounts, the next face of the Mavs franchise is already in the building. Dallas selected point guard Dennis Smith Jr. with the ninth overall pick in June’s draft, and the uber-athletic North Carolina State product put on a show during the Las Vegas Summer League.
While much of next season will be spent battling to keep themselves out of the Southwest Division’s basement, Dallas appears to have a nice core of young players to finally bridge over into the post-Dirk era. Smith, along with Harrison Barnes, Nerlens Noel and Seth Curry, all look to have the makings of formidable group in the coming years.
However, that won’t be next year. The Mavs still have plenty of holes on their team and are stuck in a division where the four other teams will all be fighting their hardest for a playoff spot. In due time, though, Dallas.
5th place — Southwest Division
— Dennis Chambers
There are two things I feel fairly confident about this year when it comes to the Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki is more mascot than player at this point, and Dennis Smith, Jr. is going to be the Rookie of the Year. It’s a weird year of transition this season as the team moves away from an all-time Hall-of-Fame talent and sort of begins something of a rebuild in earnest, but it’s a transition year that should see some good wins, if not a ton of them. Dallas plays in the harder conference, which doesn’t bode well for their playoff hopes, but that doesn’t mean it won’t still be an interesting year. Enjoy Nowitzki while he’s there, and gear up for the Dennis Smith experience. It’s all going to be fun, playoffs or not.
5th Place – Southwest Division
– Joel Brigham
The Mavs have spent years walking the tightrope between the end of the Dirk Nowitzki era and the start of a new one, and this year could follow a similar path. The Mavs may have found the steal of the 2017 draft in NC State guard Dennis Smith Jr., who impressed throughout summer play. They’re also still stocked with solid veterans like Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes and even Seth Curry, though it’s questionable whether this kind of core on top of Nowitzki and the young Smith will be enough to really push for a playoff spot out West. Nerlens Noel also returns to the fold, though issues in the rookie extension process and his subsequent signature of Dallas’ qualifying offer could mean this is his last year in town. Barring an additional move or two, the Mavs feel like they’ll be just short of the group that competes for those final few seeds in the West – though we should never count out Rick Carlisle. Unfortunately, the Mavs feel like the favorites to finish last in the Southwest.
5th Place – Southwest Division
The Dallas Mavericks have some nice players in Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Nerlens Noel, Seth Curry and the exciting rookie Dennis Smith Jr. However, this team doesn’t have the elite talent or depth to make a serious playoff push, which means this year is more about developing the young core players and laying the groundwork for long term success. Dirk Nowitzki is on the tail end of his career, but he is still capable of putting together some impressive performances. For Mavericks fans, this season should be about developing players like Smith Jr. and enjoying the final stage of Nowitzki’s hall of fame career. However, it should be noted that with Rick Carlisle at head coach, the Mavericks are always a threat to outplay expectations. While that isn’t likely to translate into a playoff berth for Dallas this upcoming season, it’s something to consider.
5th Place – Southwest Division
– Jesse Blancarte
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Harrison Barnes
After signing a four-year, $94 million max contract with the Mavericks, it was obvious the franchise was putting a lot of stock into Barnes as their next superstar. The first season of his career for Dallas went pretty much as anticipated for a starter transitioning into a “go-to guy.”
Depending on who you ask, he even exceeded those expectations. Strictly as a scorer, the Mavericks can count on Barnes to put the ball in the basket. His 19.2 points per game led the way by far for a team that was lacking offensive production to put it lightly. He’ll need to work on snatching up boards and sharing the wealth more to be considered an all-around player, but things are looking up for the 25-year-old going into year two.
Top Defensive Player: Nerlens Noel
By acquiring Noel at the trade deadline in February, Dallas general manager Donnie Nelson addressed a desperate need and came through with flying colors. For most players in the NBA, it takes a minute to get used to a new system and different teammates. That was not the case for the 6-foot-11, 228-pound Kentucky alum.
Noel hit the ground running as soon as he arrived. His athleticism and constant activity brought a new dimension to the Mavericks on both ends of the floor. Noel’s leaping ability makes him a dual-threat as a shot blocker and rebounder. Expect him to really come through playing a full season with this team, especially since he’s betting on himself to earn a maximum contract next offseason.
Top Playmaker: Seth Curry
Up until last summer, Curry was a journeyman guard who had played for four teams in three years. His breakout season with the Mavericks may have finally been what he needed to stay put with a franchise or find a home for the long term, at the least.
Similar to his brother in The Bay, the 27-year-old is a three-point assassin. On nearly five attempts per game, “the other Curry” shot 42.5 percent from the perimeter. His skill set isn’t limited or one-dimensional, either. He has the skills to create his own shot as an efficient scorer. Just like Noel, he is also pegged for a solid campaign in a contract year.
Top Clutch Player: Dirk Nowitzki
Father time is undefeated, but Dirk Nowitzki isn’t being put out to pasture quite yet. The golden boy of Dallas has plenty left in the tank to contribute. It’s all about staying on the court and taking care of his body this year. He missed 28 games last season, which is the least he’s played since 2012-13.
Make no mistake about it, though: If there’s a high-leverage situation at the end of a game in a two-to-three point affair, Nowitzki’s getting the look. And in all likelihood, that vintage fade away mid-ranger basketball fans are all too familiar with will go through the net.
The Unheralded Player: Dwight Powell
Powell probably won’t cut it as an every day starting big in this league, but off the bench, he is constantly full of energy and makes a huge difference. Each and every night he hits the floor, you know you’re getting 110 percent of his effort.
The 26-year-old center is aggressive hitting the glass, giving Dallas second chances on the offensive end. He’s solid at finishing inside and has great leaping ability. Hopefully, the addition of Jeff Withey doesn’t take away from his playing time too much because he’s really blossoming into a good rotational player.
Best New Addition: Dennis Smith Jr.
Smith made this past July’s summer league his personal coming out party, displaying his versatile skill set and incredible 48-inch vertical on multiple occasions. Averaging 17.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.2 steals per game, he was named to the All-NBA Summer League First Team due to his efforts.
Picked by his fellow peers in the 2017 NBA Draft class as the pre-season favorite for Rookie of the Year, all eyes are on Smith to be the future of the Mavericks. The confidence is there. The natural ability is obvious. It’s on him to deliver, and chances are the former N.C. State star won’t disappoint.
– Spencer Davies
WHO WE LIKE
1. J.J. Barea
Riddled with injuries all throughout the 2016-17 season, Barea was never able to truly get a feel for his game. Towards the end of the year, his presence was felt, but the veteran was also fighting for consistent playing time due to the emergence of the young Dallas guards. With a fresh start going into the upcoming campaign, things should return to normal for the 33-year-old to be able to play a significant role for this team.
2. Rick Carlisle
Last year had to be a taxing one on Carlisle, who experienced his worst season as a head coach in his 15-year career. Considering the conditions, from roster turnover to debilitating injuries, the Mavericks tried to grind through to the best of their abilities in an extremely difficult Western Conference. Things won’t get any easier going into next season, but at least they’ve got a sense of direction with a good mix of veteran and young talent. If anybody can bounce back from adversity, it’s an elite basketball mind like Carlisle.
3. Yogi Ferrell
Due to a depleted roster and unforeseen circumstances arising in Dallas, the 23-year-old Ferrell was thrown into the proverbial fire with just 10 games of previous professional experience under his belt. Carlisle stuck him into the starting lineup immediately after signing a 10-day contract and looked like a genius for doing so. From that point on, Ferrell showed that he shined when the lights were shining brightest. He earned Rookie of the Month honors for February and turned that temporary deal into a permanent one because of his hard work. There is no indication that he’ll take a step back in his sophomore year with better talent around him.
4. Salah Mejri
For somebody that doesn’t touch the ball too much, Mejri is extremely successful underneath. He’s had limited playing time, but when asked to step in for the Mavericks, he’s done his job well. He’s your more traditional big that stands there and contests shots, picks up the slack on the boards and scores inside. Of course, with his size, it’s difficult to keep Mejri in a lineup going with the speed of today’s game. Heading into his third season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get more playing time, though.
5. Josh McRoberts
It’s no secret that the majority of McRoberts’ career has been plagued by setbacks left and right. Following a frustrating tenure with the Miami Heat, a fresh start is just what McRoberts needs. The last time he was truly impactful as a vital piece of a team was in 2013. To put that in perspective, that was on the Charlotte Bobcats, who hadn’t yet re-branded at the time. However, if McRoberts is able to stay immune to the injury bug, he’ll make an impact with the reserves. It’s a welcome addition to a club that needs a dual-threat frontcourt option.
– Spencer Davies
SALARY CAP 101
The Mavericks have had the choice this summer to either stay over the $99.1 million salary cap or drop under. To date, they have stayed above by virtue of multiple trade exceptions (the highest at $1.5 million), their $8.4 million Mid-Level Exception and $3.3 million Bi-Annual Exception. Dallas could get to roughly $17.5 million under by waiving non-guaranteed players and renouncing their exceptions. Twelve players have fully guaranteed contracts, with seven hoping to earn one of three open roster slots. The favorites are Devin Harris with $1.3 million locked in, Jeff Withey $350,000 and Dorian Finney-Smith at $100,000.
Next summer, the Mavericks could get under the cap by about $51 million, provided Wesley Matthews opts out of his final year at $18.6 million. Dallas also has a $5 million team option on Dirk Nowitzki. Throughout the 2017-18 season, Nerlens Noel can block any trade, since he re-signed with the team on a one-year qualifying offer of $4.2 million.
– Eric Pincus
Aside from ranking fourth in the NBA with an 80.1 percent conversion rate at the free throw line and defensively only allowing 100.8 points per game, there wasn’t too much good last season for the Mavericks as a whole. Looking ahead, there’s plenty to look forward to. For one, they’re starting the season out with a healthy squad, which was a battle for the entire previous year. Secondly, having a dynamic back court coupled with Noel in the starting lineup should allow the pace to increase and scoring opportunities to open up for everybody, an area where they ranked dead last in the league. Carlisle isn’t one to throw in the white towel because of one sub-par season. Dallas probably won’t be seeing the postseason, but they’ll compete in every game as their young core continues to mesh.
– Spencer Davies
There’s inexperience with all of this young talent on the roster. Luckily for the Mavericks, they’ve got Nowitzki, Barnes, and Barea with meaningful postseason games under their belts. As the three-and-D wing, Wesley Matthews will have to step things up if he wants to keep his starting job. What also isn’t working in Dallas’ favor is a very crowded West. To say making the playoffs will be difficult is an understatement.
– Spencer Davies
THE BURNING QUESTION
How will Rick Carlisle handle the logjam at guard?
It’s a great problem to have, but there’s some serious thinking to do in how these rotations will shake out for the backcourt. With Ferrell and Curry breaking out last year, you’ve got to give them the platform to contribute.
But at the same time, what about Barea who is a consistent option? Devin Harris was one of the best defensive players on the team post-All-Star break (99.6 DRTG on/110.7 DRTG off). Let’s not forget you’ve got a potential budding face of the organization in Smith. He absolutely has to see the floor. It will be interesting to follow along throughout the season with this situation because there has to be an odd man out at some point.
– Spencer Davies
NBA Daily: Hield, Kings Both Have Room To Bargain
Buddy Hield understandably feels as if he’s worth more than the Kings have offered him, but that doesn’t mean he’s worth more than that to Sacramento, specifically. Douglas Farmer writes.
The emotion in Buddy Hield’s voice Wednesday night made it clear his words were not a negotiating ploy. When the fourth-year shooting guard said he would find someplace else to play if the Sacramento Kings did not properly respect him in contract negotiations, he was sincere.
“We’ll see if they’ll have me here,” Hield said. “Feels home to be here. I love Sacramento, but if they don’t feel I’m part of the core … if they don’t want to do it, then after that, I’ll look for somewhere else to go.”
Kings guard Buddy Hield is taking these contract talks very personally. In an emotional postgame interview, he talked about “finding another home” if the team doesn’t get a deal done by Monday’s deadline. pic.twitter.com/sEkJEZfNkS
— Jason Anderson (@JandersonSacBee) October 17, 2019
The Kings have until Monday to reach an agreement on a rookie-scale extension with Hield, who is eligible for a four-year deal north of $130 million or a designated-player extension of five years and $170 million.
But Hield may not be looking for those outlandish numbers. Per Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, Hield is looking for a contract of about $110 million, while Sacramento has offered only $90 million across four years.
“It’s not always about less than the max, it’s just something that’s reasonable and is not an insult,” Hield said. “If we respect each other on that level, we’ll come to that agreement.”
Hield shot 42.7 percent from deep last season on 7.9 attempts per game while averaging 20.7 points. He may not necessarily be worthy of a max contract, but his is a valued skill set in the modern NBA. Combine that with the weak 2020 free agent class, and Hield has some ground to dig in upon at the bargaining table. If an extension is not agreed to, Hield would not be free to go wherever he wishes next summer, but he would be free to pursue that which might force the Kings’ hand as a restricted free agent.
Of wings expected to hit the market next summer, Hield would be joined by Otto Porter, Joe Harris and, possibly, Hield’s current teammate, Bogdan Bogdanović (also restricted). It really could be that shallow of a shooting pool. Gordon Hayward is likely to pick up his $31.2 million player option with the Boston Celtics, while DeMar DeRozan and the San Antonio Spurs are reportedly in discussions. Meanwhile, Caris LeVert has already signed a new deal with the Nets.
That market vacuum could drive up Hield’s summertime price, though Sacramento could still match any offer. If the Kings would match ties into the exact reasons they are risking alienating a core player in the first place. Sacramento has returned to respectability — both in the standings and in perceived approach — by building through the draft. But their bill is almost due.
Hield, Bogdanović, point guard De’Aaron Fox and forward Marvin Bagley are all approaching paydays in the next few seasons. The Kings are almost certainly going to make massive offers to Fox and Bagley in 2021 and 2022, respectively, and those contracts will tie up Sacramento’s books for much of the 2020s. The additional $5 million per year sought by Hield could preclude other moves when combined with Fox’s and Bagley’s deals.
The Kings’ ground is strengthened by holding Bogdanović’s restricted rights, as well. If they lose Hield, they will still have a starting-quality shooting guard to play alongside Fox in Bogdanović. He may not have hit 602 threes in his first three seasons in the league as Hield has, but Bogdanović is currently at 263 through two years, hardly anything to readily dismiss.
Even though Bogdanović will not cost as much as Hield — pondering a $51.4 million, four-year extension — keeping both pieces of the shooting duo may prove too costly for Sacramento owner Vivek Ranadivé. At which point, Hield’s raw emotions Wednesday night may foreshadow Ranadivé’s decision.
Where could Hield go, if for no other reason than to drive up his price?
Any discussion of 2020 free agents must include the Atlanta Hawks, who could have as much as $79.1 million in cap space. Hield would fit both their roster timeline and its general construction, though they did just snag both De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish in the 2019 draft. Hield’s minutes would come from the same pool as theirs, making this pairing a bit redundant.
There would be no such conflict with the Dallas Mavericks, whose centerpieces currently miss a wing with range from deep. The Mavericks would lack the space to sign Hield if Tim Hardaway Jr. opts into his $19 million player option, but that could simply precede a sign-and-trade with the Kings. There are certainly ways to make the space necessary should Dallas owner Mark Cuban want to.
If Hield wanted to be a part of another group that is “getting the team back to where it needs to be,” the Memphis Grizzlies would be a situation very similar to Sacramento’s. Forward Jaren Jackson Jr. will see his first big contract begin in 2022 and this year’s No. 2 overall pick Ja Morant should follow that trend a year later. The Grizzlies, however, do not have an exceptional shooter to pair with their young duo. If nothing else, Memphis could drive up the price on Hield to compromise the Kings’ cap space moving forward.
Those possibilities, among others, give Hield practical reason to stand his ground for what he feels he’s worth, while Sacramento’s long view may make it think twice. As emotional and blunt as he was, Hield understands these realities.
“Some people will get the max and some people won’t get the max,” he said. “That’s how it works.”
The Divide On Analytics
The disconnect in the understanding and use of analytics is widespread in today’s basketball landscape. Unearthing the reasoning behind these numbers will not only change how we talk about them, but also revolutionize how we look at the game in the future. Drew Mays writes.
Once upon a time, during a routine, regular season game, a well-regarded shooter was left alone for a corner three. Iman Shumpert, then with Cleveland, rushed to a hard closeout. Seeing Shumpert off balance, the shooter blew by him.
After the play, LeBron James criticized Shumpert for his overaggression. Shump, understandably, was confused – he’s a shooter! Shooters need to get run off the line!
LeBron responded that from that particular corner, the shooter only shot 35 percent – much worse than his overall three-point percentage that garnered his reputation. Accordingly, LeBron would have rather Shumpert closed under control, baiting the shooter into hoisting from a spot he doesn’t like, rather than letting him drive towards the rim with a full head of steam.
This simple knowledge of percentages has merged into the greater conversation of advanced statistics and analytics. Before these numbers were readily available, a respected jump shooter would never be left alone.
Now, the word “analytics” has transformed from a description into a clustered and contentious field. Even though – especially for those of us without data-processing backgrounds and math degrees – the above illustrates what analytics are and what they provide at their core: Information to make decisions on the micro-level and a tool to inform philosophies on the macro-level.
Dean Oliver and John Hollinger are the founding fathers of the basketball analytics movement. Both statisticians, they eventually parlayed their statistical methods and models into NBA front office jobs. These two paved the way for more recent data savants, such as Seth Partnow and Ben Falk, and their positions with professional basketball teams.
In August, Oliver was hired by the Washington Wizards to be a full-time assistant coach. Falk left the NBA a few years ago and has since started his website, Cleaning the Glass. Partnow and Hollinger both departed from their NBA jobs this year, returning to the media as staff writers for The Athletic.
Selfishly, the advantage of having Falk, Partnow and Hollinger back in the public sphere is the access we have to their brains. Partnow’s latest work is particularly geared towards analytics, and Falk and Hollinger’s are always rooted in them. Reading their work will increase your understanding of how basketball works in its current form and help develop your ideas about where it’s going.
The issue is this: Smart guys talking about numbers seems inaccessible…no matter how accessible it actually is.
Despite the talent of these three – and of all the other mathematicians writing in today’s media – there’s still a misunderstanding between those who wield statistics and those who don’t. Many times, even the players are part of the separation.
On Tuesday, Bulls guard Zach LaVine said this to the Chicago Sun-Times:
“I grew up being a Michael Jordan, Kobe [Bryant] fan… I think the mid-range is a lost art now because everyone is moving towards the threes and the analytics. I understand that because how it looks and how it sounds like it makes sense, but sometimes there’s nothing better than putting the ball in your best playmaker’s hands and letting him get the shot he needs rather than the one you want.”
This led to a revival of the discussion on ESPN’s The Jump. Rachel Nichols seemed to agree with LaVine in part, saying, “two is greater than zero.” Kevin Arnovitz followed with points important for our purpose, calling the death of the mid-range a “false dichotomy.”
“No one is saying, if a guy is wide-open at 19-feet, dribble backwards and take a shot… for Zach LaVine, it’s all about impulse control,” Arnovitz continued.
Impulse control in the sense that deciding when to take a mid-range shot is almost all of the battle. Context matters.
Matt Moore of The Action Network used The Jump’s clip to chime in. Moore tweeted, and then Kevin Durant responded.
The abbreviated version of the Moore-Durant thread is this: Durant, a historically great mid-range jump shooter, argues the side of, well, a historically great jump shooter. He talks about taking open shots regardless of where they come and a player’s confidence and feel.
Moore counters using the math. The refreshing conversation ends when another Twitter user points out that, since the analytics movement, James Harden’s mid-range attempts have dipped drastically. Durant admits he didn’t realize this.
The most telling part of the misunderstandings surrounding analytics came from Durant. He said, “I don’t view the game as math…I get what you’re saying but we just have 2 different views of the game. Analytics is a good way to simplify things.”
And that, folks, is the rub. That is the separation between fans, players and the John Hollingers of the world – the assumption that statisticians use advanced metrics and therefore see basketball as a math problem, while everyone else analyzes by merely watching the game (because of course, watching the games inherently equals reliable analysis).
But analytics isn’t a high-concept way to digitize the game and ignore the “eye test” Twitter fingers love to cite; they’re mathematical truths used to assess basketball success. Often, the air surrounding analytics is that it’s like me, an English major, taking freshman-year Calculus – impossible to understand. Because again, smart people explaining numbers can be daunting, even when they do it perfectly.
Truthfully, analytics are just more precise ways of discerning what happened in a basketball game. As Ben Taylor explains in one of his breakdowns, Chauncey Billups shooting 43 percent is more effective than Ben Wallace shooting 51 percent for a season. Billups is providing threes and making more free throws at a better rate, so even with Wallace’s higher raw field goal percentage, he’d need to be more accurate from two-point range to match Billups’ efficiency.
You don’t need to even study actual numbers to see why these statistical categories make the game easier to understand.
But, and this is another oft-forgotten point, these calculations are useless without context. In 2015-16, a Kawhi Leonard mid-range – when contextualized with qualifiers like time left on the shot clock – was a good shot. He right around 50 percent from 10-16 feet, so the advantage of taking a three over a two would be offset by Leonard’s 50 percent accuracy. During the same season, Kobe Bryant shot 41 percent from 10-16 feet. A Kobe baseline fadeaway with 14 seconds on the shot clock and a help defender coming from the high side is a bad mid-range shot.
Kevin Durant shot 58 percent from two last season. He shot 54 percent from 3-10 feet, 51 percent from 10-16 feet and 53.5 percent from 16 feet out to the three-point line.
Meanwhile, from those same distances, Zach LaVine shot 26 percent, 30 percent and 38 percent.
A mid-range jumper from Kevin Durant is usually a good shot. A mid-range jumper from Zach LaVine probably isn’t.
So, is the mid-range dead? Not completely. The last few champions rostered mid-range experts (Kawhi, Durant, Kyrie Irving), and some of the last remaining teams last season had one as well (Jimmy Butler, CJ McCollum).
Does a correlation then exist between mid-range proficiency and winning titles? Again, that’s doubtful. There’s a correlation between great players and titles, and great players usually have the mid-range game in their arsenal. That’s part of what makes them great players: the lack of holes in their games.
The discrepancies in Durant and LaVine’s two-point numbers can be found in talent level and the quality of looks. Both affect the percentages. Again, context matters.
To Durant’s point on Twitter: It is, on some level, a matter of practice. If LaVine keeps putting in the work, he can become a better mid-range shooter, making those looks more efficient.
But as a starting base, we’d say it’s better for LaVine and players like him to not settle for mid-range twos. We’re not too upset if Durant does it.
Even in the age of analytics, basketball will always in part be a matter of feel. It will always be scrutinized by the eyes. And that’s okay – because advanced statistics give context to the effectiveness of those feelings being acted on.
Maybe the point is this: If the shot clock is winding down and you have the ball out top with a defender locked in front of you and have to hoist a shot…don’t take the long two. Please shoot the three.
It’s more effective. The math says so.
NBA Daily: Already, Zion Williamson Has Importance
The preseason has made clear that Zion Williamson will be an abject positive throughout his rookie campaign. But the extent of his success remains to be seen and Williamson could drastically alter a loaded Western Conference playoff race.
Zion Williamson will be the best rookie in basketball this season, and it won’t be particularly close. The New Orleans Pelicans star is considered a generational prospect for a reason: The league has literally never before seen a player with his combination of size, strength and explosive athleticism.
But just because Williamson is a truly unparalleled physical specimen doesn’t mean his acclimation to basketball at its highest level is poised to be seamless. His lack of a reliable jumper was occasionally exploited at Duke and will allow far superior NBA defenders to lay off him, guarding against forays to the paint. He’s not ready to function as anything close to a primary ball-handler, further cramping the floor for a Pelicans team short on shooting. He should be a plus defender at the very least in time but is bound to go through the same struggles of schematic understanding and real-time recognition that plagues all first-year players.
But through four preseason games, Williamson has been so utterly dominant as to render those relative concerns almost completely moot. He’s averaging 23.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals in exhibition play so far, shooting a mind-bending 71.4 percent from the floor and attempting 8.0 free throws despite playing just 27.2 minutes per game. Williamson has a 34.2 PER, and his plus-28.8 net rating leads New Orleans by a wide margin, according to RealGM.
The normal caveats apply, of course. Preseason competition is barely a reasonable facsimile of what Williamson will face during the regular season, when opponents will employ their best players and lineups, play with consistent energy and engagement and, maybe most importantly, gear their strategy around limiting his effectiveness. He certainly wouldn’t be the first rookie whose stellar exhibition performance failed to carry over to the 82-game grind.
But Williamson has nevertheless shown enough during these glorified scrimmages to expect him to be a true impact player from the jump. Alvin Gentry has used him most as a dependent offensive weapon thus far, taking advantage of Williamson’s inherent physical trump cards by getting him the ball in space via rolls to the rim and letting him attack from the corner with a live dribble. He’s been especially unstoppable in the open floor and semi-transition, sprinting the wing for highlight-reel finishes and catching the defense on its heels with quick-hitting dribble hand-offs.
These aren’t especially innovative offensive concepts and teams will know they’re coming throughout the regular season. Williamson is just so much more athletically gifted than his defenders that, more often than not, they’ll be left helpless to stop him regardless.
Williamson won’t maintain his incredible blend of production and efficiency during the regular season. Only four players in league history have ever scored at least 20 points per game while shooting 60 percent or better from the field, per Basketball Reference. Williamson may very well eventually join that exclusive list of all-time greats, but counting on him to do so in 2019-20 only goes to compound outlandish expectations that could lead to an unfair appraisal of his debut campaign.
Unless, naturally, Williamson proves so good that he leads the rebuilt Pelicans to the playoffs in perhaps the most stacked Western Conference ever.
The Western Conference’s top six of the Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets, in some order, seems clear. The Portland Trail Blazers, despite some quiet churn in the middle of the roster, deserve the same benefit of the doubt the San Antonio Spurs earned years ago.
That’s eight teams vying for eight slots, before accounting for the intrigue and unknown of the Dallas Mavericks. The Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves have internal hopes of competing for the postseason, too.
Needless to say, the odds aren’t good for New Orleans, a team that underwent as much turnover as any in basketball during an extremely active offseason. Continuity of personnel and playing style is often the difference between a few extra wins and losses, but the Pelicans have neither in a season where they’ll try to force themselves into the postseason conversation.
The presence of a singular player like Williamson allows for the possibility that it might not matter.
Luka Doncic is coming off one of the most impressive rookie seasons of the decade, and Kristaps Porzingis, even 20 months removed from his last time taking the floor, is the living embodiment of game-changing two-way potential. De’Aaron Fox might be the most underrated player in basketball at 21, while the Kings mitigated the need for Marvin Bagley to pop this season by rounding out the roster with solid veterans. Karl-Anthony Towns will put up monster numbers for a Timberwolves team that’s finally and whole-heartedly embracing tenets of the modern game under Ryan Saunders and Gersson Rosas.
For the most part, though, we know the variance between those ceilings and floors this season and, by proxy, how high they could potentially lift their teams. Williamson is a different dynamic altogether. The preseason has laid bare that he’ll immediately be a positive player on offense, but there are many degrees to the extent of his possible effectiveness.
Will Williamson serve as a less-efficient, lower-usage version of the highlight-reel player he’s been in the preseason? Might this current level of play be his basic norm, with nights of inconsistency sprinkled in between? Or could he grow significantly as the season goes on, shouldering more ball-handling responsibilities and increasing his defensive awareness – unlocking small-ball lineups in which Gentry plays him at center – as the calendar flips to the new year and winter turns to spring?
It would be foolish to put a cap on Williamson’s success this season, just like it would be foolish to expect him to be an All-Star. But that gulf between wildly positive outcomes of his rookie season puts the Pelicans in a better position to pounce when an incumbent inevitably falls from the pack than any other team entering the season with long-shot playoff hopes.
Williamson definitely won’t be the best player in the Western Conference in 2019-20, maybe not even the best player on his team. But in terms of an effect on the playoff race, though, not a single player’s performance stands to loom larger.