With the 2016-17 NBA regular season winding down, the Dallas Mavericks find themselves in an interesting position. They started out with a 4-17 record and looked well on their way to a potentially high lottery finish. Since the New Year started, they’ve gone 19-15 and have climbed back into the Western Conference playoff race. It would be in the Mavericks’ best interest, however, to miss the playoffs and perhaps fall a bit in the standings.
The one thing the Mavericks have to get ready for is the inevitable retirement of Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki has shown flashes of his former self this season, but his averages in points (14.2), field goal percentage (43.6), and minutes (26.4) are his lowest since his rookie year. He has one year left on his contract, a team option the Mavericks most likely will pick up. But even if Nowitzki plays one more year, the Mavericks should start planning now for life without him.
That would mean missing the playoffs and taking advantage of a lottery pick. Teams always want to be competitive, especially when a franchise legend like Nowitzki is still on the roster. However, barring an unforeseen event where they land a potential marquee free agent this summer such as Stephen Curry or Blake Griffin, there is no quick fix that is going to catapult them to the top of the Western Conference. Making the playoffs as a very low seed and missing out on a top draft pick will only set the Mavericks back further once Nowitzki is gone.
Fortunately for the Mavericks, this summer’s draft is shaping up to be a deep and talented one. Even a back-end lottery pick, which they’d most likely get should they miss the playoffs, could yield a potential impact player. Should the standings not fluctuate too much between now and the end of the regular season, one such player who may be available when the Mavericks are on the clock is Arizona’s freshman forward Lauri Markkanen.
At 7 feet tall and 230 pounds, the versatile forward has a similar game to Nowitzki. In his lone season at Arizona so far, he’s averaging 15.7 points per game on 49.6 percent shooting from the field, including 42.9 percent from the three point line, while pulling down 7.1 rebounds per game. Markkanen is exactly the type of player the Mavericks can groom into a possible Dirk replacement while he learns under Nowitzki for at least one year.
Every draft, there’s always a player or two that slips and ends up being drafted later than anticipated. If one of the other projected top ten players ends up slipping, the Mavericks should definitely snatch them up, even if Markkanen is still on the board. It’s always wise to draft the best player available and figure it out later. But if that doesn’t happen, and Markkanen is the best player on the board, he should be the Mavericks’ choice.
The draft is always a risk, and there are no guarantees that any player lives up to the expectations set when they were drafted. In addition to looking at the draft to begin the rebuilding process, the Mavericks can take a look at free agency to shape their roster. Again, aside from landing a potential marquee player, most of the bigger name free agents are just stop gap additions that would do nothing but slightly prolong the Mavericks rebuilding process. What the Mavericks should look for in free agency this summer are potential bargain players — young guys who still have something to prove and could come relatively cheap. It’s what they’ve been able to do with Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell.
Help in the front court is something the Mavericks need, and there are a couple of players who fit that bill and will be available as free agents this offseason. One player that comes to mind is Cristiano Felicio of the Chicago Bulls. The second-year center played sparingly his rookie season, appearing in only 31 games while averaging 10.4 minutes per. He started off similarly this year, low minutes mixed in with some DNP’s, until finally getting consistent minutes from December until now. He’s had three double-doubles so far, three more than all of last season. He started off this month with an 11 rebound effort in a win over the Golden State Warriors. He had one of his better offensive games (ten points on 4-8 shooting) of the season on Mar. 12 in a loss to the Boston Celtics. He is a restricted free agent, but it may be possible that the Mavericks can pry him away from Chicago with a decent offer the Bulls won’t match. At 24-years-old, the reserve big man still has room to grow.
Another potential front court player the Mavericks could target is Christian Wood of the Charlotte Hornets. Also a second-year player, Wood spent much of last season shuffling between the Philadelphia 76ers and their D-League affiliate, the Delaware 87ers. This year, he appeared in only five games for the Hornets until this month. In March, he’s already seen action in six of the team’s nine games. He had his best game of the season on Mar. 10 in a win over the Orlando Magic when he scored 14 points on 5-6 shooting from the field and pulled down five rebounds. He’s spent time with the Hornets’ D-League affiliate, the Greensboro Swarm, and it included a 45 point, 15 rebound, and eight block effort on Jan. 12 against the Long Island Nets. He is also a restricted free agent, but could possibly be had for an offer the Hornets wouldn’t match. A first-round talent who didn’t end up being drafted, Wood is only 21 years old and has quite a bit of potential.
One area the Mavericks have excelled at recently is finding and developing talent, particularly in the back court. Seth Curry was just a borderline NBA player before this season. Now he’s seemingly found a home with the Mavericks. Since being moved into the starting lineup on Jan. 12, he’s averaged 15.8 points per game on 51.3 percent shooting. Yogi Ferrell was toiling in the D-League before being called up to the Mavericks on a 10-day contract. Upon his arrival, the Mavericks won four straight games with Ferrell averaging 17.8 points and five assists, including a season- and career-high 32 points in a win on Feb. 3 over the Portland Trail Blazers. They skipped offering him any other 10-day contracts and gave him a two-year deal.
Continuing to develop talent already on the roster is the last way the Mavericks can get the rebuild underway. Assuming they re-sign Nerlens Noel in the summer, they potentially have their starting center for years to come. An interior defensive presence they’ve lacked since Tyson Chandler’s departure, and a great complement should they end up drafting someone like Markkanen. They also should use summer league to see what they have in Nicolas Brussino and A.J. Hammons. Brussino had his best game of the season this week in a win over the Washington Wizards when he scored 11 points and grabbed nine rebounds. Hammons has not played since Dec. 30, but he’s a young big man on a rookie contract. All the Mavericks need from him is someone to give Noel a breather.
Rebuilding is never easy, and sometimes teams try to do too much too fast. It’s a process, and it’s going to be rough, especially for a franchise like the Mavericks who have been a consistent playoff team for almost two decades. The Mavericks need to think long term rather than quick fix, and the potential payoff will be far greater.
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