So, here’s a thought: After an offseason disaster that felt pretty damn nuclear, maybe the Dallas Mavericks haven’t been blasted into radioactive dust after all.
That’s not to say the impact of losing DeAndre Jordan is insignificant. Had he stuck to his verbal commitment and signed with the Mavs, Jordan would’ve been a critical piece of the team’s success now and a bridge toward a whole lot more in the future. Similarly, cutting ties with Tyson Chandler and Monta Ellis made Dallas an objectively weaker team. Neither of those two players are without their flaws — Chandler is prone to injury, and Ellis looked very much like the old Monta Ellis for much of last season — but their departures created serious holes in the rotation.
The players tabbed as replacements are also imperfect. Backup plans and last resorts seldom are.
Deron Williams is back in his hometown on the cheap, making just $10 million on a two-year deal after getting a buyout from the Brooklyn Nets. Bad ankles have sapped Williams’s once-fearsome explosiveness, and he’s coming off a terrible statistical year in which his inability to finish at the rim destroyed his shooting efficiency.
For reference, he converted just 45.7 percent of his shots within three feet in 2015-16. At his peak, Williams regularly finished those attempts at a clip of better than 60 percent. In other words, D-Will isn’t what he used to be.
But what if he’s not quite as washed up as he seemed? What if his solid three-point stroke and smarts play well in a Mavericks offense that’s always gotten the most out of its personnel. Just look at Ellis — a wildly inefficient scorer who turned into a pick-and-roll dynamo because head coach Rick Carlisle understood how to maximize his strengths as a ball-handler and penetrator.
If anyone can figure out how to coax production out of Williams, it’s Carlisle.
You have to get a little more blindly optimistic to see a rosy picture for Dallas’ biggest offseason signing, Wesley Matthews. Not because Matthews’s game has slipped, but because players coming off a torn Achilles have virtually no track record of returning to form. Before his injury, Matthews was among the league’s best 3-and-D wings. Now, Dallas can’t be sure what percentage of that player remains.
But the Mavs lavished $70 million on him, which, if you’re really stretching, might be an indication they’re confident in his ability to recover. (We should also consider the possibility that it was simply dumb to spend that much money on Matthewsl.)
And hey, Dallas still has Dirk Nowitzki, whose mere presence on the floor automatically creates the spacing necessary for good offense. He’s lost virtually all of his mobility, but Dirk can still stretch the defense in ways that open up lanes for everybody else. Incredibly, he can still function as a primary offensive weapon.
Throw in Zaza Pachulia and Samuel Dalembert as Chandler’s replacements, and you’ve got a a center tandem that’ll probably perform below the league average but won’t completely destroy Dallas’ plans on either end.
For what it’s worth, this isn’t an entirely fanciful projection of what Dallas might be able to do this year. ESPN’s Bradford Doolittle calculates the Mavs’ offseason moves actually gained them 7.5 wins above replacement.
And if advanced metrics aren’t your thing, consider the chemistry angle.
Rajon Rondo helped destroy Dallas’ offense after coming over in a midseason trade last year. His ball dominance and limitations as a shooter bogged down the Mavericks’ normally free-flowing sets, and it was clear that Ellis bristled at the changes. I mean, you know things were bad when Dallas kicked Rondo out of the playoff rotation (and effectively off the team) midway through a playoff series last year.
It’s not crazy to count on addition by subtraction here. The Mavericks’ locker room and huddles will almost certainly be friendlier places in 2015-16.
Williams, faults and all, is an objectively better basketball player than Rondo right now (even if his difficult reputation marks him as Rondo-esque in at least one aspect). And he’s certainly a better fit in a system that values shooting and spacing. Matthews is a vastly different player than Ellis, but if he’s healthy, he fits nicely alongside Williams.
Even if he can hardly move, we should expect Matthews to knock down shots.
Dallas added shooting at both backcourt positions this past summer. And in a league where that skill now matters more than any other, perhaps we’ve glossed over that fact a bit too quickly.
The Mavericks, as they stand now, are disappointing. They missed out on their bigger summertime goals (again).
But they might also still be a playoff team if a few things go well and they get a little lucky.