The Mavericks exist in a limbo of their own creation. When Mark Cuban decided to let the championship core walk away, Dallas started to cycle through veterans who would keep them relevant and hoping for one big free agency haul that never came. Now with Dirk Nowitzki nearing retirement, they are hoping the additions of Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes will be enough to allow them to make one more deep run.
Yet, for the Mavericks to truly exceed expectations and be more than first-round fodder, they will need their big splashy signing from 2015, Wesley Matthews, to resemble the player he was in the past after a down season.
Nobody expected Matthews to replicate the success he had experienced with the Trail Blazers in his first year in Dallas. He was coming off an Achilles tear, and that’s not the type of injury players bounce back from easily. The Mavericks signed him as a secondary piece to the real prize, DeAndre Jordan. Obviously, things didn’t work out as expected with Jordan, which made Matthews a very expensive luxury at best, a sunk cost at worst in his first season as a Maverick.
He was dreadful on offense in 2015-16, his worst season as a pro. Since he’s always lacked the explosiveness and creativity to be a threat on drives and his post game was underutilized at times, 60 percent of Matthews’ field goals came from the perimeter.
Unfortunately, the three-point shot — his best weapon — was inconsistent. There were nights in which he had it going and nights he couldn’t buy a triple. As a result, he shot a league-average 36 percent from beyond the arc, a career low, and a measly 39 percent from the field. The Mavericks still did well on offense last season, but it was often in spite of Matthews, not because of him.
Defensively, Matthews still managed to make his mark at the individual level. Few wings relish the opportunity to play on that end as much as he does, and his toughness and physicality were enough to offset the loss of foot speed. He might not have been as good as he was in Portland, but he was still the Mavericks’ best perimeter defender and someone who was always ready to take on the opponent’s best player, even if it meant giving up inches.
His work on that end made his $17 million salary easier to stomach, but Dallas will need more from him going forward than just hard-nosed defense, streaky shooting and leadership if they want to go deep in the playoffs.
The good news is the injury is in the past. He played well over 2,000 minutes and missed just four games last season. Instead of spending the summer trying to recover in time for training camp, he can rest and get ready for the next year. It’s hard to fully come back from an Achilles injury and be the same, but Matthews is just about to be 30 years old, and he never predicated his game on explosiveness. If he can continue to play good defense and his three-point stroke returns, he could still be among the league’s best 3-and-D wings.
The arrival of Harrison Barnes should help Matthews, at least on one end. He won’t be asked to play small forward as much as he was last season, allowing him to stay at his natural shooting guard spot and save energy on certain matchups. Those two, along with sophomore Justin Anderson, should give Rick Carlisle the tools to build a better perimeter defense than Dallas has boasted in years, provided he resists the temptation of going with two point guard lineups too often.
With Bogut anchoring the paint, a top-10 defensive efficiency — a six-spot jump from last season — is not out of the question.
On offense, Dallas will need the Matthews of past seasons to make Barnes’ transition easier. The former Warriors’ small forward is replacing Chandler Parsons, who shot 41 percent from beyond the arc last season. The downgrade in shooting is real, and Matthews will be counted on to offset it, or the offense could suffer.
Last season, the Mavericks ranked fifth in the league in attempts from beyond the arc but just 23rd in three-point percentage. They left a lot of points on the table that would have elevated their offense from good to elite. They can’t afford to do that again, not if they want to be among the second tier in the West, something that surprisingly appears eminently doable.
The Warriors are the class of the conference while the Clippers and Spurs appear to be their biggest threats. Dallas is not on that level. From there, however, the quality of teams drops dramatically. The Trail Blazers won’t take anyone by surprise anymore and made a questionable offseason addition in Evan Turner. The Thunder will take a big step back as they move on from Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka. The Grizzlies and Jazz should be better but not truly great.
Dallas could, in theory, be the fourth best team in the conference and make it to the second round, with a few good breaks–if everyone plays up to their potential. That would be a decent sendoff for Nowitzki if he decides to retire or a good place to build on if he doesn’t.
Despite missing out on their primary targets and having to settle for risky additions like Matthews and Barnes, the Mavericks could finally take a step forward and start to build a new core, starting with the wing.
It is fitting, however, that it all looks so fragile. Not only will the coaching staff have to integrate newcomers, like they do every year, but also hope that Matthews, coming off the worst season of his career, can bounce back and fill in all the holes in the starting lineup that only the best version of himself can fill.
Poor drafting and over-reliance on free agency have left the Mavericks with that little margin of error. Even if the new additions do well, they still need a player that might not exist anymore for their roster to make sense.
Still, everyone should be rooting for things to go well in Dallas. The league needs an all-time great like Nowitzki to get one more chance to put a scare on the West before his time is up and for the Mavericks to become a force again, to show that a commitment to winning instead of tearing things down pays off.
Yet, while those larger narratives will always dominate the headlines, equally important are the smaller tales of redemption, and there’s no better one than a workhorse like Matthews making a full recovery, helping the team that trusted in him and going back to being one of the best two-way players in the NBA.