The time has come to bid a tearful farewell to the Mavericks’ 2017-18 season.
For this franchise, jumping back into the fix-it process can’t happen fast enough. They have so much on the to-do list that it is going to take a lot of manpower to wade through it all.
But we’re here to help.
We can set the priorities straight and, with the news of Dirk Nowitzki’s ankle surgery that should set him up for a healthy start to next season, we can get working on the task at hand, which is getting this horse back on all-fours.
The good news is that the Mavericks probably have seen the worst of the rebuilding process.
They appear to have a keeper in Dennis Smith Jr.. He’s played better as the season has progressed. Since March 1, he’s averaged 17.7 points and 6 assists in 13 games. He’s even shot a respectable 37.1 percent from 3-point range.
So that’s one reason for optimism. No reason to think Harrison Barnes is going to regress. If anything, he continues to grow and get more consistent. And the Mavericks have several other solid pieces.
Not enough to be playoff-ready yet.
But certainly capable of being better than a 25-win team, which appears to be where they are headed this season with two games left to go.
With that, we’ll take a look at what they have to do to make sure the next step forward is a big one.
1. Get the draft right
It’s impossible to know whether Mo Bamba, Marvin Bagley, Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic or Jaren Jackson Jr. are going to be superstars, solid players or just plain dudes.
That said, it’s still the Mavericks’ job to make sure they get the best possible player with whatever draft pick they end up with in the lottery.
It could be anywhere from first to seventh. We’ll know more about the most likely scenarios after Sunday’s game at Philadelphia.
The Mavericks will have a decent shot at one of the top-three picks and perhaps as much as a 11.9 percent chance at the top pick if they finish alone with the fourth-worst record in the league.
Virtually all experts have Ayton as the clear No. 1 pick.
In a Western Conference where Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert and Nikola Jokic dot the landscape, it would behoove the Mavericks to locate the next big man who can measure up to that group.
2. Help Smith grow
This has turned out to be a terrific crop of rookie players with nine first-rounders averaging 10 points or better in their first season.
Dennis Smith Jr. ranks third in points per game, second in assists and 10th in rebounds among rookies.
And he’s been better and stronger in the last month of the season than he was in the first few months.
“What I’ve been most impressed with is that while most rookies lose steam as the season goes along, he’s gained it, he’s gained momentum, he’s gained strength,” Carlisle said. “His enthusiasm level has increased and he’s established himself on this team as a real leader. I couldn’t be more pleased.”
Smith is primed to become one of the best young point guards in the league. But it’s going to require that he take another major step in his second season. It has not been determined whether Smith will play in the summer league. The team can tell second-year players that they must go, but it would seem like Smith doesn’t have a lot to prove at that level.
What he does have to prove — and improve on — is his 3-point shot, which has been good over the last month.
If he becomes a more consistent threat from the arc, defenses won’t be able to lag off of him and his explosiveness to the rim would be even more devastating than he’s displayed in his first season.
This guy has a chance to be special.
It’s up to the Mavericks to make sure they give him every tool he needs to get there.
3. Be prudent in free agency
We always remember the strikeouts the Mavericks have had in free agency and don’t ever give a nod to the solid singles and doubles they’ve hit the last few years.
Picking up Barnes — technically in a trade but really a free-agent find — and Wesley Matthews is a good way to fortify a team. The problem is the Mavericks haven’t had another anchor around them.
The hope is Smith becomes that anchor.
But the Mavericks also have to make some noise in free agency. They will have too much money — perhaps as much as $30 million — at their disposal not to get into the talent grab.
“We have the cap room,” owner Mark Cuban said. “That’s why we have it — to use it. There’s no reason to save it.
“We would even use it before the draft. If we got a great player before the draft and we still have cap room now, going into the draft there might be something that we like. If somebody wants to get off money or somebody cuts somebody and we like him, we could sign them now.”
The Mavericks can’t talk about free agents until July 1.
However, three restricted free agents — Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon and Clint Capela — certainly will get their attention.
Derrick Favors, Will Barton and Avery Bradley are unrestricted free agents who might make sense.
What we know for sure is that the Mavericks will at least keep their ears open for some of the bigger names — DeMarcus Cousins among them.
But given their history with big fish when they actually were a competitive team, it’s hard to see them reeling one in when they are coming off a 20-odd win season.
4. Identify keepers
The Mavericks potentially have 11 free agents, and that doesn’t include Dirk Nowitzki, whose $5 million option will be picked up when it comes time to do so.
Here’s 11 names for you: Doug McDermott, Dorian Finney-Smith, Nerlens Noel, Johnathan Motley, Kyle Collinsworth, Aaron Harrison, Yogi Ferrell, Jalen Jones, Seth Curry, Maxi Kleber and Salah Mejri.
There’s something to like about all of them.
There also are things not to like about all of them.
So who comes back?
Every year we hear that the revolving door that has spun out of control in rebuilding the Mavericks’ roster will slow down.
Mark Cuban is adamant that this year, turnover on the roster really will stop.
“I expect us to keep a lot of our team together, at least 10 guys if not more,” the owner said. “We need to clear a spot for the first-round pick, maybe the second-round pick and a free agent or two.”
Here’s a little insight into at least two names you should definitely remember.
“When you get guys like Ferrell and Finney-Smith, who are undrafted guys, and they turn out to be guys who are playing at a level in your system to where down the road people will look back and say those guys should have been first-round picks — that’s very rewarding for a franchise,” Carlisle said. “And I still feel that way about those two guys.”
So that’s two that the team wants to keep. The way McDermott has shot, you can probably put him in a keeper category, too. And Curry, if his health is good, should be back at a sensible salary to see if he can duplicate his play from 2016-17.
“It just depends on the contract,” Cuban said of Curry. “He’s the wild card. But we want him back, 100 percent.”
5. Act quickly
The Mavericks have had massive roster turnover the last two seasons.
It’s going to happen again.
But what they need to have happen is for the heavy lifters to be in place as quickly as possible.
“There’s no quick fix,” said Barnes, who is emerging as one of the leaders on the team, along with Smith. “You’re not going to go from 23 wins to 50 and everything’s going to be gravy. But I do think there’s optimism about the future.
“The last two years, the roster changes is like four different teams. Regardless of what we do, I think it’s important to establish who’s going to be here and then build from there and let’s ride it out.”