I want to take you back to February 24, 2018. As someone who has obsessed over Dallas sports teams since the age of 4, and has been lucky enough to either speak on the radio or write about them for the 10+ years, a rare monumental moment was coming…and I could feel it.
The Mavericks had just lost for the 14th time in 17 contests. At the 60 game mark of the season, Dallas was just 18-42 and was trending downward. JJ Barea was in the middle of a 5 game streak where he was the team’s most effective player and it appeared coach Carlisle was experimenting with different rotations.
For the first time that season, it looked like Dallas had an actual shot of grabbing a top 5 pick in the draft.
As a life long fan, you start to know the franchise on an intimate level. Not necessarily by direct 1-on-1 relationships with the humans running it, but the soul of the franchise itself. Much like a long-term relationship with a loved one, you have many memories and events to build knowledge from. You remember the highs, the lows and all the moments in between.
Over time you become familiar with their tendencies and mannerisms. There are many nights where they pick you up after a bad day, and some nights where they are the reason behind your bad day. There are also times where your support propels them to a win, or carries them after a tough loss. As you grow, so do the faces that define that franchise.
In every relationship, there are events that morph the dynamic of how that relationship is defined in your head. For example, prior to Dallas hoisting the trophy in the 2011 NBA Finals, they were an afterthought to the rest of the league. They were never taken seriously, nor was Dirk Nowitzki.
Their franchise had never won an NBA title, had lost their only previous Finals appearance after being up 2 games to none, had one of the best seasons in NBA history before losing in the first round, and had a franchise player that was consistently underrated.
No matter which season you reference or how good they were, they were always looked at as pretenders who would be exposed when they ran into legitimate NBA teams. When they failed, it became the building blocks that were synonymous with their identity. It didn’t matter how or why they failed, people either didn’t care or weren’t smart enough to put in the mental effort required for a real discussion.
People would always say the Mavericks never played defense, they were soft, they would always choke, and their franchise player was the reason for it. They would point out that they had good fans, but Dallas was a Cowboys town and the Mavericks were just entertainment.
Almost every single Mavericks conversation involved me either defending the franchise or defending Dirk Nowitzki to someone with unintelligent mainstream opinions. I felt I always needed to protect both the Mavs and Dirk against the unfair prejudices coming their way. The first time I hosted a radio show by myself on a major station, I spent 2 of my 4 hours doing exactly that. I declared Dirk Nowitzki was the most underrated athlete in modern sports, and that the criticisms of him were unfounded.
The stats backed up the fact that he was actually one of the most clutch players in history, and one of the best overall players in this generation. I took calls and ended up arguing with a large number of listeners who disagreed with my opinion (Ironically, this was in the Spring of 2011, and I would be proven right in just a few more months). That was our relationship. Dirk and the Mavs weren’t taken seriously and neither was I as someone who held them up.
The Mavericks, (and specifically Dirk’s) miraculous run to the 2011 title changed that dynamic forever. I no longer had to approach every sports encounter with Dirk stats memorized in my head to defend his honor. All of the critiques of him and the franchise as a whole were now demolished. They were no longer a team without a championship, or an unproven superstar. This was a “monumental moment” in what defined the soul of the franchise.
Going back even further, there are other moments. Such as the multiple playoff runs in the 80’s that proved they were more than just an expansion team, the climb out of the NBA cellar in the early 2000’s that changed them from laughing stock to potential contender, and Dirk Nowitzki becoming the first Dallas Maverick to win the NBA MVP in the ’06-’07 season.
However, even after winning the championship, the NBA lockout and the new CBA agreement prevented the Mavericks from realistically being able to defend their title. Dirk started to age and the Mavericks swung big and missed every offseason in their attempts to sign big free agents.
The new critique became that Dallas is not a destination franchise for star players. Which in reality means that although they moved up a tier in the hierarchy of the NBA, they don’t have beaches (outside of lakes) or a popular star player that is undoubtedly respected by the rest of the league.
Even at the height of his powers after winning the title, Dirk was still never part of the “cool kids club.” He’s extremely liked and respected by many, but not to the level that most other superstars are, or what he deserves. Just look where Dirk is placed when the lists of all-time greats are occasionally put out. Nowitzki regularly falls below players with resumes far inferior to his. It isn’t right, but it is how the Mavericks and their players have always been viewed.
So, let’s go back to that monumental moment I felt coming back in February. After getting Dennis Smith Jr. with the 9th pick last season, Dallas suddenly had a young player that even Lebron James liked and spoke highly of. They have a guy that’s flashy, powerful, fearless and an assassin on the court. In addition to rave reviews from Lebron, those are things that make players popular.
I knew that if Dallas could get in the top 5 and figure out a way to grab a legitimate young star to pair with him, it could potentially provide them with their ticket into the “cool kids club.” If they are ever going to have the chance to contend in today’s NBA, getting into that club is a requirement.
Fast-forward to Dallas swapping picks with Atlanta and drafting Luka Doncic. I have been very vocal about not wanting the Mavs to take Doncic. I even wrote an article about it on this site. His lack of athleticism worried me and I wasn’t sure how to project his on-court chemistry to Dennis Smith Jr. My concern was that they would cap each other’s ceilings.
I thought that the Mavs could get a lot more out of a big like Mohamed Bamba or Marvin Bagley. Their potential and athleticism would be fun to watch and enticing to other NBA stars.
This caused me to negatively project more on Doncic than was warranted. I was worried that this golden ticket opportunity for the Mavs was going to be wasted, and I could see that monumental moment evaporating like steam on a mirror.
What I didn’t realize until after Dallas actually drafted him, and I had to start wrapping my head around what it meant…was that Doncic was the only player who could provide that monumental moment. Even though Deandre Ayton went number one overall, Doncic was the guy in this draft. Luka Doncic is the player with the star power that the Dallas Mavericks have never had.
That level of celebrity demands respect until proven faulty. The Slovenian Sensation, paired with Dennis Smith Jr., makes the Mavericks cool for the first time in their history. Not just for a moment in time (like when they won the 2011 Finals), but for many years to come as they play out their careers.
Once I let that sink in and get over my fears, I was able to look at his game in a different light. Yes, his athleticism still worries me a little, but his body has enormous room for improvement once he gets into an NBA strength and conditioning program. Not to mention the transformation we will see as his body matures from that of a teenager into one of a man. His basketball skill and the foundation that he plays with should only grow under a coach like Rick Carlisle, and the mentorship of Dirk Nowitzki.
As far as him fitting with Dennis Smith Jr., their strengths and weaknesses should actually play off of each other quite beautifully if done right. Most notably, a pick and roll/pop with Smith as the ball handler and Doncic as the screener could be absolutely deadly. Not to mention, an inverted pick and roll with Smith screening for Doncic, ultimately creating mismatches for both players. If the Mavs can surround these guys with role-playing defenders and shooters, along with an athletic rim rolling big man, great times will follow.
As the free agency period starts on July 1st, it would be no surprise to me if the Mavericks end up being successful in their attempts to lure big name players. Luka Doncic has made the Dallas Mavericks a destination franchise for the first time in their history, and THAT is a monumental moment.