Mavericks mailbag: Ranking the best potential NBA first-round playoff matchups and more

The Dallas Mavericks (45-29) are the league’s hottest team, winners of seven straight after Sunday’s demolition of the Houston Rockets. They’ve latched onto the Western Conference’s fifth seed, and finishing within the top six — with a relatively easy schedule remaining in the final eight games — feels exceptionally likely. The team itself has provided us the confidence to talk freely about the postseason, even with two weeks remaining, and what it might hold for a franchise that didn’t even make it there one year ago.

I solicited questions from X — I try to alternate where I source questions from, and we’ll do another mailbag with questions from subscribers before the postseason — that focused on the team’s potential opponents, playing rotation and whether this season should have been more anticipated before the year began.

As always, questions have been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

@pmattern7 asks, “How would you rank potential first round matchups from best to worst scenario for Mavericks?”

Let’s start in reverse: Dallas should want nothing to do with the Denver Nuggets. It’s the main reason why obtaining the fourth or fifth seed is important, even if you would prefer the Oklahoma City Thunder or the Minnesota Timberwolves to the LA Clippers or the New Orleans Pelicans. It’s almost certain Dallas would only face the former two teams in a first-round series by finishing sixth, but Denver is so overwhelmingly the team’s worst case scenario that it blots out minor matchup discrepancies among the other teams. While Dallas does have a blueprint to beat Denver after last month’s win — play big, win the second-chance points war and lean on its superstar duo’s shotmaking — it isn’t an attractive one. Not if success is based on winning a first-round matchup, anyway.

I would put the Clippers and the Thunder in the next-most-unfavorable tier. They’re the two teams likeliest to play Dallas’ centers off the court in a postseason matchup, which would neutralize much of what has made Dallas successful in the past weeks. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue knows all too well the basketball atrocities that Dončić has committed against Ivica Zubac, who would begin that series with the shortest possible leash considering these teams’ history. The Clippers have one of the league’s best switch-everything rosters. Dončić will score, but the team’s brief lull last month, when it lost five games out of six, came against teams that dared him to score. It’s not an oh-this-will-stop-him tactic as much as it is a let’s-wear-him-out approach. Dallas could still win that way, and it’d be the ugliest possible outcome.

The Mavericks have played the Thunder well this season; they’re plus-22 against them despite winning just one of the three matchups, an emphatic 35-point blowout right after the trade deadline. Dereck Lively II scored 20 against Oklahoma City in the first matchup, which featured that incredible 30-point unanswered run, and Daniel Gafford scored 19 in each of the team’s next two meetings. That’s the obvious advantage: Dallas could bully the Thunder for an entire playoff series, just like the team has in its regular season fixtures. I also suspect Dallas, tied for the league’s second-best turnover rate, would win out against the Thunder’s corollary, which is a league-best forced turnover rate.

But Oklahoma City has the league’s fourth-best offense and seventh-best defense, and top-10 marks in both stats are the traditional signifiers of championship contention. The Thunder might not be able to turn over the Mavericks at the same rate they do other teams, but they don’t rely entirely on that; their half-court offense is the league’s second-best. They haven’t yet used the nuclear option that is benching Josh Giddey, an unreliable (though improving) 3-point shooter who was guarded by Dallas’ centers in the teams’ last matchup. Chet Holmgren, even with his stretch shooting, is more viable for Gafford and Lively to guard than a wing posing as a small ball five, but he’s still someone who takes those two away from the rim. Oklahoma City has shown itself to be one of the league’s most dangerous teams. For me, even with some favorable advantages, that’s still worth avoiding.

The Pelicans exist in a nebulous half-tier between these two spots simply because they and the Mavericks haven’t actually played each other this season with full health. The split record isn’t indicative of much due to New Orleans’ recent surge, Dallas’ remade roster and every matchup featured at least one missing star. Dallas shouldn’t fear this four-five matchup, but its hard to predict it.

To me, Minnesota is the team’s most favorable matchup. It’s partially because of Karl-Anthony Towns’ injury, an unfortunate reality that would leave the Timberwolves at a shotmaking deficit if he’s not available and provide Dallas’ offense someone to ruthlessly hunt if he is. It’s also because Dallas has optionality: The team can match Minnesota’s size, or it can pull Rudy Gobert out to the 3-point line with five-out lineups. Elite shotmaking always transcends elite defending, and Dallas has the former in Dončić and Kyrie Irving.

Dallas won’t be obvious favorites against any first-round opponent, but there aren’t any teams it can’t beat, either — just some matchups that play into the team’s strengths better than others.

@mavs_rd asks, “Given this recent string of success might raise people’s expectations, what in your mind constitutes a successful season given all that has occurred?” And @ImRossBentley asks, “What would be viewed as a more successful playoff run: 1) the sixth-seeded Mavs push the third-seeded Nuggets to seven games before falling in the first round, or 2) the fifth-seeded Mavericks defeat the Clippers and Thunder, but are then swept by Denver in the conference finals.”

Dallas needs to win its first-round series, which is something that can be said confidently now that the team is poised to finish as a fourth- or fifth-seed, a path that would guarantee avoiding Denver in the first round. I like the second question as a framing device for the first, but the Mavericks falling back to the sixth seed, at this rate, would be disappointing. Drawing the Nuggets if that happened, while unfortunate, wouldn’t be enough of an excuse no matter how well Dallas played against them. Because what you or I might consider a successful season — a narrow defeat to the defending champions in the first-round would be explainable — is different than Luka Dončić’s view. The perception of a first-round exit feels dismal no matter the context.



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@jjafranco asks, “Starting playoff rotation?”

Upon Josh Green’s return, which is expected to happen this week, I expect Dallas to finish this season with 10 players in the rotation. Before his injury, Green was averaging 23 minutes per game. He’ll probably rejoin the lineup in a 15-to-20-minute role, with the onus on him to earn more.

The main way for him to do that is with his spot-up shooting, which has suffered since the roster remake. This season, Green has the team’s third-best mark (40.5 percent) on catch-and-shoot 3s behind Dante Exum (53.6!) and Irving (41.6). Green’s instant transition offense, too, can help Dallas win the math advantage over opponents who make more shots. He undoubtedly will — and deserves to — return to the rotation.

No matter the opponent, I’d be surprised if any of these 10 players don’t play minutes in Game 1 of the first round. (Again, while anything could happen, it would be hugely disappointing if Dallas falls into the Play-In Tournament at this point.) What happens after that is fascinating, though. Maxi Kleber is the rotation’s most situational member, depends on both his own shooting and the opponent’s size. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Green may exist on the same minutes toggle, which will slide toward Hardaway if his shot is falling and toward Green if it’s not. The team wants Derrick Jones Jr. playing 25-plus minutes, but those plans could change if he becomes offensively harmful like we briefly saw in February.

I don’t believe any team can completely neutralize the Gafford-Lively duo; I’d be surprised if Gafford doesn’t start every remaining game, postseason included. But the Clippers, in particular, could completely throw expectations for the team’s rotation into disarray if Dallas feels it has to match them small-for-small.

I’d rank it like this:

  • Dončić, Irving, Exum and P.J. Washington are guaranteed fixtures in the team’s playoff rotation.
  • Gafford, Lively, and Jones are planned fixtures in the team’s playoff rotation, with only severe matchup or performance struggles causing the team to deviate.
  • Kleber, Hardaway, and Green will initially be in the rotation, and their effectiveness or matchup necessity will determine whether they stick or drop out.

No Jaden Hardy, sorry. I’d expect him to have a rotation role next season — assuming he’s on the roster.

@mistrojoe asks, “Did the national media’s preseason expectations of the Mavericks underrate them, or have they overperformed?”

Honestly, they are overperforming. Not in the they’ll-come-back-to-Earth sense, but based on reasonable expectations we had for this team.

The national media saw a team that was so bad it couldn’t even make the Play-In Tournament last season. Its two main offseason additions, at least monetarily, were Grant Williams and Seth Curry. Dallas needed a center so badly that the team threw its 19-year-old rookie into the starting lineup. Lively, it turned out, was actually ready for that role, but no Dallas fan expected him to be this good. And the free agent acquisitions that actually worked, Jones and Exum, were veteran’s minimum signings. Even the team didn’t realize what it had in Exum in the opening weeks. He averaged about five minutes in the team’s first six games and didn’t play at all in the seventh.

Again, Dallas’ two primary offseason acquisitions did not work. Lively, Jones, and Exum combined to be the reason Dallas survived that in the season’s first half. Dallas was underrated, yes, because the manner in which Dončić elevates his team was briefly forgotten when he failed to do so — for so many compounding reasons, some of them simply bad luck — during last year’s bizarre aberration. There was some bias against Irving, too, even if it was understandable based on his historic unreliability. But the Mavericks would have looked more like last year’s team than the current juggernaut they’ve been if not for Lively’s immediacy, Jones’ elevation and Exum’s shocking success. What those players are doing is no fluke, but they have exceeded all reasonable expectations.

@westset0 asks, “Is there any consideration for Nico Harrison being executive of the year?”

You’re right — I haven’t heard any mention of Harrison’s name for that award, which does feel unbefitting of the work he’s done. First, remember that this award isn’t voted on by the media, but rather other executives. One reason he hasn’t been mentioned is because the award itself isn’t discussed in the same depth as the other ones.

But as to what Harrison has done: Irving has been viewed as a gamble gone right, even if Harrison’s relationship with the superstar guard, one which started years ago when Harrison was at Nike, deserves some credit for it working well. Harrison deserves credit for Lively, too, although that speaks to the limitations of this award. Really, executives can only be graded with a years-long perspective. Should Harrison get applause for nailing that pick when it was his own flawed roster that led to Dallas even having it? Likewise, does he get credit for end-of-the-roster signings outperforming his offseason’s marquee acquisitions? And while the team’s deadline moves have made Dallas better, the true grade of those deals lies in the future, too.

These are existential questions, not meant at all to diminish how a team that was in crisis less than 12 months ago has now emerged as a legitimate postseason danger. Harrison deserves plenty of credit for the moves he made to get them here, a place that seemed very far away last April.

(Photo of Kyrie Irving and Luka Dončić: Glenn James / NBAE via Getty Images)

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