DALLAS — Dirk Nowitzki just wants to have fun while joining Kobe Bryant as the only players to spend 20 seasons with a single NBA franchise.
For the big German, that means helping the Dallas Mavericks make the playoffs. Even better, the 13-time All-Star would love to win a series or two, which the Mavericks haven’t done since Nowitzki led them to their only championship in 2011.
While there’s excitement over rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas’ most important draft pick since Nowitzki in 1998, the Mavericks will likely have to overachieve to avoid missing the postseason for the second straight year.
That hasn’t happened since Dallas was a sad-sack franchise wrapping up the abysmal decade of the 1990s, and a young Nowitzki was still learning his way in the NBA. The Mavericks missed last year because of an injury-plagued 4-17 start, the worst since the year before he arrived.
“I think we need to start a little better,” Nowitzki said. “Just always chasing. That costs a lot of energy, so hopefully we come out of the gates a little better. Create a little more energy than we did last year at the beginning. Hopefully have a decent season.”
Harrison Barnes is now the primary scoring option. Going into his second year, his idea of fun most certainly isn’t a 33-49 record just two years removed from winning a championship with Golden State.
“I think it comes down to we’ve got to make the playoffs,” said Barnes, who led Dallas at 19.2 points per game last season. “That’s where it has to start. If you don’t make the playoffs, it’s like where did we really improve from last season.”
The Mavericks think they improved in the draft, which probably hasn’t happened in more than a decade. Missing the playoffs for just the second time in 17 seasons led to the ninth overall pick and Smith, who left N.C. State after one season and won’t turn 20 until late November.
Coach Rick Carlisle is banking on Smith’s athleticism and depth at point guard improving the tempo after the Mavericks were one of the slowest teams in the league last season. Dallas is also much younger than the start of last season, even with the 39-year-old Nowitzki.
Carlisle said the challenge will be playing faster while becoming a good defensive team.
“I think we can do it,” he said. “I think we have the toughness. I think we have the wherewithal. There aren’t many people expecting much out of our group, but I believe in these guys.”
Story lines with Carlisle coming off just his second losing season in 15 years as a head coach:
Center Nerlens Noel had to settle for a $4.1 qualifying offer after failing to get the max deal he coveted as a restricted free agent. He’s playing for a payday next summer, but will mostly come off the bench because the Mavericks are better at the start of games with Barnes at power forward and Nowitzki at center.
“I’m really locked into having a great year, no matter what. Just keep it simple,” he said.
20 and counting?
Nowitzki isn’t hiding his satisfaction over making it to 20 seasons, as Bryant did with the Lakers, crediting the single franchise thing to owner Mark Cuban buying the team during Nowitzki’s second season.
“He’s obviously a big part of why I’ve been here so long, him being loyal to me and making the decision to make me his franchise player and stick with me through a lot of disappointments,” Nowitzki said.
Bevy of guards
There are five potential point guards in Smith, Seth Curry, Yogi Ferrell, Devin Harris and J.J. Barea. Combinations of two of those will be on the court plenty as well, once Curry returns from a stress reaction in his left leg that has him sidelined indefinitely. Ferrell is expected to start until Curry is ready.
Other than drafting Smith, the Mavericks didn’t have any significant roster changes after dumping aging veterans Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut at the trading deadline last season.