By David Mullen
“We’re number eight! We’re number eight!”
Although it sounds like a rather pedestrian chant, that is probably the best that Dallas Mavericks fans can hope for this year. After all, it would put them in the playoffs for the first time in three seasons in the talent-rich Western Conference of the National Basketball Association.
The Mavs are sure to be improved, especially with Coach Rick Carlisle and veteran Dirk Nowitzki, probably playing his final season, influencing the team’s youthful roster. Carlisle will be the strategist and Nowitzki the inspiration once he returns to the court from a bothersome ankle injury. Luka Dončić looks like a natural, and I expect him to win Rookie of the Year. He is the future of the franchise.
Once he gets healthy, Harrison Barnes will fit into the rotation nicely. He is a no-nonsense guy. It remains to be seen if new center DeAndre Jordan, who jilted the Mavericks once already when he re-signed with the Los Angeles Clippers after promising to bring a big defensive presence to “Big D,” fits in as well as Barnes. Dennis Smith Jr. has a valuable year of experience under his belt, but needs to be counted on to improve his shooting skills. And it looks like the Mavs may have found a quality player in second round pick Jalen Brunson. He can shoot and has won two NCAA championships.
In the Southwest Division, the Mavs will be looking up all season at their arch rivals in the south, the Houston Rockets. Last year, they won 65 games. They won’t do that again, but James Harden is an amazing talent, and a healthy Chris Paul makes him better. But remember, they have the Carmelo Anthony factor this season. Why teams expect Anthony to provide positive impact is something I have never understood.
The rest of the division’s teams have marquee players. The San Antonio Spurs added DeMar DeRozan and already has LaMarcus Aldridge, but will be without franchise stars Manu Ginóbili, who retired, and Tony Parker, who moved on to the Charlotte Hornets. The Memphis Grizzlies typically play great defense, but may not have enough offense to make the playoffs. And the New Orleans Pelicans have a superstar in Anthony Davis, but lost DeMarcus Cousins to the World Champion Golden State Warriors.
With the addition of Cousins joining Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, it is hard to see any team betting the Warriors out of a Pacific Division and Western Conference championship. Of course, the talk of Tinseltown is LeBron James joining the Los Angeles Lakers, which is a huge improvement to a team on the rise and will add another competitor to the Warriors. La La Land becomes Le Le Land. But expect there to be some adjustment in the Lakers as his teammates get used to “King” James. The rest of the Pacific Division — The Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers — are not likely playoff teams.
The Northwest Division has balance, lots of star power and as many as four teams that could be vying for a playoff spot. The Oklahoma City Thunder has Russell Westbrook and Paul George; The Portland Trail Blazers have the exciting Damian Lillard; The Denver Nuggets have Paul Millsap, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Thomas; and The Minnesota Timberwolves have Karl-Anthony Towns. But the most intriguing team in the division is the Utah Jazz. They have quietly improved during the past few years and have all of their key players returning.
The Eastern Conference seems to be a three-team race between offensive minded Boston Celtics, the powerful Philadelphia 76ers and The Toronto Raptors, which added Kawhi Leonard to their line-up. And without James in the conference anymore, any of these young teams can realistically make it to the NBA Finals.
Look for the Boston Celtics to represent the Eastern Conference, playing Golden State in the Finals.
Barring injuries and/or complacency, the Warriors will win their fourth World Championship in the last five years.
As for the Mavericks, it should be a fun year with youth leading the way. And even if they can’t secure the eighth and final playoff spot, at least Mavericks supporters can give Nowitzki the send-off he deserves.
If the fans aren’t chanting “We’re number eight!” at least they can yell for “Number 41” one more time.