By David Mullens
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban doesn’t like playing second fiddle to anyone. But with the Texas Rangers World Series run, the Dallas Cowboys marching through the NFC and an impressive start to the Dallas Stars season, Cuban and his Mavericks have been temporarily pushed to the back of the area’s sports symphony.
Quietly, like the sounds emanating from a harp, Cuban and his Mavericks began the NBA regular season 3-0, an opening number unfamiliar to patrons since the 2004-05 season. The wins are largely based on the play of basketball prodigy Luka Doncic. But the show is just beginning.
Cuban, GM Nico Harrison and the Dallas front office have given head coach Jason Kidd better talent to orchestrate, but the Mavs aren’t wowing NBA critics or Vegas oddsmakers. Most feel Dallas is a middle tier team with a 25-1 chance of winning the NBA Championship, ahead of Western Conference foes New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings, Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets.
With Doncic and Kyrie Irving, who inked a long-term deal in the offseason, the Mavs have the potential to be the highest scoring backcourt in the league. Add in guards Tim Hardaway Jr., rising star Josh Green and returning veteran Seth Curry, and the Mavericks can score from the one and two spots as well as any NBA team. Whether they can stop top ranked teams on defense is another matter.
After allegedly “tanking” the remainder of the 2022-23 season to improve their draft position — the NBA fined the Mavericks $750,000 for “conduct detrimental to the league” — they ended up with 19-year-old center Dereck Lively II from Duke in a Draft Day deal. Lively, a 7-foot 1-inch center, displays athleticism that the Mavericks have rarely seen in the post. He is a product of the “SportsCenter” highlight generation.
The Mavs also added forwards Grant Williams from the Boston Celtics (primarily for defense), Derrick Jones Jr. from the Chicago Bulls and veteran Richaun Holmes from Sacramento. Maxi Kleber and Dwight Powell will continue to contribute off the bench.
New to this season is the “NBA Cup,” a confusing in-season tournament designed to attract a younger audience when football and fantasy leagues dominate their digital sports pages.
Dallas has been assigned to the cleverly named “West Group B,” with the World Champion Denver Nuggets, Pelicans, Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers, which added James Harden on Halloween to the core of Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Russell Westbrook, solidifying the worst investment Clippers owner (and former Microsoft CEO) Steve Ballmer has ever made.
All NBA Cup matches — beginning Friday, Nov. 3 and ending Saturday, Dec. 9 — will be played alongside the regular NBA season. Group Play games count as regular season games, but not the elimination games. Special jerseys and mind-altering court graphics will tell fans that an NBA Cup game is being played.
The format has been successful in European soccer but could end up backfiring on NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. He thinks it will work. I think it is “Silver’s Folly.”
The Mavericks must negotiate through a deep Western Conference. The Nuggets have shown no signs of wanting to relinquish the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy, and teams must get past multi-talented center Nikola Jokic.
Both the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors appear to be making one final run at glory. The Lakers’ LeBron James, in his 21st season, is 38 and having his playing time monitored until he tells coach Darvin Ham that he is going to play more minutes. The Warriors’ Steph Curry is still draining three-pointers at 35, but the best years of longtime teammates Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have passed.
The Phoenix Suns are banking that new head coach Frank Vogel can make Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal into a team that can advance to the NBA Finals. As many of the Western Conference teams get older, the young Thunder are on the cusp of being a serious contender. New Orleans hopes that a full season from oft injured Zion Williamson keeps them playing deep into the spring, and Minnesota’s maturity makes them an unsung challenger. Ja Morant’s immaturity — resulting in a 25-game suspension — will probably keep the Memphis Grizzlies out of the playoffs.
In the East, Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo is joined this season by All-Star guard Damian Lillard. The Boston Celtics added Jrue Holiday and ex-Mav Kristaps Porzingis, setting up the two best teams in the Eastern Conference for a conference finals matchup.
Creating more interest than the NBA Cup is the debut of San Antonio Spurs’ rookie Victor Wembanyama, a 7-foot, 4-inch basketball wunderkind from France trying to prove his game translates to the NBA. If nothing else, Wembanyama is easier to pronounce than Antetokounmpo.
The keys to the Mavericks success in 2023-24 will be keeping Doncic’s body and Irving’s mind right and seeing if they can complement each other over a full season. Even though he’s 24, Doncic puts his 6-foot 7-inch frame under enormous physical stress. He spent his offseason playing basketball for Slovenia.
Thus far, Irving has been a model citizen in Dallas. He wore out his welcome at previous stops in Cleveland, Boston and Brooklyn. “We’re both killers on the court,” Irving said, after signing a $126 million contract to remain a Mav. “Everybody knows it. We want to win, so we just have to continue to have that consistent mentality together and lead the team as best we can.”
Former Dallas Mavericks head coach Dick Motta, now 92, is credited with coining the sports lexicon “the opera isn’t over until the fat lady sings” while leading the 1978 Washington Bullets. The 2023-24 Mavericks could be sharp or be flat, depending on whether Doncic and Irving can make beautiful music together. Successful instrumentation of the Mavs will return Cuban to concertmaster.