Aging Nowitzki, young Smith want Mavs to be relevant again
DALLAS (AP) - Dirk Nowitzki plans to become the first player to spend all 21 seasons with the same NBA franchise.
Dennis Smith Jr. will be half the German star's age when the Dallas Mavericks open next season looking to end the first two-year playoff drought in nearly two decades. The team posted its worst record since 1997-98, the year before Nowitzki arrived.
The No. 9 overall pick who turned 20 early in what ended up as a solid rookie season, Smith figures to have a new teammate facing high expectations the way he did. Dallas will pick no lower than seventh in June.
Smith will have at least one thing in common with Nowitzki, who turns 40 this summer. They want the Mavericks to be regulars in the postseason again, the way they were before the current swoon.
"I've been in a couple of arenas that are playoff teams, and I just witnessed the atmosphere," Smith said. "I can only imagine how it is playoff time."
It's certainly better than 24-58, tied with Atlanta for the league's third-worst record. Youth, injuries and a difficult schedule buried the Mavericks early for the second straight year.
They spent the last half of the season wondering where they would fall in the lottery, and owner Mark Cuban was fined $600,000 for suggesting that Dallas had been tanking for two seasons. Part of Cuban's point was that he'd had enough of that approach.
"We do not want to go back to what we just experienced," president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson said. "That's unanimous, from the top on down. When you go through retooling or rebuilding situations like we're going through now, it's done with the right people."
For Nelson, two of those three people are in place in Smith and leading scorer Harrison Barnes. The third is coming in the draft. Nelson compared the situation to when he joined his dad, former coach and general manager Don Nelson, in Dallas 20 years ago. Michael Finley was already there. Steve Nash and Nowitzki were on the way.
The Mavericks made the playoffs 15 out of 16 years starting in 2001, winning their first championship in 2011. They haven't won a playoff series since.
"We're certainly hoping that we're not in the early stages of a rebuild," coach Rick Carlisle said. "We want to get through this as expeditiously as possible. But there's no way you can skip steps."
Things to consider after the first 50-loss season for Dallas since the last of seven in an eight-season stretch in the 1990s:
DIRK FOR 22?
Surgery for bone spurs in his left ankle ended Nowitzki's season a few games early, but after he had set a record for games in a 20th season with 77. He has had a season-to-season approach for several years now.
"I'm hoping the ankle will be tons better than this year," said Nowitzki , who figures to pass Wilt Chamberlain on the career scoring list but get passed by LeBron James to leave him where he is now - sixth place. "It's hard for me at this point to commit further than one year or say one year's it."
J.J. Barea has a year left on his contract after averaging career highs of 11.6 points and 6.3 assists per game. Yogi Ferrell and Seth Curry have expiring contracts, but the Mavericks figure to be interested. Ferrell proved to be a solid role player on a two-year deal earned after a flashy start on a 10-day contract last season. Dallas had high hopes for Curry, but the younger brother of Golden State star Stephen Curry missed the season with a stress fracture in his lower left leg.
The Dallas roster was loaded with undrafted and/or G League players, and Carlisle has been praised for the development of some of those younger players. Now it's time to replace projects with weapons.
"Getting Rick ammunition is our No. 1 priority in the offseason," Nelson said. "We've got a great opportunity in the draft. Free agency as you know will be extremely active. There's trade fronts obviously that will be probed as well."
THE LAST OF NOEL
There was no mention of center Nerlens Noel on the final day of interviews. Suspended the final five games for violating the NBA's anti-drug program, Noel never developed into the post player Dallas envisioned after getting him at the trading deadline last season. After a lost season on a one-year deal as a restricted free agent, he hits the open market with little or no value.
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