Every now and then, you get asked a question for which the answer seems so blatantly obvious, that you feel it’s ridiculous it was even asked.
With his disbelieving grin and the air of confidence that comes with having been all the way, Rick Carlisle still cuts an immense figure on the sideline, and one half-expects the camera to pan next to the fourth quarter of a Dallas playoff game.
But there is no playoff game. There is just the sad, entertaining and profoundly meaningless tussle between the 24-34 Lakers and the 18-41 Mavericks in front of us.
If we could all go through the motions as professionally as the Mavericks do, we would all be better people.
Dallas’ defence is all smoke and mirrors and the offence is only smoke. That Dallas has somehow managed to approach league-average on defence and remained out of the cellar’s darkest depths on offence, is a testament to Carlisle’s dark arts.
There is nothing, outside of Dennis Smith’s raw, manic athleticism, that should move the chains on offence. They have shooters, but little outside of Smith’s imperfect charges into the lane to get them open. There is space, but if there is no one to use space, does space really exist?
They endure through sheer – admirable and depressing – diligence. They’re selfless, always looking for the extra pass, they put the ball in constant motion, and they make instantaneous decisions. But they can’t escape reality and certain physical truths – there’s a lot of J.J. Barea doing a fast walk that doubles as a purposeful meander, dribbling without really going anywhere, and then handing it off to Wesley Matthews coming off a hotly contested screen for an off-balance three.
The Mavs don’t beat themselves, which will beat a lot of teams in the NBA. They do a fine job of not brazenly screwing up on defence, a coherent, intelligent system masking the lack of any real rim protection outside of bit players who don’t do enough elsewhere to stay on the court. They compete, playing in the determined vein of Matthews, and Dirk Nowitzki’s still otherworldly stroke and the hard-to-watch but vaguely effective stylings of Harrison Barnes give them a place to go on offence outside of Smith.
But what, really, is it all for? 18-41, now 18-42, needs to mean something and in Dallas it doesn’t seem to mean a whole lot. There is minimal building happening here – this is a team starting Matthews, Barea and Nowitzki; all north of 30. Barnes is a piece, but probably the fourth best player on a contender, with a contract that runs out in two years, before the Mavericks will – one would think – be in the mix again.
Smith is the one – an almost Westbrookian athlete, someone whose athleticism is nuclear and makes other players’ bodies look like broken bayonets. He is, in a lot of ways (most ways), clueless right now as to how to run a team, but it’s all there. He’s already an imposing force, rocketing to the rim and finishing as though magnetised to it.
The jumper is troubling but with rays of hope – there is a reasonable expectation that he’ll become a serviceable shooter, which is all he needs given his other powers.
Maybe there is the hope too that one of the several young role-playing pieces on the roster will become more – someone out of Doug McDermott, the Artist Formerly Known as Nerlens Noel, Yogi Ferrell, Maxi Kleber and Dwight Powell (playing well) will pop. But it doesn’t look like it.
And perhaps all that’s left is Smith – a promising but wholly uncertain stock – and a professional mindset.