DONUT 1: A CHANGE?
The documentable truth about the change in the relationship between starting point guard Dennis Smith Jr. and rookie phenom Luka Doncic? There is actually one: I’m told they spend a bit less time playing Fortnite against each other than they did during the preseason.
But how that’s morphed into an “unforgivable” problem that is the result of Junior’s “selfishness” that has the team wishing JJ Barea would become the starter and that it all came to a head in Friday’s 114-112 loss at New Orleans (game story here) in which Luka was “furious” over having been used as a last-possession “decoy” in favor of Dennis?
No, no, no.
DONUT 2: QUOTABLE
“In my view,” coach Rick Carlisle said before Friday’s loss that would mark Smith Jr.’s return to the lineup after missing time with a wrist sprain, “it’s a very overanalyzed aspect of our team. And people need to get off of it and let these guys play and grow together. That’s the right way to approach this.”
DONUT 3: COAT-TAILING STEIN
“This” all started when the respected Marc Stein of The New York Times described in responsible fashion what other GMs predict will happen in Dallas. Stein wrote:
— Zack Cunningham (@mavszack) December 24, 2018
And frankly, Stein’s initial report has “given permission” to an army of observers trying to ride the coattails of that report with “scoops” of their own, which for the most part have amounted to incendiary guesses about how much these two kids dislike each other and will not and cannot co-exist. However:
DONUT 4: OFF-COURT PROBLEM?
There is no off-court proof of such a thing. Dating back to their first meeting immediately after Doncic was drafted, the two became fast friends, moving into the same apartment complex, spending late nights in the gym together, and then spending more time “virtually together” playing video games.
Has there been an adjustment for Smith as his role as “the young centerpiece” has changed? Undoubtedly. I can imagine the adjustment has been challenging for him, at age 21, because we’ve seen evidence of Mavs 10 years these kids’ senior (that is, DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Matthews) involving themselves in some bumpy moments during the transition, too. But the allegations that the other guys in the locker room have suddenly decided they don’t like Dennis is simply untrue.
DONUT 5: ON-COURT PROBLEM?
There is no on-court proof of such a thing. In their first game back together, the Doncic/Dennis pairing was potent. Doncic had a season-best 34 points. Smith had 14 points and four assists. If you can find me a sequence, a highlight, even a fraction of a second, when one looked to “freeze out” the other, I’d like to see it.
What we did have was Carlisle designing a last-second play that put the ball in the hands of Smith, who took too long to get off his potential game-tying shot. (“I just took an extra dribble, and it cost me,” Dennis said.) And then you had the visual frustration of Doncic (and others). Why? Because he (or they) “selfishly” wanted the ball?
Dennis Smith fails to get a shot off in time and Luka is pissed pic.twitter.com/Y7z5NoROjF
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) December 29, 2018
“Yeah, I did (want a shot),” said Luka afterward. “But we had a great look. We have so much talent on this team, anybody can take that shot.”
Which part of this sounds “furious” or “selfish”?
It’s true that Luka was “pissed.” What is impossible to know while a talking head is “analyzing” the game or the team from 2,000 miles away is, “Is he ‘pissed’ at Dennis? Or ‘pissed’ at the play seemingly breaking down? Or ‘pissed’ simply because it didn’t work?”
It’s journalistically irresponsible to report one’s guess at the answer as fact.
DONUT 6: THE SUNDAY FOLLOW-UP
On Sunday at the AAC, the Mavs gave it another go. Did the Doncic/Dennis “rift” finally reveal itself? Nope. Dallas beat the talented Thunder, 105-103, with Luka leading the charge on offense and with Dennis leading the charge on defense. (See the full game coverage here). Oh, and Dennis scored the game-winning points, too.
Rick’s review? “This is what being a big-time player is all about. He made the go-ahead basket on one end and guards the best player (Paul George) at the other end. … You’ve got to have a mentality that says you’re going to keep coming no matter what and that’s what Dennis Smith Jr. did tonight.”
Carlisle added one more note here, and for those playing close attention, it’s a golden nugget.
“He’s come a long way (since being Dallas’ first-round pick a year ago) but we always knew the ability was there, the competitiveness was there, it just was a matter of experience,” he said. “Then tasting winning and tasting a lot of losing and getting to the point where you hate losing even more than you love winning. That’s where this team has got to find its growth.”
Notice how Rick craftily shifted the conversation from Dennis’ individual growth to this young core’s collective growth? That was intentional. That is about Dennis … and Luka. And the rest of the fellas, too. Growing together.
DONUT 7: THE SYSTEM’S GEOMETRY
Outside observers don’t understand Carlisle’s system. I didn’t really fully get this — even after watching Jason Kidd work together with ball-handling backcourt mates — until Texas Legends coach Bob MacKinnon broke it down for me a couple of seasons ago. The G-League Legends use the exact same system as their big-brother Mavs; what Coach Mac does fits hand-in-glove with with Rick does, so when a player is send down or called up, he already has a playbook grasp. (Oddly, that dynamic is not as common as you would assume.) And it was McKinnon, a couple of years ago, who showed me on the white erase board how Carlisle’s “geometry” of a two-ball-handler system works.
Carlisle tried to teach this to anyone who would listen on Friday in New Orleans, saying, “Let’s quit looking at it as Dennis is getting relegated to ‘playing off the ball.’ We have two point guards out there, which is a great advantage. We got to create a balance and cause problems for teams.”
DONUT 8: WHAT ABOUT JJB?
JJ Barea, of course, is part of that balance, and he exists as that coming off the bench. When a media member alleges that Barea is the guy who teammates want “starting ahead of Junior,” we know we’ve got a case of … well, misinformation. Smith Jr. this season has missed 12 games — all, in theory, opportune spots to go ahead and give everybody “what they want.” But how many of those 12 did JJB start?
Even the casual Mavs watcher knows that rookie Jalen Brunson is the point guard most likely to be elevated into the starting lineup in the absence of Junior. Dorian Finney-Smith has started. Maxi Kleber has started. Brunson has started. Not JJB.
DONUT 9: WHAT ABOUT A TRADE?
Is there a trade involving Dennis Smith Jr. (or anybody else) who can make Dallas better? Great. Make it. But even Shams’ report that Dallas is “open for business” is redundant when you’ve already read Stein, or when you’ve read my column this week on how Dallas full-well understood all along that that the Doncic/Dennis pairing is an “experiment” because Dennis, especially, is a work in progress. (Fact is, the Mavs could’ve drafted most anybody this year and it would’ve been an “experiment.” If DeAndre Ayton was here, wouldn’t the DeAndre/Dennis pairing be a work in progress?)
It remains noteworthy to me that the Mavs, as an organization, aren’t screaming “No way!” from the rooftops. But that’s a far cry from HoopsHype already coming up with trades that would send Junior away in deals that don’t look like “winning-the-trade” swaps to me. Truly, there is far greater credibility exhibited by MFFL here on DBcom Boards … where names like Beal, Issac and Sabonis come up in spit-balling ways, and are discussed appropriately. Check it out.
DONUT 10: THE ISSUE OF STAGNATION
Doncic, 19, is best with the ball in his hands. … but is great in other ways, too. Smith, 20, is best with the ball in his hands … but is developing in other ways, including as a defender. What the Mavs don’t want is a Luka “progress-stopper.” They don’t want Dennis to clog his progress and they don’t want to make a trade for a player who is so ball-dominant or ball-demanding that he does the same. But note what I said a couple of days ago: Dallas wants to make sure that Luka’s teammates don’t “stagnate” his growth.
In their first game back together, Dennis led the team in assists while Luka scored a season-high 34. Does that sound like anybody is “stagnating” anybody?
DONUT 11: THE SEMANTICS GAME
From my recent column (please read more here): The media has already turned this into a game of semantics. Stein’s original report is about what other teams think Dallas will eventually do with Dennis. Ensuing reports have twisted that into the Mavs planning a trade of Smith. But I’m told by the Mavs that they remain attracted to the idea of a Doncic/Dennis pairing, that the personal friendship of the two youngsters is a reason for optimism regarding their growth together, and that all along the organization recognized that there would be growing pains as Dallas is asking Junior to morph from being the do-it-all point guard from his rookie season of 2017-18 to now playing a “second-banana” role with Luka as the primary ball-handler and, really, the primary everything.
Dallas has found a way in two years to hit on two teenage foundational pieces. This is what an organization works and waits years and years to do. To un-do that now — especially when the tandem has only played 20 games together due to Smith’s right wrist injury — would be foolish. Smith is averaging 13.0 points, 3.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game for the Mavs. His high-flying style adds a component to the Mavs offense that has been largely lacking over the years. And his defensive effort and toughness has been a highlight this year, too. … a highlight right alongside Luka’s captivating push for the Rookie of the Year award, as he is averaging 19.0 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.9 assists.
All that said, there is nothing wrong with “gauging the market,” as ESPN phrased it. …
Should we write a story about how Dallas is “gauging the market” for DeAndre Jordan and Harrison Barnes and Dwight Powell? Because certainly that’s true … right? This whole thing — the assemblage of a dozen-plus guys who listen to the coach, who respect one another and who play well together — this whole thing is an experiment. If it doesn’t work, they should make changes. But at this moment — outside of the predictions from some of Stein’s sources — there is simply no evidence that it doesn’t work (except on the road, where Dallas is inexplicably inept.) There is no off-court “rift” between Luka and Dennis. There is no “on-court” conflict. And there is no system mismatch.
DONUT 12: THE FINAL WORD
When Rick Carlisle says, “People need to get off of it and let these guys play and grow together. That’s the right way to approach this.” … Maybe the “people” includes anyone in his organization who has allowed the idea of trade talk to leak. Or maybe he means the other NBA execs who want to vulture Dallas in a trade for Dennis. Or maybe he means the observers who are sitting behind news desks in Los Angeles or computer screens in New York manufacturing storylines about a “Luka vs. Dennis problem” that, to people who are actually in the building here, exists mostly in their far-flung imaginations.
— Dennis Smith Jr. (@Dennis1SmithJr) December 29, 2018
Or, as Junior himself phrased it oh-so succinctly: “Clown Talk.”
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