As the final seconds of the 2019-20 NBA season ticked down Sunday night in the Walt Disney World bubble, a jumble of contenders jostled for first-blush reaction.
Hail to the champion Lakers, especially fourth-time conqueror LeBron James.
Kudos to the NBA and its players for doggedly and rather ingeniously salvaging a season that was all but lost to COVID-19.
Hallelujah, it’s over!
There is no correct order because there’s never been a season remotely like this one, which began last Oct. 22 and spanned 355 days and culminated with three months of bubble isolation.
We offer the above context because, typically, when the NBA Finals end we assess the playoffs and what the results imply about the NBA hierarchy for the upcoming season – and, more specifically, where the Mavericks are positioned.
This year’s short answer: The Lakers certainly are worthy champions, but little that occurred during fan-less bubble play after a three-month hiatus can be deemed conclusive with respect to a 2020-21 season that has no start date, an uncertain duration and might or might not include fans.
Here, though, is what we unequivocally can say about the Mavericks: If relatively healthy, Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis and this past season’s supporting cast proved that Dallas again can become an annual playoff team, as was the case in the first decade of the 2000s.
And as was the case that decade, with Dirk Nowitzki as the constant, a few roster tweaks, not even necessarily star-caliber additions, could make Dallas elite again – as happened when it went to the Western Conference finals in 2003, the NBA Finals in 2006 and won the 2011 title.
A few days ago I asked Nowitzki whether the Mavericks’ current state reminds him of the 2000-2001 season, his third as a Maverick, when Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Michael Finley led Dallas to 53 wins and its first playoff berth since 1990.
“I definitely see some of the same things,” he said. “I think they have an exciting core, a young core in place to build around and to grow together. There’s definitely some parallels to the early 2000s.”
The 2000-2001 season began runs of 11 straight 50-win seasons and 12 straight playoff berths.
Another similarity between then and now, however, could foreshadow how challenging the climb will be to contender status for the Mavericks after finishing seventh in the West and taking the heavily-favored Clippers to six games in the playoffs.
The 2000-2001 Mavericks were one of seven Western Conference teams to win at least 50 games. That season’s champion Lakers – sound familiar? – won their second of three straight titles.
The Spurs won an NBA-best 58 games that season and were just two years removed from a title. They remained elite, winning the ’03, ’05, ’07 (and ’14) titles. Between the Spurs’ title in ’99 and Dallas’ 2011 championship, Western Conference teams won 10 of the 13 NBA titles.
Though he will be 36 whenever next season starts, who would bet against James and 27-year-old co-star Anthony Davis making additional long postseason runs, plural?
Also next season, three-time champion Golden State will be refortified with the returns of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson from injury, after what in essence was a gap year that netted the Warriors the No. 2 pick in the as-of-now-scheduled Nov. 18 draft.
The Clippers certainly will again be a title favorite, despite their bubble collapse against the Nuggets.
Speaking of Denver, as excited as Mavericks fans are about Doncic’s 43-, 42- and 38-point playoff explosions, understand that the conference finalist Nuggets got outbursts of 50, 50, 42 and 40 points from Jamal Murray. And that Utah’s Donovan Mitchell had playoff games of 57, 51 and 44 points.
Murray, 23, and Mitchell, 24, aren’t much older than 21-year-old Doncic. And Murray’s co-star, Nikola Jokic, is 25, the same age as Porzingis except without the injury history.
In a Zoom call with reporters last week, Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly said the Western Conference’s talent cache was a topic of conversation among peers in the bubble.
“It’s going to be brutal next year with a healthy Golden State, Utah, Portland, Houston, Clippers, Lakers,” he said. “There’s countless teams we can talk about that are going to be really good next year.”
It’s highly doubtful that his not mentioning the Mavericks was a slight, but, rather, how hard it is to rattle off so many worthy teams in one breath.
In other words, from all appearances, the Western Conference regular-season and playoff races will be run through minefields for years to come. Much like the first decade of this century.
That doesn’t take into account the roster-shuffling that will occur, although the league’s COVID-afflicted financial realities further assure that the next marquee-player free-agency sweepstakes won’t happen until next offseason.
“You know what? I think at the end of the day we’re all competitors,” Nowitzki said. “You have to embrace the competition.
“That’s a good thing: That you know that to get to the top of the West, you have to fight through some of the best teams. I think that should only motivate every competitor.”
We learned on Friday that Porzingis had surgery to address the lateral meniscus tear he suffered early in Game 1 of the Clippers series. He continued to play the first three games of the series, including a 34-point, 13-rebound performance in Game 3, but he wasn’t able to play Games 4, 5 and 6.
The fact that the Mavericks, with Doncic playing three-plus games on a sprained left ankle, still stretched the series seemingly bodes well for future postseasons.
“I was pleasantly surprised and impressed at how we reacted to a lot of the adversity along the way,” said center Dwight Powell, who missed the last 35 regular-season games and playoffs with a right Achilles rupture.
“As much as we would have liked to get the next round and continue to play, I think we’ll grow a lot and we’ll benefit a lot from that series and losing in that series. Because we were close enough to say that, ‘We can play with this level of competition.’”
And the fact that next season is expected, at earliest, to begin in mid-January should give Porzingis ample rehab time, although the Mavericks did not offer a timetable for when he can resume basketball activities.
Also, Powell will have had roughly a full year of recovery and rehab since his Jan. 21 injury and surgery six days later.
Well before then, the Mavericks will have added to the roster, with the Nos. 18 and 31 picks of next month’s draft; or perhaps by trading those picks for a needed veteran physical presence who can bring “nasty,” as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich once put it.
“Their team has so much room to grow because their core is still fairly young,” Nowitzki said. “With a few additions here and there, I think you’re looking at hopefully a long, long playoff run. I’m excited for what the next ten years, hopefully, in Mavs land will look like.”
Genuine hope and real potential. That’s about all that can be said about the Mavericks at the moment, entering an offseason of undetermined length that makes it difficult to make sweeping statements about any team or the NBA in general.
Other than congratulations to King James and the Lakers.
And thank goodness the 2019-20 season is history.
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