Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
Heightened expectations mean the heat is on for a few Mavericks.
The regular season is fast approaching, and for the Dallas Mavericks, the buzz hasn’t been louder. With preseason under their belts, the Mavericks are finally ready to unleash the Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis pairing in hopes that it brings the once-dominant franchise back to prominence.
But for the Mavericks to fulfill the expectations simmering in Dallas, it will require performances from unheralded role players who need to make a leap from solid but largely unknown to solid role players, period.
With the season opener mere days away, here are the Mavericks with the most to prove this season.
Kleber enters his third season in the NBA with big expectations and an even bigger wallet. After two successful seasons with the Mavericks, the front office rewarded their overseas find with a four-year, $36 million deal after earning only two million dollars combined the previous two seasons.
The front office’s move to bring back Kleber isn’t unwarranted. The native of Wurzburg, Germany flashed elite shot blocking traits paired with a shooting stroke just fluid enough to give defenders second thoughts, Donnie Nelson’s hand was almost forced as some team surely would have thrown an offer sheet at Kleber.
With the contract settled and only basketball to be played for the next four years, the pressure is on the 27 year old to become a reliable contributor. After all, he’s being paid as such. After bringing up his three-point percentage to 35 percent a season ago, Kleber will at the very least need to maintain that mark if he will continue to hoist three triples per game. The Mavericks will also need Kleber to improve as a rebounder, considering his 11.7 total rebounding percentage matches or slightly exceeds forwards like Marcus Morris, Pascal Siakam and Paul George.
Kleber will play an important role for Dallas as the (eventual) reserve five when Porzingis sits. But given his positional flexibility, he can play the four if and when the Mavericks get in a pinch, like the team currently is. But if Dallas wants to take the next step, Kleber’s reliability becomes increasingly important.
Finney-Smith enters his fourth season coming off a career year in which he played 81 games after competing in only 21 the year prior. He averaged 7.5 points and nearly five rebounds in 25 minutes per game. However, the former undrafted Florida Gator struggled immensely to shoot the ball connecting on only 31 percent of his attempts from behind the arc.
Like Kleber, Dallas chose to bring back their own and re-sign Finney-Smith to a modest three-year, $12 million deal that hardly cripples the team’s cap sheet if the 26 year old fails to improve moving forward. But the Mavericks’ lack of depth on the wing and commitment to Finney-Smith this summer means the team needs the defensive-minded forward to step up.
Without question Finney-Smith is the Mavericks’ best perimeter defender and wreaks havoc on the offensive glass, but that can only translate so far in the regular season. And with Rick Carlisle’s desire to play him more at the four, Finney-Smith could be thrust into more responsibility early on. The heat is on for Finney-Smith to keep up with the Mavericks accelerated timeline.
Jackson enters his first full season in Dallas after a trade deadline swap in February between the Mavericks and Sacramento Kings. After two lackluster seasons with the Kings, it seemed like a change of scenery was desperately needed for the former 15th overall pick. In 29 games with the Mavericks, Jackson pumped in eight points and two rebounds in 18 minutes per night. His three-point accuracy jumped to 37 percent after the move, showing encouraging signs moving forward.
At 24, Jackson represents a rarity in Dallas: a first-round draft pick still on his rookie contract (ignore the fact he’s not a homegrown product). This gives Dallas both cap flexibility and a player with room for growth. So far, the arrow has pointed upward. Jackson finished the final ten games of the regular season canning 42 percent of his triples and has picked right back up connecting on 45 percent of his threes this preseason.
While stretching the floor is important, Jackson’s complete inability to rebound, set teammates up or cause any sort of disruption defensively will be a problem as the season progresses. If his shot and other various areas of his game fail to show up, he’ll have a hard time carving out consistent minutes in the rotation. However, Jackson could be a key piece in the Mavericks’ future if he takes advantage of his opportunity.
As long as Doncic and Porzingis are healthy, the Mavericks will be a good team, but it’s up to the role players like Kleber, Finney-Smith and Jackson to step up for the team to take it to the next level. And if they do, the Mavericks could be looking at a handful of bargains under contract for the foreseeable future.