FLANNERY: I was wrong about the Mavericks last year. Dirk Nowitzki still had a lot left in the tank. Deron Williams was fine. Wes Matthews wasn't broken. Zaza Pachulia even balled out for a while. Credit to them for getting into the postseason, and credit, as always, to Rick Carlisle for making something out of that hashed-together roster.
But 40-something win seasons and first-round playoff exits aren't the goal for the Mavs as long as Dirk is around and they'll never be the goal for Mark Cuban. This year's Mavs are different, but ultimately similar. I expect they'll be better, but not exactly a contender. You see any more reason for optimism?
ZILLER: I agree that they should be better. Matthews comes in fully healthy (after gutting out an impressively quick recovery last year) and I really like Harrison Barnes for them. Andrew Bogut is better than Zaza on both ends, provided he can stay healthy and doesn't lose much mobility. Dwight Powell and Justin Anderson are quality prospects.
What's most heartening is that Dirk has found a comfortable role as a lead scorer who doesn't need to do much else. He's not dropping 30 too often anymore, but he's a reliable scorer who isn't going to dominate the ball, but still causes opponents defensive problems. The combination of height and shooting doesn't depend much on agility, it turns out.
FLANNERY: Dirk is the last one standing among his peers. (Paul Pierce is still kicking around but nowhere near his former level.) It's amazing what he's been able to do in the latter stages of his career. If you can't feel good about Dirk, then there's really no hope for you as a human being. May he rain jumpers forever.
I do like the Barnes and Bogut acquisitions. Bogut is found money, basically, and he can absolutely help shore up their defense. We forget that he's actually skilled. His passing remains sublime. As for Barnes, we can all agree that he's overpaid, but somebody was going to pay the freight and this is an ideal situation for him. He doesn't have to be the main guy as long as Dirk is still dealing. What are your expectations for him?
ZILLER: I'm eager to see if he performs better than Chandler Parsons did. I think he will. Barnes had some high-profile playoff failings, but otherwise he was quite bottled up on a stacked Warriors team his entire four years there. God knows he'll have more offensive freedom in Dallas — with that salary and this lower talent base, he'll have a wide berth. I think he'll take the mantle and do well with it.
Deron Williams and Seth Curry are your point guards. Both were actually pretty good last year. I'm not sure how much more D-Will has, and I don't know that Curry will ever reach the Jeremy Lin level of competence, but these two — along with Matthews and J.J. Barea — make for an underrated backcourt. They aren't going to slay the Splash Brothers, the Blazer Boys, Westbrook and Oladipo, or CP3 and Redick. But they are competent. That's something, right?
FLANNERY: Absolutely, and like you, I think Barnes will have a decent run in Dallas. I like this roster construction much better than I did last year's squad. Given that, I see no reason why they shouldn't return to the postseason.
But I still can't help but ask: Is that all there is?
ZILLER: Unfortunately, yes. When you punt the draft as many times as Dallas has this decade, when you strike out on top-tier free agents time after time, when you're way too good to bottom out and have a living legend who is both productive and uninterested in chasing another ring in some foreign city, this is where you end up.
In a way, it's a blessing and a curse that Dirk has been so benevolent. He's done the same thing Tim Duncan did, and the Spurs are in great shape because they nailed one draft (2011) and landed a big fish (LaMarcus Aldridge). The Mavericks haven't pulled that off. But perhaps they would be in better position for the long-term if Dirk had either fallen off heavily circa 2013 or left in free agency to go ring-hunting.
It's all hypothetical, but there's no real future beyond the now for this franchise. So that's why they have to try to win.
FLANNERY: I know, but I still want more for Dirk.
ZILLER: Don't we all.