It’s a busy time of year around these parts. The NBA trade deadline is around the corner, and the Brooklyn Nets have a lot of things to figure out in a hurry. Their odds of making the playoffs are decreasing by the day and they have to make big decisions so they can start planning their future.
Before we get to the trade deadline, the Nets say hello to an old friend. Kyrie Irving is back in town with the Dallas Mavericks, so now’s a good time to get familiar with what the Mavs are up to. I reached out to SJ of the 21 Going on 77 podcast and Mavs Moneyball! Here’s our conversation:
Brian Fleurantin: It feels like it’s been hard to get a good read on this team for the past two seasons. They’re solidly in the play-in/playoff race, but it feels like their ceiling is limited to a certain degree. What have you made of their season and is there a fix to their current issues that can get them back into the postseason?
Shandae Johnson: The Mavs have actually done better than I thought they would up until this point. After the blunder that happened last season, it made me realize just how far this team was from contending after letting key players walk for nothing. I think one of the biggest “fixable” issues that the team has is that they are too small for the current NBA. The small ball trend is slowly going away as teams are valuing positional size and the Mavs are a step behind in that regard. They made a few moves to rectify that through the draft but it hasn’t been enough so far as their defense is their biggest flaw right now and it directly related to their size.
BF: Luka Doncic has been toughing it out and is carrying the team while leading the NBA in minutes per game. With the workload he carries, I sometimes wonder if the team is putting too much on his shoulders. What have you thought of his season and what can he do to ensure the team makes it back to the playoffs without burning himself out in the process?
SJ: This is the story of Luka Doncic’s career lol. He has been carrying an insane workload since the second half of his rookie season. This is partly by design in my opinion. I believe that the Mavs brain trust constructed teams around Luka where he would handle most of the shot creation with a low maintenance secondary playmaker and the rest of the team would handle “everything else”, similar to James Harden’s Rockets teams. After a few seasons of burnout from Luka, especially last season, I think the decision makers for the Mavs fully realized that this is not a sound strategy to team building. I think Luka himself is also realizing that he cannot do it all by himself as well.
This has been the best season of his career so far and he has made big strides in playing a style that is more conducive to his teammates while also keeping a lot of the elements that make him great. His game is maturing along with him and he needs to keep trusting his teammates and the Mavericks front office need to put the pieces in place that will make it easier for him to do so.
BF: It ended on an incredibly ugly note for Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn, but by all accounts he hasn’t really had any issues in Dallas and has formed good relationships with the community and media there. This game officially marks one year since the big trade. What have you made of his time in Dallas and as the Mavs move into the future with him, how can he help increase the team’s chances of title contention?
SJ: Kyrie’s play has been as great as advertised since he arrived in Dallas. He has been incredibly efficient and has provided much needed playmaking beside Luka, as well as leadership. I will admit, I was not a fan of the fit between Luka and Kyrie defensively as I thought it would be difficult for the Mavericks to put adequate defenders around them with the limited assets they had. I didn’t believe they could ultimately win a championship together but now I won’t rule it out if the Mavericks somehow find a way to get the right pieces. Offensively, I think they are getting accustomed to playing with each other and it has been steadily improving. Kyrie just adds another dynamic option at the guard spot that has been missing since Jalen Brunson left for New York.
One thing that has been a bit disappointing is his injuries as he hasn’t been extremely available. This has been a story throughout his career though so this should’ve been expected. Unfortunately, it will be hard to win a championship with a less than available co-star.
BF: Every time I see Dereck Lively II, he’s usually doing something excellent on the court. What’s stood out most to you about his rookie season and where do you see his game evolving from here?
SJ: Nobody expected him to contribute like this from day 1. The quality that has stood out the most to me about his rookie season is how well he absorbs information and how quickly he is able to adjust. The improvement that he made from Summer League to the first game of the season is almost unprecedented. He provides exactly what a Luka Doncic led team need at the center position. He is a relentless rim runner who has a great feel for playing out of screening actions. His touch around the rim has been impressive and he has shown that he has some hook shots in his arsenal. He is also a sneakily great passer and I’m excited to see that aspect of his game grow and how the Mavs experiment with this. Defensively, he is a good shot blocker who can get even better in that regard once the game slows down even more and he watches more film. He projects to be a devastating defensive player once he gets stronger. He is only 19 years old and his potential is tantalizing so I expect him to be a premier center in the league within a few years.
BF: Every time I see discussion of Jason Kidd online, it’s usually followed by Mavs fans being frustrated by a decision he’s made in the game. This is his third season with the team, so how have you viewed his tenure as head coach?
SJ: I am not a fan of Jason Kidd as a head coach. I did not like the hire as I felt that there were better options and the Mavericks did not do their due diligence during the hiring process. They went to the WCF in his first year which was a good coaching job by him, however, the Mavs have fallen victim to the infamous falloff that happens to Jason Kidd coached teams after their first year. Now, I thought he has done a decent job this season at times with knowing when to push the right buttons and second half adjustments. However, there are mistakes that he makes from game to game that impact the team negatively and his input in roster personnel has not worked out for the team (Sterling Brown, Javale Mcgee etc.). The 2022-2023 and the 2023-2024 Mavs teams have not fit his identity as a coach however as those teams are built on offense and he is moreso a defensive minded coach. I think the best teams in the league have a GM and HC who are on the same page as far as identity and fit of the team and I think we need to get there, whether it is with Jason Kidd or someone else.
BF: As we head into the second half of the season, what’s something you’re going to be keeping a close eye on for the team?
SJ: Given that is it trade deadline week, I am looking to see what moves they make. It has been reported that they are looking for upgrades at the forward spot and Kyle Kuzma is a name they are consistently connected to. I’ve been vocal online about wanting upgrades but only if they come at a convenient cost. I don’t believe there is a move out there right now that vaults the Mavericks into contender status but I want them to continue laying the foundation. As I always say, you can’t build a 5 story mansion (championship contender) on a sh*tty foundation.
BF: Is there anything that I missed that you’d like to make mention of? Also, where can the people keep up with you and your work?
SJ: I cohost a podcast called “21 Going on 77” where we discuss the NBA, WNBA, and the Mavericks. I also sparingly contribute to Mavs Moneyball. I’m mostly visible on Twitter (won’t call it X lol) @SJBasketball8.
Many thanks to SJ for taking the time to chat with us!