Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis are the Euro stars of the future for the Dallas Mavericks now that Dirk Nowitzki has retired after a record 21 seasons with the same franchise.
The rookie sensation from Slovenia and the 7-foot-3 Latvian didn’t get to play together in the two months after Dallas acquired Porzingis in a blockbuster trade with the New York Knicks.
The decision to push the recovery past the one-year mark on Porzingis’ knee injury was essentially an admission by the Mavericks that their focus was on 2019-20.
And now that an emotional two-day send-off for the NBA’s most decorated European player is over, Dallas can concentrate on ending a playoff drought that covered Nowitzki’s final three seasons — the longest of the big German’s career.
The Mavericks didn’t win a playoff series in eight seasons with Nowitzki after he led them to their only championship.
“I cannot tell you what to expect,” said Doncic, the overwhelming favorite for rookie of the year despite the second 33-49 record in three seasons for Dallas, with a 24-58 clunker in between.
“All I can tell you is we’re gonna fight, we’re going to work hard, we’re gonna try to get into the playoffs. I’m not promising that, but we’ll try everything to do it.”
There is some business to take care of before the pairing of Porzingis with Doncic can become official. The 2018 All-Star is a restricted free agent with a $4.5 million qualifying offer.
Owner Mark Cuban said during Porzingis’ introductory news conference that the club wanted to sign him to a long-term deal. Rape allegations against Porzingis in New York and a counterclaim of extortion have surfaced since then, and the Mavericks aren’t saying how that case affects their plans for signing him.
“Based on the nature of that, I can’t comment on it,” president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson said Thursday. “But Kristaps is our No. 1 priority in the offseason.”
The second priority is a notable free agent, and Dallas cleared about $30 million in salary cap space by sending Harrison Barnes to Sacramento. The other three starters alongside Doncic when the season started went to the Knicks in the Porzingis deal. The Mavericks also have a large trade exception.
“If everybody keeps working hard and improves over the summer, have a healthy (Porzingis) next year, I think they should be fun to watch hopefully for Mavs fans a long, long time,” Nowitzki said in his final chat with reporters a day after playing his final game in San Antonio.
“Stay together like that, stay injury-free, add a few veterans here, I think we’re on the right track.”
THE NEXT DIRK
While Doncic is viewed as the next potential face of the franchise, the more immediate Nowitzi replacement could be diminutive guard J.J. Barea. He’s an unrestricted free agent, still recovering from an Achilles injury and might not be ready when the season starts. But Barea also was the only player besides Nowitzki remaining from the title-winning team. Dallas wants him back.
“This year I did more talking,” the native of Puerto Rico said. “Next year, I think even more now. Dirk led by example. Me, I gotta talk a little bit more.”
OTHER PORZINGIS PIECE
The other potential starter to come with Porzingis was guard Tim Hardaway Jr. He was shut down the final 11 games because of a stress reaction in his left leg that will require surgery.
Hardaway has a big contract (two years left on $71 million, four-year deal) so he’s more likely to be around at least another year. He expects to be healthy when the season starts. For him and Porzingis, that would be the first time together since early February 2018.
“Those guys that were sitting out the last couple of games of this season, we just kept talking about that, just saying to ourselves, ‘What if, what if, what if,'” Hardaway said.
WHAT TO EXPECT
With success in free agency (Dallas is unlikely to have its first-round pick in the June draft because of trading up to get Doncic), the Mavericks could have their loftiest expectations in years.
Dallas wasn’t considered a title contender before winning it all in 2010-11, the third season under coach Rick Carlisle. Because the Mavericks didn’t keep all the important players from that championship, they’ve been scrambling with their roster almost every year since.
“This is a full-fledged rebuild,” Carlisle said. “We cannot sit here and feel like this is going to be a turnkey operation. There’s a lot of work to continue to do. But I’m extremely optimistic.”