Typically, significant players miss games due to injury in every sport. Life isn’t always fair. To quote HBO‘s greatest character, Omar Little, “It’s all in the game, right?”
However, the NBA has gotten more fierce, with a deadly virus disrupting the world as we know it. Unfortunately, compromise became a key theme for anyone trying to live in the world’s current state.
The NBA became a source of inspiration with its execution of the bubble. The sequel had little to no shot at a return, mainly due to players’ mental health at stake, living for months without family.
Again, compromise rules the day. Instead, the NBA condenses the schedule by shortening the season to 72 games. Unfortunately, this means more back-to-back games and stretches of three games in five nights scenarios.
Meanwhile, injuries thrash the league at an alarming rate. Perhaps the fast-forwarding of the season’s start is to blame. Even with the multitude of injuries, the games missed or postponed by the ever-so-dangerous threat of COVID19 stands as the largest obstacle for NBA teams.
Missing in Action
Take the Dallas Mavericks, for instance. The team’s depth chart is a perfect representation of the effects of managing a team while upholding the league’s COVID19 protocols.
Between Maxi Kleber missing 11 games, Dwight Powell with eight games, along with Josh Richardson and Dorian Finney-Smith out for nine, Dallas’ fall in the standings correlates with the league’s inevitable facing of the virus without the security of the bubble.
Despite four players out of the lineup, Dallas only caught the break of a postponed game once. With an underwhelming 8-12 record, Dallas must realize the roster’s potential if it had the defensive acumen of Richardson or Kleber’s three-point shooting.
Regardless of the Mavericks’ plight, the league moves on without hesitation. Even so, Dallas isn’t the only franchise desperately clawing its way out of mediocrity.
The reigning Eastern Conference champions, Miami Heat, also experienced the virus as its best player Jimmy Butler missed the past six games due to COVID19 safety protocols. With its bold leader out of the rotation, the Heat are 7-12 and the bottom of the conference.
Navigating the tides of a disruptive season
As mentioned earlier, Adam Silver issued postponed games to certain teams that didn’t have enough players (eight) due to COVID19 safety protocols. The Boston Celtics, currently second in the Eastern Conference, possibly dodged a bullet by not suiting up for three consecutive games.
Despite the three teams whom the Celtics didn’t play against holding a combined 22-35 record, the thought of tipping off without key players spells a reasonable loss. Moreover, the idea of staying steady in the standings bodes well in the long run.
Without getting into the nitty-gritty of the NBA’s at-times confusing guidelines to dealing with the deadly COVID19 virus, it suffices to admit the whole idea of playing basketball without a bubble seems counterproductive.
However, I digress; back to basketball.
While the NBA’s competitive balance leans slightly imbalanced, wins and losses don’t come with asterisks. However, despite COVID19 sweeping the nation, some teams have underperformed without players missing multiple games.
One team that comes to mind has since picked up its disappointing play. The Denver Nuggets, following a 1-4 start, won the next nine of 12 games on its schedule. Most of which came without the help of a young-and-upcoming talent in Michael Porter Jr, due to, you guessed it, COVID19 safety protocol.
Unfortunately, the Dallas Mavericks, perhaps the worst example of suiting up during a pandemic, are feeling the effects of COVID19. Despite having their starting center/power forward back in the lineup, a five-game losing streak.
As the NBA’s plights of postponed games and chunks of depth charts getting yanked from their teams pursue, the importance of star power strengthens. One player hasn’t waivered in the public eye. Dallas Mavericks’ generational star, the marvel that is Luka Doncic, has Las Vegas’ respect.
Despite his team underperforming early in the season, Doncic ranks fourth in the MVP race odds. Withstanding his favorable position with the wise guys, Doncic alone can’t save the Mavericks from the absolute destruction of COVID19.
As mentioned earlier, Dallas represents the less-ideal reality of opening up shop without a bubble setup. Nonetheless, Dallas trucks on with the available players, no matter how inexperienced or unskilled. Unfortunately, Doncic’s running mate, Kristaps Porzingis, missed the first nine games recovering from knee surgery.
Yet, even with Porzingis in the lineup, Mavericks squandered opportunities to beat inferior opponents. Earlier in the season, Dallas dropped the first of a back-to-back game to the Chicago Bulls, albeit without the help of Doncic and Porzingis.
Thankfully, Dallas didn’t have to wait much longer for a chance to avenge its Eastern Conference loss. Coincidentally, the scenario came in another back-to-back stretch. Regardless, the team now had its best players along for the ride.
Doncic had an MVP-like performance with 36 points on 6-11 3p shooting, 16 rebounds, and 15 assists. Porzingis produced a bagel in the 3-pointers made category as the Bulls swept the Mavericks in the regular-season series with a 117-101 victory.
It’s effortless to point at Porzingis’ shooting struggles for the loss. Look closer for a more nuanced reason. A load of minutes from players like energy-driven Wesley Iwundu and rookie Josh Green indicates the downfalls of playing without veterans Maxi Kleber, Josh Richardson, and Dorian Finney-Smith.
Weather the storm
With the unknown long-term side effects of COVID-19 presenting a blur in player recovery timetables, Richardson and Finney-Smith’s return against the Utah Jazz falls under immunity from scrutiny. However, Dallas failed to steal a win versus a red-hot 14-4 Western Conference opponent, especially considering Donovan Mitchell missed the contest due to concussion protocol.
Still, seeing Dwight Powell attempting his rendition of defense on Rudy Gobert triggers thoughts of Kleber rejecting Zion Willamson multiple times last season. Unfortunately, Kleber has yet to recover from COVID19.
Even so, the Mavericks played a brand of uninspired basketball versus a slept-on Jazz unit. The Mavericks roster is too shallow to get by on pure talent.
Luka Doncic is frustrated. “I would say right now that it’s looking like we don’t care, honestly. We need more energy, more effort . . . I know we will and that’s all that matters.”
— Brad Townsend (@townbrad) January 30, 2021
Hard to defend defense
For as elementary as it sounds, effort goes a long way. At the moment, Dallas ranks 21st in defensive rating. In defense of the defenselessness, it’s hard to guard the elite talent when you’re two most versatile defenders are out of action.
Speaking of effort, allowing Bojan Bogdanovic an open look warrants questioning. Late in the first quarter, the 9th last inefficient defense came to lay.
See the sequence where Jalen Brunson fights through the screen from Royce O’Neale. By the time Brunson sees Doncic switch to guard Joe Ingles at the top, it’s too late for him to recover fully. Despite Brunson’s position, the possession had a chance at salvaging. Unfortunately, Hardaway helped on O’Neale rather than Bogdanovic open in the right corner.
Stressing the effort factor in another telling stat: Finney-Smith failed to register a single rebound in the Friday night contest against the Jazz. Sometimes, shots don’t fall. However, the opportunity to try always presents itself. It’s up to the player to show signs of fire.
Calming the storm
As the season progresses, evaluating such a struggling team won’t come with hot takes. The Mavericks aren’t without quality wins, for instance, the dismantling of the Los Angles Clippers or the overtime victory over the surging Denver Nuggets. However, following the win in Denver, the depth chart lost so many key role players.
Yes, the consecutive barn burners versus the Jazz deserve criticism, but calling for Carlisle’s job and suggesting the front office trade Porzingis reeks of desperation. The Utah Jazz may be merely the better team. Currently, the Jazz stands out as the NBA’s best team at 15-4.
Wait for a finished product rather than claim the sky is falling. Perhaps expecting Mavericks players to find their breath immediately after suffering from COVID isn’t the right rationale. The roster with an MVP-caliber star and the dimension-adding big in Porzingis seem like a playoff time. It’s too early to tell if the Mavericks aren’t what we thought they are.
With Dallas looking at an 8-12 record in 20 games, many questions flash in a minute. Why has the offense regressed from the best offensive rating in league history to dead last in three-point percentage? How long until Porzingis fully recovers? Where is the defense Dallas insisted it worked on in the offseason?
All questions warranted, of course. However, keep in mind the landscape of the Western Conference standings. Despite a five-game losing streak, Dallas has only four more losses than the fourth-placed Denver Nuggets.
Don’t call it a night before the sunsets.
For now, chalk it up to a lack of consistency in the depth chart and a lack of defensive intensity.