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A Dallas Mavericks Q&A with NBCNews’ Ben Collins

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On Luka Doncic vs. Ben Simmons, Dennis Smith Jr., and more

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday was dominated by rumors of turmoil surrounding Jimmy Butler, but guess what? The Sixers play tonight against the Dallas Mavericks! To learn more about Dallas, I chatted with Ben Collins. In addition to being a die-hard Mavs fan, Ben does fantastic reporting for NBCNews.com.

Question #1: Luka Doncic has been one of the most enjoyable players in the NBA to watch this season. Doncic’s rise to stardom in his rookie year is similar to that of Ben Simmons last season. So, the question needs to be asked... who would you rather have moving forward: Doncic or Simmons?

I realize I’m going to get beaten down with a cowboy boot and one of those 40-liter pitchers of beer they call a single serving in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex for asking this, but...

This year or forever?

This year, give me Simmons. He’ll drag you deep into the playoffs. He’ll find every open guy. He’ll play entirely within himself. Next to Embiid and Jimmy, that’s what Philly needs this year. Simmons is a more complete distributor than anybody in the East since National TV Rondo. If I want to destroy Malcolm Brogdon in the Eastern Conference Finals* then spook the Warriors, give me that right now.

*editor’s note: Ben, you’re doing a great job trying to get on our good side with this Malcolm Brogdon talk.

But long-term? Give me Doncic.

It’s closer than Mavs fans want it to be. This is weird, because we had a basically J-less Ason Kidd as a rookie, then got him back when he became a top-10 three point shooter of all-time, then calmly led us to a championship. I bet Simmons will develop a jumpshot eventually- even Rondo did, to some extent. It would be weirder if he didn’t.

But I’ve just seen too much of Doncic to not think he’s some weird hybrid of Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and, uh, a taller JJ Barea. Conservatively, he’s Paul Pierce with better vision and worse defense. Pyschadelically, he’s a hybrid Lebron James/space shuttle.

I’ve seen him make too many impossible shots that have nothing to do with athleticism or X’s and O’s for me to think these first two months are anything resembling a fluke. I’ve seen him get picked up at 3/4-court by Jrue Holiday and Paul George, who are maybe the two best healthy wing defenders in the NBA, and get instantly better.

Luka gets furious that a defender thinks he can get the better of him. It is precisely what I want in a basketball player. It’s what makes great players all-timers. I’d rather have Luka Doncic a year from now, and I still think Ben Simmons will be a guy who could get a couple of rings and maybe a Finals MVP. So, no hate on anybody. I’m just all-in on the both of them.

Question #2: After keeping up with some of the Western Conference’s best teams during the early stages of the season, the Mavericks seem to have fallen back a bit into the “good, but not good enough to make the playoffs” section of the conference. So, let’s walk away from tonight’s game for a minute and look at the broader, long-term view of things. Assuming this remains true for the rest of this year, how should the Mavs front office go about turning things up a notch?

The primary thing we need this offseason: Time.

That’s why I think the Mavs hang around the playoff pack: Doncic starts to make real strides the second he starts playing playoff basketball. When a team can pick on his weaknesses (turnovers in the air on drives, for example), he can fix it in an offseason. Ultimately, the goal should be to get this guy to Harden-level usage without an efficiency dropoff. Easier said than done, but that only happens once he can be broken down a little and fixed back up again.

That’s what happened with Dirk, anyways, and that’s the only championship I know. It was a good one.

In terms of personnel, I think the DeAndre Jordan experiment should and will be a short-lived one. Despite his what his rebounding numbers suggest, he has not really made good on his make-good one-year deal. He is an absolute disaster defensively, and appears to be shielded by his veteran status, because nothing has changed. He is either not watching film or he has a Memento-esque, fully broken part of the brain that determines the acuity of your short-term memory.

DeAndre never puts his hand up. Never ever. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid will absolutely eat him alive tonight. He is the most lost ex-Defensive Player of the Year candidate on pick-and-rolls I’ve ever seen in my entire life. This is a real DM I sent to fellow Mavs fan Kirk Henderson a few weeks ago: “love to spend 30% of my winter nights yelling ‘DEANDRE WHAT ARE YOU DOING’ at the tv in an empty house.”

It is a nightmare, but he’s still a very good roll man. He also cares on defense in the last 90 seconds of close games. Unless he does that for, I don’t know, five full minutes a game, I don’t think he should be brought back.

The good news is, the Mavs quietly have a good bit of flexibility this summer. They’ll have more than a single max contract to play with, and can get up to two with some maneuvering. If Harrison Barnes opts out (likely because of a paperwork snafu or he’s lost his entire mind), they could easily get to two max slots.

Still, for the first time since the 2011 championship team, I want to be conservative with this group to maintain that flexibility. So do the Mavs -- they’re possibly angling to keep their cap sheet clean until 2021 for GM Donnie Nelson’s long lost love, Giannis Antetoukounmpo, who Nelson tried to draft, but was overruled, and the team instead traded down and drafted now-Turkish superstar Shane Larkin.) We acquired his brother, Kostas, from the Sixers in a draft night trade that netted you guys Shake Milton. Kostas has shown flashes as a rim-runner.

A potential issue: the team needs to get younger, and it does not have a first-round pick. There was talk of taking on Kent Bazemore’s yucky contract in the deal for Doncic last year, and I would’ve done that. With that said, I would have done anything to trade for Luka Doncic. I literally wrote a post for mavsmoneyball.com imploring the team to “send a dead fish to the desk of [Grizzlies GM] Chris Wallace” to move up and draft Doncic, so I guess taking on Kent Bazemore’s contract seems a little tame comparatively.

First, I’d take on a bad deal that makes sense next to Luka to get a first-round pick in this draft and take a swing. You’ll find a dance partner. The Celtics have four picks. The Cavs still have JR Smith. The Heat have four terrible contracts. If they fall into the lottery, give me two mediocre years of Tyler Johnson for a shot at a rookie like Bol Bol or Rui Hachimura.

Then I’d give an offer sheet to someone like Jordan Bell, who could theoretically be a good rim runner and defender in Dallas’ switch-heavy system. Willie Cauley-Stein, who has noticeable potential but also scares me, could also make sense.

I’d re-sign Maxi Kleber and start him. I’d re-sign Dorian Finney-Smith and promise him a larger role. Then I’d try to sign a 3-and-D wing on a short-year overpay (Danny Green, maybe?), quietly try to launder Luka money so that he never leaves, then call it an offseason.

Question #3: Now, back to the present. There have been many trade rumors surrounding 2017 first-round pick Dennis Smith Jr. because of his questionable fit with Doncic. What is your outlook of DSJ’s future with Dallas? Should they be looking to move him?

No, I really wouldn’t, and I think most Mavs fans agree.

He has truly evolved his game since he’s come back from his wrist injury, which was a bigger problem than anybody initially believed. Dennis has been shooting the ball at a much-improved clip from three-point range since he returned.

More importantly, he’s also ridiculously composed and tough for a young player. After Paul George scored 11 straight points against a bunch of completely horrified defenders in Wes Matthews and Harrison Barnes in the 4th quarter against the Mavs, DSJ was forced to switch onto George and shut him down to close out the game.

He has queitly been a vicious pest of an on-ball guard and wing defender, a springier and slightly worse Patrick Beverley-type of player, since he returned. If that’s his role, this team isn’t just dealing with DSJ’s development, it’s becoming a staple of what the Mavericks are.

This team drafted him for his toughness on offense and athleticism around the wing. If it turns out that toughness translates better on defense and he’s catching lobs and back-cuts off the ball, that’s a real gift for this team and for Luka, who needs exactly that player next to him. His ability to learn and switch roles on the fly as a 20-year-old is equally encouraging.

Whatever we would get in a deal for him right now is not enough. Keep him on the team!

Huge thanks to Ben for taking the time to answer some of our questions!