Drama sparked last week when Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that the Dallas Mavericks were escalating trade discussions in an effort to move Dennis Smith Jr, the 2017 lottery pick who just 12 months prior had been considered the next face of the franchise. Obviously with things of this nature, there’s a lot to unpack, so let’s start with the basics.
The Dallas Mavericks are escalating discussions to find a trade for point guard Dennis Smith Jr., league sources tell ESPN. Phoenix and Orlando have engaged in ongoing talks with Mavs. Smith Jr., has sat out three straight games with what team has termed a sore back.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) January 15, 2019
Until the recent and very reluctant Mavericks rebuild, Rick Carlisle wasn’t known to play his young players a whole lot. This went double for rookies. Trust had to be earned. But with Dallas’ roster thinning by the year, it eventually became apparent in the 2016-17 season an infusion of young talent was in order.
This was always going to be an adjustment for Carlisle, but when Dallas selected Dennis Smith Jr with the 9th pick, a new element was introduced: a new point guard.
Carlisle has clashed with several point guards over the years, including a Hall of Famer in Jason Kidd. Sure, Kidd and Carlisle won a championship together, and they even consider one another a close friend today. But from the time Kidd returned to the Mavs in a 2008 blockbuster trade until the championship season, it was quietly known tension existed.
It was never personal, of course. The issue was control. Carlisle liked to dictate the pace of the offense, who got the ball and where and when. Kidd, a floor general of the highest degree, wanted to push the pace and run the show like he did, even at 35-years-old, better than just about anybody else in the league at the time. Thankfully, the two were able to talk it out and set aside their differences, rising to new heights and delivering the Mavs their lone title.
After Kidd left Dallas, this problem would surface again with players like Darren Collison and another strong-willed point guard, Rajon Rondo. In both cases, the relationship would deteriorate, leading to Collison moving on without much fanfare, and Rondo at the center of a controversy. While Carlisle and Kidd had been able to come to an understanding, Rondo and Carlisle wouldn’t be so fortunate, resulting in a marriage of a little over 30 games before Rondo was sent home after Game 2 of Dallas’ first round playoff series with the Houston Rockets.
I bring all of this up to give context to my points regarding Carlisle with younger players and point guards. So with Dennis Smith Jr coming in on a rebuilding team as a rookie of the year candidate at the point guard position, it was almost the perfect storm. Carlisle coaches Smith hard because he’s a bit prickly as a coach to begin with and he sees immense potential in the NC State product.
Coming into the league, it was known DSJ was a raw prospect who would need at least a couple of years of grooming before he could begin to scratch the surface of said potential, and Dallas was okay with that. It understood that. But then something funny happened: Dallas found itself back in the lottery with a chance to trade up and select Luka Doncic with the 3rd overall pick.
While no one could’ve anticipated Doncic being this good this early, it unfortunately shifted the thinking of the Mavericks. The rebuild window they’d never wanted to embrace in the first place now looked to have shrunk by more than a year or two, and the patience they’d once had for Dennis Smith Jr’s development seemingly began to evaporate. Nevermind the fact that DSJ is a score-first point guard and was suddenly being asked to play without the ball in his hands. Nevermind the fact that barely a year and a half ago he was promised the keys to the kingdom, only to watch as a once in a generation player appeared in his locker room and stole the spotlight.
To be clear, this isn’t a shot at Luka, or even DSJ for that matter. The two get along great and even live in the same apartment complex, hanging out and playing Fortnite regularly.
To his credit, while Smith’s overall numbers are down, his shooting percentages are solidly up across the board, and his defense is miles better from where it at the end of last season. He’s said everything right and done everything asked of him, but his frustration, as well as that of his agent and advisers, appear to have grown as well.
Smith Jr sat out three games with what the team termed a “sore back,” which oddly hearkens back to Rondo’s final days as a Maverick. But when trade talks with the Phoenix Suns and Orlando Magic dissolved due to Dallas’ lack of leverage amid a volatile situation, the Mavs pulled away from the table. At the very least, Dallas was wise enough not to accept 50 cents on the dollar for a player who was a top 10 pick just last year. With a clear stalemate reached, Smith Jr is set to return Tuesday night against the Los Angeles Clippers.
But the question remains: can Dallas salvage its relationship with Smith, or is this merely about reclaiming some of his trade value before they eventually part ways, be it at the trade deadline or offseason?
Honestly it’s hard to see both parties getting past something like this. Once that can gets opened, it can never be closed again. Rick Carlisle may have reached out to Smith and publicly apologized for his role in the whole situation but will things really change long term? And even if they do, will that change the fact that DSJ knows the Mavs tried to move him? Probably not.
On the court this season, it’s been clearly evident that the Luka/DSJ pairing hasn’t worked out like many would hope. That said, they’ve played approximately 30 games together and are 19 and 21-years-old, respectively. It might not be a perfect pairing right now but if you give it the two years or so you were planning to give Dennis before, it’ll certainly be much better then.
Whether or not the two parties can move forward after such a near and public breakup remains to be seen. Ego certainly could play a role in things. To Dennis’s view, he may get to go somewhere like Orlando and be the man, but will he enjoy the same degree of team and personal success alone than he would with Luka Doncic? And for Rick, who said of Doncic earlier this season during an interview with Sports Illustrated that it was crucial that he doesn’t take the great things that make Luka, Luka and crush them. The same is true of Dennis Smith Jr. It’s fine to demand full effort and a greater degree of defensive prowess but so much of the flash and flare we saw from Smith Jr last year has been absent this season, both with and without Doncic on the court.
Somewhere, there’s a balance to find to make this work with Luka and Dennis. And if they can’t find it, Dallas will likely give up on yet another young, talented point guard and far too soon at that.
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