Mavericks’ precociousness can’t match Nuggets’ championship chemistry

DENVER — The Dallas Mavericks, finally, can be considered something akin to a young team. It’s an unlikely but positive development for a franchise that has been light on draft picks and young rotation players. It’s something that gives Dallas hope that it can build something around Luka Dončić, the young-but-only-by-age player at the core of this team-building exercise before the ticking clock of contention goes too far.

It also leads to what happened on Friday, a 125-112 defeat on the road to the Denver Nuggets, where the reigning champs convincingly showed Dallas — who could turn into something serious — that they’re serious right now.

The starting lineups said enough. Nikola Jokić, twice NBA MVP, lined up for the game’s opening tip across from 19-year-old Dereck Lively II. Aaron Gordon, who’s been with the team since a 2021 deadline trade, faced off against Grant Williams, who Dallas signed this summer. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who left one championship team for what’s now another one, was across from Derrick Jones Jr., another brand-new Dallas signee. And Jamal Murray, whose chemistry with Jokić has developed a stellar allure, stood across from Kyrie Irving, who on Friday played just his 18th game together with Dončić.

Dallas being this young was inconceivable just two summers ago, one where the team’s second-best draft pick in the past couple of decades, Jalen Brunson, left for nothing in return.

Last season, Dallas started the year with just two rotation players — Dončić and Josh Green — under 27. But a surprisingly miserable season meant that the team’s draft pick, owed to the New York Knicks, was retained and turned into Lively and the 22-year-old Olivier-Maxence Prosper. Jaden Hardy, a 2022 second-round draftee, broke out in last season’s second half. Williams, who went to two conference finals with the Boston Celtics, is only 24. On Wednesday, Dallas closed out a win against the Chicago Bulls with a lineup completely comprised of under-25 players: Dončić, Williams, Green, Lively and Hardy.

But that win against Chicago, and the Mavericks’ 4-0 start, meant little to the Nuggets on Friday. Denver methodically built an early lead against Dallas, which swelled to 19 points early in the third quarter, that the Mavericks could only eat into — but not come close to surmounting — late in the fourth. For every rally, Jokić had an alchemic assist or unstoppable shot waiting to stem whatever comeback hopes existed.

Yes, Dallas was missing Maxi Kleber, a stretch big man who might have helped throw more five-out lineups and two-big lineups at the Nuggets. The Mavericks conceded 19 offensive rebounds and scored just 117.7 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning The Glass, which would be a fantastic mark of efficiency against most teams. But against Denver, it wasn’t nearly enough — and it lowered Dallas’ offensive rating, still second-best in the league, for the season. But even Kleber’s presence might not have changed anything against a team this aware of their strengths.

Lively, the teenage center who has even soared past the expectations that Dallas executives had for him, hasn’t yet learned the dark arts that are required for elite NBA rebounders. Many times, Jokić or another wily Denver veteran was able to poke or tip balls past him to secure second-chance opportunities.

“I think he’s going to be an exceptional rebounder,” acting head coach Sean Sweeney said after the game. “But just understanding that these guys are physical, they’re strong, they don’t just let you grab it. The tenacity that you need, the intensity that you need, combined with the physicality that you need against these strong guys, it’s something that young players have to learn.”

Sweeney, the team’s 39-year-old lead assistant who filled in for Jason Kidd, who didn’t make the trip with a non-COVID-19 illness, is young himself. Last season, before calamity ensued, it was a point of pride for the Dallas coaching staff. This season, however, the roster has more youth filling its ranks and has remade its coaching roster with more experienced coaches.

Even Dončić, the undoubted franchise player, showed more of the pouty disinterest that has plagued his career, especially in the game’s first half. His 34-point, 10-rebound, nine-assist performance was relatively poor by his standards, which is an incredible thing to say about such an agglomeration of statistics. But it was marred by nine turnovers and inattentive defending that he had mostly erased through the team’s four-game winning streak to open this season.

When thinking about the youth of this team’s rotation, one which does set up Dallas for growth and possibly future trades, it shouldn’t be overlooked that Dončić himself is still maturing, too.

“What lost us the game was my turnovers and defensive rebounding,” Dončić said afterward. “But I think, last year, we would’ve lost by 30.”

That’s the hope for Dallas, a franchise that knows it needs to contend sooner than later. But against Denver, a team stacked with veteran resilience that can only come with age, it was abundantly clear that this type of contention isn’t yet there for a youthful roster still learning how NBA champions succeed as they do. What Dallas could be might be what Denver is. But it isn’t, not yet and not for some time, what this team is right now.

(Photo of Luka Dončić and Nikola Jokić: C. Morgan Engel / Getty Images)

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