When I wrote the Dallas Mavericks were a mess earlier this season, it was right after they traded one terrible contract in Kristaps Porziņģis for two terrible contracts in Spencer Dwindiddle and Davis Bertans. My argument was not that the Mavs had made the wrong move in ditching the Latvian bum. Nor was it an indictment of their on-court product. First-year coach Jason Kidd has turned the Mavericks into a capable defensive force. The premise of the article was not about the team’s current situation at all. It was about their future.
Since then, the Mavericks went on an improbable run to the Western Conference Finals, where they currently are down 0-3 to the Golden State Warriors. To get here, they rode the superstar ascension of Luka Dončić while dismantling a Utah Jazz team that quit well before the series was out of reach. It was the second-round series, where they upset the top-seeded Phoenix Suns in seven games, where the Mavericks encapsulated their Cinderella postseason. Online and in Buffalo Wild Wings across Dallas, Mavs fans began to drink the Kool-Aid, believing this year would look like 2011.
In the Western Conference Semifinals, Chris Paul broke down a set earlier than he did in last year’s Finals run, while Devin Booker proved that anyone who called him a superstar spoke way too soon. Soon-to-be free agent Deandre Ayton seemed to be more focused on arguing with Suns head coach Monty Williams than dominating the Mavericks’ weak, undersized frontcourt.
The Mavs are this year’s dark-horse contender, and they got hot at the perfect time. Hard to see a mess here. Except, again, it’s not about the present. It’s about the moment after this run eventually dissipates, maybe as soon as today, when the superior Golden State Warriors dispatch the lesser Mavericks and send them back home to ponder the tough choices lying ahead of them. Suffice to say, Mavs GM Nico Harrison has been thinking about the potentially disastrous summer awaiting the Mavs long before their Game 1 blowout loss to the Warriors.
The hard truth is, the Mavs overachieved behind a run of a true superstar and a bunch of dumbbells. In the process, Dončić moved up the standings of the NBA elite, second only to Giannis Antetokounmpo. Dončić proved he was the best player on the court in every series, including the current WCF against the Warriors. But as the opponents became tougher, the deficiencies of the roster became more apparent. Nobody thought any of the “other guys’’ on this roster were stars. But against the Warriors, Dončić has had to take on a Herculean level of excellence just for the Mavericks to get blown out by 30 every game. The Mavericks are 2-6 in playoff games where Dončić has scored more than 40 points.
After mostly filling the roster with New York Knicks castaways, nobody on this roster is capable of getting their own shot or creating off the dribble at a consistent rate. Dinwiddie, the centerpiece of the Porziņģis trade, was nonexistent against the Jazz and has popped up since, here and there, to chip in 10-20 points while getting destroyed on defense by opposing guards and on switches. His bloated $20 million per year deal, good for another two seasons, doesn’t look as bad as when it was initially signed. But Dinwiddie hasn’t been able to average above 16 points per game through a series in these playoffs. The other piece of that trade, Davis Bertans, has been an unmitigated disaster. His $16 million a year contract, also on the books for another two seasons, is one of the worst deals for a bench player in the league. Bertans hasn’t averaged above 5 ppg in any series this postseason. No scoring, no defense, just better “vibes” than his previous Latvian counterpart.
But the woes go beyond the two bums the Mavs got back for their one bum. In the playoffs, the Mavs have been outrebounded by 140. As well, their offense has looked YMCA-level, with coach Jason Kidd implementing a pick and roll offense without the “roll,” ending up with Dončić aimlessly dribbling the air out of the ball in iso situations. Either that or one of the 10 mediocre role players heaving up a three.
The Mavericks defense, a staple of fans’ overreactions, has been exposed in the Golden State series. Dorian Finney-Smith, a fine player and high character two-way guy, might be the most overrated of the vibe crew. His defensive ratings for Games 1 through 3 are 126.1 for Game 1, 121.6 for Game 2, and 120.7 for Game 3. Paltry, to say the least. Meanwhile, Andrew Wiggins has posted Defensive Ratings of 88.4, 109, and 98.7 in this series against Dallas, sonning Luka this series the same way the Warriors’ Stephen Jackson sonned Dirk Nowitzki in 2007-08’s historic upset over the Mavs.
Watching on TV, and on paper, there’s no way Wiggins should be minimizing the impact of Dončić’s 40-point outbursts. But in the same way the undersized Captain Jack outmuscled Nowitzki in 2008, Wiggins has smothered Dončić into doing his worst James Harden in Houston impression. At this point, Dončić has to either take a difficult shot or pass to a teammate and pray one of the bums finally makes a shot against this Warriors defense. As a result, Dončić has lost trust in his teammates while over-dribbling the ball in ball-hogging isolation situations on offense. Under Kidd, the Mavs have been one of the top teams in the league at isolation possessions.
Wiggins has primarily defended Dončić, who has made him tire out before crunch time. And while no one can actually shut down Dončić, he has kept him from being the facilitator he was in the last two series. After game two of the Warriors series, only 11 of Dončić’s 100 shots were assisted upon. Which is just a small sample size of how hard the Slovanian has to work. No other team in the playoffs, much less the NBA, is as one-man-centric as these Mavs. This is not the roleplayer’s fault, but Mark Cuban, previous GM Donnie Nelson, and current GM Harrison, as they have failed to put a legitimate second star next to their centerpiece and surround him with viable, actual help. It’s also a testament to how fucking amazing Dončić really is.
The last time hoops fans have seen a team play this much box-and-one defensive scheme is in high school playoff games. To see Warriors coach Steve Kerr employ it as consistently as he has in this series shows how dependent the Mavs dumbbells are on Dončić initiating the offense. This brings us to the elephant in the room: Jalen Brunson’s impending free agency.
For the first three games, Dončić was out in the Jazz series, and Brunson exploded offensively, beating the Jazz single-handedly. For the playoffs thus far, Brunson is averaging 22.7 on shooting splits of 47/35/81. In addition, his scoring average has jumped six points from the regular season and is sure to earn the second-round pick a hefty payday. But with the Mavs already at the cap, his payday would force owner Mark Cuban to enter the Luxury Tax for the first time in his ownership.
Is it worth going into the luxury tax and committing to this over-achieving core without addressing the three most significant issues still plaguing the team? They desperately need a rebounding, athletic big, someone who can get their own shot, and most importantly — a real second star. Brunson has played his ass off, but he has not shown he can be the second star they need to win it all. Paying Brunson anything over $22 million a year would turn another overachieving glue guy into an overpaid, hard-to-move contract, just like Tim Hardaway, Dwight Powell, and Maxi Kleber before them. This includes the combined $38 million per year for Dinwiddle and Bertans.
How do the Mavs add another “star” via trade or free agency and retain Brunson by paying him what he thinks he’s worth? The answer is you can’t. The Mav’s best bet is using Brunson, the Mav’s best trade asset, in a S&T to go after said star. They also lack picks, owing next year’s first-rounder to New York in the initial Porziņģis trade. They could trade this season’s 26th pick and future comparable picks and try to convince one of the NBA’s poverty franchises to let go of Jerami Grant, Christian Wood, Myles Turner, or Buddy Hield.
The problem is none of the names make Dallas a contender, but they seem realistic targets considering the Mav’s available trade assets. Of course, any deal will undoubtedly involve the Mavs breaking up Dončić’s club bros: Boban Marjanović, Josh Green, and Maxi Kleber. He’s known to club hop with these “vibe guys” in Dallas’ Deep Ellum district. But any of these, plus glue guys Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock, who has been atrocious these WCFs, would need to be included as deal sweeteners and salary matches for said “star.”
In Cuban’s tenure as the Mavs owner, they’ve never snagged a primetime free agent. With the team’s front office consistently mired in lawsuits, accusations, and scandals, that will not change. With Dončić’s draft-day deal costing them the 2019 pick, which turned into Cam Reddish, and his lightspeed ascension to stardom, robbing the team of Lottery luck, the trade market is the only logical way for the Mavs to improve.
For now, Dončić will have to make do with more than likely losing the team’s second-best player in Brunson’s free agency. While also playing in Kidd’s unimaginative offense, which consists of chucking threes and Dončić isolations. Even worse, when the threes don’t fall, Kidd has blamed the players for taking too many, even though they led the league in three-point attempts in the regular season. Kidd has looked clueless in this series after orchestrating a brilliant defensive effort in the Phoenix series. It’s on offense where the first-year coach has looked below-average and overrated. It brings to mind Mike Brown’s late 2000s tenure in Cleveland and Mark Jackson’s early 2010s tenure in Golden State.
The Mavs only have to look at last year’s Atlanta Hawks’ similar overachieving postseason for a blueprint on how not to handle the subsequent offseason. After the Hawks made the ECF last season, upsetting the favored Philadelphia 76ers similar to the Mavs improbable win over the Suns. Hawks star Trey Young even had an explosive ascension to stardom based on that playoff run. They decided to bring the band back together while overpaying their second-best player, John Collins. All this to be bounced from the first round this year by the Miami Heat.
The Mavs should pivot from the same continuity game plan they’ve seemingly tried to maintain for the last 20 years. The only time they’ve deviated from this oddly enough is when they broke up the 2011 championship team months after winning a championship. Dončić deserves a better team around him. He needs more athletes, three-level scorers, and off-the-dribble creators to help carry the load through a deep-playoff run. That’s obvious, the complexity is in how the hell Dallas is going to do this with limited assets, a maxed-out salary cap, and low-value draft picks. The silver lining in this current Mav mess is that almost any star-level player will do as a paired second star for Dončić to take a retooled Mavs roster to the Finals. It’s up to Harrison, and micro-managing “shadow GM” Cuban to make the future as bright as the present. At least for now. Dončić’s success while wearing a Mavs jersey depends on it.