The Mavericks, in the immediate term, got worse this afternoon.
This is one way of viewing the trade deadline deal that shipped Kristaps Porzingis (plus a second-round pick) to Washington for Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans. Dallas bet big on the Latvian big man as Luka Doncic’s long-term co-star. Having to include a draft pick just to shuffle him off in exchange for another team’s free-agent mistakes is a concession that this bet has definitively gone bust.
Prior to the season, I wrote that “these Mavericks will only be great if he becomes someone to count on.” Today is proof that this team, currently sitting in a respectable-yet-barely threatening fifth place, no longer believes it can be with their now-former center chewing up so much of their salary cap space.
That doesn’t change the fact that, during the increasingly infrequent stretches when Porzingis was on the floor, added value. His defense returned this year, once again cementing him among the game’s more intimidating rim protectors, the one area of the floor where he played to every bit of the potential a 7-foot-3 bulwark seemingly ought to provide.
His offensive repertoire, almost totally neutered by the end of Rick Carlisle’s tenure, became more robust. In December, his last month of substance in the organization, he averaged 21.7 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks in a dozen games. If those numbers weren’t quite the stratospheric production players on maximum deals get paid to deliver, they were enough of a facsimile to believe enough, again, in Porzingis’ utility on a good team. There is little reason to expect two backups on a bad team can do better.
Nevertheless, over the next 48 hours, you will read and listen to plenty of takes speculating on what Dinwiddie and Bertans can add to this roster. The former is a longstanding Mark Cuban crush who can be the tertiary ball handler this team has sorely lacked; he’s also an insurance policy should Dallas fail to re-sign Jalen Brunson in free agency this summer.
The latter could be a reclamation project in the vein of pre-2022 Tim Hardaway Jr., a career 40 percent three-point shooter who got his money on the strength of back-to-back seasons shooting at a 42-percent clip from deep. Stick him in the corners, have Doncic thread those passes that so often generate open looks, and maybe that number ticks back up in a way that makes him the shooting threat a team that ranks 24th leaguewide in three-point percentage sorely needs.
Either or both could be useful pieces on a roster that is, and should, remain in flux as the organization chases the right supporting cast around Doncic before their clock runs out.
All of those opinions are valid, but none of them are the point. If the organization’s best-laid plans come to fruition this offseason, Dallas will re-sign Brunson and fellow free agent Dorian Finney-Smith to long-term deals at numbers that, prior to the Porzingis deal, would almost certainly push the team past the NBA’s luxury tax threshold and effectively lock them into a core of five players: Doncic, Porzingis, Brunson, Finney-Smith, and Hardaway Jr. [Editor’s note: Since this story published, news broke that Finney-Smith is reportedly nearing a four-year, $52 million extension.]
We have three years of data about what this group is, and while the conditions have fluctuated—the head coach has changed, Brunson improved as Hardaway Jr. regressed, an excellent offensive team has become an excellent defensive one—the endgame hasn’t. The output simply isn’t good enough to contend for a championship.
Consider today a strategic retreat, then, an admission that four more years of reshuffling deck chairs will never bring the team to the only acceptable outcome when a generational talent like Doncic is on their books. This is the correct assessment. Nothing precluded them from striking out in the same direction after re-signing Brunson and Finney-Smith, of course, but the options narrow considerably when a damaged asset like Porzingis is collecting upward of $30 million annually—$31.7 million this season, $33.8 next season, and a player option he’ll almost certainly pick up in 2023-2024 worth $36 million and change—versus two players taking home millions in the teens.
There is a caveat, however. This only works if the Mavericks’ front office makes it work, if their next moves are their best moves. There was a time, 20 or so years ago, when they dependably did just that. They spent 2001 through 2006, in particular, red paper clipping their way from a fringe playoff team into an NBA finalist: spare parts to Washington for Juwan Howard; Howard to Denver for Raef LaFrentz and Nick Van Exel; LaFrentz to Boston for Antoine Walker and Van Exel to Golden State for Antawn Jamison; Walker to Atlanta for Jason Terry and Jamison to Washington for the draft pick that would become Devin Harris.
On and on they went, making plans and then breaking them, tinkering and re-tinkering, until a foundation for a championship team was laid in 2006 and calcified in 2011.
We have not seen this ethos since. The game has changed, of course, and so has this league; teams are smarter, less cavalier. Still, the Doncic trade notwithstanding, the Mavericks have largely spent the previous 11 years intermittently miscalculating on big swings or choking up to dribble infield singles. They’ve misread too many rooms, perhaps none more than their own. This past offseason, which featured the most comprehensive front office overhaul since the freewheeling aughts, was a step toward fixing that. But it didn’t stop me from wondering aloud a few weeks ago to my 77 Minutes in Heaven co-host, The Athletic’s Tim Cato, whether this organization still had the stomach to make the hard choices, to rip down imperfect work and bet on themselves to erect better, sturdier replacements. Today proved they do.
But now they must deliver, and quickly. There is no mandate that this pays dividends immediately, but it has to before Doncic gets antsy. That’s always been the mandate, and now Nico Harrison and co. must demonstrate that a short-term step backward in talent on a roster hardly overflowing with it is the correct play to import gobs more of it before it’s too late.
If they’re right, Porzingis will one day become a pleasant footnote, his name a curio hardcore fans bandy about like LaFrentz’s when they recount the move before the move before the move that brought in a key piece of the first Doncic championship team much like LaFrentz, himself an enigmatic shooting center, eventually begat key pieces on Dirk Nowitzki’s.
If they’re wrong, Luka Doncic ends his 20s wearing another team’s uniform.
Those are the stakes, and this deadline is proof that the Mavericks believe in themselves as much as ever to meet them. Now begins the long, winding path to see if they’re right.