Since the 2021-22 season ended—later than expected, earlier than hoped—we have spent most of our time on StrongSide talking about next steps for the Dallas Mavericks. What Nico Harrison might do this offseason. What Luka Doncic and his teammates can learn from their first playoff run of consequence. Which makes sense. We all want to know where the Mavericks go from here.
What I want to do, before we completely move on, is just spend a moment remembering this team. Because almost certainly, if the goal is to go even further, this group, this exact squad, won’t be around when next season starts. Such is life in the NBA. If you’re not falling in love, you’re getting your heart broken.
I’m not ready to leave the first phases just yet.
More than a few times during this NBA season, I was moved to tweet something along the lines of “I love love this team,” either after or on the way to another Mavs win. The team I mean is nominally the 2021-22 Mavericks, but it is more specific than that. The version that caused those tender feelings was not the one that began the season. It started to emerge when the omicron variant caused league-wide roster shakeups in December and January—Isaiah Thomas playing one solitary game for the team will win a bar bet someday—and then settled into place after the Kristaps Porzingis trade in February.
Theo Pinson and Marquese Chriss were the first to join, on 10-day contracts that turned into full-time gigs. Chriss, a former lottery pick, shored up the big man depth toward the end of the bench, removing uncertainty more than anything else. Pinson, on the other hand, was never even rotation-adjacent but quickly became an integral member of the team anyway. He might be the league’s No. 1 hype man and was the co-leader of the pep rallies the bench held during the playoffs, stalking the sidelines with injured Tim Hardaway Jr. like two top-shelf sports dads.
That’s what causes you to remember a particular team. It’s often about vibes as much as results.
Take the 2012-13 Mavs. They finished 41-41 and didn’t even make the playoffs. But I’ll remember that group forever. This is the season when Dirk Nowitzki and others vowed not to shave until they got back to .500 on the season, growing burly beards but eventually getting the job done. Or the next season, which I remember as much for this photo as I do for Vince Carter’s game winner in the seven-game first-round loss to the Spurs. (OK, maybe not as much, but close.)
But the other two players that joined along the way—Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans, who came to town from Washington, D.C., in exchange for Porzingis—had more to do with wins and losses. I will admit that I wasn’t excited to see them, not because I wanted the Latvian unicorn to stay but because I thought the organization might have been able to get a little more for him. Dinwiddie and Bertans, we were all led to believe, were damaged goods.
They quickly showed they weren’t. Dinwiddie hit back-to-back game winners at one point in the regular season, and Bertans helped win at least one playoff game. And they fit in seemingly perfectly on and off the court. Dinwiddie capably filled THJ’s role as streaky scorer (mostly off the bench), while Bertans gave the team a different tall, oddly built Latvian—this one a guy who loved to shoot long threes and nothing more.
All four of these guys played their parts exactly as written, which helped this bunch become one of my favorite Mavericks teams ever. Its only real competition is the 2003 squad. (We can stipulate that a title-winning roster rises above all others, so we don’t need to discuss the 2011 Mavericks here.) And it goes beyond the superficial similarities of both being Western Conference finalists.
The 2022 team harkened back to 2003 not in its makeup necessarily—the 2003 roster was full of first-round picks and had four All-Stars in its rotation—but in the fact that every single player knew exactly what was required of him. They all contributed something at some point during that playoff run, especially after Dirk went down in the conference finals and every pundit subsequently counted the Mavs out.
I will always remember 2003. I will remember watching Game 2 of the semifinal series against Sacramento from high up in one of the AAC’s corner seats and almost tumbling down the stands as I high-fived strangers, and I will remember the exploits of Dirk, Steve Nash, and Michael Finley, and I will remember Nick Van Exel bombing threes off the bench and dancing back up the court. But I will also always remember journeymen such as Walt Williams and Adrian Griffin and Eddie Najera until the day I die, the fingers that turned into a fist.
And right now, I feel like I am always going to remember 2022, regardless of whether it ever leads to anything more. I will remember Game 7 against Phoenix and Luka smiling at a grim Devin Booker. I will remember how Jalen Brunson put the team on his back during the early games against Utah, securing a giant bag (hopefully from Dallas). And I will remember the bench behaving like the Mavs were a March Madness hopeful, a nightly exhibition of what a special team this was. I will remember the immaculate vibes. I loved loved this team. Whatever comes next.