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Basketball

Are the Mavericks Better Than Last Year? Worse? Three Players Will Decide Their Fate.

We know how their roster stacks up leaguewide. Tim Hardaway Jr., Spencer Dinwiddie, and Christian Wood will determine if it progresses any further.
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No matter the sport, building a roster is basically a series of gambles. 

Some bets are safe, like deciding to give Luka Doncic a supermax contract extension. Others, like deciding not to go above and beyond to retain Jalen Brunson, are a bit riskier. Most fall somewhere in between those two. Complicating matters, of course, is not every team is playing with the same deck. The Mavericks entered this offseason in an unenviable position–well, as unenviable of a position as can exist with an All-NBA player already on the roster–of looking to build off last season’s startling success and improve their roster despite few avenues to do so. That was before the Brunson dilemma barrelled down the tracks and whisked him right out of town. 

Now most of their offseason business is settled. The Mavericks could have another rotation-altering move in the offing, but they are at least one degree removed from such a scenario. They are waiting on other moves around the league (i.e., Utah trading Donovan Mitchell) to open a window of opportunity. Unless or until that happens, this is their roster. 

StrongSide’s Iztok Franko had a fantastic piece Monday building off of Seth Partnow’s indispensable annual Player Tiers series. So let’s stand on the shoulders of giants and continue analyzing this roster through that lens. A refresher, from Iztok’s piece: 

“Ranking players is always a tricky exercise, but an overview of the league talent distribution is an exercise NBA front offices undertake when they plan their roster-building moves and set their expectations. Over the last three years, Seth Partnow at The Athletic has been doing remarkable work replicating the process, by grouping the top 125 players in the NBA into five tiers. How do the Mavericks compare to their peers as they continue to try to build a contending team around Doncic?  

Four Mavericks are ranked in the top 125. Luka Doncic is in Tier 1B (the top six players in the NBA). From there, it’s a steep drop to Dorian Finney-Smith in Tier 4A (41 to 59), with Maxi Kleber and Spencer Dinwiddie in Tier 5A (85 to 125). [Christian] Wood, who was in Tier 4B (57 to 79 last season), didn’t crack the top 125 this year.”

Four players in the top 125 is basically league average, without weighting the value of each tier (a Tier 1 player such as Doncic has an outsized impact on a team’s success, for instance). So what is Dallas betting on with this group?

First, barring injury, I think it is safe to lock in Doncic, Finney-Smith, and Kleber to continue to do what they do. There’s a tad more risk involved with Kleber, whose performance noticeably diminishes when playing hurt (as he has been more frequently over the past two seasons). But with relatively decent injury luck, you can count on him to be what he is.

So the Mavericks’ hopes of maintaining last year’s step forward, let alone improving upon it, come down to three different names, all of whom either made this list or have appeared on it before. There are reasons for optimism and pessimism for each one.

We begin with Dinwiddie, who was previously a Tier 4 player before sliding to Tier 5 in this year’s rankings. He has to be sniffing top-40 status for Dallas to genuinely be better next season. 

The calculus for how that happens is based on two things. First is the idea that a player coming off of an ACL injury doesn’t regain full form until his second year back on the floor. Dinwiddie agrees with that notion, and while every player is different, history gives us reason for optimism. 

Second is the hope that his 41 percent shooting from deep as a Maverick last season (on 200 attempts between the regular season and playoffs) was not just based on a smallish sample size. There’s room for some regression, too: even hitting at a 37 or 38 percent clip from deep on a slightly increased volume would be a huge win. That could be a big reason why Jason Kidd has already declared Dindwiddie will replace Brunson in his starting lineup next season. Dinwiddie took 62 shots on passes from Doncic last season. Among all players who have passed into a Dinwiddie shot over his career, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that Doncic ranks first in the shot quality created for Dinwiddie. When they shared the floor last year in limited minutes, they posted an offensive rating that would have been near the top of the league. Again, this isn’t a wealth of data, but given time, this backcourt has a chance to be exceptionally dynamic on the offensive end. 

The problem? The inverse is true on the other end of the floor. The bulk of those minutes together were played with Kleber at the five, who, while a plus defender, should not be tasked with guarding most teams’ starting big. The hope is that a dose of JaVale McGee minutes will help the starters defensively and that Dinwiddie can exploit bench units when Doncic is off of the floor. It’s one of several things that must go right for the “ride with Dinwiddie” bet to pay off. 

The next bet deals with the Mavericks’ so-called big free agent signing of the offseason (I really wish the team would have never phrased his return in that way): Tim Hardaway Jr., who was a Tier 5 player in 2019 and 2020 before a season-ending injury (after  a spell on the COVID list) took him out of the running for last season. The best-case scenario is that Hardaway Jr. returns to the player he was in his first two full seasons as a Maverick, when he shot 39 percent from three on more than seven attempts a game. 

We know he can play with Doncic. Whether he jells with Dinwiddie, with whom he has never played, could be the key to a bounceback season. Mavs assistant Greg St. Jean said in a recent interview with the Locked On Mavs podcast that the team will “very rarely have a situation where we don’t have one of Spencer Dinwiddie or Luka Doncic on the floor,” and if Dinwiddie spends any amount of time against opposing second units like we assume, I’d expect these two to see a lot of time together.

The issue is that Hardaway Jr. was flat-out bad last year well before illness and injury set in. The entire team shot poorly out of the gate, but Hardaway Jr. slumped more than most, dipping to just 33 percent from beyond the arc in his first 29 games before being sidelined. Was it a small sample or the makings of a bad fit outside of Rick Carlisle’s space-heavy system? There’s no middle ground here: Hardaway Jr. has to provide serious punch in a sixth-man role and bounce back to who he was in the previous two seasons. If he isn’t, Dallas will not be a better team and his contract becomes a major impediment as the front office continues to try and to build. 

Finally, the Mavericks’ headline addition, Christian Wood, who was a Tier 5 player in 2019 and a Tier 4 player in 2020 before falling off of the list. It appears Wood will come off of the bench, but it’s hard not to imagine him closing most games if he is bought in. Very few frontcourt players who provide a solid roll threat while also shooting it as well as Wood does on solid volume. We don’t yet know how much he’ll share the floor with Doncic, but Wood is going to get good looks and a lot of them, starting or not. And when you shoot 38 percent from three on nearly 700 attempts over the past three seasons while being in some very bad basketball situations, you’re probably going to knock down plenty of them in a better one. That’s especially true in those moments when arguably the best playmaker in basketball is setting you up.

Unfortunately, history tells us buy-in may not be a given. The Rockets suspended Wood (and Kevin Porter Jr.) for a game last season after a halftime argument with an assistant coach that was reportedly over Wood’s level of effort. He missed a COVID test and was taken out of the starting lineup, something he apparently was having none of. We’ve talked a lot about the Mavericks’ culture; Wood will be a test of that culture. He has not proven himself to be an average defender, which is why Kidd appears set on McGee as the starter. But last season under Kidd proved that subpar defenders can grow into average team defenders with the proper level of commitment. 

Given what we know, it is entirely possible that Wood gets miffed coming off of the bench and never really gets it. It is equally possible that no matter the role, Wood becomes a passable defender in his contract year while largely sharing the floor with Kleber, creating a formidable second-line frontcourt. The endgame is obvious either way: just as with Hardaway Jr., the Mavericks will probably have a rough go of things (by their standards) if Wood doesn’t reappear on this list next year. 

Time for a reality check: even if all three of those players hit, it’s impossible to see anyone on the roster climbing all the way to Tier 2 and only a scant possibility Dinwiddie could crack the top 40 and make it to Tier 3. That’s the sort of second option Dallas needs to push for title contention.

But the Mavericks’ best-case scenario for maintaining a 50-plus win roster without Brunson comes down to Dinwiddie, Hardaway Jr., and Wood being close to the best version of themselves. That would give Dallas six players in the top 125, which would have tied for the second-most in the league (with six other teams). Reclaiming their previous status would also make those players more attractive in potential trades as Nico Harrison and his staff continue to tinker with the roster. 

I realize it isn’t that exciting to say that if things break right, Dallas could be as good or marginally better than last season.  But that’s where this thing is right now. The Mavericks’ roster may not appear to be built for the postseason, but their superstar is. If the front office’s bets pay off, this team will at least be in a good position to give Doncic a shot in the postseason. If they don’t, it will mark the first year of the “Brunson Regret Era.” And if the Brunson Regret Era extends too long, it might one day mean the end of another far more important one.

We know he can play with Doncic. Whether or not he jells with Dinwiddie, with whom he’s never played before, could be the key to a bounce-back season. Mavs assistant Greg St. Jean said in a recent interview with the Locked On Mavs podcast that the team will “very rarely have a situation where we don’t have one of Spencer Dinwiddie or Luka Doncic on the floor,” and if Dinwiddie spends any amount of time against opposing second units like we assume, I’d expect these two to see a lot of time together.

The issue is that Hardaway Jr. was flat-out bad last year well before illness and injury set in. The whole team shot poorly out of the gate, but Hardaway Jr. slumped more than most, dipping to just 33 percent from beyond the arc in his first 29 games before being sidelined. Was it a small sample or the makings of a bad fit outside of Rick Carlisle’s space-heavy system? There’s no middle ground here: Hardaway Jr. has to provide serious punch in a sixth-man role and bounce back to who he was in the previous two seasons. If he isn’t, Dallas will not be a better team and his contract becomes a major impediment as the front office continues to try and to build one. 

Finally, the Mavericks’ headline addition, Christian Wood, who was a Tier 5 player in 2019 and a Tier 4 player in 2020 before falling off of the list. Right now, it appears Wood will come off of the bench, but it’s hard not to imagine him closing most games if he is bought in. Very few frontcourt players who provide a solid roll threat while also shooting it as well as Wood does on solid volume. We don’t yet know how much he’ll share the floor with Doncic, but Wood is going to get good looks and lots of them, starting or not. And when you shoot 38 percent from three on nearly 700 attempts over the past three seasons while being in some very bad basketball situations, you’re probably going to knock plenty of them down in a better one. That’s especially true in those moments when arguably the best playmaker in basketball is setting you up.

Unfortunately, history tells us buy-in may not be a given. The Rockets suspended Wood (and Kevin Porter Jr.) for a game last season after a halftime argument with an assistant coach that was, reportedly, over Wood’s level of effort. He missed a COVID test and was taken out of the starting lineup, something he apparently was having none of. We’ve talked a lot about the Mavericks’ culture; Wood will be a test of that culture. He has not proven himself to be an average defender, which is why Kidd appears set on McGee as the starter. But last season proved that subpar defenders can grow into average team defenders under Jason Kidd with the proper level of commitment. 

Given what we know, it is entirely possible that Wood is miffed by coming off of the bench and never really gets it. It is equally possible that no matter the role, Wood becomes a passable defender in his contract year largely sharing the floor with Kleber, creating a formidable second-line frontcourt. The endgame is obvious either way: just like with Hardaway Jr., Dallas will have probably had a rough go of things (by their standards) if Wood doesn’t reappear on this list next year. 

Time for a reality check: even if all three of those players hit, it’s impossible to see anyone on this roster climbing all the way to Tier 2 and only a scant possibility Dinwiddie could crack the top 40 and make it to Tier 3. That’s the sort of second option Dallas needs to really push for title contention.

But the Mavericks’ best-case scenario for maintaining a 50-plus win roster after losing Brunson comes down to Dinwiddie, Hardaway Jr., and Wood being close to the best version of themselves. That would give Dallas six players in the top 125, which would have tied for the second-most in the league (with six other teams). Reclaiming their previous status would also make those players more attractive in potential trades as Nico Harrison and his staff continue to tinker with this roster. 

I realize it isn’t that exciting to say that if things break right, Dallas could be as good or marginally better than last season.  But that’s where this thing is right now. The Mavericks’ roster may not appear to be built for the postseason, but their superstar is. If the front office’s bets pay off, they will at least be in a good position to give Doncic a shot in the postseason. If they don’t, it will mark the first year of the “Brunson Regret Era.” And if the Brunson Regret Era extends too long, it might one day mean the end of another, far more important one.

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Jake Kemp

Jake Kemp

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Jake Kemp covers the Cowboys and Mavericks for StrongSide. He is a lifelong Dallas sports fan who currently works for…

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