It has been almost a month since the NBA free agency period started with a bang. Kevin Durant requested a trade, and the Minnesota Timberwolves shocked everyone by sending a king’s ransom of five first-round draft picks to the Utah Jazz for Rudy Gobert. And it’s not like there wasn’t any drama for Mavericks fans. Jalen Brunson, this year’s prized free agent, left Dallas for the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, a big blow after a solid start to the offseason marked by frontcourt upgrades in the enigmatic Christian Wood and veteran center JaVale McGee.
It has been mostly wait-and-see since then, with a lot of speculation and mysterious quotes — Luka Doncic might have called out the front office to make more moves—but not much action. There are some big pieces left to be moved on the chessboard, including Durant, Kyrie Irving, Donovan Mitchell, and every other Jazz veteran with any trade value, but some of those transactions might not happen until the start of the season and could get dragged out to the trade deadline in February 2023. Perhaps Dallas makes another move before training camp starts in September: they most likely don’t have the assets for a big shakeup, but another ball handler could and should be a short-term priority.
But for now, everything is at a standstill, which makes this a good time to assess where the Mavericks stand in the NBA pecking order. The cards were reshuffled in free agency, and more importantly, every playoff run reshapes how we perceive and rank NBA player values. Andrew Wiggins morphing into a defensive stopper in last season’s playoffs and Ben Simmons refusing to shoot in 2021 are good examples of stars rebuilding and severely damaging their value.
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). Wood, who was in Tier 4B (57 to 79 last season), didn’t crack the top 125 this year.
Even with all the available data and advanced metrics, any such ranking is, of course, subjective. One can especially debate players in the lower tiers, where differences are smaller. However, the NBA is a talent-driven league, and talent distribution is what matters most. Mavs fans can argue if Doncic should be in Tier 1A (the top four), or if Wood is a top-125 player, yet what really matters in the grand scheme of things is that outside of Doncic, the Mavericks don’t have a player even close to the top 40. Per Caesars Sportsbook, the Mavericks and the Memphis Grizzlies have the 11th-best odds to win the 2022-23 NBA title, but Dallas is the only team in the top 12 with only one player ranked among the 40 best NBA players in Partnow’s tiers.
While the top talent was more dispersed over the past couple of years, the best teams per Vegas still have plenty of top-end talent—see the Milwaukee Bucks and the Brooklyn Nets (for now, at least)—or they have a strong star tandem surrounded by elite Tier 4 and Tier 5 role players, as the Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Clippers, and Phoenix Suns do.
The Mavericks surprised the league by reaching the conference finals last season, but repeating that will be a much more difficult task with higher expectations and in what looks like a reloaded Western Conference. The Warriors remain the most well-rounded team in the West, and a healthy Clippers team probably looks even scarier. The Suns, Grizzlies, and Nuggets, with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. back, have more top-end talent than the Mavericks. Then there are wild cards Minnesota and New Orleans. In Gobert, the Timberwolves put a third top-40 player next to Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards, and the Pelicans are not far behind with the trio of Zion Williamson, C.J. McCullum and Brandon Ingram. If you add the Lakers and Mavericks to the mix, nine teams in the Western Conference can legitimately hope for a deep playoff run.
Here’s where we have the Brunson conversation. Losing him was definitely a blow, especially after his leap last season. He was not ranked in the top 125 in 2021-22, but he’s in Tier 4 (41 to 59) this year. However, there is an argument to be made that Brunson has hit his ceiling, and it’s fair to question whether he has the potential to crack Tier 3. Also keep in mind that most of the Tier 4 and Tier 5 players in his $28 million salary range are considered bad contracts. So while Brunson will be missed, especially in the short term, Dallas can still build around Doncic—and perhaps build around him better if they find a co-star who doesn’t present similar defensive issues or operates as a ballhandler—without Brunson.
That doesn’t change the fact that losing Brunson for nothing will sting for a while. This is what I wrote in my last column before the offseason:
“After several years of making lateral moves without significant roster upgrades, it’s the Mavericks’ front office that needs to make the biggest step forward.”
However you value Brunson—or Wood, for that matter—the Mavericks made another lateral move at best by failing to land another top-40 talent to pair with Doncic. Talent-wise, a Dinwiddie-Wood pairing is probably even a step back from the Brunson-Kristaps Porzingis combo in 2021.
That said, all is not lost for Dallas. Brunson’s departure plus Nico Harrison’s other moves since taking over may give the Mavericks more flexibility in the long run. Other than Davis Bertans, the Mavericks don’t have any really bad contracts—look in the upper-right corner of my charts, and you’ll find names like Russell Westbrook, D’Angelo Russell, Gordon Hayward and Tobias Harris—and they’ll have all of their draft capital once they send out the last first-round pick owed to the Knicks from the Porzingis trade in next year’s draft. That will give Dallas its best chance since before the Porzingis trade in 2019 to take a run at finding a real running mate for Doncic, which I maintain is a two-way wing in the 20-to-40 range.
But as the elusive chase for the second star continues, what can we expect of the 2022-23 Dallas Mavericks?
This will sound like a cliché, but when you have a top-tier player such as Doncic, you always have a chance to be competitive. The Mavericks proved that in the playoffs, beating two teams (the Jazz and the Suns) that had more top-tier talent in the rankings entering the season. How big of a chance comes down to injuries, beating the odds when unexpected opportunities present themselves (as Dallas did against the Suns), and surrounding talent.
As for the latter, according to Vegas and Partnow’s tiers, the moves the Mavericks made in the offseason didn’t improve their title odds, but this will still be a competitive team in the regular season. The Mavs are not a top-heavy roster, but they’ll go 10 players deep, have added much needed front-court depth with Wood and McGee, and they have a lot of good role players with a clear system and identity. Jason Kidd and his coaching staff managed to install a defense-first mentality in Year 1. Building a top-10 defense with almost the same roster that ranked in the 18-to-22 range in the previous three years was an impressive feat. Offseason moves suggest we’ll see more of that in Year 2 as the team continues to transform under Kidd. He often talks about the Lakers’ title year and especially defense built under his mentor Frank Vogel as the golden standard he wants to replicate in Dallas.
And replicate he might. The Mavericks replaced offensive-minded assistant coach Igor Kokoskov with former Lakers staffer Quinton Crawford. Like Kidd, McGee, Greg St. Jean, and Jarred Dudley, Crawford was a part of the Lakers’ team that won the NBA title in the Orlando bubble. This team might not have a defensive star in the mold of Gobert or Jrue Holiday, but the roster is being filled with plenty of scrappy defenders. Adding McGee to the mix should address some of the rim protection and rebounding issues, both of which declined significantly after Porzingis was traded last February.
When I analyzed defensive ratings based on Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus (RAPM), an advanced metric that reduces the noise from standard plus-minus data, the Mavericks surprisingly ranked as the team with the best average individual defensive rating over the last three seasons. McGee, Reggie Bullock, Maxi Kleber, Frank Ntilikina, Josh Green, and Dorian Finney-Smith all rank as above-average defenders in RAPM; among players currently on the roster, only Doncic, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Bertans came out below average. (They are three of the four highest-paid players on the roster; this, plus a lack of ball handling, will probably influence the team’s next moves). Replacing the 6-foot-1 Brunson with a taller wing defender in the starting lineup gives Kidd additional flexibility on that end of the floor.
Barring a major injury, the last three seasons proved that Doncic surrounded by a competent supporting cast all but guarantees a top-10 team that should get to the high 40s or low 50s in regular-season wins. But Doncic is entering his fifth year in the league, with his first taste of playoff success, so the Mavericks can’t get complacent. The Western Conference looks deep enough that getting to the first round should not be taken for granted. Brunson’s postseason performance was also the closest Dallas got to having a legit playoff one-two punch. Things might get tougher before they get easier, in other words, and that goes for the front office, too. Because no matter how far the 2022-23 Mavericks go, the pressure will be on Harrison and Co. to add more talent before we do the same tiering exercise next summer.