It does not speak terribly well to the current state of the Mavericks that I’m writing a second one of these in as many weeks, but after six losses in 10 games and Luka Doncic bracing everyone to expect him to miss time, I suspect you’re here for all the optimism you can get.
So! Jaden Hardy, Dallas’ 20-year-old rookie, is athletic. We knew this already. What we may not have known is he’s the type of athlete who can do this at 6-foot-3, and by this, I mean “rounding the bend and dunking on Pelicans center Jaxson Hayes as though a 7-foot man posed as much resistance as a novelty-sized stuffed animal.”
Playing alongside highlight factories like Doncic and Kyrie Irving means that Hardy’s flush may not crack the top 10 of Dallas’ prettiest plays this season. But in terms of raw power, I’m hard-pressed to find something better. Only Josh Green can match that level of explosion.
Hardy did more than that, mind you. He scored 11 on a crisp four-of-five shooting, and gave a jolt to what too often looked like a listless team, leading his head coach to say this:
Kidd’s last line is the important one here, mostly for the endgame—Hardy will get more minutes—but at least a little for the implication. Namely, why is Hardy’s playing time still so contingent on other players?
The answer, of course, is experience: he has less of it than any player on Dallas’ roster, and youth often goes hand-in-hand with mistakes. Even at Hardy’s young age, no one watching these games can declare with a straight face that Frank Ntilikina is a better basketball player than him. But Ntilikina understands his limitations and executes his assignments. Kidd can trust him.
Still, as a really good hockey team once put it, safe is death. That’s especially true for these Mavericks, who by Kidd’s own admission now live and die by their offense following the Irving trade. Effective as he is on defense, Ntilikina isn’t close to good enough to plug all the gaps on this leaky boat; his nonexistent offense does, however, drag things when Dallas does have the ball. Hardy, however callow, makes things happen. He did last night, and he also did in a much larger role last month in Utah, in which he and Green put up matching 29-point games to steal a game Dallas played without Doncic or Irving. One should not be getting regular minutes, however meager, while the other is a nightly coin flip to get on the floor.
This isn’t a zero-sum deal, of course. Justin Holiday, for instance, has averaged 19 minutes in his seven games in Dallas. Functional depth has its place, but Holiday’s highs—corner three shooting that waxes and wanes—have a low trajectory, and managing to go scoreless while putting up a -30 in 16 minutes is a reminder that 10-year NBA veterans can have staggering lows, too.
All of which is to say, Hardy needs to play for reasons that transcend the injury report. Let him chomp into Ntilikina’s playing time. He should take a sliver of Holiday’s, too; the latter plays a different position, of course, but that shouldn’t preclude Kidd from getting creative, perhaps by unearthing some of the three-guard looks Rick Carlisle favored so often. Stagger his playing time to align with Irving’s, who pushes the pace in a way that will maximize their athleticism. If Green is out there with them, so much the better. Unleash chaos.
With minutes will come growing pains. Hardy will do vexing things—some annoying, others costly. Mistakes will be made. But if the Mavericks aren’t circling the drain, they at least are being pulled toward it; this latest skid has Dallas in eighth place—just a half-game from fifth, but also two from 11th. As our Brian Dameris put it, this is now a high-ceiling, low-floor team, and sinking minutes into limited role players won’t alter that reality. Asking Hardy to raise that drywall an inch or three higher, however, could help Dallas be the best version of whatever this group has to offer. And in a Western Conference this tightly bunched, that may end up being the difference between escaping the play-in round and missing the postseason altogether.