As the calendar turned to 2024, the Mavericks started their game on Monday against the Utah Jazz with their healthiest roster in nearly a month. It proved to be short-lived, as Dante Exum would exit with a right heel contusion before Dereck Lively (left ankle sprain) and Grant Williams (right ankle sprain) departed Wednesday’s win against Portland early.
Consider it par for the course for a Mavericks team that has lost eight of their last 12 after a 9-3 start to the year, with injuries playing a major role in that swoon. In the midst of a seven-game homestand and with 11 of their next 15 at home, the Mavs hope the return of Kyrie Irving steadies a ship that has been going a bit sideways. This next month will go a long way in showing us who this team is.
But while things are work in progress on the collective level, there’s plenty of excitement on the individual one, as three Mavericks are making their case to be considered for year-end awards. Who are they? And what must they do to finish the job?
Sixth Man of the Year
Jason Terry was the last Maverick to win this award, averaging just shy of 20 points a game when he took home the hardware in 2009. This year’s candidate is Tim Hardaway Jr., and if the role of sixth man came as a surprise to Hardaway in training camp, he has done plenty to embrace it: among non-starters, Hardaway is second in the league both in points, with 17.4 per game, and in three-pointers made. The man ahead of him is his main competition for the award, Atlanta’s Bogdan Bogdanovic. Like Terry before him, Hardaway closes games on nights when his shot is falling. The 31-year-old is a lightning rod for fans due to his streaky shooting, but his production is essential: the Mavs are 15-5 when he makes at least three three-pointers.
This is Hardaway’s best role, as his scoring is badly needed with the second unit, especially in games when only one of Kyrie Irving or Luka Doncic is playing. His defense will never be as impactful, but he does lead the league in charges drawn with 19, and his size on the perimeter is especially important on a roster short on wings.
So what does Hardaway have to do to win the award? Simply put, continue draining threes.
He is a goldfish, and you want that from your flamethrower. If he can get his 35.2 percent three-point rate closer to the 38.5 percent he shot last year, the added points per game should separate him from the pack.
Most Improved Player
This award is the hardest to define of all of them simply because it is so vague in its meaning. The league used to have “Comeback Player of the Year,” but that was shelved in 1987 due to it commonly being awarded to players coming back from drug suspensions. We now have the George Mikan Trophy, which is given to a player making significant development and improvement in his game.
No Maverick has won this award, but Exum should be in the conversation this season. Dennis Lindsey, a Mavs consultant and former Jazz executive, drafted Exum fifth in 2014 out of Australia and was instrumental in the Mavs’ taking a chance on this reclamation project. Exum’s comeback story is remarkable in and of itself, but to be considered a comeback, he would have had to have played at this level before in his NBA career.
The levels we are seeing him play at this year are new to him. His statline–9-3-3 in 19 minutes a game–is not exactly award-worthy, but looking at his last 15 games, when his minutes have increased due to a rash of injuries and effective play, he is at 15-4-4 while shooting 53 percent from deep in 30 minutes a game. This from a player who for his career sported a line of 6-2-2, including this season’s elevated numbers. His net rating of 9.7 is the highest on the team.
Exum has a high basketball IQ, runs downhill, penetrates the lane, makes plays for himself and others, and is hitting open looks. His length aids him on the defensive end, and the frontcourt of Exum, Lively, and Derrick Jones Jr. has improved the defense. For all of these reasons, plus the fact that Jason Kidd likes to have three ballhandlers on the court at the same time, Exum has rightly been named a starter.
Exum hasn’t played in more than 42 games in an NBA season since 2016, so the question surrounding his candidacy will be if he can keep this up, especially in light of him racking up his first injury of the year (which caused him to sit out the Portland game).
The good news is this award has recently gone to a high lottery pick who takes a leap towards becoming the player many expected him to be coming out of the draft. The last four winners fit this mold: Lauri Markkanen, Ja Morant, Julius Randle, and Brandon Ingram. Of the last 20 winners, 19 had increases of at least 5 points per game, a level it appears Exum will hit easily.
His odds to win are long, however, as Tyrese Maxey, the 21st pick in the 2020 draft, will be hard to beat now that he is averaging 6 more points and 3 more assists per game running the show in Philadelphia.
Still, Exum is playing at levels way above anything he has done in his career, and his time in Europe served him well. Starting and the added playing time should show the league that his development makes him worthy of consideration.
Most Valuable Player
I was the person Dirk Nowitzki broke the news to when he won the NBA MVP back in 2007. Seventeen years later, let’s hope Doncic has someone better to share that moment with. Because after being the odds-on favorite to win the award in the fall of 2021 and ’22, Doncic may finally raise the newly named Michael Jordan Trophy if he continues to play like he has, especially in December.
For some reason, there also seems to be confusion on what the criteria is for winning this coveted award. Quite simply, I believe it should go to the player who had the best regular season. The idea that you give it to the best player on the best team is lazy at best. Arguing what “valuable” means is misguided. Of course, narrative plays a role, but whatever criteria you want to use, Doncic should be at the top of the discussion.
His raw numbers are 33.7 pts, 9 assists, and 8 rebounds a game on a career-high 38 percent from deep–more than worthy of taking home the trophy. His December numbers of 38-11-9 have only been matched once in the history of the NBA – by Oscar Robertson in 1960. Doncic and the Big O are also the only players with multiple 35-15-15 games. His 29-10-10 line in the first half against the Jazz last month is the only 25-point triple-double in a half. He is in the midst of the best stretch of basketball of his career–and that is saying something. Of course, in December he also played the most minutes per game of his career, and that isn’t sustainable. The injury that sidelined Irving for 13 games necessitated it, and the Mavs needed Doncic’s stellar play to pull out wins. This is why the Irving trade was made, to bring Doncic his help.
Doncic finished fifth in a mid-December ESPN straw poll of media members who vote for the award. Doncic’s numbers are clearly better than Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s. Giannis Antetokounmpo has a couple more rebounds but trails in points and assists. Nikola Jokic continues his outstanding play, but he is scoring nearly 10 points less than Doncic. Doncic’s main competition is reigning MVP Joel Embiid. His scoring is a tick higher at 34.8, and while he has a couple more rebounds, Embiid trails in assists. Antetokounmpo and Embiid are defensive forces, but Luka has improved his play on that end, showing leadership and the willingness to sacrifice his body (he has the third most loose balls recovered in the league).
With Irving’s return, Doncic’s numbers most likely will dip a bit from their December highs, although he did score 41 points against Portland in a mere 31 minutes. But Doncic’s case is about more than the pure numbers. I sit in on opposing coaches’ pregame press conferences, and from Steve Kerr to Gregg Popovich, they all shake their heads and say that Doncic destroys all defenses. He is the player coaches fear most. Doncic also makes the players around him better; just ask Exum, Jones, and Lively.
To me, this is a two-man race between Doncic and Embiid. Embiid plays on the media-friendly East Coast, but he has missed seven games and is on pace not to meet the 65-game minimum to be considered for postseason awards. Doncic made a strong statement with his 50-point Christmas Day performance. If he keeps hitting threes at a career-high rate and continues to put his name in record books alongside the all-time greats, no narrative can keep him from his due.