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Basketball

The Mavericks Have Their Team For the Stretch Run. Now What?

Taking stock of who could play where, when, as Dallas looks to secure a return to the postseason.
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New faces like Daniel Gafford combine with cornerstones like Luka Doncci to create the deepest Mavs team in years. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Nico Harrison sent a message to his team and his superstar at the trade deadline: he’s listening, and this franchise is done punting seasons. Dallas’ latest busy deadline day didn’t come cheap, most notably costing the team its only first-round pick (two more become available as soon as the draft ends in June). But in Daniel Gafford, Harrison delivered to Luka Doncic the backup center he has wanted for three years. P.J. Washington provides added length and playmaking from anywhere on the floor. Both players will play better here alongside Doncic and Kyrie Irving. The Mavs are deeper, bigger, longer, and more athletic. Simply put, they are better than they were a couple of weeks ago. 

Now what?

With the trade deadline having passed and the All-Star break in the rear-view mirror, the Mavericks have 27 games left as they enter Thursday night’s showdown with Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns. The trendlines are positive: Dallas is riding a league-leading six-game win streak while sitting a season-high nine games over .500. The next two months are a sprint, and while not much can be done at this point to make external improvements, the Mavs can still do a lot to optimize their situation heading into the playoffs. (Sure, there is a roster spot available for the team to acquire someone on the buyout market, but the last buyout player to make a sustained impact was P.J. Brown for the Boston Celtics in 2008.)

Jason Kidd’s job over these next 27 games is to find out what this new and improved group of players can do, how they fit together, and what the optimal schemes, roles, and rotations are in order to click on all cylinders come mid-April. Integrating players on the fly isn’t easy, but no one is waiting around for you to figure it out, especially in a loaded West. One of Kidd’s most important tasks will be role definition—finding out what is best for each player, communicating that, and then putting players in the best position to succeed so that there is buy-in. 

The Mavs’ depth 1 through 11 is now among the best in the league. While teams like the Suns and Celtics are more top-heavy, Dallas has insurance in case health issues continue to plague the rotation. Players can go back to being slotted into roles they belong in, not asking too much of them. The backcourt is set with Doncic and Irving. When this team is fully healthy, Jaden Hardy will find spot duty. The frontcourt is locked with Gafford, Dereck Lively II, and Maxi Kleber. That leaves five wings to rotate through the other two positions: Washington, Dante Exum (expected to return from a right plantar fascia sprain), Josh Green, Tim Hardaway, and Derrick Jones Jr.

The good news is this roster allows for versatility. As Iztok Franko often noted, this team was small pre-trade. Dallas’ style of running players off the 3-point line left it vulnerable inside, especially when Lively was off the floor. The Mavs had trouble doing both and as a result gave up open threes and points in the paint. Now Kidd has options. He can go big and play Kleber with Gafford or Lively. He can play a big with Washington at the four (the most likely starting group) or another wing. He can even toggle down and play small with Kleber or Washington in the middle, spreading the floor and dragging rim-protecting bigs out to the three-point line. (Washington played mostly at the five this year with Charlotte.) Kleber’s minutes can now be managed so he can maximize effectiveness while not risking injury. 

The Mavs are two different teams with Doncic on and off the court. Yes, they still dribble-penetrate, leading to looks at the rim or kick-outs for open shots from the corners, but how they get there is different. Doncic initiates, creates, and handles the ball (as well he should). He gets his shot and finds teammates. The bigs feast on the pick-and-roll, getting lobs or decoying so Doncic can get to the rim or work his magic in the mid-range. Gafford’s addition means the Mavs can now play this way for 48 minutes if they want. This 1-5 pick-and-roll unlocks everything they want to do offensively.

When Doncic sits, Irving runs the show, as one of the two is always on the floor. Irving’s style allows others to bring the ball up or initiate more action. Kidd will use the remainder of the regular season to identify which rotation of wings and bigs work in these crucial minutes, and this is where Washington can shine more with his playmaking. The 25-year-old can post up, space, and penetrate, working alongside Irving to continue to apply pressure offensively. Early in the season, I was told by a high-ranking team source the Mavs wanted to pump up their offense even more with a wing who had scoring and playmaking. This is what Washington brings. On several occasions, Kidd has talked about how this team’s best defense is often its offense, and the new acquisitions allow it to lean into maximizing an offense that ranks 11th in efficiency. Green’s consistency and Exum’s return will help here as well. One more perk: the effectiveness of these lineups allows Doncic more rest. Even when Doncic is in the game, more playmaking alongside him allows him not to have to carry such a large load, leading to fresher legs late in games and late into the season.

But while Dallas remains a score-first team, there’s hope on the other side of the ball, too. The Mavericks have climbed into the top-20 in defensive efficiency in no small part due to the last six games, when they rank first in defensive efficiency. Some of that comes down to going small situationally, which allows them to switch 1 through 5 and stay with shooters and not get into the blender. Much more of it is playing with traditional bigs who provide rim protection and rebounding. Gafford allows the Mavs to play as they did with Lively on the floor, which is four points better defensively per 100 possessions. 

There are caveats: three of those six wins came against teams currently slated for the lottery, while Philadelphia (Joel Embiid) and New York (Jalen Brunson) were both missing their best players. But the Mavs took care of business on that end nonetheless. Expect Washington to have a big say in how much that defensive uptick holds as the schedule toughens up. He will be asked to take on the challenge of guarding the opponent’s best perimeter player, a role Jones often handled. Case in point: in his first minutes as a Maverick, Washington was tasked with guarding Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. He has plenty of ability to excel here, and earned plenty of praise for his activity after Dallas’ win over San Antonio heading into the All-Star break. The more he delivers on that end, the tighter his grip becomes on the starting power forward spot, which will have a knock-on effect of Jones’ perimeter defense boosting the bench units.

Practice time is essentially nonexistent in today’s NBA, especially in March and April, and so the games will remain Kidd’s laboratory to see what works and what doesn’t. All the while, he must continue to stack wins. We’ll watch as he figures out his starting lineup, one that needs stability considering the Mavs have used a league-leading 29 variations in 55 games. Does Green stay in due to his sustained, consistent play in increased minutes? Does Gafford start, allowing Lively not to have to worry about picking up early fouls? What about the fourth quarter— which of the five wings and two centers closes? How does the rotation tighten as the playoffs approach?

The wheeling and dealing may be done, but the last third of the season still gives the Mavs ample opportunity to tweak how and who they play in order to optimize the roster. The goal is to seize the fifth seed while knocking on the door of homecourt advantage in the first round. Getting and staying healthy with roles and rotations set will enable this team to play at peak efficiency when the games really matter. 

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Brian Dameris

Brian Dameris

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Brian Dameris writes about the Mavericks for StrongSide. He is the former Director of Basketball Development for the Dallas Mavericks…

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