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Basketball

The Mavericks Refused to Let a Perfect Trade Deadline Stand in the Way of a Good One

Thursday's moves come with risk, both in the short- and long-term. But they also take Dallas closer to its goal than it was before.
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Daniel Gafford is the athletic backup Dallas badly needed behind Dereck Lively. Geoff Burke, USA TODAY Sports Geoff Burke, USA TODAY Sports

The Mavericks have made a deadline deal every year dating back to 2017, so it was a safe bet that Thursday afternoon would end with a new name or two for the rest of us to ruminate over. And considering the smoke emanating from every cromulent power forward Dallas could afford, it was equally safe to presume that whatever Dallas did would not be minor.

That makes the dual acquisitions of Charlotte forward P.J. Washington and Washington center Daniel Gafford expected fare. The implications for Dallas are anything but.

Let’s start with what we know. The Mavericks landed two players who fit their timeline (each is 25 years old), are tied to reasonable contracts through the 2025-26 season, and provide a dramatic improvement in athleticism along with a meaningful one in size. Both should play impactful minutes, the bare minimum of expectations considering what the team had to give up to get them. The Mavs shipped off a 2027 first-round pick and gave Oklahoma City the rights to swap picks in 2028. Gone, too, are Grant Williams, Richaun Holmes, and Seth Curry.

In sum, the Mavericks got better. Gafford, in particular, was perhaps the smartest upgrade Dallas could make at a reasonable cost. The inverse of Dereck Lively’s shockingly important rookie season is that the Mavericks are sunk whenever he is off the floor, which is as much a testament to how good Lively is as a 19-year-old big man and an indictment of how dependent this team is on said 19-year-old big man.

You can understand this in the macro—the Mavs are 6-9 in games Lively has missed compared to 22-14 when he’s on the floor—as well as the micro: in every rebound no other Dallas big man can snare, in every opposing foray to the paint they can’t ward off, in every above-the-rim play they can’t make. Virtually any competent backup center could make the non-Lively minutes so much more palatable, and Gafford is leagues better as a rim-running force who hits the glass hard and stands his ground on the interior. A year ago, no team in the league was more starved for length or bounce in the middle. Now Dallas has an advantage at both that it can press all game long.

Washington is where the variance begins. He is a curiosity of a player, an amalgamation of above-average traits and mediocre production whose appeal depends on the person viewing him. It is telling that, in the aftermath of this trade, one national media evaluator raved about all the things Washington can do as another railed against how poorly he does most of them. You can imagine a reality in which the one-time Frisco resident—he spent part of his teenage years at Lone Star High—serves as the fluid connector this team has badly wanted out of a role player in the pick-and-roll, happily rolling or popping or even initiating, depending on the offense’s whims and the personnel flanking him.  Similarly, you can see him melding some of Maxi Kleber’s weakside rim protection on defense with the switchability Williams was supposed to provide. Here, at last, is a supporting piece whose game runs wider than deep: a multidimensional player who can shape-shift instead of fitting only in a square hole.

Then, you can also point to Washington’s very tangible body of work this season, in which a player who is not overly big for his position and has never been terribly good as a rebounder and has regressed as both a shooter and a defender. If you read Iztok Franko, you know how essential these two pillars are to Dallas climbing the ranks in the Western Conference. Even that version of Washington should help Dallas more than Williams did, because [gestures broadly at Jake Kemp’s column from yesterday].

But the final accounting of what it took to acquire Williams and then spin him off for Washington involved a first-round pick plus a first-round swap. If Luka Doncic remains in Dallas long-term after his second contract expires in 2026, none of that will matter terribly much. If he doesn’t, then the Mavericks will have lost control of their initial four first-round picks in the post-Doncic apocalypse, with three of them being in service to acquiring a rather nice backup center and an intriguing forward with error bars as wide as Large Marge.  

All of this is before getting into what the roster looks like even if these moves do pan out. Two things can be true at once: the Mavericks have several more intriguing pieces now than they did in the Western Conference Finals run two years ago, and those pieces add up to a far less cohesive whole. Dallas remains below average defensively everywhere but center—and well below that in some spots—and the Washington-integrated lineups that can steamroll opponents offensively may not do an appreciably better job of plugging leaks on the other end. The backcourt is still overstuffed. Wings remain in short supply. The team is larger than it was before, while also skewing average-sized far more than big.

So further moves are inevitable—not only to cobble together the last pieces of a contender but also some foundational ones. Consider this deadline a middle act, then, one that someday precipitates a triumph or a tragedy. But by nature, middle acts are designed to move the story forward, to move the plot out of an untenable present. That was the Dallas Mavericks earlier today: marooned somewhere far from where they need to be, with precious little time to get there. In aggregate, these moves carry them closer to that destination. And if it’s not all the way? At least there are fewer steps left to take.

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Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

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Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…
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