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Basketball

How Much Better Did the Mavericks Get at the Trade Deadline?

P.J. Washington and Daniel Gafford bring a lot of qualities that Dallas needs. The question is how much those add up to.
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The Mavericks made a splash by getting P.J. Washington and Daniel Gafford at the trade deadline. Was it big enough to launch Dallas back into contender status? Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sport

Ten days ago, the Mavericks found themselves in a familiar position: banged up, too small, and in the bottom half of the Western Conference standings. No wonder I questioned their direction in my most recent piece.

Since then, Kyrie Irving and other players have returned from injuries, leading the Mavericks to rack up four consecutive wins. The biggest splash came on Thursday, when Dallas acquired Charlotte forward P.J. Washington and Washington center Daniel Gafford at the trade deadline. The new reinforcements made their presence felt in their Mavericks debut on Saturday at the American Airlines Center, helping Dallas smash the Oklahoma City Thunder 146-111 in a statement win against one of the best teams in the conference.

Although I was 5,000 miles away in Slovenia, the excitement about the new-look Mavericks was palpable in the Arena Sport TV studio, where I was doing commentary with Luka Doncic’s dad, Sasa. (Remember him?) The performance was so impressive that it prompted Sasa, in his trademark optimistic style, to drop a bombshell: we might be watching this new-look Mavericks in June.

Despite knowing Sasa and his flair for the optimistic, this bold proclamation almost threw me off my studio chair. A day later, still pondering what he had said and the deadline changes, I started to wonder to myself: how optimistic can we be? How much do both trade deadline acquisitions push the Mavericks closer to contender status?

Let’s start with Gafford, whose case is much more straightforward. The Mavericks’ struggles at the center position have been well-documented; they have searched for an upgrade over Dwight Powell since Doncic’s rookie season. Dereck Lively II has been a big hit, surpassing all expectations with his impact and development as a rookie. But he only turned 20 on Monday, and the weight of extensive playing time and anchoring a struggling defense may have taken their toll. LIvely has already missed 17 games due to various injuries, and the Mavericks have slumped without him, often resorting to smaller lineups or relying on the 32-year-old Powell to pick up the slack. 

Enter Gafford. At 6-foot-10 and 234 pounds, he isn’t much of an upgrade in terms of size over Powell. However, his age (seven years younger), 2-inch longer wingspan, and athleticism are. Like Lively, Gafford is an energetic paint protector who puts significant pressure on the rim on the other end. There is not much risk there. 

On offense Gafford’s game is all about rim pressure, whether as a roll man and vertical threat in pick-and-roll situations, securing putbacks on the glass, or sprinting hard to the rim in transition. Gafford is an elite lob threat and finisher at the rim, boasting the highest field goal percentage in the NBA among players with more than 500 such shot attempts over the last three seasons, at an impressive 78.2 percent. Like Lively, it’s not difficult to imagine how Gafford’s strengths could be amplified by playing alongside an elite playmaker like Doncic.

And, at 25 years old, Gafford is stronger, more experienced, and better at protecting the rim than Lively. His block rate and blocks per 36 minutes have consistently ranked among the league’s best. While Gafford’s numbers as the closest defender for opponents’ shots at the rim may not reach elite levels like those of Brook Lopez or Jaren Jackson Jr., they still place him in very good territory, alongside the likes of Myles Turner, Rudy Gobert, and Mitchell Robinson. According to Second Spectrum, Gafford ranks 14th over the last three seasons among players with more than 500 shots defended at the rim. His paint presence is a reason why opponents consistently have shot significantly worse at the rim when he was on the floor throughout his career.

However, there is a downside to Gafford, one that hasn’t been much discussed since his acquisition. It’s a key reason why he’s ideally suited for an energy backup center role rather than a long-term starting solution. On/off splits portray Gafford as one of the worst defensive rebounding centers in the NBA. Despite his solid individual numbers, his teams consistently rebound significantly worse when he is on the floor. Advanced tracking rebounding data reinforces this trend, indicating that Gafford has most likely been the least effective high-volume rebounding center on the defensive end over the last three seasons. 

What’s the catch? How can such an athletic player, who excels at cleaning the glass on the offensive end, be such a poor rebounder on defense? Several factors are in play. One is his tendency to contest every shot in the paint, often chasing blocks, which results in frequent fouls and puts him out of position to secure rebounds. Another is size. Like Lively, Gafford can be overpowered inside by bigger centers. He possesses an explosive first jump, but he appears slower and much less effective on second-jump efforts. Defensively, Gafford has primarily been a drop-back type of defender in pick-and-roll situations, which limits his ability to stay on the floor in some matchups and defensive schemes.

I don’t believe his flaws are too critical; most were magnified by his role as a starter matched up against the opponent’s best big men. Whether starting or coming off the bench, Gafford will provide a significant boost, relieving pressure for the rookie Lively. That will allow both to play even more aggressively in shorter spurts while combining for 40 quality, energy-filled minutes per game. They’ll protect the rim and energize the crowd with dunks on the other end, plays that not only get the crowd going but seem to invigorate Doncic, too.

We’ve just seen how effectively this big-man archetype—Gafford even likened playing against Lively to playing against himself—works alongside Doncic, which is why the Mavericks spent three years looking for someone who fit the bill. (Remember Willie Cauley-Stein, JaVale McGee, and Richaun Holmes?) Now, they have two. That’s a luxury not many NBA teams have, especially considering the Mavericks still have the flexibility to deploy other lineups in end-of-game and other critical situations where additional shooting, spacing, and switching flexibility are required.

This brings us to P.J. Washington, the more intriguing new Maverick. His potential impact is harder to evaluate, and his performance will have much bigger implications about how far the Mavericks can go this season. 

Let’s start with the positives. At 6-foot-7 and boasting a 7-foot-2 wingspan, Washington fits the prototype of the forward the Mavericks need, providing size and length to defend positions three through five. His versatile offensive game is even more essential. In the past, the Mavericks’ most successful role players (think Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, and Reggie Bullock) could be characterized as specialists—defensive-minded players capable of hitting spot-up shots. Those only take you so far when opponents double team and implement help-heavy schemes to contain Doncic, aiming to take the ball out of his hands and challenge others to step up. 

The countermove is players with versatility, which is not only perhaps the best word to describe Washington, but also the first thing that comes to his mind when talking about his game. He is a willing driver who won’t hesitate to attack closeouts and exploit gap help. He can get to the rim, where he can finish with both hands or utilize his trademark push-shot runner to score in the paint when unable to get all the way home. He is also comfortable making plays and maintaining advantages as a pressure release valve on the short roll in 4-on-3 situations or as a pop threat out of pick-and-roll actions. 

While his shot and other aspects of his game have been inconsistent (we’ll get there), the 25-year-old has been a solid interior scorer, boasting a 55.4 percent field goal rate on non-transition shots in the paint over the last three seasons. This efficiency is comparable to that of Pascal Siakam and superior to Kyle Kuzma, Andrew Wiggins, and OG Anunoby, all of whom have been linked to the Mavericks in the past. That makes Washington the most skilled 4 Doncic has played with after Christian Wood, and while Washington is less physically gifted than his predecessor, he’s also a much better defender (we’ll get there, too) plus quite a bit more engaged. That should make fans excited.

But while Washington’s highlights (such as this one) on both ends of the court look impressive, it was his lack of consistency—and the logjam at the forward positions—that led the rebuilding Hornets to move on from him. One Hornets analyst described him to me as ”P.J. Washinconsistent,” while another, who is a big believer in Washington, portrayed him as a player who’s dependent on his jumper, which makes his play hot and cold. Speaking of that jumper, Washington made 38.3 percent of his three-point shots in his first two seasons, which propelled him on the national scene as an intriguing, switchable defender who could stretch the floor. However, over the last three seasons, Washington has made only 34.7 percent of his 977 shots from beyond the arc, and just 32.1 percent from the corners. If you want to be optimistic, 55 percent of his three-point shots have been heavily contested per Second Spectrum tracking data. (For comparison the share of heavily contested threes for players who manned the Washington position in Dallas, including Finney-Smith, Kleber, and Derrick Jones Jr., is 30 percent.) Perhaps a winning team, with a clear hierarchy and structure, plus much better looks generated by Doncic, will address some of the consistency issues. There is precedent for that with Tim Hardaway Jr. and Spencer Dinwiddie, both of whom carried similar reputations as unpredictable shooters before joining the Mavericks.

Now, for the other side. When he’s fully engaged, Washington can be a versatile defender capable of switching and guarding various positions. He has also showed flashes as a secondary rim protector and help defender. Additionally, he has good anticipation and the upper body strength to absorb initial contact by bigger wings like Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James, which cannot be said about anyone else in Dallas’ rotation. Overall, Washington has the potential to be a positive defensive presence, especially given his apparent motivation to excel on that end. 

But like his predecessor Grant Williams, he lacks exceptional lateral movement and speed. That makes it difficult for him to defend quicker players who can swiftly change directions and attack off the dribble, and he has issues chasing them around screens, too.  That’s not the recipe for a primary wing defender, perhaps the greatest hole remaining on Dallas’ roster. And, like Gafford, Washington falls below average in terms of defensive rebounding for his position.What we’re left with is a player who does many things well without doing any exceptionally, and those skills are packaged in a tweener body type that usually plays better off the bench than in a starting lineup.

You can look at the acquisition costs for Gafford (a 2028 pick swap that resulted in the Thunder’s acquiring the 2024 first-round pick) and Washington (a 2027 first-round pick along with a 2030 pick swap that was part of the price paid by the Mavericks to land Williams in the summer) and argue that it’s not the most optimal use of the team’s limited resources. Ideally, both players would fill the sixth to ninth spots in a title contender’s rotation. 

But the Mavericks clearly needed to get better, and they had to move on from the Williams fiasco. Both of the new acquisitions clearly make this team better and more talented. More importantly, the Mavericks are adhering to a proven blueprint of surrounding Doncic with younger, longer, and more athletic players. Adding Gafford and Washington to holdovers including Lively, Jones, Green, a rejuvenated Kleber, and Dante Exum makes this team the most athletic and defensively minded group of Doncic’s tenure. While neither of the newcomers will individually elevate the team’s defensive ceiling or single handedly solve Dallas’ rebounding issues, they should have a significant impact, there too. 

The Mavericks roster being what it was before the trade, Washington and Gafford will do plenty just by soaking up minutes that had previously gone to smaller and defensively flawed players like Powell, Hardaway, Jaden Hardy, and Seth Curry. A suggestion: reduce Hardaway’s workload—he averaged 30 minutes per game in each of the last two seasons—by giving some of it to Washington, an equally efficient scorer but bigger and much better defender. For that matter, cut down (or eliminate entirely) the small three- and four-guard combinations featuring Irving, Hardaway, Hardy, Doncic, and Green. 

Another knock-on effect is Dallas now has the luxury to be conservative with Kleber’s minutes and preserve the tear on his body for the playoffs. Since returning from injury, the 32-year-old looks as spry as he has in a while, and pairing him with Washington gives Dallas a duo of versatile big men who can stretch the floor. In the past, the Mavs have favored that sort of lineup configuration during crucial moments in close games and playoff matchups. Will they again with Lively and Gafford in the fold? Probably not as much, but the personnel is there to do so if need be.

Prior to the deadline, Kidd called for reinforcements in an effort to surround Doncic with the right people. The front office answered that call, resulting in what’s now one of the deepest 10-man rotations in the NBA. While these recent additions may not entirely align with Sasa’s vision of playing into June—historically, that’s when rotations tend to shorten and top-heavy teams prevail—they undoubtedly will elevate the Mavericks into a deeper, more talented, and exciting team. If nothing else, you can expect they won’t be sitting at home again in April, either.

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Iztok Franko

Iztok Franko

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Iztok Franko covers the Mavericks for StrongSide. He is an analyst that uncovers stories hidden in NBA data and basketball…

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