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Basketball

Grant Williams’ Decline Has the Mavericks Back Where They Started

The 25-year-old was supposed to succeed where so many other role players had failed for Dallas. Instead, he has the Mavericks scrambling for solutions ahead of the trade deadline.
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Dallas' marquee offseason acquisition has failed to live up to his billing. Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Mavericks are in a tough but familiar spot: they desperately need to upgrade their roster before Thursday’s trade deadline, and they have scant resources to do so. They’re back in this spot because, once again, their “off-season splash” has produced disappointing results. In fact, that much-celebrated splash has been more like a faucet drip.

The Grant Williams experience has been a net negative, with no signs of improving. 

The Mavericks acquired Williams as part of a three-team trade in which they sent Reggie Bullock to San Antonio, as well as a 2030 first-round pick swap and a couple of second-round pick swaps. Not much capital expended, sure. The real expenditure is the playing time that Williams has consumed as a starter when, on most nights, he has provided the team with very little production. Every player the Mavericks acquire and give minutes to, especially in the starting lineup, is brought in to form a lasting connection with Luka Doncic, and when the team emerged from training camp, it seemed Williams might fit that bill. The first handful of games provided at least a glimmer of hope that this acquisition had a chance. 

It has been all downhill from there. And now, 47 games into his tenure in Dallas, Williams is involved in trade rumors

This is an embarrassment for the front office. Last year it took all of six games for the team to realize that JaVale McGee, its big offseason “get,” not only could not be in the starting lineup but also basically couldn’t play at all. This year it took 15 games for the club to realize it needed to reduce Williams’ minutes. 

If you were to give this iteration of the Mavs front office a full review, what moves would you say have “worked out?” Dante Exum’s comeback tour after spending two seasons in Europe is a solid find, even if he has appeared in only 32 games and has missed the last six due to injury. Derrick Jones on a low-cost one-year deal has been helpful. I suppose the jury is still out on the Kyrie Irving trade: he has been fantastic when he has been on the floor, but Irving is a guy who has missed a ton of games for a ton of reasons over the last few years, and guess what? He has missed a ton of games as a Maverick! If Dereck Lively II continues to ascend on the path he appears to be on, he has the potential to be a franchise-altering piece. But outside of that, it’s hard to find many hits in the Nico Harrison era.

There were plenty of reasons to expect Williams to be one. Still, the Mavericks were taking a bit of a leap of faith on the 25-year-old, projecting he could become an every-night starter, which he had never been before. They hoped he could bump his minutes from 25 to, say, 32, and improve alongside Doncic. Instead, Williams did something that I’m not sure anyone else has been able to pull off: his numbers have declined when teaming with perhaps the best setup man in basketball. Consider the many players we’ve seen thrive in Doncic’s presence. Bullock, Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, Tim Hardaway Jr., Spencer Dinwiddie—all of these players saw their shooting percentages go up when they shared the floor with Doncic. Williams is still shooting a respectable 37 percent from three, but he’s down from the 40 percent clip he hit over his last two years in Boston. He’s hitting 49 percent of his two-point attempts, down from 56 percent from his last two seasons as a Celtic. I’m not even mad; that’s amazing.

In a recent article on The Ringer, Williams remarked, “Luka kind of sets you up where you don’t have to do much—just eat a bag of popcorn, knock down some open shots, and move on.” Quotes like this are supposed to be fun and colorful, and I don’t want to be the media guy getting after a player for a funny remark. Williams is not wrong. But over the past 20 games, he has been doing a lot more of the popcorn eating and a lot less of the knocking down open shots. 

I realize I just walked into a discussion about Williams’ physical fitness, which was not intentional. But it is a conversation to be had after a report circulated that he did not start the season in good enough shape to handle the increased load the Mavericks attempted to place on him, something he hasn’t exactly denied. It’s possible the team instructed him to stay bulked up because it anticipated him having to guard bigs a bit more than he did during his time in Boston, but it doesn’t change the implication. Either the front office miscalculated on how he should be used, or it miscalculated on the player’s readiness for the challenge that awaited him after he accepted the largest role and biggest salary of his NBA career.

But maybe this is too granular. The bigger picture is no matter what shape he reported to camp in, the Mavericks were always in search of defense and rebounding. Williams provides some of the former, albeit with physical limitations: his compact, stocky frame can be exploited on the interior and can make things tricky on the perimeter with the wrong matchup. What’s indisputable is he’s one of the worst rebounding bigs in the league, ranking in the third percentile in defensive rebounding and the fifth percentile in offensive rebounding among all bigs. That is to say, 95 percent of all fours and fives rebound the ball better than Williams. This should not be a surprise: he was around the 20th percentile in both of those categories last season. 

It’s hard to blame Williams for that, though. He is what he is. Certainly, there was hope his offense would progress while sharing the floor with Doncic, but a change of scenery won’t make him bigger. It wasn’t crazy to think that with juicier looks and an increase in volume, Williams could become a 12-to-15-point-a-night player, and that plus capable matchup defense would make him a solid piece even with his limitations. But he has remained atrocious at shots around the rim and bad from the mid-range. The defense has regressed (he’s posting the worst defensive rating of his career) and the rebounding has stayed stagnant. And considering how decimated the Mavericks have been by injuries, it only makes the Williams situation worse. He has been mostly healthy, yet he still hasn’t been able to pick up any slack when other rotation players were unavailable. Simply put, this is not a player who can log heavy minutes for a serious team.

Which, as constructed, this team is not. I don’t want to put this all on the front office. Let’s be frank about this: Harrison was dealt a bad hand when he took over as general manager in the summer of 2021. He had nothing to do with Josh Richardson or Delon Wright. Yes, he inherited a generational superstar. But with that comes the pressure of building a contending roster around that cornerstone, and Harrison had very little in the cupboard to achieve that. Exhibit A: the Kristaps Porzingis trade. Exhibit B: the structure of Jalen Brunson’s rookie contract, which left Dallas without the option to match any contract offer in restricted free agency. Harrison had nothing to do with that.

But he, or someone, traded for Christian Wood. Someone signed McGee to a three-year contract and guaranteed him a starting spot. Someone traded for Williams. The issue I have is: I don’t know who. It seems as if coach Jason Kidd definitely did not want Wood and definitely did want McGee. Both ended up, relative to expectations, massive dissapointments. Williams is dangerously close to entering that chat. 

Because if the best thing you can say about your biggest offseason acquisition is “we’re only 50 games into a four-year contract and maybe we can trade him for Bobby Portis,” something has gone horribly wrong. Perhaps Williams is still feeling the effects of his knee injury from a couple of months ago. Perhaps Williams remains a Maverick and he finds his sea legs down the stretch. He scored 27 points on 16 shots less than two weeks ago! But that game was such an anomaly, I wouldn’t bet on it. 

The more likely scenario is any positive regression takes Williams to where just about every non-Doncic Maverick has been over the last five years: decent, and being asked to be way more than decent. Limited, and being asked fill roles where limitations are death. 

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

Author

Jake Kemp

Jake Kemp

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Jake Kemp covers the Cowboys and Mavericks for StrongSide. He is a lifelong Dallas sports fan who previously worked for…

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