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Basketball

The Luka Doncic Mavericks Are Deeper Than They’ve Ever Been

That doesn't mean Dallas is deep by contender standards just yet. But it's a start for a team accustomed to too few useful players and too little diversity in its style.
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The Mavericks' role players are coalescing around their top stars. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

When we last discussed the Mavericks, our focus was that the offseason acquisition of Grant Williams had gone from promising to concerning to full-on disaster. A day after that column was published, Williams was traded. Typically, the problem with a player who has become unplayable for your team is that, well, few other teams want him. But somehow, general manager Nico Harrison was able to offload Williams to the Hornets (along with Seth Curry) for P.J Washington. Harrison also swung a trade for center Daniel Gafford before the deadline. In the betblink of an eye, it appeared the Mavericks had become deeper, bigger, and more versatile

I’ve been somewhat critical of Harrison’s tenure, though even I will admit, I generally have no idea who exactly is running this team from day to day. It appeared the trade for JaVale McGee was one that coach Jason Kidd spearheaded; it appeared that the acquisition of Christian Wood was one Kidd wanted no part of. The Jalen Brunson debacle seemed like it mostly landed at the feet of then-governor Mark Cuban, but really, who knows? Same goes with the trade for Williams. But for the first time, the two moves last month feel like Harrison’s moves, and he deserves the credit.

The question, though, is one of perception. Is this team really deep by contender standards, or is it just deeper than the “Luka Doncic and a bunch of guys unless Kyrie Irving is healthy” lineups it has been fielding for the last year and a half?

Naturally, when your team is centered around a player who blows away the field in usage rating and leads the league in scoring, the production of other players will lag a bit. Concurrently, though, Doncic continues to lead the league in shot quality created by his passes, so the opportunities that do come for others will, more often than not, be better than what they’d receive on another roster.

At times I believe we miss the mark with conversations about depth in the NBA. You will often hear people say something along the lines of, “Is player X good enough to be the third-best player on a contender?” To me, that is reductive, because it assumes the top two players on all teams are equal. Clearly, they are not. Obviously, you would not look at anyone on this roster not named Doncic or Irving and think, “That’s a top-three player on a championship team.” Washington, Tim Hardaway Jr., Maxi Kleber, Dereck Lively II, on down the line.

So really it’s about how much players 3 through 12 complement the top two, and how healthy the top two can be. With Irving, availability has been and most likely will continue to be critical. With Doncic, if the Mavericks were able to create a time machine and acquire prime Michael Jordan to pair with him, I’m still not sure he’s giving up the ball. His body is always going to take a beating, and I have reluctantly settled on the notion that he feeds off of this; he needs it to be who he is.

But if we think back to the team that made it to the 2022 conference finals before running out of gas, for all of its flaws, that roster did complement Doncic well. Dorian Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock played ludicrous minutes, defending dominant guards and wings capably. They knocked down open shots. They brought an attitude to the group. Brunson picked up the slack when Doncic was unavailable or off the floor. Spencer Dinwiddie provided some offensive punch.

As constructed, I don’t see any reason why these Mavericks can’t be as competitive or more than that version (with the major caveat being Irving’s health). As great as Brunson was that postseason, and as great as he has been this year, Irving is still the better player. Doncic is even better now than he was then, primarily because he has become a plus-shooter from deep. I suppose what’s missing is the player who would occupy Dinwiddie’s role, but the top two are improved enough that I’m not sure how much that matters.

One difference I see between these two rosters, though, is versatility. The 2022 team had no choice but to live and die by the three-point shot. The Mavs could force opposing bigs off of the floor with a “small” three-guard lineup and spacing, but ultimately, they were too limited to sustain their success with that style. Now, though, Dallas have two legitimate starting caliber bigs in Lively and Gafford. While Dwight Powell has always been an exceptional lob threat in the pick-and-roll, he gives up so much on the other end that the playoffs have always been a struggle for him. In an ideal world, Washington and Josh Green can put the ball on the floor and attack closeouts. Kleber’s Swiss Army knife skillset allows Kidd to play two bigs without giving up spacing. Since the trade, the defensive rebounding rate has gone from atrocious to at least respectable (roughly league average over the last eight games).

I don’t think there is a team in the West that wants to face Doncic and Irving running 70 pick-and-rolls a game in the playoffs with Lively and Gafford and even Derrick Jones Jr. For the first time in Doncic’s career, it doesn’t feel as if the Mavericks have to play an offense/defense chess match with themselves when constructing lineups. It’s not perfect, by any means, but it’s better than it has been. While Doncic and Irving are both willing defenders, that is certainly not their strength, so it’s difficult to build a complete, versatile rotation when your two best players can be exposed a bit. But right now, it looks as if Dallas has gotten pretty close to finding that balance. That was best on display in the win at Toronto, when Doncic and Irving’s usual brilliance was complemented by Washington’s best offensive game as a Maverick (23 points on 5 of 10 three-point shooting) plus Lively and Gafford combining for 22 points, 11 rebounds, and six blocks while missing just one shot between them. It wasn’t Dallas’ most impressive win since the deadline—that honor goes to last week’s home tilt against Phoenix—but it was the one that displayed the greatest proof of concept for what the supporting cast can, and should, deliver.

And perhaps more than anything, Doncic looks extremely engaged. I don’t know the guy, but I’ve never taken him as an individual who was going to accept losing. That isn’t a shot at his franchise cornerstone predecessor, Dirk Nowitzki, or even a player like Giannis Antetokounmpo, whom I consider to be as close to a modern-day Dirk as there is. But Doncic is clearly wired differently. I do know this much: he is a monstrous competitor and a constant worry to the fan base for how impatient he might become if the Mavericks don’t make significant steps forward in a hurry. The good vibes could all be extinguished if Dallas ends up in the play-in, or with an early playoff exit. 

But the front office clearly understands the edict. Surround Doncic with depth, length, perhaps a little starpower, and then get out of the way. Harrison and Co. deserve credit for staying proactive to surround their generational talent with more pieces. Now it’s on those pieces to keep proving they’re the right fit.

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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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