During the press conference following Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals, Jason Kidd summed up what every NBA fan thought about this year’s Mavs. “This is just the beginning of this journey,” Kidd said. “This is a lot bigger than just this one game or this series. This is huge for our franchise because none of you guys had us here.”
They were a trendy underdog pick after they upset the top-seeded Suns, but nobody could fault them for succumbing to the Warriors in a gentleman’s sweep. Overall, the Mavs exceeded expectations and should rightfully be proud of what they accomplished after an uneven start to the season that saw them fall to 16-18 in late December.
There are plenty of reasons to be excited for the future if you’re a Dallas fan. They have a generational talent in Luka Doncic who just turned 23 last February. They handily disposed of the seasoned Jazz in the first round (with Doncic missing the first three games) and thrashed the NBA’s best team in back-to-back elimination games. Had they not blown a 19-point lead in Game 2, the complexion of WCF could have been much different.
But there’s a difference between being a fan and running a team, and owner Mark Cuban and GM Nico Harrison should approach the offseason more aggressively. Conventional wisdom tells us that the Mavs have time to let their core group grow together; history suggests otherwise. After their surprising run to the 2007 Finals, the Cavs never made it past the ECF during LeBron James’s first stint (before he started the superteam trend). The Thunder never returned to the Finals after 2012 despite everyone predicting that they’ll own the next decade. Portland and Utah hung on to their cores a bit too long and never broke through. The Hawks got lulled into thinking they can simply run it back and they followed up last year’s ECF run with a swift first round exit.
The Mavs’ surprising WCF run showed two sides of the coin. On one side, their title window with Doncic is now open. They have found a formula that can win multiple playoff series: surrounding Doncic with shooters and playing good team defense. On the other, despite making a deep run, everything we knew about the Mavs heading into the playoffs—why they were pretenders, not contenders—turned out to be true. They were too Luka-centric, too reliant on threes, and couldn’t rebound the ball. Yes, they did beat the Suns, but only after Chris Paul mysteriously stopped playing like Chris Paul. Oh, and the Mavs shot 42.2% from deep in their four wins against Phoenix compared to 36.6% in their three losses (which was right around their 36.8% clip against the Warriors and 37.1% versus the Jazz). In a way, we were all duped into thinking that Dallas was a better team than they actually were because of their upset win against the Suns, but many things in that series were outliers, one way or another.
Having said that, the Mavs have the blueprint to compete for championships with Doncic as their main guy. But they’re lacking other foundational pieces. Jalen Brunson is a free agent and while he had a breakout postseason (21.6 points), the $80 million/4-year contract he is expected to fetch is too expensive for an undersized shooting guard who is a negative defender. Tim Hardaway Jr. will make $20M next season and, no, he’s not someone who will help them get over the hump. Spencer Dinwiddie had a couple of nice games off the bench, but his annual value is almost equivalent to the combined salaries of last season’s Sixth Man of the Year, Jordan Clarkson, and this year’s finalist, Cam Johnson. I love Davis Bertans since his San Antonio days but $16M for someone who averaged 5.3 points doesn’t sound right. Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber are on expiring deals and eligible for extensions, but they may have more value as trade pieces than as long-term investments.
What I’m trying to say is that there is no core group for Dallas in the same way that Memphis has Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Desmond Bane. Doncic IS their core, a one-man core. Everyone else is dispensable. The Mavs had a good run this year but that’s not a reason to stick to a group that had glaring weaknesses. I’m not saying that the Mavs should blow everything up—that’d be Amber Heard-level batshit crazy—but nobody other than Luka should be untouchable.
To become perennial contenders, they need to add two types of players: a two-way wing and a lob guy/rim protector.
As Stan Van Gundy noted during the Game 5 broadcast, the Mavs have the firepower but they can’t make stops. Dallas was a decent defensive team in the regular season (7th in defensive rating) but they don’t have that one guy who you can leave on an island with the opponent’s best perimeter player. They also don’t have a cutting, slashing scorer who can manufacture points when their shooters are off.
Despite the recent success of “space ball,” size still matters in the NBA—lest you want to see someone like Kevon Looney turn into Dennis Rodman in a playoff series. Looking at the bigger picture, there are still contenders who primarily operate inside. When fully healthy, the Bucks and Nuggets would feast on any team short on bigs. And Doncic really needs to have an easy lob target in the paint. The Mavs aren’t maximizing his passing skills without one.
So where do they find these guys? The answer is closer than you think, temporally speaking. The Mavs faced them in the last two rounds of the postseason. (Note 1: I don’t know if the Mavs are actually interested in these guys and I haven’t heard rumors that they are. But they ought to be; it just makes too much sense. Note 2: I’m not a fan of superteams and Dallas doesn’t need to build one. Doncic is a hyperstar with GOAT potential. Surrounding him with complementary semi-stars is enough. Doncic is so good that he may elevate them into bona fide stars.)
The Two-Way Wing
Andrew Wiggins will enter the last year of his contract and the Warriors simply don’t have the cap space to sign him to an extension. The Dubs already have $240M committed to the trio of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green through 2024, and would presumably want to sign Jordan Poole to a long-term extension once he becomes eligible in 2023. They have Jonathan Kuminga who they see as someone who can take over Wiggins’s role. There’s a good chance that Wiggins will be available because it’s bad business for Golden State to lose him for nothing.
Wiggins guarded Doncic as best as anyone in the league and was the co-second leading scorer for the Warriors in the WCF. He made the All-Star team this year because of his two-way play and while his offense fizzled in the third trimester, that can be attributed to Thompson’s return and Poole catching fire. The Dubs don’t run enough plays for him, meaning he rarely gets into a rhythm offensively; the fact that he still averages 17-18 points isn’t too shabby all things considered.
He’s still only 27, so he fits with Doncic’s timeline. Between him and Brunson, Wiggins brings more to the table. He averaged more points during the regular season and is someone you can leave on an island with the opposing team’s best perimeter player. As we’ve seen with the ill-fated Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum tandem, it’s never a good idea to build around a pair of below-average defenders in the backcourt.
The Lob Guy/Rim Protector
When the threes weren’t falling, the Mavs simply had no plan B. Ironically, someone who the Mavs seemingly exposed in the previous round because their plan A was working implausibly well could be the answer.
Deandre Ayton is a restricted free agent and he apparently has one foot out the door because the Suns are reportedly unwilling to offer him the max. He had a disappointing postseason for someone looking to get paid, but a big part of that is CP3 not being able to get him the easy looks he had last year. That’s partly why I don’t buy the narrative that he became unplayable in the Dallas series. He was still very good in their wins because he was able to punish the Mavs inside, be it in post-ups or the off the offensive glass. He’s not like Rudy Gobert whose offensive limitations made him useless on the floor once he was taken out of his comfort zone on the defense end.
The Mavs took plenty of high difficulty shots against the Warriors because they didn’t have someone who can finish easy buckets around the rim. Ayton would fill that role perfectly and I bet Doncic would enjoy playing with someone like DA. The Mavs were also minus-57 in rebounding and gave up 82 more points in the paint against the Dubs. Ayton ticks these boxes too.