Since the day Luka Doncic was drafted, there were always some takes floating in the basketball blogging ether about whether Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. could coexist.
It made some sense in a vacuum but seemed to ignore a lot of where NBA basketball was going and where it had already went. For years now, elite teams have always needed at least two capable playmakers. Defenses in the NBA are getting to good to rely on a sole superstar and if there’s any franchise that knows about how hard it is to win with just one star, it’s the Mavericks.
So sure, maybe there would definitely be some rough patches as Smith adjusted to playing with a point guard that was his age and better than him for the first time in his career. Smith was the alpha dog on every team he played for in his basketball life, so ceding touches to another playmaker only made sense for there to be a transition period. That never meant the duo could never work.
Fortunately the cries for Smith and Doncic to be split up were mostly driven up in blog posts and Twitter threads. Unfortunately, that trend has shifted — reports from extremely well-sourced NBA reporters have let it be known that there is a possibility Smith could be traded and the Mavericks are exploring their options.
“The instant emergence of the Dallas rookie Luka Doncic, combined with longstanding skepticism about Smith’s ability to flourish alongside Doncic in an off-the-ball capacity, has spawned the expectation among many executives that Smith will eventually be moved,” Marc Stein wrote in a recent newsletter for The New York Times.
That only points the finger at rival executives smelling blood in the water as Doncic’s rookie season continues to impress while Smith nurses a nagging wrist injury. Then ESPN’s Tim MacMahon backed up the report and added a bit of his own sourcing.
.@TheSteinLine mentions expectation among execs around league that Dennis Smith Jr. will eventually be moved. Mavs tell Steiny that they aren't shopping Smith, but that's semantics. Execs from other teams tell me that Mavs are at least gauging market for their 2017 lotto pick. https://t.co/AVYevoyif0— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) December 24, 2018
So while the Mavs are telling reporters they aren’t shopping Smith, MacMahon and Stein are being told by opposing team executives that the Mavs are indeed having conversations. It’s been a slightly annoying subplot on what has been an exciting year for Dallas, despite the recent losing streak.
The fact is that right now, Smith and Doncic aren’t working. As alluded to in this piece from The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks, Smith is learning a brand new role and the Mavericks roster doesn’t give him a lot of opportunities to be the lead ball handler with J.J. Barea coming off the bench. Right now, the two-man pairing of Doncic and Smith has a minus-5.8 net rating according to NBA.com in 481 minutes played. In the two games Smith and Doncic have played together in December, that number improves a bit to minus-1.9, but in only 27 minutes, it’s far too small to know if there was any substantial improvement made. It’s only been worse since Smith has missed 10 of the last 15 games with a wrist injury.
Here’s the thing though — Smith and Doncic not working is fine. While the Mavericks obviously had internal goals of making the playoffs (that’s what happens when you trade a future pick for your next star), the Mavs timeline has never really been off-track yet. Dallas spent the previous two-years rebuilding and reshuffling the franchise priorities and while Doncic’s arrival has certainly sped things up, the Mavs still only have two top-10 draft picks from this very short rebuild. These things take time, especially when you consider Smith is doing something he’s never done before. Dallas still has two more seasons (and more importantly, two more off-seasons) of a cheap Smith contract on their books to allow Smith to grow without muddying up the cap in anyway. With the Mavericks trading their 2019 pick for Doncic, Smith and Doncic will be the only young homegrown players on the roster for the foreseeable future. Dallas has to make it work because they honestly don’t have much of a choice and because their hands are not tied yet.
The Mavs still need Smith to be the best player he can be. While Doncic as a full-time point guard might be the future, Dallas still needs Smith’s explosiveness and athleticism in the backcourt to push the ball on the break, give Doncic a release valve to exploit scattered defenses and, perhaps most importantly, guard the quicker guards that Doncic will never be able to. Smith’s defensive development has been one of the nicest surprises of the Mavs season so far, as Smith has been able to use his quicks and rocket-boosted hops to play effective defense in the week or so before he went down with injury. A year ago the Mavericks were getting pounded in Smith’s minutes and in November of this season, the Mavs sported a 101.7 defensive rating with Smith on the court, a really good number.
Of course, a lot of this trade talk is likely just other teams’ GMs posturing for a deal that might never come. This is the well-trodden cycle and to be honest the Mavericks NOT engaging in talks about what they could get in return for Smith would be them not doing their jobs. But simply doing your job in the NBA is a story now, for better or worse.
Maybe there’s a deal out there that makes the Mavericks an unquestionably better team with Smith on another roster, but right now, the Mavericks should stay patient. Rebuilding a roster is a marathon, not a sprint and Dallas has just made a dent toward the finish line.