Last Thursday was a coup in Dallas. Donnie Nelson pushed a sizable amount of chips to the center of the table, and got his guy in Luka Dončić. After that, it felt like nothing else mattered. The draft could have gone in any number of directions, and everything would still come back to Luka.
But hold on.
The Mavericks had more picks. And at least one very useful pick at that. This site spent plenty of time leading up to draft night talking about all of the possible scenarios for the Mavericks as they made the 33rd pick, highlighting players that could meet immediate needs in Dallas. When those conversations took place, we never considered that so many would still be on the board when the Mavericks went back on the clock.
Melvin Frazier. Khyri Thomas. Isaac Bonga. Rodions Kurucs. Jarred Vanderbilt. Bruce Brown Jr. Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk. Keita Bates-Diop. Vince Edwards. Devon Hall. Shake Milton. Kevin Hervey. And a handful of undrafted wings.
In the few days following the draft, it was clear that the Mavericks front office was impressed with the track record of their two primary draft picks. Time and again, Donnie Nelson, Rick Carlisle, and Michael Finley spoke publicly about the proven success of Luka Dončić and Jalen Brunson in their young careers. After two full seasons of a lot of losing, the Mavericks want to make a quick pivot to being competitive, and identifying proven winners to add to the fold became priority number one.
It cannot be overstated that there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact it’s a smart strategy in many ways. Bringing in young players with a winning mentality is positive for the general culture of the team — not to mention their undeniable talent and readiness.
Still, one has to wonder where team need sits on the priority list, when there are so many holes in the roster. For the last several seasons the Mavericks have been stuck in a lower gear compared to many teams in the league, unable to fully adapt to the trends in roster construction. So passing up on an opportunity to add young depth (not to mention affordable depth) at the most in demand position in the league, must be met with at least some hesitation.
Loading up one one position in a positionless league
Last year the Mavericks experienced a traffic jam in the backcourt. Opening night back in October featured a roster with four players listed 6’3 and under (Dennis Smith Jr., Yogi Ferrell, J.J. Barea and Devin Harris). And that doesn’t include Seth Curry — the 6’2 projected starting shooting guard heading in to camp. The only true wing off the bench was the undrafted, soon-to-be-injury-riddled Dorian Finney-Smith.
On the surface everyone could say “this is fine”, primarily because whether the team was willing to speak publicly about it or not, they knew they’d be bad. And Luka was in their future.
Now, to the front office’s credit, they addressed this glaring lack of size and length and went out and found project players to fill in the back of the roster; guys who ultimately wouldn’t be used on competitive teams, but at least gave the Mavericks the face of trying to be modern. Moves that ultimately culminated in the trade for Doug McDermott. The positive change in balance on the floor once McDermott arrived was immediately apparent. That’s no discredit to Devin Harris (who was part of the best lineup last season). But you just can’t be a successful team if your small forward-slash-third guard is 6’3. And forcing a guy like Wesley Matthews to play 67 percent of his time at the three isn’t ideal.
Building a modern roster
“Small Ball” is an overused and incorrect term for what’s happening in the NBA. Yes, guys like Draymond Green are becoming the ideal fives. But when Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo are playing a lot of point guard, maybe the ball isn’t quite so small. These are generational oddities, talents that can’t fully dictate the direction of the league, simply because they’re so rare. Positionless Ball (doesn’t have the same ring) is really what’s going on, where coaches throw out four or five guys anywhere from 6’4 to 6’9 — seamless motion designed to exploit mismatches.
It’s exactly why a guy like Dončić becomes so coveted. His ability to play point guard to power forward. And it’s why the Mavericks desperately need to find a couple wings to add to the depth of the roster. They had that opportunity with the 33rd pick, but opted instead to get Yogi Ferrell insurance in Jalen Brunson. Long term, Barea will be gone and the Mavs will need an affordable backup point guard. But honestly, how much would that player be used if DSJ and Dončić become the players Dallas hopes they’ll be?
The Mavericks may have missed on some affordable long term opportunities last week, going with a day one ready player in Brunson. But they should still have some opportunities starting July 1. With the draft night trade, the Mavericks have zero motivation to be bad next season. To find success, it would be smart to start building a modern roster. After finding a starting center, signing some true wings must be top priority.