The NBA is a complete mess right now with the coronavirus tearing through the league, sidelining more than 100 players, forcing teams to sign replacements ranging from old favorites like Isiah Thomas to 2K auto-generated players. (Charlie Brown Jr.? Good grief) The Mavs have not escaped this fate, with Luka being the most recent player added to the list. Through the chaos, the Mavs are still winning games, staying around .500 even with Luka and Porzingis' missing time. Brunson and KP both scored 27 single-handedly making a competitive Christmas game against the fully healthy Utah Jazz, third in the West. Brunson has been the only consistent player the past few weeks with Doncic and KP missing time, constantly running the offense, and being the only Maverick ball handler I have any sort of trust in. I’ve come to the conclusion that Doncic, Porzingis, and Brunson are the only players on the roster that matter and everyone else could be replaced and the Mavs would pretty much be the exact same team.
Why these three?
It's pretty obvious as to why Doncic and Porzingis make this list, as they are the two stars of the team and the only two players who can make all-star teams. While Luka has been frustrating to watch at times this year, as he showed up out of shape and hasn’t played at his peak, he has still shown numerous times he is a superstar, ready to turn the game on a dime with a step-back three or perfect assist. KP was criticized harshly and fairly for his abysmal playoff performance last year, and he has responded with a great start to the season, with renewed defensive effort and aggression to the rim. While his shooting has been down, only hitting 27% so far, I’d expect this to improve towards his career average as the season continues. The final member of this group could only be Jalen Brunson, the only Maverick I’m comfortable dribbling aside from Luka. Brunson has been great this season, both off the bench when the team was healthy and now starting at point guard when Luka has been out running an offense of replacements. He is incredibly important to this team, as he provides secondary playmaking when paired with Luka and lead guard duty when playing alone. Watching the Mavs try to play offense when both Luka and Brunson are off the court is unbearable, with score-first guards like Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. struggling to involve others in the offense. Brunson’s emergence as the third-best player on the team further pushes the 2018 draft as an incredible outlier in the otherwise dismal draft history of the team.
Why Tim Hardaway doesn’t make this group
The only other Maverick I could understand making a case as to why they don’t belong in the replaceable players group is Tim Hardaway Jr., as he makes the second most money on the team and scores the ball at volume, winning the Mavs games when he catches fire. While I love Timmy and his scoring, he is completely replaceable when compared to other players around the league, as volume shooting wings who are below-average defenders are everywhere in the league today. Think of the likes of Luke Kennard or Alec Burks, or better defenders like Donte DiVincenzo. I still think the Mavs made the right move in re-signing him this offseason, as his contract is at a good level and scoring is needed on this team. However, the front office shouldn’t be tied to Hardaway, as his skill set can be replaced. He isn’t particularly good off the dribble and isn’t a good playmaker, two things the Mavs should prioritize in players if they plan to institute Jason Kidd’s offense. Kidd seems to want the Mavs to have many players who can drive and create, something this roster is not currently built to do. Tim’s streaky shooting, seemingly either going 0-9 or 8-10, is similar to plenty of other volume scorers, who boom high but often bust. Therefore the Mavericks can’t rely on Hardaway to be consistent night to night, meaning he can’t be a centerpiece of anything moving forward, and is instead a peripheral piece to a good team. If there is a significant upgrade out there for this team, he shouldn’t be a barrier, as in all honesty, at nearly 30 his best basketball may be already behind him.
Why everyone else is entirely replaceable
The rest of the Mavericks roster consists entirely of role players that almost every team in the league already has, which is fine if the team wants to continue to exit in the first round, but not enough for title contention. The teams that made the Finals last year, the Suns and Bucks, each had elite role players who could be relied on to consistently contribute to the team, something the Mavs simply do not have. Mikail Bridges, Jae Crowder, and Cam Johnson would all be the best forward in Dallas, but in Phoenix one of them comes off the bench, giving incredible wing depth. Bobby Portis comes off the bench for the Bucks but would easily be the best Mavericks center aside from Porzingis, whereas the Mavs rely on one of the worst center rotations in the league with Dwight Powell, Moses Brown, or Willie Cauley-Stein. Elite teams require elite supporting casts, something the Mavs sorely lack. A common complaint about the roster is the lack of talent, something I’m inclined to agree with when looking at those who play big minutes for the team. Dorian Finney-Smith and Kleber are both players I like and both on good contracts, but they are simply asked to do too much for this team. Dorian is a solid defender, who shines against bigger guards like James Harden, but asking him to consistently guard the opponent's best player is simply unreasonable. The small forward position is one of the most talent-loaded groups in the NBA, with elite scorers filling up the stat sheet nightly. Asking an undrafted player to go up against these guys is asking for failure, even as DFS has made great strides over his 6 seasons to be a solid rotation player. However, there are simply things he can’t do, which makes his expanded role on offense this year frustrating. I cringe whenever he puts the ball on the floor, and more often than not it ends with a turnover. The same goes for Maxi Kleber, who should never venture inside the three-point line on offense. Kleber’s offensive game is incredibly frustrating at times, as he can’t do much aside from shooting the three, but also can’t take any contested shots despite being 6’10". He isn’t tight enough with his dribble to drive effectively, meaning he’s yet another Maverick who needs Luka or Brunson to feed their entire offensive output. Sterling Brown and Reggie Bullock each are shooters who can’t dribble or create just like Finney-Smith, just at a more offensive slant with their worse defense. These guys could be replaced by any number of three and D players around the league and the results would be the exact same, as the Mavs essentially entirely rely on Luka and Brunson to create offense, with Porzingis sometimes creating for himself.
Why this is an issue
If the Mavs want to push past the middle of the West into title contention they will need to do one of two things, acquire another star to pair with Luka and Porzingis, or vastly improve the supporting cast around the duo, two things they will struggle to do in the near future. It's no secret that Dallas isn’t an attractive free agent location, and while Mark Cuban continues to delude himself into believing the biggest free agents are headed his way, it's apparent the Mavs will need to utilize the trade market to improve. The Luka extension kicking in next summer will leave the Mavs with no cap space to add significant salary, further requiring smart moves to improve this team. Jalen Brunson’s current situation is an issue, as he will be an unrestricted free agent this summer meaning the Mavs could very well lose him to a higher bidder. I’d love to keep Brunson on the team, but the team’s options are limited by their non-existent cap space. Tim Hardaway will make $19 million, Reggie Bullock will make $10 million, and the wonderful center play of Dwight Powell will remain on the books at $11 million. Brunson won’t command a max deal, but he will absolutely command more than the Mavs can offer. They will need to make a serious decision on Brunson’s future with the team, whether that be trading him sooner so they get something in return or moving other players so they can re-sign him. If the Mavs want to make a splash for an all-star caliber player they are going to have a tough time doing so, as basically no players have trade value. Brunson is the only young player they have that teams want, given the Mavs horrific drafting record, meaning he will have to be included in these trades, but of course, if he leaves in the summer that leaves the Mavs with nothing to give. As I’m writing this Josh Green has just completed a 10 assist masterclass in Portland so maybe in the coming months, he will become a competent rotation player either to keep or use in one of these trades.
No team looks at a package centered around Dwight Powell and Trey Burke as appealing at all, but these are some of the best options the Mavs have at the moment to trade. If the Mavs had some young talent that teams wanted they could package deals similar to the Lakers and Clippers deals for Anthony Davis and Paul George, each centered around young players and picks. Obviously, there is the huge caveat of the LA teams and the star power to influence those moves, but the idea remains the same in spicing up a deal with young talent, something the Mavs lack. If the Mavs drafted better they could have had young players in abundance, something their 2018 draft trade partner Atlanta. In two draft classes, the Hawks have drafted three young wings in Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, and Cam Reddish who would all see massive minutes on the Mavs today. If and when the Hawks want to add a star to pair with Trae Young they will have spare young players to include, a luxury the Mavs will not have when they make trades. If Dallas had valuable role players and not a bunch of replaceable guys the trades we could offer would be vastly better, maybe inciting teams to actually make moves with the Mavs. This is a talent-poor, asset-poor team, and the next offseason will be a test, as they will need to improve despite limited cap flexibility.
It's tough to decide what the Mavs should do about this team, as they won’t get lottery picks due to Luka being elite, but do not have enough cap space or have a history of bringing free agents. The trade market looks dry with the players the Mavs are willing to offer, meaning it seems like we’re going to hold station with this group of players. It would be risky but taking a gamble and trading Brunson before an extension could be one of the few options the Mavs have to improve the roster. If they could bring Dragic in on a buyout it would help with playmaking, but there is a question about how much he can even offer given his age and status out of the rotation in Toronto. A final hope is improving the team through their late first-round draft picks, but that timeline seems off to the win-now approach of Luka and Porzingis. The new front office led by Nico Harrison has a lot of work to do to improve this team from first-round exits to conference and league finals appearances, and it will take several seasons of turnover. I believe Luka will win a title in his career, but whether that be with the Mavs or future teams down the road remains to be seen. If we can’t put together improved rosters over his extension it will be totally understandable when he decides to move on to teams who are capable of putting together championship rosters, as devastating as that would be for me and Mavs fans everywhere.