The Dallas Mavericks had Giannis Antetokounmpo in their sights for more than two years. Whatever personnel decisions they made in the last couple years, they always kept an eye on the summer of 2021. That was when Antetokounmpo was set to become a free agent and possibly leave Milwaukee.
The fit with Luka Doncic is obvious, so it’s no wonder that Mavericks wanted to add the two-time MVP. But the dream of the young European superstars being teammates faded away when Antetokounmpo signed a five year extension with the Bucks in 2020. Free agency is always a gamble, but especially so with franchise players. It was a risk Donnie Nelson and the Mavericks were willing to take because the reward was so great.
Due to their focus on keeping the flexibility to chase Antetokounmpo, the Mavericks missed out on several free agents with quality playoff résumés. Their unwillingness to throw the bag at top tier role players in free agency meant they were forced to settle for players with less experience and less talent, players best suited for bench roles in the playoffs. It’s easy to say that some players passed on the Mavericks for other situations, but that’s what the money is for—to convince them otherwise.
Seth Curry, who signed a four-year contract with the Mavericks in 2019, is really the only win they’ve had in free agency lately. He’s their best free agent pickup in the last couple years, and will likely start for the Sixers this postseason. But even his deal is only $8 million per year, easily movable if you needed to make space for a Greek Freak.
Their other deals haven’t been so successful. Delon Wright didn’t work out at all. Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Burke have been inconsistent. Boban Marjanovic was brought in more as a bench presence than an actual rotation player. Curry was traded to Philadelphia for Josh Richardson during the offseason, a deal made to bolster the defense that’s had a middling effect. Wright was traded away in a complex deal that brought back James Johnson, who couldn’t crack Rick Carlisle’s rotation. Johnson was eventually traded for JJ Redick and Nicolo Melli. Redick hasn’t been able to overcome an injured heel and Melli has been as inconsistent as anyone on the roster.
Essentially, the Mavericks’ front office has nibbled at the edges of their roster, refusing to push forward their chips and go all in on MVP candidate Doncic and former all-star Kristaps Porzingis. Doncic showed last season that he has the ability to drag even a mediocre team to the playoffs, and the Mavericks are betting on that to carry them to postseason success.
It’s allowed the Mavericks to keep one foot on both shores. They want the flexibility to chase whatever white whale they’ll be after next while competing for a championship in the present.
The result is a roster heavily reliant on undrafted free agents like Maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith, or second round picks like Dwight Powell. Perhaps the only role player with a pedigree in the rotation is Tim Hardaway Jr., and with his streaky shooting, there’s no telling if he’ll be a plus or a minus in any one game. It should be concerning for anyone invested in the success of this franchise that four members of a seven man rotation were throw-ins on trades or part of a rebuild that netted Doncic.
The crazy part is it might work. There’s a scenario where Porzingis stays healthy throughout the playoffs and Kleber, Finney-Smith, and Hardaway shoot out of their minds for two months. The Mavericks shot 38% from behind the arc in March, up from their season long 36% for the season. If they can shoot like that in the playoffs, there’s a chance they can beat anyone.
In an extremely weird season, the Mavericks have a plausible path to the Western Conference Finals if certain things break their way. An elite player like Doncic and efficient 3-point shooting are the great equalizers in today’s NBA, and depending on what matchups they get, the Mavericks winning a couple rounds isn’t outlandish.
Dallas could have their first postseason success in a decade and still nab the third superstar they’re pining for, and I’ll be left wondering how Mark Cuban keeps getting away with this. History says that’s unlikely, though, and at some point the Mavericks are going to have to start team building with purpose rather than trying to cash in a free agent lottery ticket. This postseason might be the catalyst that pushes them in the right direction after nearly a decade of keeping their powder dry.
What happens in the playoffs will be simple. If Kleber, Finney-Smith, and Hardaway make the open 3-pointers they’re bound to get, the Mavericks will win. If they don’t, Dallas will be lucky to push a series to five games. It’s a formula we’ve seen play out all season, and it’s by design. Whether it will work or not is yet to be seen.