Season in review
Watching Willie Cauley-Stein play basketball is among the more dazzling and frustrating experiences one can have as a fan of basketball. Here’s a player built to play basketball. He’s seven feet tall, 240 pounds, and quite possibly one of the best athletes I’ve seen wear a Dallas Mavericks uniform.
With his jumping ability, speed, and coordination, Cauley-Stein’s long held the tools to be a solid contributor in the NBA, despite the small ball evolution. And yet, he’s never quite put things together to make a case as a lasting impact rotation player.
In his second year with the Mavericks, Cauley-Stein played 53 games, starting 16 of them. In around 17 minutes per game, he scored just over five points and grabbed four and a half rebounds. It’s difficult to contextualize his game, as when one looks at the box scores, it’s easy to see that he never had a defined role due to the constant upheaval of the season. He missed nearly a month starting in March due to the COVID health and safety protocols, but returned for the stretch run push where he finally played regular minutes as the Mavericks often had to rest Kristaps Porzingis.
While he likely had better statistical performances in the 2020-21 season, it was his defensive work against future MVP Nikola Jokic in early January that stands out in my mind over six months later. Though he didn’t contribute a ton in the way of counting stats, just five points and nine rebounds in 26 minutes, his defense on Jokic down the stretch in the fourth quarter helped the Mavericks force overtime against a team that really outplayed Dallas for much of the night. It was a little thing, but his effort stood out in my mind then and now and that was the game I thought he may have finally turned the corner.
The Dallas Mavericks can bring Willie Cauley-Stein back on a team option at just $4.1 million for the 2021-22 season. This is a team-friendly deal for a player who has so much athleticism and skill, but for a team looking to maximize cap space they may decline his option and try to bring him back once other free agents are signed.
If you don’t follow Willie’s workout posts on Instagram, you have to. It’s post after post of things he should never and will never do in a NBA game. If you ever went to a game early, you saw how often he loves to shoot three pointers during warm ups. Our man went 1-of-11 from three in 2020-21 and is just a 17% three point shooter for his career.
I share all this to illuminate just how unclear Cauley-Stein is on his role in the NBA. He’s such an incredible athlete and yet does things like shoot 65% on dunks which was an accurate stat through an early portion of the season. He figured it out eventually as Luka Doncic started spoon feeding him looks he simply couldn’t mess up. Despite all his inconsistent play, he finished with a team high plus/minus.
His season helped highlight the importance of a rim running big but it’s just so hard to know what his role might be next season if the Mavericks pick up his option. Like former coach Rick Carlisle, Jason Kidd is not know to suffer players who make regular mistakes.
As mentioned, Cauley-Stein’s fate isn’t entirely up to him with his team contract option. We’ll know soon enough if he has a future as a part of the Dallas Mavericks.