About 20 years ago, on May 3, 2001, the Dallas Mavericks played a win-or-go-home Game 5 against the favored Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City. It was the biggest Mavericks game in the past 10 years, since the great teams of the late 1980s faded and the stink of the 1990s took hold.
Dallas was led by a young, foreign born player. You might have heard of him — Dirk Nowitzki, the sweet-shooting 7-footer in his third season and only 22-years-old. Nowitzki had taken the leap in that 2001 season, the Mavericks leading scorer and rebounder. He took the most free throws of anyone on the team, showed growth as a passer and improved defensively to keep up with the physical nature of NBA basketball.
In Game 5, Nowitzki was pretty bad, even by the standards of that season. He scored only 18 points while shooting 3-of-11 from the field, although he compensated that by going a perfect 10-for-10 from the free throw line. He grabbed only four rebounds, too. Certainly not the type of performance you’d need to win a Game 5 (back when the NBA only played five games in the first round), especially so in one of the toughest environments and against one of the best teams in the Western Conference — the John Stockton, Karl Malone-led Utah Jazz.
Thankfully, Dirk had help. While he transitioned to becoming the Mavericks best player in 2001, Michael Finley ever so slightly moved into a co-star role, barely averaging fewer points than Nowitzki that season. Finley scored 33 points in Game 5 on 24 shots. Not only did he lead the team in scoring, but he set up Dallas with the game-winning play — a layup by backup big man Calvin Booth in the final seconds.
Nowitzki didn’t even touch the ball during that final possession. He didn’t have too. The Mavericks had a burgeoning but more than capable point guard in Steve Nash bring the ball up the floor, he got it to the team’s best scorer that game and then that best scorer had the wherewithal to make the the right read and find the open Booth. The Mavericks won, with Finley and Nowitzki outscoring the Jazz’s two highest scorers, Malone and Bryon Russell, by 12 points (51 to 39).
The Mavericks won their first playoff series since 1988, setting the franchise up for a long era of success that eventually led to the 2011 NBA championship.
It’s almost eerie how similar, yet so different, that 2001 season compares to the 2021 Mavericks. Both Dirk and Luka Doncic were 22-years-old, both in their third seasons and both cementing themselves as rising stars in the league, although obviously Doncic a few paces ahead. Unfortunately the similarities stop there. Nowitzki won his first playoff series; Doncic is now 0-for-2 after a Game 7 loss to the Clippers Sunday afternoon. Nowitzki got help from his team to push him over the finish line; Doncic had a historic Game 7 and playoff series, while the rest of his teammates simply were not good enough.
Doncic scored 46 — the next highest scoring Maverick had 18. A hat tip to the user on Twitter who pointed this out after the game: Doncic outscored the Mavericks second leading scorer by 28 points, while the Clippers Kawhi Leonard scored 17 more points than the Clippers seventh leading scorer. Doncic went 5-of-11 from three — his teammates combined to go 5-of-25.
It’s the same story we’ve seen from this Mavericks team for the past two seasons: Doncic is an MVP talent, the rest of the roster feels decidedly worse. After two straight first round exits and Doncic putting up an absurd line of 32.5 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 9.2 assists per game on 48.6 shooting from the field and 38.5 percent from three, the entire Mavericks organization has to be held accountable.
Simply put: this isn’t good enough. It has to get better and it has to get better quick.
A not-so-fun exercise to do during this postseason is to take the best player off every playoff team and then to rank the remaining rosters accordingly. Do that and then compare it with these Mavericks. For reference, here is the Mavericks roster, the ones that actually play, sans Doncic:
- Kristaps Porzingis
- Dorian Finney-Smith
- Tim Hardaway Jr.
- Maxi Kleber
- Josh Richardson
- Jalen Brunson
- Dwight Powell
- Willie Cauley-Stein
- Boban Marjanovic
- Trey Burke
Look at those names and then look at the names of the other 2021 playoff teams. Is that group better than Atlanta, which features Clint Capela, Bogdan Bogdanovic, De’Andre Hunter, John Collins, Cam Reddish, Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams and Kevin Huerter? What about Boston, which has Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, Daniel Theis, Tristan Thompson, Robert Williams and Payton Pritchard?
We can keep going. What about the sad-sack Indiana Pacers, who missed the playoffs after losing their play-in game against the Washington Wizards. Would you take the Mavericks non-Luka roster over Malcolm Brogdon, Myles Turner, Caris LeVert, Justin Holiday, T.J. Warren, T.J. McConnell, Doug McDermott, Jeremy Lamb and Aaron Holiday? It gets really sad when you realized I’ve only listed Eastern Conference teams.
Let’s look at the West’s eighth seed, the Memphis Grizzlies. Take away Ja Morant and compare Dillon Brooks, Jonas Valanciunas, Kyle Anderson, Grayson Allen, Brandon Clarke, Jaren Jackson Jr., Desmond Bane, De’Anthony Melton, Xaiver Tillman and Tyus Jones to what the Mavericks have. This exercise gets very bleak very quickly.
At the end of the day only two players that were not on the Mavericks roster in March 2019 played Sunday in Game 7: 31 minutes for Marjanovic, who never played much at all until the Mavericks got desperate and made a big lineup change during the playoffs, and Josh Richardson, who played six minutes, further cementing his fate as being part of one of the worst trades the Mavericks have made in the last few years. This is basically the same roster that won less than 30 games in Doncic’s rookie season, except Doncic went from Rookie of the Year to All NBA First Team and Porzingis gave them, well, something for two seasons. Some good, some bad, but at least something.
Dallas completely botched free agency in 2019, using their max cap space to bring in Delon Wright and Seth Curry. Neither of those players saw the floor for the Mavericks in the 2021 playoffs. In fact, the Mavericks only got six total Game 7 minutes from those two contracts — the six from Richardson after he was traded for Curry. Wright turned into James Johnson, who turned into J.J. Redick, who missed the entire series with a heel injury.
The plan put in place by the Mavericks brain trust has now been fully exposed. If you need a refresher on what that plan is (since it seems like there isn’t one), here it is: the Mavericks think they can underpay diamonds in the rough to give them the production of more talented, higher paid players. Think of it as the Oakland A’s and Moneyball. Why pay more for a secondary ball-handler when you can get Delon Wright for $9 million per season? Why break the checkbook for a wing shooter when you can get Seth Curry for relatively peanuts? It all makes sense on paper, except when the Mavericks get blasted out of the playoffs and these role players are MIA.
News flash: good players cost lots of money. Mark Cuban hasn’t paid the luxury tax since 2011. These things are connected.
Every aspect of the Mavericks basketball operations has to be under the microscope: Cuban needs to revaluate his input as a team owner and not technically the team’s general manager. Donnie Nelson needs to be evaluated for his full body of work over the last two years and not just for swiping Doncic in the 2018 Draft. The Mavericks draft room has to figure out how they had three picks in the top-36 and came away with zero playoff rotation players. Coincidentally, the team needs to ask their coaching staff why none of those young players could find time for development when the Mavericks sat their stars numerous times in the regular season.
Each area of the team needs to be looked at. While Rick Carlisle shouldn’t be blamed for the playoff success drought, that doesn’t mean he can’t be critiqued and his position recalibrated when thinking about how to make the most of Doncic. Scouts, front office personnel, the whole nine yards — no one’s job should be safe in the organization if they’re truly serious about steering the team in the right direction.
The clock is ticking. Doncic will be eligible for his super-max contract extension, which will kick in the season after next. At that moment, all of the Mavericks current flexibility vanishes. While some would lead you to believe the Mavericks aren’t currently flexible due to Porzingis’ contract and the cap hold of Tim Hardaway Jr., that’s just semantics — 11 players are under contract next season and aside from Porzingis’ huge number, no one else makes more than Richardson’s $11.6 million player option. Almost every Mavericks role player plays for dirt cheap, which means if the Mavericks really want to rip this roster up and make changes, they can. They are not locked into this roster. Contracts as small as the Mavericks have can be moved easily and even Porzingis’ could be dumped somewhere — no contract in the NBA is immovable.
There are no more excuses. The Mavericks with Luka Doncic are not good enough.
Here’s the postgame podcast, Mavs Moneyball After Dark. If you can’t see the embed below “More from Mavs Moneyball”, click here. And if you haven’t yet, subscribe by searching “Mavs Moneyball podcast” into your favorite podcast app.