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What the Mavericks need to do to have a successful offseason

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The key gaps new front office needs to fill

Dallas Mavericks Jason Kidd Press Conference Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

There is less than a week until NBA free agency starts. Free agent negotiations begin on Aug. 2. Teams can start signing free agents on Aug. 6. However, most Dallas Mavericks fans started to think about the free agency on June 6, when Dallas lost Game 7 to the Los Angeles Clippers in the first-round of the playoffs. You can’t blame the fans for wanting to see new faces in a Mavericks uniform. They watched Boban Marjanović and Trey Burke play key minutes in a decisive playoff game for a second consecutive year.

A lot of things have happened since then. The Mavericks have a new general manager, a new cap expert, a new coach, and a new coaching staff. There’s a lot of hope among Mavericks fans that free agency will be different this time around. Mark Cuban didn’t change the whole coaching staff and the front office to run it back with the same team.

Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Mike Conley, Spencer Dinwiddie, John Collins, and Richaun Holmes are some of the names linked to the Mavericks recently. The Mavericks are at a crucial point in their team-building stage. Dallas, as currently constructed, is a good team —a top-ten team in the league — but there are flaws.

There was a big gap between the top-eight teams in the league and the rest last season. All second-round teams except Atlanta were ranked top-seven in the regular season by a wide point differential margin. Even though the Los Angeles Lakers’ two stars battled injuries, you can add them to the list of best teams.

Best teams in the NBA by point differential, 2020-21 season (Source: Cleaning the Glass)

To take the next step, to get to the second round, or even to be a real contender, the Mavericks need more talent. The gaps are still big and the Mavericks can’t waste another offseason not filling them. In year four of the Luka Dončić era, the Mavericks can’t afford to make the lateral moves they made last two offseasons — they have to take a step forward.

Now, this is not a guide on which players Mavericks need to sign. This is rather a guide on what kind of players Mavs need to take that next step. It’s a guide for the regular fan to consider, the next time another free agent’s name pops up on Twitter. Does that player actually help any of the key gaps? Or, does that player fill one need, but makes another problem worse?

I ranked the needs by priority, based on watching this Mavericks team for the last three seasons. Not only that, the gaps and needs are prioritized based on what we’ve just seen in the playoffs. I observed how the teams that reached the second round and Conference finals are built, how they played, and what the Mavericks need to get there.

The need for a second star and shot creator

The NBA is a talent-driven league. The good news is Mavericks have one of the most talented players in the world. Luka Dončić is one of the best ten players in the league, a generational talent, and a franchise player most teams struggle to find. Dončić and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the only two players to be named to the first-team All-NBA teams in the past two seasons. The bad news for the Mavericks is that there is a huge chasm between Dončić and the next best player on the roster. While the best teams in the NBA have two, or even three players in the top 30 range, Dallas’ second-best player Kristaps Porzingis fell off from most top 50 player ranking lists.

Last season, Porzingis didn’t crack the top 50 in most of the advanced metrics. Porzingis was ranked even lower by metrics that include availability. Dončić is the only Maverick who can create his own shot in a tough playoff series, and this is the gap Dallas will need to fill. Porzingis is not a player who can create his own offense, and it seems the Mavericks finally realized that. Last year Porzingis had his most efficient scoring season, but a deeper look into his numbers shows he was efficient when he played within the system and didn’t try to do too much on his own.

The most competitive teams in the playoffs had at least two players who could create their own shot. New NBA champions the Milwaukee Bucks had three such creators in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holliday. Devin Booker and Chris Paul were the two shot makers for the Phoenix Suns. The Los Angeles Clippers had Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Reggie Jackson. The Utah Jazz and Atlanta Hawks had several players capable of scoring off the ball, or creating their own shot if needed. Atlanta with Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanović, Kevin Hurter, and Lou Williams, and Utah with Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, Joe Ingles, and Jordan Clarkson.

Dallas Mavericks 2020-21 season: assisted vs unassisted points

Jalen Brunson is the only Maverick besides Dončić whose assisted rate (how often was a player assisted on his made shots) was below 50 percent. Brunson struggled in the playoffs, as Mavericks fell apart when Dončić was on the bench. Brunson was minus-56 for the series, and minus-43 when Dončić was off the floor. Brunson is a good player, but it’s hard to envision him as a starter or the answer next to Dončić.

The need for better defenders

The defense might be an even bigger problem area for the Mavericks than shot creation. While Dončić is a guarantee for a top ten offense, the Mavericks finished the season ranked 22nd on defense. The Mavericks’ defense was a roller-coaster all season. Dallas was the worst defensive team for a month in January and February, improved significantly in March, but ended the season poorly. The Mavericks’ defense completely fell apart in the playoffs.

Dallas Mavericks’ defense 2020-21 season (source: Cleaning the Glass data)

While Dončić makes team-building much easier on offense, he is not a two-way star some other top players like Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, or Joel Embiid are. Every move the new Dallas front office makes needs to have a defensive fit with Dončić in mind.

This is where Porzingis’ regression last season hurts even more and presents difficult team-building challenges. Even in a reduced role, Porzingis is a very valuable player on offense. The problem is that Mavericks can’t afford their best two players to be negative defenders. Even more, Mavericks' third-best player last season, Tim Hardaway Jr. is a minus defender as well. Playing all three together gives teams plenty of options to attack. Dallas had to finish the playoffs playing zone defense for large parts of the last three games, because their man-to-man defense was so bad. If we look at the teams that made it to the second round in the playoffs, most teams had game-changing players on defense.

The best teams either have elite wing defenders like Jrue Holliday, Ben Simmons, Mikal Bridges, Kawhi Leonard, or an anchor big like Clint Capela, Rudy Gobert, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Deandre Ayton.

Some have both — Dallas has neither.

Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber are useful defenders, but they are not even close to being mentioned for any All-Defense teams. If we look at advanced metrics, the Mavericks don’t have any player that stands out on defense. No Maverick ranked in the top 40 in defensive raptor, defensive estimated +/-, or DBPM. The Mavericks need a defensive game-changer, a player that is at least a candidate for the first or second all-defense team. The Mavericks’ front office thought Josh Richardson could be that, but he clearly wasn’t. Ideally, Dončić should be the worst defender in the closing lineup, surrounded by four good defenders.

The things that make it tricky

Shot creation and defense are the two most glaring gaps Mavericks need to fill. Dallas could also use a veteran player who is a good passer and a quick decision maker capable of attacking the gaps. Obviously, Dončić is the best passer on the current roster, but it’s hard to point out the second-best passer. A high-energy player who is a good rebounder is another player archetype Mavericks missed the last two seasons. As good as Dončić is, he is not a player that would carry his team with hustle and energy on a random February night in Memphis.

Before they start filling the gaps, Dallas' new front office will have to figure out the short and long-term plan with players on the current roster. Short term they’ll have to decide what to do with Tim Hardaway Jr. Re-signing Hardaway seems like a no-brainer for most Mavericks fans, but his fit on defense with Dončić and Porzingis is problematic. Lineups with Dončić, Porzingis, and Hardaway were among league-worst on defense last season. It seems that re-signing Hardaway is one of the Mavericks’ offseason priorities but his long-term future should be tied to the Porzingis situation. Porzingis and Hardaway together don’t make sense as the highest-paid players next to Dončić.

Porzingis of course is the elephant in the room. Jason Kidd was very positive about Porzingis and his ability to regain his form and be the second scoring option in his recent interviews. But offense won’t matter if Porzingis doesn’t improve his mobility and becomes a positive defender again. This is a big if, as we’ve seen more mobile bigs struggle on defense in the playoffs.

How do the key free agent names fit?

Kawhi Leonard is the player on the market that would fill both shot creation and defense at an elite level. He’ll also probably miss the whole next season with an ACL injury and re-sign with the Clippers. The other two players who could fill shot creation gaps are veteran point guards Kyle Lowry and Mike Conley. Both would help with playmaking, shot-making, veteran leadership, and not be a liability on defense. Lowry is 35 and Conley is almost 34 years old, so both would be pricy gambles. We’ve seen a similar gamble pay off for the Suns this season with Chris Paul. As per a recent Marc Stein report, the Mavericks will try to pursue Lowry as their main free-agent target.

The other player most Mavericks fans see as the solution for the shot-making problem is DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan is an elite scorer who can create his own shot in a tough playoff matchup. I’m a DeRozan skeptic because he’s a negative defender that would make the Mavericks’ defensive holes even bigger. In the past six seasons, all of DeRozan’s teams were significantly worse on defense with him on the floor. Most advanced metrics on defense are brutal for DeRozan. It would be difficult to build a competent defense with DeRozan and Dončić as your wing defenders, and even worse adding Porzingis to the mix.

Other free agent names won’t help with the biggest needs, but they could fill other gaps without compromising the defense. Lonzo Ball would add passing and wing defense but is not a secondary scorer and shot maker. John Collins wouldn’t help the shot creation problem, but he’s an elite scorer who would thrive next to Dončić as a roll or a pop threat in the pick and roll. Richaun Holmes is another big who would be great as a pick and roll partner with Dončić, a vertical spacer who could hold his own on defense. Signing either of them would not be ideal for the Mavericks with Porzingis on the roster. Spending most of the salary cap on another big man or a guard who is not an elite scorer, is not a recipe for a title-contending team in the current NBA.

To take the next step the Mavericks will ultimately need a wing player as the second maximum salary player next to Dončić. They need another star, another player in the top 30 range with a skill set that compliments Dončić’s. Apart from Leonard, there isn’t a player like this available in this year’s free agency. Dallas doesn’t have the assets to trade for one, so the best hope for Mavericks’ fans is that the front office makes moves that will help with some of the gaps, not widen them. Dallas’ highest-paid players last season were Porzingis, Hardaway., J.J. Redick, and Dwight Powell. This is far from ideal.

Salaries - Top 10 teams in the NBA 2020-21 season

The best teams all had at least two players in the top 30-40 range in the number one to number three salary slot last season. The Mavericks need to be smart with how they use their cap space for their second and third highest-paid players slots. They need to add one impact player there this offseason.

As for the Mavericks’ highest-paid player, we’ll see how aggressive the Mavericks are with the Porzingis situation this summer as he is the piece that determines almost all future team-building scenarios.

Mavericks’ (new) identity under Jason Kidd

The Mavericks’ identity under Carlisle was one of an offensive-minded team built around Dončić’s playmaking. Dallas was a low pace, low mistake team on offense, but failed to build a real identity on defense. Kidd talked a lot about defense in his first interviews as a Mavericks’ head coach. Kidd said that the Mavericks can be a good defensive team, even without game-changing defensive players. He offered the Lakers as an example of a team with a defensive mindset and praised their ability to maintain one of the best defenses in the league even when Anthony Davis and Lebron James were out due to injuries. One could argue that the Lakers still had many other good defenders in Alex Caruso, Denis Schroeder, Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

The other thing to watch is if the Mavericks will play faster and give their young athletic players like Josh Green and Tyler Bey more burn. The Mavericks ranked bottom three in the league in transition frequency in each of the last six years under Carlisle.

Free agency will give us our first hints about how Kidd, his new coaching staff, and Nico Harrison see the current roster and team identity going forward. The Mavericks are a good team, but a team that plateaued as currently constructed. Porzingis’ regression complicated the team building and presents the biggest challenge for building a title-contending team. Mark Cuban reshuffled the brain trust around him, now they have to figure out how to upgrade the roster. Once Dončić signs his super-max extension, the clock will start ticking for the front office. The Milwaukee Bucks are a good blueprint for how a generational superstar impacts the expectations and how a title team is built. Khris Middleton is the perfect complementary second star next to Giannis, and they put all chips on the table to acquire a game-changing defender in Jrue Holliday. The Bucks’ highest three paid players are their three best players that fit well together both on offense and defense.

Now, we can’t expect the new Mavericks’ front office to achieve all that in their first offseason. Any moves that will be a step in the right direction and address some of the key needs will do. The Mavericks just can’t afford another off-season doing lateral moves.