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Dallas improved during free agency, but not enough

The Mavericks jumped into some solid signings early, but the major problem still remains.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Atlanta Hawks v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Mavericks started this offseason by addressing the exact same issues they tried to address last offseason — wing depth. It’s no surprise. Dallas tried to solve their wing depth with ferocity last year — bringing in Josh Richardson, James Johnson, Wes Iwundu and the drafting of rookies Josh Green and Tyler Bey. It says a lot about how last season went that every single one of those names disappointed to some degree. In fact, only Green is returning from that group.

Smartly, the Mavericks changed their approach. Last year, the Mavericks targeted defensive-minded wings that they hoped would blossom on offense next to Luka Doncic. That failed miserably. Instead, both of the Mavericks wing acquisitions on day one come ready made as shooters. Bullock is a 39 percent career three point shooter and Brown is at 37.4 percent. Brown’s 42.3 percent mark last season bolsters his career number, but even then he was solid enough his first two seasons in the league, although on a small amount of attempts per game.

They’re both wildly more effective than what the Mavericks did last season and hopefully that makes for a cleaner fit. Richardson never quite seemed as complimentary as most thought he could be, with an inconsistent shot plaguing most of his season. To be fair, Bullock and Brown’s jobs will be much easier — catch and shoot off Doncic passes. Neither of the Mavericks wing pickups will be playmaking much at all. Last season, Bullock was assisted on 93.5 percent of his made field goals. Brown was assisted on 76.7 percent. This won’t solve the Mavericks issue of generating offense next to Doncic or when Doncic is out of the game, but it was apparent Dallas needed more depth as they relied too much on Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dorian Finney-Smith.

What these two lack in offensive creativity, they make up for with machine-like efficiency as spot up shooters. Last season, Bullock made 42.5 percent of his catch and shoot threes per game and Brown made 41.4. Funny enough, both were far more prolific from above-the-break as opposed to the corner, although both were excellent corner shooters by percentage last season. That differs from most of the Mavericks role players, as Maxi Kleber and Finney-Smith both thrive from the corners. This should help give Doncic more options after breaking down a defense and hopefully more reliable shot-making. In the playoffs, Finney-Smith, Hardaway and Kleber all slumped at various points during the seven-game loss to the Clippers. The Mavericks bench was weak, with no other reliable options to turn to. Those three played a lot of minutes, with Hardaway and Finney-Smith each averaging over 37 minutes per game. Bullock and Brown should, hopefully, fix this.

Defensively, both project to be solid. Bullock was a mainstay on last season’s surprising Knicks squad, which possessed one of the best defenses in the league. Of course, having Tom Thibodeau as coach and Nerlens Noel patrolling the paint certainly helps. At the very least, Bullock has proven to be a good cog within a great defense, which is probably more than you can say for any of the Mavericks current perimeter players. Brown is a little less tested, but he is sturdy at 6’5, 219 pounds. The Mavericks perimeter defenders have had physicality issues the last handful of seasons, so at least Brown’s heft should help prevent the Mavericks from getting walked over as much as they did the last two seasons. As bad as Kristaps Porzingis regressed as a defender last season, he didn’t have much to work with in terms of guys staying in front of their man. The Clippers series was plagued with so many uncontested line drive takes to the rim, Rick Carlisle was forced to start Boban Marjanovic next to Porzingis and play zone. Bullock and Brown, while not otherworldly defenders, help.

Perhaps the best sign from the Mavericks was the fact that they actually did something on the first day of free agency. The awful summer of 2019 was defined by the Mavericks inaction, looking slow while the transactions piled up in the opening hours of free agency. While these moves don’t definitively prove the new front office with Nico Harrison has solved everything, it was at least a welcome sight to see the Mavericks move on from the big fish star chasing and just sign two solid guys on the first day of free agency. They also smartly brought back Hardaway to a deal that was just slightly more than the contract he signed with the Knicks in 2017. If Hardaway is your second or third best player, that’s a problem, but losing him for nothing would have been worse. Again, baby steps.

The underlying problem remains, however. Dallas desperately needs a secondary creator and so far, they haven’t grabbed one. The Mavericks remain in gridlock over acquiring Goran Dragic from the Toronto Raptors in the Kyle Lowry sign-and-trade with the Heat, but there appears to be no signs of progress as the Mavericks seem content waiting for a buyout. The only other names of note among guards are Dennis Schroder and Reggie Jackson, which the Mavericks haven’t shown any interest in pivoting to. Trading for Dragic seemed like such a sure thing earlier in the week and that there are now doubts is troubling. Dallas absolutely needed to nab some type of guard that could help take some ball handling responsibilities from Luka, who had a near 40 percent usage rate in the playoff loss to the Clippers. As good as the Bullock and Brown moves are, they are just two mostly stationary spot up shooters joining a roster that is literally filled to the brim with them. It will make for an exciting regular season and improved team play, but the playoffs are almost an entirely different sport compared to regular season NBA basketball. The Mavericks cannot make a sustained playoff run with Luka having to do literally everything. Not trading for Dragic and failing to sign another guard in a free agency class littered with them will be a fairly massive failure.

Even so, if nothing else changes, the Mavericks are a better team than the one we saw in early June. A return to the more frenetic and exciting 2019-2020 style of team, with Luka doing everything and slinging passes all over the floor to open shooters, won’t be the worst thing in the world after last season’s team felt like a slog at times. Unfortunately, as of now, the same playoff problems are looming. Dallas has much more work to do.

Here’s our Green Room podcast from Wednesday night. If you can’t see the embed below, go find us on your favorite podcast app by searching Mavs Moneyball podcast. Here’s the direct link one more time.