The Mavericks picked up Willie Cauley-Stein’s player option this off season. It was a sensible enough move for a guy who improved in may areas year-over-year and was only set to make $4.1 million. However, Dallas followed up that move by bringing back Boban Marjanovic and adding another young seven footer in Moses Brown. Suddenly, the Dallas front court is a traffic jam of Kristaps Porzingis, Maxi Kleber, Dwight Powell, Willie Cauley-Stein, Moses Brown, and Boban Marjanovic. Nineties fashion is back all across the country, and in Dallas, 90s basketball roster construction is back, too. Six big men! Four of whom are seven foot-plus. Despite all of that, Cauley-Stein has shown he can contribute to winning basketball.
Last season, Cauley-Stein led Dallas in defensive rating, 2P%, and eFG%, all while featuring on all five of Dallas’ top five lineups as rated by player impact estimate metrics or PIE (a metric to gauge a player’s all-around contribution to the game). Cauley-Stein can be particularly valuable against other teams’ bench units, and playing with Luka Doncic feeding you perfect lob passes helps tremendously (ask Mike Tobey), but his defensive performances in a number of contests throughout the season really bolstered his rotation bonafides.
For Cauley-Stein, a lot will stay the same; he’ll still be primarily a bench piece, earning minutes as a solid roll threat while playing energetic defense. But the biggest question about him is the same question that looms over so many other aspects of this team: what is Kidd going to do with him?
Rick Carlisle excelled at maximizing role players by narrowly defining how they were meant to contribute and highlighting their best skills. It often led to a short and ruthless leash for players who made mistakes — bad news for rookies (and also six-year veteran Cauley-Stein) who were prone to trying to do more than was asked of them. Kidd shares some of those instincts with Carlisle, but still is widely regarded as a “players coach,” for whatever that’s worth.
Does that mean Kidd will be more willing to let Willie be Willie? Anyone who’s watched his off-season workouts gets the impression that Cauley-Stein fancies himself a bit more of a shooter than his previous role allowed him to be. Can he incorporate that into games more without eating away at the things that made him effective? Will Kidd have the patience and/or acumen to coax out those positive attributes without letting him backslide to the habits that made him a less efficient player? To be determined.
Best Case Scenario
Cauley-Stein being a team leader in a number of efficiency stats and net rating is giving off prime Dwight Powell vibes. Never mind leading the team, Powell had a stretch where he led the entire league in shooting efficiency. And he did it for years. Powell was back in action last season after an Achilles injury and still showed signs of being his smart, effective self (even showing a lot of energy and grit in the playoffs), but he’s lost some of his above the rim play. Cauley-Stein, while being two years younger than Powell, is also a better pure athlete than Powell ever was. Cauley-Stein is perhaps one of the fastest big men in the entire league — something he didn’t get the chance to showcase much in the Mavs’ glacial offense. Getting out and running, and allowing Luka to feed him easy outlet baskets to bump his points per game from five closer to nine would make him a potent bench big. The chemistry between Luka and Cauley-Stein really blossomed later in the season (he was actually horrible early on, which makes his team-leading 2P% even more impressive), so carrying that over to this season is imperative.
Worst Case Scenario
Kidd is unable to put Willie in a position to succeed, he gets lost on the bench among our cornucopia of bigs, never to be seen again.
A couple too many inconsistent outings, boneheaded plays, or ill-advised threes could land Cauley-Stein in the Kidd dog house early on, and with all the options available in the bench big spot, he may never see the light of day again.
When Dallas picked up the option for Cauley-Stein, something seemed afoot. They have a legion of centers in a league that loves to go small. And yet, Cauley-Stein has the sort of size and other-worldly athleticism that allows fans to project on him outcomes that could actually come to life playing with Luka Doncic. He might not help the team, depending on how coach Jason Kidd uses him, but he can’t hurt either. He’s an interesting person off the court and by all accounts seems to be a good teammate. Here’s hoping to a solid, if unremarkable season for Willie Cauley-Stein.