Building an NBA team is hard. Building a championship caliber team is even harder, and the Mavericks are showing why following their Western Conference Finals appearance. While the team is 9-7, they have also lost leads repeatedly and suffered a number of very bad, inexcusable losses to teams of lower quality. This all comes with Luka Doncic playing at an MVP level, but with a usage rate that seems unsustainable because of the quality of the roster and the ability of the coaching. What’s worrisome is with a dearth of blossoming young talent or valuable trade assets, there is no help coming.
The Mavericks are boxed in by a series of choices made over the past several years and as a result, they’re going to have to play with the team they’ve built. For those who’ve closely followed the team, this isn’t a surprise. But since we’re all fans, there’s the tendency to hope in the face of facts.
Dallas has a lot of salary locked into this roster and giving up any player in a trade (think Dorian Finney-Smith or even Reggie Bullock, despite his poor shooting now), would likely hurt the Mavericks more than help them. The protections on the pick Dallas owes the Knicks (2023 top ten protected) make trading future firsts difficult and a team with Doncic has a likely floor, making future Dallas picks fairly unappealing anyway. Teams improve by having tradeable assets and parting with those the Mavericks do have results in Dallas moving their problems around.
How the Mavericks got here is worth revisiting, because this did not happen overnight.
There are three paths to team improvement. First, there’s the NBA draft, an event which requires a ton of luck both in getting a favorable pick and the draft having players capable of changing or improving a franchise, not to mention the need for incredible and confident scouting. Next, there’s free agency a path in which a team has very little control past money to spend and for some the luck of a desirable location. The third is through internal player improvement.
It’s worth revisiting the start of the last Collective Bargaining Agreement, which just happened to coincide with the first season after the Dallas Mavericks won the championship in 2011. Dallas made the risky but understandable choice to not re-sign the core of the team in order to reload when certain big free agents hit the market down the road. Those free agents never signed with the Mavericks and Dallas spent the next several seasons treading water before eventually succumbing to a lottery season in 2017.
During those declining seasons, the Mavericks never took on money for draft picks or young talent and the cupboard slowly grew barren as they repeatedly whiffed in free agency. The 2017 draft gave Dallas a pick in Dennis Smith Jr., but the team was once again dreadful and ended up in the lottery. The poor luck of the lottery continued (Dallas has never moved up) and the Mavericks fell to fifth. They were, however, able to trade a future first to the Hawks in order to move up to secure Luka Doncic, which was a franchise changing move. They also drafted Jalen Brunson in the second round, who would go on to become the team’s second best draft pick since the 2005 season.
In 2019 Dallas made an all-in move for Kristaps Porzingis, sending out two more future first round picks and moving on from pricey veterans in Wesley Matthews and DeAndre Jordan. They also received Tim Hardaway Jr. in the deal. The Mavericks also moved Harrison Barnes to create cap space that... the Mavericks didn’t use. They had a chance to re-sign Porzingis, Maxi Kleber, and Dorian Finney-Smith using their Bird Rights, so Dallas could’ve gone over the salary cap to retain those players and use the cap space for someone else. They opted for cheap deals with Delon Wright (technically a sign-and-trade, so Dallas sent out two second round picks in addition to giving Wright a new contract), Seth Curry, and Boban Marjanovic.
In 2020, the Mavericks sent Seth Curry away for Josh Richardson and a second round draft pick. They also traded Wright to Detroit for James Johnson. With that, Dallas had picks 18, 31, and 36 in the 2020 NBA Draft. While Josh Green, selected at 18, gets regular minutes for the Mavericks, Tyrell Terry and Tyler Bey are already out of the NBA. Josh Richardson did not work out and Dallas sent him to Boston in the summer of 2021. Johnson was in and out of the rotation before being shipped to New Orleans for J.J. Redick, who got hurt before the playoffs started and then retired that ensuing summer.
In the summer of 2021, the Mavericks re-signed Hardaway after two career seasons in Dallas, got a steal for veteran 3-and-D wing Reggie Bullock, retained Marjanovic, and took fliers on Sterling Brown and Frank Ntilikina. The new front office led by general manager Nico Harrison did manage to move Porzingis for Spencer Dinwiddie at the 2022 trade deadline, a gamble that certainly paid off, but they also have to eat the Davis Bertans contract which runs through the end of the 2025 off-season. Dallas had no picks due to the Porzingis and Redick trades.
This last off-season was not good, and that’s a polite reading of what happened. Dallas misplayed the Jalen Brunson situation badly and he signed with the New York Knicks, leaving Dallas with nothing. While the Mavericks did trade their first round pick and end of bench players (including Marjanovic and Brown) for Christian Wood, coach Jason Kidd is very reluctant to play him. They opted to use most of their Tax Payer Mid Level Exception on JaVale McGee, who was out of the rotation in under 10 games. They traded future seconds to jump into the 2022 draft for Jaden Hardy, who is a very raw talent at the moment. Dallas discussed a “cheerleading role” (think Boban) with Doncic’s friend and mentor Goran Dragic, who is currently having a strong year with the Chicago Bulls.
After drafting one of the best prospects in a generation, the Mavericks have taken a long and winding road towards boxing themselves in. While some decisions (the Porzingis trade) were interesting gambles, largely the moves made since Luka Doncic was drafted haven’t panned out. Now is the year where Dallas gets out from under the draft pick protections with this upcoming pick going towards the Knicks. After that, the path towards team improvement at least becomes clearer, though likely not any easier.
There still could be a wild trade coming, who knows, after all the Porzingis trade seemed to materialize one day out of thin air. The Mavericks will likely be pretty good this year no matter what, that’s the power of Luka Doncic. But unless something totally unexpected happens, this year the Mavericks will have to play out the season with what they’ve already built.