Distinctions are the key to understanding. The less you know, the more generalized your opinions are. The more nuance you soak up, the deeper your understanding becomes. Distinctions allow your opinions to elucidate something far closer to the actual truth rather than just incite a reaction because of accompanying bravado.
This is the difference between talking heads paid to have opinions and analysts who follow the causality of tethered events closely across multiple seasons. It is the difference between someone who has played the game and is now paid to have “hot takes” like Kendrick Perkins and someone like Zach Lowe who is paid to analyze the league and give measured analysis grounded in the possible not the fanciful.
This past Friday on ESPN, Perkins said the Mavericks took Jalen Brunson for granted. Then he stated they are destined to be a play-in team rather than a playoff team - if the Dallas front office does not make a significant mid-season move. Perkins then reiterated that Doncic is not presently on his top 5 MVP list. Let’s break down each of those three takes with a greater degree of nuance and arrive at some very telling distinctions.
The Mavericks gambled on Brunson then lost, and it hurts
Dorian Finney-Smith and Jalen Brunson were in similar contractual status going into last season - yet their path to being in the final contract year was radically different. Finney-Smith was an undrafted free agent that the Mavericks incubated on some weak rosters when they could afford to invest minutes into a player other teams had passed over. His subsequent maturation from raw talent to above-average NBA player is remarkable. The combination of time and patience invested into Finney-Smith alongside his assumed desire to remain in the Dallas area made his decision to sign an extension last season a reasonable expectation. It is painfully clear in hindsight that Jalen Brunson’s countenance towards impending free agency did not match that of Finney-Smith.
Brunson is three years younger, plays a premium position in today’s NBA, and had aspirations to be at the top of a point guard depth chart - something that was never going to happen in Dallas. Had he been offered an extension prior to the season fresh off a disappointing playoff series versus the Clippers, he may well have accepted it. But once Brunson went from question mark to steady hand to starting lineup to playoff hero - any chance of banking on loyalty to the Mavericks keeping Brunson in Dallas had soured even if the brain trust had not yet realized it.
The gamble in 2018 to sign Brunson to a four-year - rather than the usual three-year - rookie deal gave one more year of control at the expense of the ability to keep him through restricted free agency. The rationale behind the unusual rookie contract is part of the last chapter of the previous General Manager’s era. Yet when that mistake was compounded in 2021 by allowing the season to start without an extension in place - one of three things was bound to happen. If Brunson had a poor season, his value would have been at a low point. If he crushed his contract year (which he did) then his value soars far past that of any extension proposed by the team in the offseason. The third option was a trade - which never materialized. While expiring contracts give a front office additional options in trade talks, taking it that far comes with a risk. You may lose a player in free agency with no assets coming back to you - a clear worst-case scenario on the proverbial asset management scorecard.
As Brunson played his way from “can we live with you” to “we can’t live without you” in a matter of just a few weeks, the choice in his mind must have been very clear. Return to Dallas to play perpetual second fiddle or set up shop on the east coast. Be the Mavericks’ best trade chip past December 15th, 2022, or be the new face of a storied, yet beleaguered franchise. Sign with the team that did not believe in you enough to make an off-season commitment or go with the team that was prepared to move heaven and earth - not to mention hire your Dad as a coach - to make you feel wanted.
For a team that has drafted so poorly outside of the 2018 jackpot, losing an asset as valuable as Brunson is an organizational misstep with consequences playing out on the court so far this season. For Perkins to say Brunson was taken for granted glosses over the miscalculation in signing the four-year deal and failing to lockdown, trade, or resign the player. Anytime his name is brought up in an interview, you can see the wistful regret on the faces of players and coaches as they talk about what he meant to the Mavericks on and off the court. That’s not being taken for granted - it is being fumbled after a series of gambles that all failed.
The distinction here is that Kendrick Perkins was not talking about Jalen Brunson on national television at the start of last season - yet that is when the dye was cast. Good asset management rarely becomes talk show fodder.
The Mavericks are a playoff team, not play-in
Overreaction is a staple of talking-head television. Perkins is ready to proclaim this year’s Mavericks a play-in tournament team based on a near .500 record. When national talk shows jump at the chance to pronounce the team a failure relative to expectations after 20 games given what happened last year, it is reactionary and foolish.
On December 7th, 2021, the Brooklyn Nets beat the Mavericks at home 102-99 in a game that featured a fourth-quarter collapse from Dallas dropping the Mavs to 11-12 on the season. While there are no guarantees this year’s team will finish on an incredible run that saw them lose only 18 more games the rest of the regular season, it should give any potential prognosticator ample pause.
A year later, sitting at 13-11 is more than a bit misleading. Six of their eleven losses have been within a margin of six points or losing in overtime. With a few more baskets in clutch moments, they could be near the top of the Western Conference. They are 7th in offense, 9th in defense, and 7th in net rating. Around this point a year they were in the bottom half of the league in both of those metrics.
Yes, they miss Brunson - but they are also simply missing shots. For a team that is sitting at third in three-point attempts but only twelfth in percentage, it is tough to make up that offense elsewhere when so many shooters have otherwise limited offensive repertoire. The recent resurgence from Tim Hardaway Jr. is an example of how much better a drive-and-kick offense looks when shots are going down. Reggie Bullock’s month-to-month career splits give reason to hope his shot will come around as the end of the calendar year approaches.
It is easy for Perkins to bellow about how the Mavericks need to get Doncic some help. What is not easy is to see how the Mavericks pull off a meaningful trade this season while still preserving draft capital for the offseason. The arcane Stepien Rule prevents Dallas from trading their 2024 first-round pick until the 2023 pick conveys to the Knicks in the next draft. Using the 2025 pick or beyond signals the final big swing they can take during Luka Doncic’s current contract. After the well-intentioned Kristaps Porzingis experiment fizzled, the Dallas Mavericks need to approach the next trade of that magnitude with the gravity their plight demands. Even if the cost of star players regresses a bit, it will likely take their entire war chest to land the long-coveted second star. Shipping out first-rounders in a panic move or for a complimentary piece would not be wise.
If they stand pat at the deadline or make minor moves around the edges of the roster, there is still hope - mainly in the form of Luka Doncic - that they can have another deep playoff run. Listening to hot-take artists like Kendrick Perkins would have you believe it is impossible. Just remember, many pundits picked the Jazz in the first round of last year’s playoffs. The entire media landscape - with few exceptions like Nick Wright - picked Phoenix in the second round. Despite reaching the Western Conference Finals, the moving goalposts of changing expectations will always shape the conversation until Doncic wins a championship.
The distinction here is that holding onto draft picks until this summer may serve the organization far better than any trade they can pull off during the season. Combine that dearth of tradable assets with a roster full of older players aiming to win now and there may well not be any reinforcements coming over the hill to help in the fight.
Luka Doncic is the MVP frontrunner
Listed as tied for second behind Jayson Tatum in the latest edition of NBA.com’s MVP Ladder, the list mentions this common refrain, “The NBA’s leading scorer, Doncic continues to dominate at a clip that leaves pundits wondering whether all the production is sustainable.” Sustainability is the last circle of doubt.
The doubters questioned whether Doncic would be another European bust. Would he win Rookie of the Year? Could he get past the first round? Would he start this season in shape? Now that all those questions are answered and with Doncic playing at a historically elite level, all that is left for talk show producers to conjure up are segments questioning a great player’s ability to continue being great.
The worst part of Perkins’ rant came when he bemoaned the perception that Doncic is being preordained as the MVP and then not including Luka in his top 5 MVP leaders graphic - which is sophomoric, if not strictly performative.
Luka Doncic is currently first in points per game, fourth in assists, sixth in steals, and 24th in rebounds. He is also first in Player Efficiency Rating and second to Giannis Antetokounmpo in Usage Rate. Doncic is doing all of this without a single teammate ever having made an All-Star team outside of the newly signed Kemba Walker. Keeping Doncic off an MVP leaderboard this season is like keeping U2 off a list of all-time great bands from Ireland.
This is the distinction about the age we live in. Most of the national-level basketball commentariat is bifurcated with hot take artists expressing provocative opinions as unimpeachable facts and analytics-driven deep-divers that enjoy long-form podcasts as a playground to bandy about well-reasoned opinions supported by stats and the eye test. It is the difference between “say it with your chest” and simply stating your case with the implied caveat that future events could prove you wrong. We used to call that a surprise - and they are wonderful. The Mavericks surprised the national narrative drivers last season - perhaps it will happen again.