They’ll never admit it, but the Dallas Mavericks made if farther in the playoffs than they ever imagined they would this year. From top to bottom the whole organization would deny that, emphatically claiming they believed all along. But that can’t be the case.
You don’t trade your second or third best player (go ahead and argue that one in the comments) in Kristaps Porzingis midway through the season if you think you have a chance at winning a championship. Whatever chemistry issues or strategic complexities Porzingis caused while on the Mavericks, they would have dealt with it if they thought a ring was within reach. Past championship teams have dealt with much bigger problems.
No, it’s safe to say the Mavericks surprised everyone, including themselves, by making it so deep into the postseason. They overachieved, but ultimately came up short, and honestly, there’s no other way this current iteration of the Mavericks could have ended.
I say that because this will likely be the end of the Mavericks we’ve come to know and love and hate over the past three years. The Porzingis trade signaled that openly. The Dallas front office made the move for more salary cap versatility. You don’t give up top-line talent to chase flexibility if you’re going to just stay the same.
I’m not saying the Mavericks are going to blow it up. Obviously, Luka Doncic will be back, and (most likely) Jalen Brunson. Some of the key role players will return. But this is the last of the group that we’ve seen for three playoff runs. With the loss to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, it’s clear the Mavericks have hit the ceiling of this group.
This version of the Mavericks overachieved. No one expected them to be in the Western Conference Finals, especially after jettisoning Porzingis. But that shouldn’t be surprising, because the core of this group is a dedicated bunch of overachievers.
Dwight Powell was the 45th pick overall in 2014, taken 15th in the second round. He came to Dallas as a throw-in with Rajon Rondo. I thought he’d log some time with the Mavericks, but mostly ride the bench, then be shipped out in some other trade.
Instead, he’s currently 11th all-time in games played for the Mavericks. Powell is 21st in career scoring for Dallas. He’s 14th in career rebounds. That’s not a bad return for a guy who was thrown into a trade to make salaries match. When you throw in his return from a devastating Achilles’ tendon injury to a key player on a Western Conference Finals team, it’s easy to label Powell’s career an unexpected and resounding success.
Dorian Finney-Smith led the Florida Gators in scoring two years in a row, but that wasn’t enough to get himself drafted. He signed with the Mavericks’ summer league team in 2016, and impressed them enough to earn a roster spot. From there, he kept earning his way—first into minutes, then a spot in the rotation, then a starting job, and finally a $52 million contract. In 2016, it would have been laughable to think Finney-Smith would have a lavish contract and be one of the five most important players on a conference finals team.
Maxi Kleber might be the most impressive of all. Kleber made his professional debut in Wurzburg, Germany, playing in the Basketball Bundesliga. He didn’t exactly dominate. Kleber only averaged seven minutes per game in his first year, and then just a little under 10 points per game in his second season. He spent time in Spain and again in Germany, never averaging more than 11 points per game.
It’s likely Kleber being from Wurzburg, Dirk Nowitzki’s hometown, played into the Mavericks’ decision to sign him. Whatever the reason, Kleber seized the opportunity, and like Finney-Smith, who was signed one year prior, he systematically earned more minutes and a bigger role on the team. Five years later, Kleber was a key piece in getting the Mavericks to the conference finals, especially Game 2 against the Utah Jazz, when he hit eight 3-pointers in a Mavericks upset win.
I could go on. Jalen Brunson proving, in a contract year, that he’s one of the top guards in the NBA. Spencer Dinwiddie showing that though he might be inconsistent, he’s not washed. Reggie Bullock making a case that he was crucial to the New York Knicks’ success last season. Jason Kidd shedding the reputation of a bad coach when everyone, including myself, thought he would repeat the mistakes of his past.
Outside of Luka, this is a team of overachievers, and they pressed way beyond what anyone thought they could be at the beginning of the season. At some point in the last three years, I’ve wanted all three of Kleber, Powell, and Finney-Smith traded, multiple times. But they proved they were capable of more than I thought, and probably more than you thought, too.
Yes, Luka carried this team to shore most nights, like a massively talented tide lifting all ships, but these role players did their job and more until they just couldn’t anymore. They maximized their talent through hard work, heart, and grit. Isn’t that what we ask for from the athletes we cheer on from the stands and in front of our televisions?
Despite myself, I’m glad I got to witness this run of Dallas basketball, and I’m excited to see what comes next. I don’t know who will be on the team next year, but if they have half the heart these Mavericks have, things will be alright.
Here’s our latest episode of Mavs Moneyball After Dark. If you’re unable to see the embed below, click here to be taken to the podcast directly. Or go to your favorite podcast app and search Mavs Moneyball Podcast.