On Saturday night in Portland, with his team running on fumes after a gutty double overtime win in Los Angeles, Dallas Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd’s actions told the world he does not believe he can field a competitive lineup containing JaVale McGee.
With Maxi Kleber out indefinitely and Christian Wood out for the game due to an ankle injury suffered in overtime against the Los Angeles Lakers, Kidd had limited frontcourt options. Choosing to start Dwight Powell was a given. Yet it was unclear how Kidd would respond to Powell getting into foul trouble in the second quarter.
Having picked up two quick fouls in the first quarter, Powell was replaced by McGee midway through the first. McGee was later replaced by Davis Bertans with just under two minutes to go in the first quarter. The intervening minutes with McGee on the floor were so ineffective that Kidd did something shocking yet not surprising. When Powell picked up his third personal foul with just over four minutes to go in the first half, Kidd left Powell in the game rather than sub in McGee as he had in the first quarter. Two minutes of game time later, Powell picks up his fourth personal foul - curtailing his second-half availability and defensive intensity.
This was a clear indictment of both JaVale McGee’s play in the first quarter and his season thus far. Underscoring this was the decision to run Davis Bertans at the center position for key stretches in the second half ahead of McGee. The Mavericks needed someone to challenge all 6’11, 290 pounds of Jusuf Nurkić but decided they were better off with the slender Lativian Laser playing center rather than their offseason acquisition. To drive the point home even further, McGee was the only player to dress but not see the court Sunday night as the Mavs dropped another game to the Portland Trailblazers despite a valiant effort through three quarters.
For the Mavericks, this signing stings all the more because of their limited moments of opportunity to acquire talent. Beyond offering veteran minimum contracts, the mini MLE (mid-level exception) was the extent of their free agent budget this past offseason - and they saw fit to spend it all on one player who they have now deemed all but unplayable in the first year of a three-year contract. Have I mentioned he is 35? The JaVale McGee experience (3 years / $17,202,840) is unlikely to improve in year two or (shudder) year three.
Did the Mavericks' talent evaluators believe that McGee’s years as a backup with the Lakers and Suns showcased potential that merited a multi-year deal and a promised starting role? Perhaps an even more painful question, what did those same eyes see when they scouted other options in the free agent market who signed for considerably less than McGee? The Orlando Magic signed Bol Bol - age 23 - for 2 years at $4.4 million. The Lakers signed starting center Thomas Bryant - age 25 - for the veteran minimum. While neither of those players will make the All-Star team, they are serviceable and young enough to see a potential upward development curve.
The Mavericks have made other moves that are to be applauded. Regardless of how the Christian Wood contract extension works out, the trade that brought him to Dallas was a winning transaction. The decision to get back into the draft to nab Jaden Hardy secured a player with considerable upside.
The Luka Doncic era is teeming with potential. It is also fraught with peril as every decision has a ripple effect and may preclude flexibility down the line in ways unforeseen. McGee now sits as an albatross rather than anything close to an asset. If he was on a one-year deal, there is little doubt he would have already been released. He likely could not be traded without compensating a team with another asset.
When General Manager Nico Harrison was introduced, the ability to capitalize on relationships and connections in the arena of free agency was floated as one of the reasons why he would thrive in his new role. While that could still be the case down the line, the other side of that coin should give Harrison pause. The familiarity of existing relationships creates the potential for tunnel vision heading into a period of time such as free agency or the weeks leading up to a trade deadline. Pursuing a free agent or zeroing in on a trade target because the General Manager - or someone else in the brain trust - knows them well may cause the front office to be myopic at a key moment when it cannot afford to be.