After a hot start to the season the Dallas Mavericks have slipped. They are 2-4 over the last two weeks and have played .500 ball in their last ten games. The warning signs that appeared before the season, concerns that stretch back to least year as well, have started to emerge once more — and when that happens you begin to reevaluate where the problems lie and how they might be fixed. This is why the Mavericks may finally need to have the Tim Hardaway Jr. talk.
Once considered by some as the trade tax to acquire Kristaps Porzingis in the winter of 2019, Hardaway has proven most of us wrong. Former Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle was credited with helping Hardaway reshape his jumper and everything took off from there. The 6’5 wing, now in his 11th year in the league, has been a relative model of consistency as Dallas’ most effective outside shooter over the last four-plus seasons.
But through no fault of his own Hardaway has also turned into the Mavericks’ third best player, and if the team has goals of being more than a fringe playoff team something must change. The trouble now is that the team, being led by Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving, have a very specific identity. Currently ranked fourth in the NBA in offensive-rating at 118, the Mavericks have improved from last year’s stout offense which ranked sixth in the league (115.9 in 2022-23). Even if it relies heavily on making jump shots, you cannot ask more from Dallas on that side of the floor. And outside of Doncic and Irving, Hardaway has proven once again to be a top tier high volume shooter.
Here’s the problem: the defense, now ranked 25th in the league with a 117.2 Defensive-rating, is statistically worse than last year. The 2022-23 Dallas Mavericks were a saloon door of opposition. Every team they faced scored at will, both due to scheme and effort. And yet their rating, though still ranked 25th in the league (116.1 in 2022-23), was slightly better than the current roster. There are a few factors possibly at play: the Mavericks are adjusting strategy to funnel things to rookie center Dereck Lively II, and they are playing at a much faster pace which has left them defending far more frequently in transition, consistently a weakness.
With all this understood, acknowledging that the Mavericks are solely reliant on offense, there is an obvious argument that keeping their third best scorer on the team would be wise. Doncic and Irving cannot carry that load on their own after all, and Hardaway has been an early season contender for league Sixth Man of the Year.
But when your top two players don’t provide much in terms of defense your third player must, or at the very least be complimentary to the two above him. The trio of Hardaway, Doncic, and Irving have played 107 minutes together this season. They have a fantastic offensive-rating of 124.8 but a staggering defensive-rating of 120.4. Of the 20 three-man lineups for the Mavericks that have played at least 100 minutes together that defensive metric ranks 17th. Hardaway appears in the final eight combinations on that list, including 20th which features him alongside Dwight Powell and Josh Green — the other two players first off the bench (a 129.5 D-rating).
Defense is a problem across the board, it does not solely rest on Hardaway. But if he can’t play extended time alongside the two stars, and also can’t play alongside the other two players off the bench, then where does it make sense? And the reality is that he possesses the best trade value at the moment, outside of one of the rookies or Jaden Hardy.
This isn’t the first time this discussion has come up. Hardaway, who turns 32 in March, has been in trade discussions for the last several seasons. And to his credit he has continued to produce, even to the point where at times he seems indispensable. But the Mavericks need a third player that compliments their stars on both ends of the floor, they need playmaking that plays in support of Doncic and Irving, and they need players who can provide resistance in crunch time. The team has slowly tried to put those pieces on the roster, but the time is now. Whatever comes back in a Hardaway deal may not solve those problems, but it might be the band aid that gets ripped off to get there.