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Dallas needs apex predators

Athletes still matter in the pace-and-space era

When you’re a fan of a team for decades, the issues and mishaps of an organization start to feel cyclical; you swear this or that particular thing has always been a problem. Concrete details be damned, because when you’ve followed a team for so long, a certain narrative takes hold. “The Dallas Mavericks have a problem with bigs,” something you’ve probably heard, doesn’t quite encapsulate it. They have a problem with athletes.

I have long repeated to people that in 2015, the Houston Rockets set an alley-oop record against the Dallas Mavericks in their first round playoff series. After a quick google search, I could find no proof of such a record; in my mind, was it an “alley-oops in a playoff game” record? A “fourth quarter dunks” record, or perhaps alley-oops across a series? I wasn’t sure. Only that an old and slow team was out-athleted in a way that seemed familiar.

All I can offer is this youtube video, and the knowledge that having an alley-oop record set against yourself feels very in line with the 2022-23 Dallas Mavericks. Sure, maybe it wasn’t a record setting night, but when I’ve brought up the particular game, every Mavericks fan remembers.

As I’ve watched this team rank in the bottom third of every metric one might contribute to interior force, physicality, or athleticism, such as offensive rebounding or paint scoring, I’m reminded of other vague memories. I remember doing a mock draft last year and giving the Dallas Mavericks muscle-bound slasher Tari Eason, thinking of him exactly what the team needed and what the team has rarely had in two decades. I remember thinking Dejaun Blair of all people “at least gives us something different” as he muscled his way to five offensive rebounds against the Spurs in Game 5 of their 2014 playoff series. I remember what the injection of Josh Howard and Marquise Daniels did to a franchise often called “soft” back in the mid-2000s.

The common refrain by fans about this physicality gap is the need for a “center” in the very rigid sense of the word, as if the Dallas Mavericks are Charles Foster Kane and Tyson Chandler their Rosebud. It is hard to escape the fact that the single title won in the Dirk-era was with him at center, but he was also in his physical prime; by the time he made his way back to the team in 2015, he was 32 and a step slow against the Rockets. It’s not only size and brawn that’s required in the pace-and-space NBA, but mobility tied to strength that is often found in younger players. An athlete who plays with force and changes opposing offenses, in the modern NBA, is just that; less a position and more of a type, and can come in the form of a superstar, an entire frontcourt, or one of a new vanguard of defensive cheat codes. They are big wings, small-ball centers, stretch fives and power forwards in the classical sense; the late Jonathan Tjarks once dubbed Giannis a defensive “Apex Predator”, and that has stuck with me as a way to codify such players.

Antetokounmpo, but also Anthony Davis. Evan Mobley. Bam Adebayo. Jaren Jackson Jr. The ones that should interest Maverick fans are those in role-player form, coming along the pipeline. Rob Williams, Nic Claxton, or Jarred Vanderbilt. Eason and Jeremy Sochan and Walker Kessler and Jalen Duren. They are the modernized heirs of Draymond Green’s lineage, but also of Rodman, Ben Wallace, Ron Artest. Have you seen Jarace Walker yet?

Looking at this grab bag of names is instructive. Giannis and Anthony Davis happen to have been on two recent championship teams because they married such forcefulness with offensive creation, ensuring that a team’s largest resources (a max contract) provide requisite physicality alongside more than 25 points per game. It would be a bit silly to conclude the Mavericks have made a mistake in not finding these unicorns; they are once-a-decade players. The rest of the list, though, is young and drafted.

Somewhere in the last half-decade, smart teams began to prioritize drafting and developing players with high defensive upsides tied to the natural gifts of their athleticism, at least deeper into the draft once marquee creator prospects ran out. It seems insane that Bam Adebayo was taken outside of the top ten, but alas. As centers became devalued (correctly) because of the importance of creators and the wings that guard them, teams began to find them later in drafts, sometimes stumbling into remarkably cheap defensive anchors, a trend that seems capped by the success of Walker Kessler.

Now ask yourself, how often are these players moved? The pressure to win is not upon their backs, and therefore unlike star creators, they infrequently ask to be sent to greener pastures. Bad teams seem to universally understand their worth once a rebuild is finished, and they aren’t sold off amidst a tank-job. Trade values league wide, in my estimation, reflect the value of players who can guard in the playoffs. Dorian Finney-Smith, by all accounts, was worth much more than Spencer Dinwiddie. The Denver Nuggets gave up Will Barton and Monte Morris for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, which seemed steep to many but felt right to me. Royce O’Neale went for a first round pick. Prioritizing Finney-Smith and Bullock seemed a step in the right direction, but they were older players who didn’t athletically impact a game to the degree of what I’d term an “apex predator”; by the time the Mavericks ran into the Warriors, the Wiggins-Green-Looney frontline moved at a different speed. Maxi Kleber was rightfully considered the defensive lynchpin, with his intersection of mobility and length, but he’s physically susceptible to the grind of heavy minutes, and no one’s idea of an elite athlete.

My thesis is that the Dallas Mavericks, organizationally, have very little aptitude or grasp of the ways in which athleticism actually still matters. One is reminded of Mark Cuban decrying the AAU circuit as inherently worse than the European model of skill development. The Mavericks are almost like an NFL team who finds SEC football distasteful out of a misplaced idealism of the Air Raid. Even as they feigned towards a more defensive-oriented roster construction, it’s on the cheap with older role players, or hoping the A.J Lawsons of the world can become Eduardo Najeras. If players who can defend in the playoffs have risen in trade value, and Dallas is already committed financially to two all-star creators, how does one obtain all-defense level athletes?

NBA analyst Danny Leroux often talks about how the most important players in basketball are those with a degree of unstoppability; you can beat Shaquille O’Neal, or Giannis Antetokoumpo, or LeBron in other facets of the game, but how do you impede them from what they themselves do well? Do the Mavericks have one player who helps in such an instance, and to win a championship, would they not need one? Even the Warriors, famed as harbingers of a finesse era, married Draymond and Andre Igoudala.

So, let’s adjust the oft-repeated mantra that the Mavericks were on once they got Tyson Chandler. They won once they got a 28-year-old Tyson Chandler, who was an excellent athlete for his size, and also Shawn Marion, one of the best athletes of his time, a do-it-all forward who could jump out of the gym. Hell, I think we’d take Deshawn Stevenson right now.