There’s been one prevailing thought bouncing around my head as I watched the Mavericks take on two championship contenders back-to-back, winning one and narrowly losing another.
This team is close.
Maybe that’s a dumb thought, considering the Mavericks are currently seventh, trying to scrape and claw out of a play-in tournament spot with less than 20 games remaining. The Mavericks are only one game above .500 and have flittered with that .500 record for most of the season. The defense is once again below league average, now 23rd after a recent stretch of games where the Mavericks have been unable to stop teams from parading to the rim for an endless supply of easy baskets.
That doesn’t sound like a championship profile, and to be fair, it isn’t. Not even close. But for the first time in years, and honestly, for the first time since Luka Doncic has been drafted, it feels like the Mavericks have a clear road to contention. The path is there and while who knows if the Mavericks actually go down it, at least there’s a path.
Before the trade for Kyrie Irving, the Mavericks were listless at best. They lost their second best player for nothing last summer and the pieces remaining were OK, but there wasn’t a second All-Star in sight. Despite what the 2011 Mavericks did, having two All-Stars is basically a requirement to win an NBA title. Dallas had Doncic and...stuff. Some of it good stuff! But mostly just stuff. What was worse was the plan was hard to see. Brunson left, but the Mavericks were still projected to be a capped out team for a few seasons. The team still owed a draft pick to the New York Knicks, and the franchise has acquired zero first round picks since the 2004 trade that led to the drafting of Devin Harris. Most of the roster next to Doncic was either 30, over 30, or nearing 30 — the core surrounding Doncic wasn’t anywhere near the timeline and it was hard to see where the team was going to finally get over the talent hump. Dallas had no cap room, like it matters anyway in terms of the Mavericks ability to sign star free agents, and the trade ammo was bleak. Even if the Mavericks threw in future picks once they could when the final Knicks pick conveyed, other teams own their picks and other teams’ picks too. Plus some of those teams actually have blue chip young talent, while the Mavericks just had a promising Josh Green and Jaden Hardy. The point is, even if a star were to become available, if the rest of the league had interest, the Mavericks would be outgunned.
That’s why the Irving trade makes more sense as the days go by. Yes, he is perhaps the most flawed potential co-star to surround Doncic with, considering how he’s left every franchise before him. But Dallas could only pay for a second star if that second star was damaged goods. It’s a cynical way to look at team-building, but it’s the truth. Dallas got Irving not only because they paid up, but because Irving had enough flags to drive his price down.
It hasn’t been sterling since, with the Mavericks 2-5 in the games Doncic and Irving have played together, but these last two games against Philadelphia and Phoenix felt a little different. The duo combined for 82 in the win against the 76ers and 64 in the loss to the Suns. Both reached 40 points in the 76ers game, the first time any Mavericks teammates each had at least 40 in one game. They followed that up with Doncic netting 34 and Irving getting 30 in a close loss to a Suns team that looks primed to make another Finals run with Kevin Durant. If the Mavericks played these past two games without Irving, with the same roster we’ve basically seen for the last four years, what would they look like? I can’t imagine they’d look good.
Stars win, in the NBA. Talent, more specifically, wins. Underdogs are fun, but they rarely do more in the NBA than maybe steal a first round series. Top four seeds are the only teams that win titles, and to get a top four seed, you need talent. You need more than one All-Star. The Mavericks finally have that. Even in the loss on Sunday, seeing Doncic and Irving answer Durant and Booker bucket for bucket, point for point, was breathtaking. Same goes for the third quarter explosion in the win against Philadelphia. For a franchise that has leaned on one star to prop up its existence for over two decades, it was a sight for sore eyes.
Much like acquiring Luka, the hard part is mostly done. Dallas has a core duo it can finally build around and not have to talk itself into contention. If the Mavericks can successfully retain Irving this summer, assuming everything with Irving goes well from here on out, the pieces Dallas requires to complete the team don’t feel as overwhelming difficult as were the targets needed before the Irving trade.
Dallas is down trade ammo, yes, but if the goal for that ammo lowers, things become a bit easier to swallow. The Mavericks no longer have to try and grab a second star with their remaining picks and limited cap space. They no longer have to hold their breath that general manager Nico Harrison and his connections bear the fruit of a disgruntled star naming the Mavericks as the place they want to go. Dallas has that guy in Irving, now they just need more role players. Maybe another super role player, but at the end of the day a role player. That seems much more feasible than where the team was a month ago.
Doncic and Irving are so far brilliant together. In 321 possessions played together according to Cleaning the Glass, the Mavericks score 134 points per 100 possessions with an outrageous 65 effective field goal percentage. The Mavericks have a historic offense right to rely on right now — now they just need to recoup the loss of Dorian Finney-Smith, restock the defense and wing depth, and maybe finally get another big besides Maxi Kleber that can actually stay on the floor and provide some resistance at the rim.
With multiple picks available to trade this summer after the NBA draft, you can see how the Mavericks can enter conversations to get those types of players. The hardest thing to do in the NBA when it comes to team-building is finding and keeping stars. The Mavericks finally have two, for the first time in a long, long time. Now they just have to follow the path.