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The Dallas Mavericks talent is not good enough

Dallas’ roster has stagnated for years and Luka Doncic’s brilliance couldn’t paper over it anymore

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Since the Mavericks blockbuster trade of Kyrie Irving, I’ve kept my eye on the progress of Dorian Finney-Smith and Spencer Dinwiddie, the two Mavericks that had to depart in the trade so Irving could come to Dallas.

While most acknowledged that judging the trade by pure talent, the Mavericks won, there were plenty of risks involved in terms of breaking up and losing two major contributors from a team that went to the Western Conference Finals a year ago. Losing two starters for one, no matter how great that one starter is, can cause some cascading effects that doom a team, especially one that was already as limited with its depth as the Mavericks.

So as Dallas’ defense toiled after the trade, there was a growing narrative that the Irving trade was a failure, that Dallas couldn’t afford to lose its defensive stalwart and steady backcourt-mate for Luka Doncic. Irving was good, but the Mavericks needed the bodies more than another star. That’s fair, but here’s the dirty secret — no matter what point of the season, whether it was pre-trade or post-trade, the Dallas Mavericks talent simply was not good enough.

Before the Mavericks traded away Finney-Smith and Dinwiddie, the team played one final game together, losing to the Golden State Warriors 119-113. The team was 28-26, the eighth seed by only the slimmest of margins. Dallas at the time had the seventh best offense and the 22nd best defense.

After the trade, the Mavericks fell apart, but the numbers aren’t that different. At least, not different enough to explain the massive collapse. The offense got a little better, the defense got a little worse. Could Dallas had used Finney-Smith’s defense presence? Sure. But the 22nd best defense a year after being in the top 10 is simply not good enough for a team wanting to contend. The truth was the team wasn’t in a good spot before the trade, and the trade wasn’t enough to fix the core issue — the Mavericks weren’t good enough.

Finney-Smith and Dinwiddie didn’t do much to make the Mavericks feel regret — Finney-Smith shot 43 percent on twos, 30 percent on threes and averaged about seven points and five rebounds per game as a Net in the regular season. Dinwiddie’s assists rose to nine per game, but his efficiency cratered, shooting only 49 percent on twos and 29 percent on threes. The Nets are currently in a 2-0 hole to the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round, with Finney-Smith playing only 18 minutes in Game 1 with six points and one rebound, while Dinwiddie scored only 14 points on 12 shots, missing four of his five three pointers. Game 2 wasn’t much better for either: Finney-Smith had eight points and seven rebounds in 27 minutes, while Dinwiddie had 12 points on 5-of-14 shooting. The point is, those two weren’t the saviors and they expose a problem the Mavericks have been dancing around for some time, a problem the Mavericks have to answer now.

A fun trick from Luka Doncic, carrying the torch from Dirk Nowitzki, is the ability to mask over the weaknesses of his teammates. Just look at Finney-Smith: before Doncic’s first season as the franchise player, he shot 29.3, 29.9, and 31.1 percent from three. In the seasons after, with Doncic running the show? 37.6, 39.4, 39.5, and 35.5 percent. Let’s move to Dinwiddie: in the two and half seasons he played (outside of the missed ACL tear season) before Dallas, he shot 33.5, 30.8, and 28.6 percent from three. His time in Dallas post-trade and then before the Kyrie trade? 40.4 and 40.5 percent. This is not to discount the individual work both of these players did to improve their jumpers in Dallas, but it’s clear Doncic’s presence was a big boost.

You can do this for a lot of players on the Mavericks roster. Maxi Kleber was still developing his shot early into his NBA career, but there’s a very clear pre-Luka/post-Luka mark in his shooting numbers. Tim Hardaway Jr. only shot above 35 percent from three twice in seven seasons before Dallas, and in Dallas he did it three out of four seasons. It’s really great that Doncic is so awesome that he can turn bad and mediocre shooters into good and great ones, but what if the Mavericks acquired players that were already good at things as important as shooting before playing with one of the greatest shot creators in NBA history? Looking back, it should have been a red flag that Finney-Smith was only shooting 38 percent on the most wide open threes in the NBA. Hell, look at Irving, someone who definitely doesn’t need Doncic’s gravity and passing to be an All-Star player — if Irving had played a full season in Dallas, he would have set a career-high in true shooting percentage and a career-low in turnover rate. That’s what Doncic should be doing: amplifying great players to be their best, instead of spinning hay into gold.

This talent drain on the Mavericks roster extends well beyond just shooting numbers and this season it was most felt with the almost brazen lack of athleticism on the roster. I don’t like dumping a bunch of stats into a story, but as I continued to research some numbers to prove the point of how sorely the Mavericks lacked athletes this season, I was staggered at the trend. So here we go.

  • The Mavericks ranked 11th in points per possession after a defensive rebound (1.16).
  • They ranked 29th in points per possession after a turnover (1.22).
  • Defensively, they ranked 29th after the opposing team grabbed a defensive rebound (1.20 points per possession) and ranked 19th defensively after the opposing team forced a turnover (1.30 points per possession).
  • The Mavericks ranked 24th in points per transition possessions (1.11) and ranked 27th in the frequency of transition possessions (14.9 percent of all possessions).
  • Dallas ranked 30th in offensive rebound percentage (21), while allowing opponents a offensive rebound percentage of 26.9 (ranked 18th).
  • The Mavericks were 22nd in forcing turnovers, 29th in steals per game, 26th in steal rate, 29th in deflections per game, 28th in blocks per game, and 27th in block rate. The Mavericks allowed a 29 percent opponent free throw rate, ranked 27th.

Reminder: there are 30 NBA teams.

That is an unbelievably bleak paragraph to write and read, yet if you watched all 82 Mavericks games this season, it’s not unbelievable at all. The Mavericks routinely played against teams that could both jumper higher and run faster, and teams that can run fast and jump high usually are better in transition, are able to keep their man in front of them without fouling, make impact defensive plays, and grab tough rebounds. For a team trying to contend, it is almost hard to build a team so floor-bound and unathletic. In just about every area of the game that could be helped by having athleticism, the Mavericks were one of the worst teams in the league. It’s why the Mavericks relied so heavily on the three point shot, as the roster had basically been distilled into winning games by having Doncic go nuts and gift his teammates a bounty of open looks.

Dallas faces a challenging offseason ahead. Irving is a free agent and the team will be capped out if he returns. Keeping a top-10 draft pick will boost available options, but the Mavericks won’t have much trade ammo to work with outside of that. Josh Green and Jaden Hardy’s continued development will be key. Despite limited assets, the Mavericks are tasked with reshaping a roster that has run its course. Dwight Powell is currently ninth in games played in Mavericks franchise history. Finney-Smith is 14th and would have cleared the top 10 if not for the trade. Kleber is 19th, and if he stays healthy and finishes his three year extension in Dallas, will be near the top 10. Even Hardaway, who’s only played in Dallas for four and a half seasons, will enter the top 25 of Mavericks games played if he returns next season. That’s a lot of games played for a core that has one conference finals appearance, two first round exits, and now a handful of seasons missing the playoffs entirely.

“Something’s got to change, you know?” Luka Doncic told reporters after the season ended. “For sure. I mean, last year when we went to the Western Conference finals we were having fun. I always talk about the chemistry we had. It was great, but something’s got to change, for sure.”

At this point, that’s hard to argue.