Reading through one of my first columns, “Savor this Dallas Mavericks season, no matter how it unfolds” recently had me smiling at the optimism and shaking my head at the physiological road we have traveled together as fans of this team. While not the first trauma the fanbase has endured since the team’s inception 43 years ago, this one was uniquely painful.
Amid all the pearl-clutching over the tanking scandal and talking-head shows displaying a predictable aversion to analysis, much of the discourse about the Dallas Mavericks season has covered the wrong topics with a level of gusto that would have you believe they were onto something.
The Mavericks no longer controlled their destiny and angling for a loss versus the Chicago Bulls was simply the only sane choice to make given a very odd and distressing set of circumstances. In a few years when we can trace back the roster capital that blossoms from the draft pick (lottery deity willing) which the Mavericks just paid for in fine money and humiliation, hindsight will show it was clearly the right move.
The other asinine segment topic that floated around the media sought to assign blame to either Luka Doncic or Kyrie Irving. Asking this question asserts that the reasons for the late-season collapse must be - by default - linked inextricably to the players with the most star power. Segment producers put these zero-sum style questions forward all the time and sports talk is worse off for it.
Luka Doncic started the season in Super Saiyan mode which led those same folks to ask whether Doncic could sustain that level of greatness all season long. Jason Kidd famously speculated he could keep it up through Christmas but Doncic persisted well into the new year. It was not until a putback dunk attempt went awry on February 2nd in a game versus New Orleans did the Mavs star lose a measure of his explosiveness. Despite this, Luka Doncic was incredible. Yes, there are still ways he can improve his approach to the game and he was not shy about accepting responsibility for how the season ended - but including him in the blame question misses the mark.
I was skeptical when the midseason trade was announced and still have long-term misgivings but Kyrie Irving is not the culprit here either. He was the best version of Uncle Drew that Dallas could have hoped for. Pinning the collapse on Irving is tantamount to admitting you do not closely follow the Mavericks or have an axe to grind.
Once we clear our heads of the noise, what questions should we be asking? How far can we drill down to the heart of the problem and find a conclusion at which (we can only hope) the Mavs front office has already arrived?
Layer One - A Dearth of Tertiary Playmaking
The final form of the previous season’s playoff push locked into place once Spencer Dinwiddie was acquired. This gave Dallas three starting-caliber guards with above-average to great distribution skills. This led to very few meaningful minutes of basketball that saw fewer than two of those three on the floor. Doncic could rest and the backcourt of Brunson and Dinwiddie could light teams up. The dynamism of those two guards created floor spacing for corner shooters and wreaked havoc with switching defenses. The trio covered for limitations elsewhere on the roster and allowed most of the other players to focus on defense and spot-up shooting.
After Brunson’s departure, Dallas failed to secure a third guard to approximate the previous year’s winning formula. Frank Ntilikina and Josh Green were floated as third point guard options. The company line also included the notion that Christian Wood and Tim Hardaway Jr’s scoring would cover for Brunson's departure. The on-court reality soon displayed that there was no reliable option past Doncic and Dinwiddie to effectively spearhead the offense. Yes, there were flashes of competency from Josh Green but those were mainly limited to games where neither lead guard was available. As for people forgetting about Frank, (insert deadpan stare here). Facu Campazzo and Kemba Walker were Hail Marys from the Mavs' own 30-yard line.
Even after the Kyrie Irving trade, Dallas remained without a trusted third guard. This broken template was imprinted game after game. Why did this hurt the Mavericks more than it might have impacted other rosters?
Layer Two - A Reliance on Specialization
One of the phrases we often hear in the Luka Doncic era of Mavs basketball is “3-and-D wing”. On the surface, it makes sense, as number 77 creates better three-point shots than just about anyone else in the NBA. Spread the floor, win the mismatch, kick to the open shooter, and rely on capable shooters to knock down open looks. When it works, the Mavs look unstoppable. The flip side of that coin is nights where one or both lead guards are unavailable or the outside shots are simply not falling. This is why the Mavs often looked anemic this season on offense despite being powered by two of the most elite engines in the game - particularly in crunch-time moments.
The notion of 3-and-D precludes the idea that said players reliably do more than keep the ball moving or catch and shoot. Outside of the all-too-rare attack of closeouts, Maverick wings remain very predictable for opposing offenses to game plan against. Reggie Bullock, Tim Hardaway Jr, and (before his departure) Dorian Finney-Smith are variations on the 3-and-D spectrum. The exception to that is Josh Green - who is more of a slashing two-guard than a true wing.
The focus on specialization also shows up at the Center position. Powell is the lob threat, Kleber is the weak side defender, McGee is the rebounder, and Bertans is the shooter. It is fair to grimace at those labels after a season where players often struggled to excel in areas of purported strength. Yet that does not change the painful truth - the Mavericks lacked a multi-purpose frontcourt player this season. The closest player to fit that label - Maxi Kleber - tore his hamstring and returned with valor but was truly never the same after the injury.
Layer Three - Building Roster Spots Three through Six
The fatal flaw for Dallas - beyond an atrocious season from Jason Kidd - was that the dogged pursuit of a second star and the reliance on specialization led to three-fifths of a starting lineup that did not scare opposing defenses and could not contain opposing offenses.
For years now, so much of the chatter around the Mavericks has focused on “getting Luka help” and most of the time that conversation centered on the idea of a “second star”. Ever since the Porzingis experiment went sideways, the Mavericks have been scrapping and clawing to find the co-pilot. With so much focus and roster capital invested in finding a “second-best player” the importance of investing in the next four roster spots has felt like an afterthought. Stack the hauls sent out for Porzingis and Irving on top of each other and the combined weight of those assets is staggering. Absent all those team-building options, the Mavericks were left to take flyers on Christian Wood and JaVale McGee last offseason. We now know how those two respective chapters of this saga unfolded.
If the pursuit of the “second swing at the second star” was not top of mind for the brain trust, would Brunson have been secured after the 2021 playoffs ended? Past a certain point, it is quite possible Brunson may have decided he would rather put down roots with an organization less likely to view him as a stepping stone to a better player. How it stings to know the second star was here all along.
Assuming Irving resigns, Dallas will have paid a king’s ransom in NBA parlance for that long-coveted second star. An aging, mercurial, brittle - and admittedly amazing - second star. Yet it will be roster spots three through six that define next season for the Mavericks much as it has the previous two seasons. Get career years from Dinwiddie, Finney-Smith, Kleber, and Bullock to go along with a breakout campaign from Brunson and you are shocking the NBA universe by upsetting Phoenix. Roll out three through six as Dallas did a year later and you get 38 wins.
The Mavericks must utilize every resource they can muster to invest in more well-rounded basketball players. While Josh Green and Jaden Hardy have potential, at least two starting-caliber players must be added to the mix to shift the rest of the players - returning and acquired - down the talent ladder. Younger, rangier, and more dynamic options who excel at the game - not just a facet of it.
A great way to predict playoff series is to ask yourself which team has the more talented fourth-best player - as the answer to that question usually wins the series. Hopefully, the answer to that question for Dallas next season is a name we have never before seen on the back of a Mavs jersey.