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The phenomenal draft by the Dallas Mavericks almost never happened

The dark timeline was narrowly averted

Chicago Bulls v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images

The final moments of the April 7th contest between the Chicago Bulls and the Dallas Mavericks were excruciating, unlike anything I have ever watched in sports. No longer controlling their own destiny, the Mavericks knew the context and wisdom of their decision would be overshadowed by performative outrage on social media and talk shows. Despite the humiliation and inbound fine from the league, the team did the smart thing and rested every rotation player outside of Luka Doncic’s first-quarter token appearance. The conversation after the game focused on the big-picture issues tied to dialing up a loss from the bench but lost in the shuffle was how close Dallas came to winning the game.

Reliving the final 23 seconds of the most consequential meaningless game in the history of the Dallas Mavericks through the prism of what we now know transpired for the team at the 2023 NBA Draft makes the play-by-play notation in the box score even more brain-melting.

After Chicago goes up by 3 with 23 seconds to go, Dallas calls timeout. Up by only 3 points, the Mavericks reeled off four three-point shots that would have potentially forced overtime and opened the door to a disastrous Dallas win. As much as the team and their fans would later dread the idea of succumbing to the twenty percent chance the lottery gods would convey the first-round draft pick to the Knicks, the odds of just one of those four shots going in and ultimately leading to a Mavs victory was much higher than twenty percent.

Relive the final seconds:
20.1 Theo Pinson misses 29-foot three-point jumper (first of four misses)
17.1 Derrick Jones Jr. defensive rebound
17.1 Frank Ntilikina personal take foul (thanks Frank, jeez)
17.1 Derrick Jones Jr. misses free throw 1 of 2 (this guy surely won’t miss both)
17.1 Derrick Jones Jr. misses free throw 2 of 2 (spoke too soon)
15.0 Theo Pinson defensive rebound (don’t you have a podcast to record or something)
10.1 Derrick Jones Jr. blocks McKinley Wright IV‘s 27-foot three-point pullup jump shot (redemption came quickly for Jones, the MVP of the final minute)
9.0 Mavericks offensive team rebound (Jones’ block landed out of bounds)
6.0 A.J. Lawson misses 29-foot three-point pullup jump shot (third of four misses)
3.1 Frank Ntilikina offensive rebound (at this point I am just yelling NO, NO, NO over and over at my TV)
2.0 McKinley Wright IV misses 23-foot three-point jumper (finally, it’s over)
0.0 End of the 4th Quarter

The likes of Theo Pinson, McKinley Wright, and AJ Lawson were not in on the plan to lose that game and certainly showed they did not care to just roll over as seemingly preordained. As our editor Kirk Henderson likes to remind us, teams can tank but players never will. The guys chucking shots with enormous ramifications were attempting to leverage every moment of NBA floor time - something that is never guaranteed to end-of-the-bench and two-way players. In the video above you can see Mavs owner Mark Cuban smiling - but not with glee. That was a smile that denoted the tense and absurd nature of flirting with disaster with each of those four potentially game-tying shots. Dallas also benefited from Chicago having no dog in the fight since their first-round selection was owed to the Orlando Magic regardless of whether Dallas succeeded in losing or not.

Looking back at this game now through the prism of the team’s amazing performance in the 2023 NBA Draft is even more harrowing now that we know what was at stake. The Mavs took that tenuously procured 10th overall pick and deftly maneuvered through the first round. They came away with the best of both worlds - rookies with a chance to be mainstays for years to come and a much better balance sheet with which to enter free agency. The Lativian Laser is gone and chances are strong the Mavericks will be able to utilize the full midlevel exception - opening the door to possibilities in free agency that would not have otherwise been available.

Dallas entered last season with lofty expectations given their playoff success and suffering from the loss of a cornerstone in Jalen Brunson. The weight of the former and the fracture to on and off-court chemistry from the latter was a recipe for calamity in hindsight. This was made worse by their lack of options in the offseason. Once they used their late first-round pick in the package to acquire Christian Wood, the small taxpayer’s exception was spent on JaVale McGee. Ouch.

Marc Stein has reported that the Mavericks backed away from including Josh Green in a potential move to acquire Clint Capela. Pair that bit of wisdom with the emphasis on selecting quality talent rather than simply leveraging their assets to bring in veteran help and it is reasonable to conclude that an organizational shift in roster-building theory has taken hold. The juxtaposition of utilizing late first-round selections on Wood and Prosper just a year part is startling in the best possible way. The brave new world of the revised CBA reality paired with a very humbling season in between those two moves easily explains this shift in thinking. Dallas finally resisted the temptations of “win-now” moves in the Doncic era and invested in their future. Bravo.

At times, the downside of win-now vets is the expectation of a role beyond what the team needs to placate egos. That is why it bodes well for Dallas that neither of their first-round selections was the primary offensive weapon for their respective college teams - Duke’s Kyle Filipowski and Marquette’s Tyler Kolek garnered those responsibilities and ensuing accolades. Both Likely and Prosper have commented in interviews that they are hungry to fill roles that play to their strengths and help the team win. They may get ample opportunity to do just that as they fill needs that suggest they may see playing time in the upcoming season faster than Jaden Hardy did in his rookie campaign.

With the start of free agency just days away, the Dallas Mavericks have indicated they are far from finished making moves. They enter this phase of the calendar poised to build on the superb draft night and make this a truly great off-season. As the free agent breaking news pours in later this week, Maverick fans can be grateful this corner of the multiverse is not the permutation where McKinley Wright or AJ Lawson singlehandedly convey the first-round pick to the Knicks. After enduring 38 wins and a patchwork quilt roster, we can look forward to brighter days.