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The Mavericks will try to take a step forward by mimicking their recent past

This new Dallas roster shares a lot of traits with the 2020 Mavericks.

Dallas Mavericks v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

The 2020 Mavericks were pretty good, even with their seeding and early exit in the playoffs that season. Despite finishing seventh in the West and losing in the first round in six games to the Clippers, that team featuring a second-year Luka Doncic was fairly impressive, with injuries, bad luck, and the pandemic short-circuiting things.

I’m thinking about the 2020 Mavericks again, because I’m looking at the 2023-2024 Mavericks roster and can’t help but feel some similarities. Both are led by two stars at the top, both had trouble identifying a clear third best player, but offset that with a lot of quality role-player depth. Both teams had a lot of shooting, both had a lot of guards, and both had thin wing depth.

That 2020 team legitimately had a 10-man rotation, before injuries to Jalen Brunson and Dwight Powell in the second half derailed things. Depth has been a problem plaguing the Mavericks ever since that 2020 team — in 2023, Dallas had eight players play at least 1,000 minutes, with Kyrie Irving just over 700, with two of those 1,000 minute players departing as part of the Irving trade. In 2020, the team had 10, with the players below that threshold (J.J. Barea, Boban Marjanovic, Courtney Lee, Trey Burke) holding their own in the spot minutes they were given.

Dallas’ backend of the roster looks notably improved this season, with Dante Exum and Derrick Jones Jr. taking the places of Frank Ntilikina and Theo Pinson. This Mavericks team also has a lot of guards — Luka Doncic, Kyrie Irving, Tim Hardaway Jr., Seth Curry, Jaden Hardy, and Exum could all reasonably expect to get minutes this season. Contrast that to 2020, which was also stacked at guard with Doncic, Hardaway, Curry, Delon Wright, Jalen Brunson, and J.J. Barea.

Roster Hierarchy

2020 2024
2020 2024
Star - Luka Doncic Star - Luka Doncic
Star - Kristaps Porzingis Star - Kyrie Irving
Guard - Seth Curry Guard - Seth Curry
Guard - Tim Hardaway Jr. Guard - Tim Hardaway Jr.
Guard - Jalen Brunson Guard - Jaden Hardy
Guard - Delon Wright Guard - Dante Exum
Wing - Dorian Finney-Smith Wing - Grant Williams
Wing - Justin Jackson Wing - Josh Green
Wing - Courtney Lee Wing - O-Max Prosper
Big - Dwight Powell Big - Dwight Powell
Big - Maxi Kleber Big - Maxi Kleber
Big - Boban Marjanovic Big - Richaun Holmes
Big - Willie Cauley-Stein Big - Dereck Lively

The secret of that 2020 team is that it was really, really good. Dallas ranked sixth in net-rating according to Cleaning the Glass, with the league’s best offense (at time a league record), and the 18th best defense. Dallas’ expected win total that season was 48, but some bad beats in clutch games, and injuries to Brunson and Powell stirred things astray. Not to mention the pandemic, which halted the Mavericks in March when they were a season-best 13 games over .500 at 40-27. Dallas struggled after the long layoff, going only 3-5 in the bubble. If the Mavericks would have finished with 48 wins, that 48-27 pandemic-shortened record would have been the best winning percentage in the Doncic-era, even better than the Western Conference Finals team in 2022.

Three things made that 2020 team so good:

  1. Doncic turned into LeBron James.
  2. Lots of shooting.
  3. Depth and lineup versatility.

Looking at those three things and the Mavericks upcoming roster, it’s not hard to squint and see how these Mavericks could replicate those things.

Doncic was a monster at the rim in 2020, shooting a staggering 72.6 percent in the restricted area. Doncic has maintained that efficiency in the ensuing seasons, but in 2020 he shot 379 shots in the restricted area, in just 75 games. For reference, in 82 games last season Doncic attempted 315 restricted area shots. Doncic bulldozed his way to the rim in 2020, thanks to point number two: lots of shooting.

The Mavericks spacing in 2020 was pristine, featuring a lineup of four or even five shooters on the floor for most of the game. Thanks to Kristaps Porzingis and Maxi Kleber, Dallas could play lots of five out without going too small, and even if they played a traditional center like Powell, the other four spots were usually shooters. That gave Doncic some of the best spacing he’s ever seen, and he used that to manipulate the floor to get to the basket at will. This season’s team doesn’t feature a floor-spacing big man twosome like Porzingis and Kleber, but Kleber is still here and Grant Williams will likely be the starting four. Williams is by far the most accurate wing shooter the Mavericks have had since Doncic has been in Dallas, and you can picture smaller, five-out lineups with Williams at the four, Kleber at the five, wrecking havoc on opposing defenses. The Mavericks were third in total three pointers made last season, despite the weak depth and roster issues. That roster is now adding Williams and Curry, two accurate and prolific shooters. Even without Porzingis’ presence stretching bigs away from the rim, this roster might have the most shooting Doncic has ever played with, and if teams get scared of that, perhaps we’ll see Doncic live at the rim like he did in 2020.

Depth and lineup versatility were quiet keys to that 2020’s team success. We’ve already mentioned how Porzingis and Kleber warped defenses and shifted the floor balance, but that roster’s ability to keep pressure on defenses with multiple ballhandling options was also crucial. With Doncic, Curry, Wright, and Brunson, Dallas always had two capable ball handlers on the floor at once. It’s why the 2022 team was so successful, as Dallas lost Curry but got an upgraded Brunson, plus an upgrade over Wright in Spencer Dinwiddie, to keep on that consistent attack. Dallas now has Doncic and Kyrie Irving, and last season when those two shared the floor, the Mavericks offense scored a little over 120 points per 100 possessions — a number that would once again set the record for league’s best offense.

It wasn’t just the guard play, but Dallas’ ability to keep the floor spaced while rotating in any of their big men. With Porzingis, Powell, and Kleber, the Mavericks could stay relatively big without sacrificing too much of their spacing. Dallas could go small with Kleber to keep up with quicker teams, or go bigger with Porzingis and Powell, all while still maintaining that spacing through Kleber and Porzingis’ shooting. The wing was a bit of an issue, with Dorian Finney-Smith sometimes feeling like a one-man army on the perimeter against the league’s best wing scorers. It’s why Justin Jackson was spoon-fed so many minutes, as having another bigger perimeter player was basically the missing piece of that roster.

While these Mavericks aren’t stacked at the wing, the situation is a little better. Williams will do his best Finney-Smith impression with better shooting, Josh Green’s continued development from bench spark plug to consistent starter will be massive, and Olivier-Maxence Prosper represents the youthful athleticism this roster has been starved of for years. If Prosper isn’t ready or Green doesn’t take a step forward, this team will be similarly cursed at the wing much like the 2020 roster, but there are hopeful signs, with Green showing well in the World Cup this summer and Prosper making a splash in Summer League.

Of course, we know how that 2020 season ended. Injuries to Brunson, Powell, and eventually Porzingis forced Doncic into a one-man show against a vastly superior opponent. Depth is nice, but in the playoffs when rotations shrink, having the better ninth man doesn’t matter too much. This 2024 roster currently shares the biggest flaw of the 2020 roster — no clear cut third best player. In the playoffs, talent usually wins out. So while the Mavericks will look to mimic their 2020 success to rebound from their disastorious 2023, the team will still have to keep one eye toward to future if they want to be even better.