When the Dallas Mavericks traded back to select Dereck Lively 12th overall in the 2023 NBA Draft, he was immediately compared to Tyson Chandler, the defensive anchor of Dallas’ 2011 championship team. The Mavericks desperately need Lively to validate those comparisons by becoming the first center to deliver consistent, effective production at both ends of the floor since the team let Chandler walk away (twice). Chandler, who spent a lot of time mentoring Lively this summer as part of the Mavericks coaching staff, seems to believe that Lively has what it takes to live up to the high standard Chandler set when he patrolled the paint for the Mavericks, saying on a recent episode of the “All the Smoke” podcast that Lively reminds him of himself “a lot” and that Lively is a “sponge” who “wants to learn.”
Lively has embraced the comparisons to Chandler, saying in an interview before the beginning of Summer League that “I definitely have some of [Tyson’s] attributes [. . .] I’m able to block any shot and [. . .] be a force down low, [. . .] being able to just set screens to get my teammates a lead so I can get the ball in a lob. I’m just going to be able to create actions [. . .] on the offensive end. That doesn’t mean I have to have the ball in my hands, but I’m going to be talking, directing people, and setting screens and try to get my teammates open.” This type of mentality should help Lively make full use of his impressive physical gifts and contribute to the Mavericks early and often this season.
How long will it take for Lively to earn coach Jason Kidd’s trust and become the starting center for the Mavericks? In his lone season at Duke, Lively showcased his potential to be an elite rim-protector and fill a clear position of need for the Mavericks, racking up 11 games of three blocks or more, including a dominant performance in a rivalry game against North Carolina during which he blocked eight shots and grabbed 14 rebounds. He has good feet for someone his size and handles switches on to guards and forwards relatively well, which should help when opponents target him with screening actions.
The fastest way for Lively to secure the starting job will be demonstrating that he can make timely defensive rotations. If Lively is constantly out of position, either because he is chasing blocks or simply not making reads quickly enough, he will struggle to earn meaningful minutes. Kidd needs to be patient with Lively and allow him to make mistakes, as he is the only center on the roster with the tools to help make up for the limitations of the Mavericks’ perimeter defenders.
Best Case Scenario
Lively successfully navigates the steep learning curve for young big men and becomes the team’s full-time starting center before the end of the season. One of the main reasons centers tend to require more time to develop is because they need to be able to handle a high amount of defensive responsibility, as they must contain their own man while also regularly providing help whenever their teammates get beat. The Mavericks missed the playoffs last season primarily because their defense was atrocious, allowing opponents to score 116.9 points per 100 possessions (finishing 23rd in the NBA in defensive efficiency according to stats site Cleaning the Glass).
Lively won’t be able to address all of the team’s defensive deficiencies on his own, but if he proves to be a dependable help-defender and a strong deterrent at the rim he should earn the top spot in the Mavericks’ center rotation and average around 25 minutes per game.
Worst Case Scenario
Lively is too inconsistent to earn Kidd’s confidence, and Kidd limits Lively to less than 15 minutes per game throughout the season, significantly inhibiting his development. The Mavericks will almost certainly never get another chance to add a lottery-level talent to the roster while Luka Dončić is with the team. If Lively is unable to meaningfully contribute this season and show that he has the potential to be a part of the Mavericks long-term, the organization will have failed to capitalize on a rare opportunity to add upside to an extremely top-heavy roster.
One area of emphasis for Lively this season will be to ensure that he makes clean, solid contact on every screen he sets, something he often failed to do during Summer League. While it may take time for Lively to develop the timing and focus required to consistently set precise screens, he has soft hands and does a good job leveraging his exceptional length and explosiveness when he rolls hard to the rim, attributes which should make him a dynamic lob threat almost immediately.
If Lively manages to become a more effective screener, he will thrive when paired in the pick and roll with Luka and Kyrie Irving, creating clear driving lanes for them and earning a generous helping of easy dunks in return.
Relying on a rookie center to provide substantial contributions to a team aspiring to return to the playoffs seems unwise, but the Mavericks have few alternatives at the moment. Dwight Powell and Richaun Holmes, the only other centers currently on the roster, are both serviceable but flawed players at this stage of their respective careers. While Lively will undoubtedly go through his fair share of growing pains this season, he will hopefully also make meaningful progress towards becoming a complementary piece of the Mavericks’ core going forward.