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Slacking Off Episode 5: A sparkling first game for the new look Dallas Mavericks

Gafford and Washington jerseys, on sale now.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images

With the Super Bowl just finished, David Trink and I invited our friend and editor Kirk Henderson to join us for a special trade deadline aftermath edition of Slacking Off. No shortage of things to talk about and after a rather concerning stretch of injuries and tough losses, the vibes are bright and shiny once again in Mavs Land.

Brent: Welcome gentlemen. That was quite a game yesterday and quite a week for Maverick fans. Let’s begin with each of your big-picture thoughts on the moves Dallas made.

David: My big picture thoughts include “We’re so back”, “Who needs future draft capital?”, and “How do I get a Daniel Gafford jersey?”

Kirk: There was a good story on the Ringer by my friend and old boss Rob Mahoney about the Mavs this last week and it gets into Luka as a concept and how you build around him as a player. What that article made clear was the front office finally knew after six years (eye roll) how to build around Dončić. And the summary is that you need MORE. More skill, more size, more everything. I think a 50,000-foot view of Dallas from 2018-2021 was that they knew they needed shooters to take advantage of Luka's ability to create shots. But what the league has done the last few years is double down on skilled size. These moves are big steps in the right direction. Gafford is a large man. PJ Washington has some long arms and can LEAP. There’s a lot to like.

David: That is a great point to be made, and I think the other part of that is when you have a player like Luka, the amount of “more” that you need isn’t a crazy amount. They got 41 total minutes from Washington and Gafford and beat one of the best teams in the West soundly. Down the road, I’m still afraid of the result of losing this first-round pick, but realistically it may not matter if this move pays off like Nico Harrison thinks it will. Having good center play is incredibly refreshing though. That’s my favorite part of this year.

Brent: The Mavericks may or may not have preferred Kuzma to PJ Washington but if this was their second preference, they are likely better off for it. A Kuzma deal may have precluded getting anyone else. Would you agree Dallas is far better off with the two players they landed than Kuzma and either no additional centers or fringe/buyout guys like Bismack Biyambo?

David: Definitely would agree. All year long I have thought Dallas’ biggest weakness was their backup center play. Addressing that while also upgrading the starting forward position is a home run. Kuzma would have been amazing here and I would have loved him with Gafford but I’m not sure that deal could have been made.

Kirk: Yeah, I agree. Two players are better than one and Kuzma isn’t a home run anyway at his age. He's really good though but I’m not sure what bigger problems he fixes with the Dallas roster.

Brent: My gut reaction to the trades - especially after watching this first game - is something I think a lot of Maverick fans can relate to. I am so tired of Dallas getting pushed around down low - for years. Dirk was able to win a championship with the center position was completely addressed with Chandler/Haywood/Mahinmi. Admittedly, there were a lot of other things that went right for the Mavs in 2011 but to finally have a presence you could trust to deter free-wheeling drives to the basket and to credibly be relied upon to clean up mistakes. That’s huge. I still remember Tyson taking that charge in Game 5.

Luka has NEVER had that. It's been a genius creating offense at one end and the team at large giving it right back on the other end. I don’t mean to disparage all the guys who have manned the front line the last 5 years but for the first time, it feels like teams won’t be able to count on canceling out Maverick greatness on one end with super easy points generated on the other end. The Mavs are 11th in offensive rating and 21st in defensive rating going into the OKC game. The Thunder are in the top 5 in both - and while it is just one game - I found myself saying FINALLY at my TV screen over and over.

Kirk: Not getting bullied was a refreshing change.

Brent: Chet isn’t bullying Gafford for sure. There are tougher tests to come. But let’s not forget this same Thunder team came in on December 2nd and held off a massive comeback attempt on a night Dallas was without Irving and Hardaway. This felt good.

David: It was probably my favorite game since the 2022 playoffs.

Brent: When making trades, a good GM and extended brain trust have to look at available targets and extrapolate how their skill sets would translate upon arrival. When I heard that a certain ESPN analyst was down on the Washington deal because of his decline in shooting percentages or lack of efficiency, I just felt my brain melt a little. Stats are great but circumstances have to be taken into account. These are human beings and not simply statistic-generating widgets to give analytical formulas data to crunch.

They have egos, get lonely in certain locker rooms when the fit isn’t right, get tired of losing on bad teams, have their minutes and roles inexplicably jerked around by lower-tier coaches and in the case of Washington - get bumped through no fault of his own by a younger player who the Hornets spent a very high pick on in Brandon Miller. So to look at Washington and not see the potential fit and only see a direct transposition of what he is currently doing in Charlotte and merely copy and paste that into the Dallas rubric is lazy analysis and good GMs have to be better than that. In this case, Harrison was better than that. Thankfully.

Kirk: I think the question that needs to be asked over and over again is: does this player fit with Luka? And beyond that, does this player improve playing with Luka? We’ve seen a lot of guys come here that should work, but they manage to get worse. So far PJ and Gafford seem to get better with the opportunity that Luka presents.

David: Yeah I think it just comes down to watching games. A lot of ESPN analysts don’t. I don’t blame them, a lot of teams are not worth watching. Nonetheless, if you watched PJ the last 2 years it was easy to see his talent and easier to see how bad the situation in Charlotte is. Gafford? Same thing. It seems Nico watches games more than the average analyst. And don’t ask me why I have watched so many Hornets games in the last two years.

Brent: The first home game last year for Kyrie Irving was versus Minnesota. It was the only game I was able to attend in person. Irving came out for warmups a few moments after the other players to oohs and aahs from the crowd. He was amazing in the fourth quarter helping Dallas mount a comeback. The thing we remember from that game was the indecision on the last possession between Irving and Doncic. I kept thinking how vastly better this “first home game after a big trade” went. While both trade deadlines produced roster-defining moves, I think Washington and Gafford collectively are around equal to the importance and impact of the Irving acquisition. Yes, Luka needed a co-star after Brunson’s departure. It wasn’t Spencer and it certainly wasn’t Christian Wood. Just as importantly, Luka needed the middle spots 3-9 on the roster to be drastically improved - not just the second spot.

So in less than a year, that part of the roster is now Lively/Washington/Hardaway/Gafford/Green/Jones/Exum. He may not win executive of the year and yes the future assets are dwindling...but given that the task at the end of last season (while we watched Theo and Frank man the backcourt in games 81 and 82) was to completely retool this roster on a dime. It has been impressive.

David: I mentioned this before the deadline and then Josh wrote about it: Nico has been great at turnaround time on mistakes. It’s cool to see a front office recognize where they were wrong, whether they acknowledge it or not. The moves they have made have shown they know what they got right and what they got wrong and despite the colossal Brunson fumble, they have managed to turn around and build something in less than two years. Hopefully, fewer mistakes to come in the future, as well.

Kirk: I agree but I simply must say this: The bill comes due.

David: Yeah, I just can’t ignore the lack of a backup plan they have if (when) things go haywire. It’s just scary how right they have to be about Washington and Gafford. And Kyrie, for that matter.

The tightrope they had to walk between building for the future and winning now was very thin, and although they have two bad second-round picks back for the first they gave up for Washington, it’s concerning that they so easily gave up the only draft asset they had until this summer. They’re playing with fire, but if anyone can handle the heat, Luka Doncic can.

Brent: Famously, since the advent of the nuclear age, the Doomsday Clock being a certain number of minutes from midnight has been a metaphor for scientists to express the degree of existential peril humanity is facing. The Maverick version of this clock is the “Will Luka leave?” collective panic attack that has been percolating since year two. How close was that clock to hitting midnight last year and where is it now?

Kirk: It wasn’t close. But I respect the institutional choice to not waste any more Luka years.

David: Yeah I don’t think it was close. The money cannot be ignored here. But I also think he’s more likely to retire than go to another team, so there’s that.

Brent: Coincidentally, I would advise against looking up where the actual Doomsday clock is sitting right now unless you want to get really depressed.

David: My Doomsday clock has been how close Dallas is to putting Dwight Powell back in the starting lineup for a few years. It has never been further from midnight.

Brent: Let’s talk buyout market now that Spencer Dinwiddie has left me befuddled with his decision to go to LA. I can only assume he was told minutes might be harder to come by in Dallas. Is there anyone else out there you would like to see the Mavericks consider? Woj just reported a few moments ago that Kyle Lowry is being bought out and is headed to Philly.

David: Honestly, I’d love for them to convert AJ Lawson instead.

Kirk: I don’t have a strong take. Boring I know.

Brent: David, does that mean you trust Exum and Hardy to fill the bench backcourt roles in the playoffs?

David: Yes, but I don’t know who they would get in the buyout market for that anyway. Hardy’s feel has been much better recently.

Kirk: I think that the last spot can only matter insofar as you have someone who can take away from things. AJ adds to them. So that works for me.

Brent: How do each of you see the rest of the season and playoff run shaping up given this new roster construction? What’s the best and worst case reasonably speaking? How optimistic is too optimistic after what we just saw?

Kirk: I think avoiding the play-in has to be the goal. Higher would be nice but that’s a big leap.

David: I don’t think Dallas is beating Denver, but I think they have a good shot against anyone else in the West. They got bigger which cannot be overstated. I think they have a real shot to make another conference finals run this season.

Brent: The optimist in me feels like a deep run is possible again and - based on these new developments - perhaps even likely. One thing is for sure, basketball is fun again in Dallas. After what we vicariously went through last year covering this team, that is saying something. What a pendulum swing for the third year in a row.

David: Yep.

Brent: I want to end on a topic that has been grinding my gears and I need a moment of venting.

Why is it that when Damian Lillard and Donovan Mitchell scored 70 last year, ESPN - most notably SAS - fawned all over them? But dare Luka to score 70 and then SAS acts like he broke the good dinnerware by playing basketball indoors. I realize SAS is an overpaid clown but the narrative nationally seems to be anti-Dallas and anti-Luka in a lot of quarters and it irritates me to no end. This player should be universally celebrated in such sparkling moments.

Kirk: Largely because he did it last. It’s an annoying answer.

Brent: If Luka had played that game more selfishly he could have scored more than the mythical 81 points. No doubt about that in my mind. But I don’t think even that would have impressed those who seem hellbent on grading Doncic on a steep and inexplicable curve. I realize I am saying this as a lifetime Mavericks fan but it just seems like ESPN and SAS have an agenda and it shows up in their tone constantly when they cover Dallas.

Let’s end this happy day on a happy note. The Mavericks’ remaining opponent winning percentage is .474 representing the third easiest remaining schedule in the league. Top 4 finish aspirations are not unfounded. Thanks, Kirk and David for chatting with me.

Kirk: Sure thing, was fun. David, they didn’t waste any time.

David: Go Mavs — and someone, get me a Gafford jersey.