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The Mavericks showed at the trade deadline that they will not go quietly

Dallas continues full steam ahead in its quest to build a winner around Luka Doncic, future be damned

Dallas Mavericks v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

There were two schools of thought surrounding what the Mavericks should do at the trade deadline: keep going all-in, or remain patient.

Both sides had their merits — remaining patient would allow the Mavericks to recharge their trade ammo this summer, having up to three first-round picks available to trade. It makes sense to push the chips in now, however, as even with that replenished trade ammo, the Mavericks would still be woefully outgunned by the resource-heavy teams across the NBA that are also trying to win now. Each road made sense. On Thursday, the Mavericks pushed the pedal down going all-in, further rumbling down a path that either leads to quick contention or a franchise-altering disaster.

By trading for Daniel Gafford and PJ Washington on Thursday, the Mavericks continue to show they’ll be as aggressive as needed to find the positions needed to surround their two stars. In one way, that’s a good thing. But on the other hand, it has to work. When the Mavericks traded for Kyrie Irving a year ago, it was clear that there was no turning back for the organization — this just doubles down on that path.

In total, the Mavericks traded two first-round picks, some end-of-roster flotsam, and the disappointing Grant Williams to get Gafford, who projects as the bouncy, beefy backup center the Mavericks have needed for years, and Washington, the multi-faceted, talented, jack-of-all trades forward the Mavericks have also needed for years. One of the first-rounders was acquired just for the Gafford deal, a 2024 Oklahoma City pick that was given in exchange for swap rights for Dallas’ 2028 first-rounder. The other was the 2027 first-round pick, the only first-rounder Dallas was legally allowed to trade until the Mavericks, hopefully, complete the Kristaps Porzingis trade this summer.

That 2027 first-round pick went out with Grant Williams, the Mavericks prized offseason acquisition last summer. Williams was brought to Dallas to do most of the things the Mavericks now hope Washington can do — power up the wing talent, add more size, bring a defensive edge, and make shots next to the two stars. Williams did almost anything but in his short stint in Dallas. After a brilliant first month, Williams game was a shell of his former self, as he missed open threes, turned the ball over an alarming amount for a mostly spot-up player, and failed to do anything to change the Maverick’s mostly below-average defense since Doncic has been drafted (Dallas is currently 21st in defense, according to stats site Cleaning the Glass).

If Mavericks prized offseason acquisition failing to do much of anything sounds familiar, it’s because it painfully is for Dallas. In the last two offseasons, the Mavericks’ “big ticket” moves have been gigantic failures. In 2022, Christian Wood was brought in for a first-round pick, never found a stable role, and left for nothing the following summer. JaVale McGee was also brought in with Wood, a reaction to the Mavericks getting dominated on the glass by the Warriors in the 2022 Western Conference Finals. The Mavericks gave the 34-year-old journeyman center the second largest contract of his career, a three-year deal with a player option, and the promise of starting. His starting stint lasted six games, and then the Mavericks waived him. Williams joins not only Wood and McGee, but Delon Wright and Josh Richardson as one-and-done moves in the Luka Doncic era. Those mistakes, along with the departure of Jalen Brunson, all culminated in last season’s depressing slog, with the Mavericks not only missing the playoffs, but the play-in tournament entirely. It’s hard to outrun so many roster-building errors in such a short amount of time.

Here’s the thing, at least for the Nico Harrison tenure of Mavericks basketball — at least they’re moving. That might sound like a backhanded compliment, but it’s the truth. The sunk cost fallacy is very, very real and it’s a staple amongst a lot of professional sports teams, not just the NBA. Look no further than the Chicago Bulls, a team that has been running on the treadmill of mediocrity for years, is staring down another flailing play-in appearance, and decided to stand pat and not make any moves to start the rebuild that has been so obvious for years. Hell, look at the Mavericks, who under the previous regime rode a roster of second-round picks, undrafted free agents, and other misfit toys mostly unchanged for the first four seasons of the Doncic era. Admitting a mistake, admitting it fairly quickly, and then moving on toward another direction is a very positive and vital skill for an NBA front office. The Mavericks do not dwell on their mistakes, and with a soon-to-be 25-year-old perennial MVP candidate, there really isn’t time to dwell unless you want to sink deeper into the quicksand.

What this ultimately means though is this: these moves have to work. While it’s a great skill for a front office to move on from bad deals and make changes, eventually the moves have to work. Dallas can keep cleaning up messes, rebounding from sour trades or misguided signings, but if the clean-ups never work, eventually a team runs out of runway to fix them. The Mavericks can’t keep pivoting forever, and that’s the risk of making the moves they made on Thursday. If it works — great! Dallas has two young, cost-controlled talents to grow around Doncic and impact winning. If it doesn’t, then the Mavericks sink deeper into the hole they started forming when Brunson walked out the door in 2022.

Thankfully, at least the current front office regime for the Mavericks has a type. After drafting Dereck Lively and Olivier-Maxence Prosper in the 2023 NBA Draft, trying to make it work with Williams, adding Dante Exum and Derrick Jones Jr., it’s clear Harrison and crew want athletic, young, long, big players who can do more than just stand still and shoot.

Let’s start with Washington, the most prized possession of the haul and the likely new starter at the four. He’s an interesting player because when you describe his game and then look at his stats, something doesn’t connect. Watch a few minutes of Washington and the talent pops immediately — he’s a plus athlete at 6’7 with a 7’2 wingspan, with an all-around smoothness to his offensive game that is prime for the current demands of NBA wings. Washington looks comfortable no matter where he has the ball, whether that’s spotting up, attacking a closeout, launching a floater in the paint, finishing a pick-and-roll lob, or working in the midrange. His jumper looks awesome, and he has enough off-the-dribble bounce to punish defenders who treat him like a pure 3-and-D role player. Then you look at the numbers and it doesn’t add up — Washington is a career 35.9 percent shooter from three and has never averaged more than 15 points per game in his four NBA seasons, despite being a lottery pick in 2019 and getting gobs of minutes on bad Hornets teams where shot attempts flowed freely. He doesn’t get to the free throw line, he doesn’t really create, and he’s only had one season as an above-average finisher as the roll man in the pick and roll. Is this just a bad structure in Charlotte? Or is Washington’s offensive game just less than the sum of its parts?

The Mavericks are counting on the former, not the latter. Again, the talent is intoxicating and flashes every so often. Dallas got an up close look last season, when Washington killed the Mavericks in two straight Hornets wins when the Mavericks playoff hopes were on life support. Just 11 days ago, he tied his career high with 43 points and seven made three pointers in a loss to the Utah Jazz. 43 points! Say what you will about what the Mavericks gave up in this trade, but no other Mavericks role player aside from Tim Hardaway Jr. has the capacity for a blow up game like that. The Mavericks are hoping with Doncic and Irving’s combo of shooting and passing, they can nurture more consistent offense out of him. Maybe not 43 points, but something a little more impactful than what Washington did in Charlotte.

Much has been made of Washington’s three-point shooting this season, currently wobbling at 32.4 percent, a career low. He’s shooting poorly on spot up and corner threes too, so this isn’t the case of difficult attempts tanking his percentage. The concern isn’t unwarranted, Washington will have to shoot better, but consider this: the Mavericks have had a top-10 offense almost all season with Jones starting a lot at the four, and he’s shooting 34 percent from three. As NBA defenses get better at running shooters off the line, being able to do something with the ball and a live dribble (attacking a closeout, touching the paint before passing out, finishing in the lane) is more important than ever before. Doncic and Irving are smart players, and spacing doesn’t just mean a dominant creator and three or four shooters. Washington can pick his spots within the Mavericks offense, leveraging the attention Doncic and Irving draw to manipulate that space and create something other than standstill, spot up three-pointers. Washington has shot well on floaters the last two seasons, and he’ll get more of those chances than ever next to Doncic. That will be the key to his offensive success in Dallas, not just his three-point shooting.

Defensively, Washington is hard to peg due to being on such a crappy team for his entire career. It’s hard to discern any time of defensive scouting report when you watch these young, bad teams. How much is it youthful mistakes from a young roster that’s used to losing games, and how much does it feel real? In Washington’s favor, he’s been a very good steals and blocks guy for this entire career, averaging a combined 1.9 steals and blocks per game. Those block numbers are no joke for a non-center, so it’s obvious Washington has the tools — effort and consistency will be the things to watch to see how it goes in Dallas on that end of the floor. At the very least, Washington’s length and quick feet will be an upgrade over the shorter, more plodding Williams. The downside is that while Washington did play a lot of small ball five in Washington, his slender frame can get him bullied in the paint in one-on-one situations.

Gafford is the other piece and much more straight forward: not a great starter, but can be a badass backup. Gafford follows the same mold as other Harrison moves — young, athletic, can jump really high. He’s turned himself into one of the most elite pick and roll finishers in the league, averaging 1.43 points per possession, shooting 73 percent on said plays. He’s also become a block monster, averaging a career-high 2.2 blocks per game this season. With Gafford and Lively, the Mavericks will always have an elite rim runner next to either Doncic or Irving for the entire game. Defensively and on the boards, it’s a mixed bag. Gafford blocks a lot of shots but gets a bit lost hunting for said blocks at times. He’s also an average at best defensive rebounder (although a very good offensive rebounder), not much better than Lively. Still, it’s an improvement over the Mavericks’ ragtag backup big rotation, and now Dwight Powell can fully transition into a veteran locker-room presence. Every time the Mavericks have tried to replace Powell’s spot in the rotation, he finds a way back, but this one should stick. Don’t expect the Mavericks defense to look much better when Gafford checks in, but they also won’t be as overwhelmed physically as they have when Lively has been off the floor.

Again, each move has a trade-off. That’s sort of where the Mavericks can shop after some of the mistakes that have been made in the last five years. But it’s very clear if there’s one thing you can count on with this version of the Mavericks is that they will go down swinging — just one of these swings has to work.

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