Let’s start with the good news following the Mavericks’ exit from the postseason on Sunday evening.
Dallas is blessed with the league’s brightest young star, a generational talent who could very well challenge Dirk Nowitzki as the greatest player in franchise history. That isn’t hyperbole. Luka Dončić’s first three NBA seasons are rivaled by only LeBron James in this century, and Dončić continues to exceed expectations stateside after becoming the most accomplished teenager in European basketball history. Keep Dončić in tow, and the Mavericks should be a playoff stalwart for at least the next decade.
Landing Dončić in the first place required a combination of quality scouting and a shocking stroke of luck. The Suns opted for hometown center Deandre Ayton with the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft. The Kings inexplicably passed on Dončić to select Marvin Bagley (already a historic blunder in retrospect). The Hawks chose Trae Young and added draft capital instead of Dončić, a move that looks relatively defensible as Young shines in the Eastern Conference playoffs. We can relitigate Dončić’s draft class ad nauseum, but the Mavericks’ fortune in the matter is unquestioned. Now it’s up to them to capitalize on their historic acquisition.
Building a champion around Dončić isn’t exactly an easy task despite his brilliance. The Cavaliers couldn’t capitalize on James’s brilliance in his first stint with Cleveland. The Bucks appear to be falling short once again with Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the Celtics are now hitting an organizational reset as they build around Jayson Tatum. Consider the stacked Western Conference as currently constituted, and Dallas’s path to the Finals isn’t exactly clear. So how should the Mavericks move forward as they build around a future MVP? There are few easy answers.
It's worthwhile to step back and assess the roster around Dončić as we approach the offseason. Tim Hardaway Jr. is entering free agency after being Dallas’s second-best player for much of the regular season. Josh Richardson could seek a new deal, though he’s likely to opt-in to the final year of his deal at $11 million after a difficult 2020–21. Jalen Brunson, Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber are all under contract through next season, giving Dončić at least a passable supporting cast. This isn’t exactly akin to the crew surrounding Kevin Durant with the Nets or even Kawhi Leonard with the Clippers. But painting this as some kind of disastrous situation is unfair.
Yet it’s still hard to be satisfied with a middling group around what could be the greatest player of the 2020s. The Mavericks aren’t ignorant to such a fact, and in ’19, they made their move. Kristaps Porziņģis arrived in the Lone Star State after his relationship with the Knicks disintegrated, providing Dallas with what it thought was a perfect long-term running mate. The expectations haven’t been met thus far. Porziņģis missed the final three games of the Mavericks’ loss to the Clippers in the ’20 playoffs due to injury, and he logged just 43 regular-season games this season. The usage of Porziņģis has been questioned time and again, with his status as a supersized spacer coming under increasing scrutiny. Porziņģis was once one of the most talented young stars in the game, and there was scant criticism of Dallas when he signed a five-year deal in July ’19. Don’t let any revisionist history fool you. Porziņģis arrived in Dallas as a blue-chip prospect and a potentially elite running mate. The Mavericks have received little more than a mixed bag thus far.
Porziņģis’s contract isn’t exactly akin to the Russell Westbrook and John Wall albatrosses eating through cap sheets in Washington and Houston. There is some legitimate trade value here if Dallas opts for a makeover, though it’s hard to pin what exactly the other 29 teams would deal for Porziņģis. Dončić is a Harden-level playmaker, whose gravity creates a flood of open looks for his teammates. Is a different running mate really going to rejuvenate Porziņģis? Perhaps a dearth of touches has thrown him out of his rhythm. Maybe we can chalk up his Game 6 and Game 7 clunkers to a couple of bad nights. Use any excuse you’d like, but the fact remains: Porziņģis isn’t in the class of Nikola Jokić, Joel Embiid or Karl-Anthony Towns. Even if the Mavericks wouldn’t undo their deal with the Knicks if given the opportunity, it’s unlikely they’re satisfied with their investment thus far.
So where could the Mavericks turn if they look to pivot from the Porziņģis experiment? Let’s sift through some potential options. Dallas would be outbid in any Bradley Beal sweepstakes. A Ben Simmons swap doesn’t make much sense for the 76ers. Jaylen Brown isn’t leaving Boston anytime soon, and even the ugliest Clippers collapse wouldn’t lead to some kind of Paul George–for-Porziņģis deal. Most of the potential trades involving Porziņģis require a bit of a gamble on Dallas’s part.
There are some deals involving Porziņģis with legitimate appeal, especially if Dallas prefers a wing as Dončić’s next partner in crime. Daryl Morey could trade Tobias Harris to create a new twin towers in Philadelphia. CJ McCollum’s time with the Trail Blazers could come to an end in exchange for Porziņģis, with Jusuf Nurkić standing as a potential Porziņģis replacement if the Mavericks looked to expand the blockbuster. Perhaps a Myles Turner and T.J. Warren package makes some sense, and the Raptors have a war chest of assets that could be used to fill a glaring need at center. Though again, building these hypotheticals is difficult considering Porziņģis’s inconsistency in recent seasons.
The Mavericks may ultimately pull the trigger on a Porziņģis trade, ushering in a third version of the Dončić era in the process. Such a move may ultimately prove prudent. Porziņģis is a special talent for a player of his size, though the caveat is at times more of a detriment than a benefit. Porziņģis can fairly be labeled as injury-prone. He can be beaten in space, and he’s not exactly a Gobertesque rim protector. Porziņģis isn’t a dominant post-up player à la Embiid, and even if he were, Rick Carlisle isn’t giving him a steady diet of paint touches anytime soon. It’s fair for Porziņģis to feel underutilized in Dallas’s attack. Though it’s hard to blame Carlisle for riding his superstar playmaker time and again.
It may not take a herculean overhaul for the Mavericks to cash in on Dončić’s prime. Historic talents like Dončić smooth over even the most jagged of rosters, and the right piece could vault a middling team to the Finals with a sufficient leading man. Giving Porziņģis cursory touches when Dončić sits could help his production and attitude, and Dončić could stand to engage his big man in a dose of pick-and-roll rather than delve right into a stream of isolations. As for Dallas’s front office, there is some financial flexibility, and there could be quality additions made to the supporting cast. Norman Powell or Derrick Rose could add some scoring punch. Wayne Ellington and Nicolas Batum would serve as under-the-radar additions. Lonzo Ball and Dennis Schröder are likely too pricey–especially so if Hardaway re–signs–though maybe some salary cap jiujitsu can free up the space.
Don’t expect the Mavericks’ roster to stay completely static ahead of next season. The stakes are too high considering Dončić’s historic start to his career, and even if Porziņģis stays in the metroplex, moves on the margins could make a legitimate difference. The Finals are no guarantee for any team, especially considering the gauntlet that is the Western Conference. Dallas’s decision-making in the coming months could decide its superstar’s fate well into the 2020s.
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