DALLAS - After entering the offseason with high aspirations, the Dallas Mavericks got better but didn't quite make a splash. There are still some possibilities for the team to pull off.
The trade rumors involving Goran Dragic have quieted and Lauri Markkanen has since taken over as the most discussed name as a potential option. His previously reported interest in playing for the Mavericks initiated the conversation and his continued availability has only furthered it.
With Markkanen being a restricted free agent, there are a variety of complications at work when it comes to acquiring him. For starters, any sign-and-trade requires the contract to be of at least three-years in length with no player or team options until the fourth season.
For a team like the Mavericks who mostly has just the $10.9 million trade-exception created by the trade that sent Josh Richardson to the Boston Celtics, there is a pathway to getting a deal done. It's limiting in terms of the salary that Markkanen can earn, though.
The only other team linked to Markkanen with a large trade exception is the New Orleans Pelicans. The problem with that option is the ongoing tampering investigation by the NBA looking into the Lonzo Ball sign-and-trade that sent him to Chicago. Would these two teams really want to pull off another sign-and-trade with that looming?
Markkanen, 24, is coming off the worst season of his four-year NBA career. He posted career-lows in minutes (25.8), points (13.6), rebounds (5.3), assists (0.9), steals (0.5), and blocks (0.3). He did shoot a career-best 40.2% from beyond the arc on 5.8 attempts per game.
The appeal of a seven-footer who can step out and convert from deep is the premise behind the trade the Mavericks pulled off with the New York Knicks to land Kristaps Porzingis. Could Markkanen be next?
Let's take a look at whether it makes sense for the Dallas Mavs to pursue a potential sign-and-trade for Markkanen:
Evaluating the "Pros"
The benefit of adding a seven-footer that can convert at a high clip from beyond the arc has already been felt by the Mavericks since acquiring Kristaps Porzingis via trade.
Against neutral defensive coverages that occurs often in the regular season, opposing teams are vulnerable to frontcourt players that can step out and shoot. The spray-out opportunities on drives are an outcome that typically occurs and are helpful.
It does not hurt to have multiple frontcourt options that can space the floor and make defenders pay for helping on a drive. With Markkanen being able to do that as a seven-footer, it makes it all the more challenging to get out on the shot and alter it with a contest.
There is some legitimate versatility to the catch-and-shoot ability that Markkanen brings to the table. Whether it's a wide pindown, quick pindown after double drag, or flare, he is capable of converting in some of the more basic off-ball screening actions.
The possibilities with Markkanen's ability to shoot out of off-ball screening actions would present many options for the Mavericks. It certainly helps that he can knock down shots whether he's coming off the screen going to either his right or left, too.
Markkanen sorely struggled to convert in the limited opportunities he received last season to engage in basic pick-and-pop sequences. He was limited to a volume of just 25 attempts and converted just six times, however. He has been solid in this area in the past, but painting the full context is important, regardless.
In general, having Markkanen as a catch-and-shoot threat in addition to Kristaps Porzingis would be helpful for the Mavericks in the event that he were to be sidelined for a game. Given Porzingis' injury history and load management needs, that would come in handy at some point, even if it's concerning to have to strategize around that.
There isn't a lot of depth to Markkanen's skill-set offensively that goes beyond his catch-and-shoot talents. There were some flashes of versatility that he's shown throughout his NBA career, but hasn't quite been able to build on his role with the Chicago Bulls.
What a team will not get from Markkanen is someone that can just get the ball and have the rest of the unit clear-out for him to get a quick bucket. He's not a regular post-up threat to turn to and is a non-factor in terms of being a threat in isolation situations.
In terms of cutting, there are some situations when Markkanen is able to get behind the defense as a cutter from the weak-side corner and dunker's spot for finishes. These are sequences that are natural reactions to what the defense wants to prioritize but Doncic will get downhill often, regardless, so the seven-footer would get some opportunities to capitalize.
Markkanen can execute relatively standard finishes as a rim-roller but does so in contexts that mostly show up just in the regular season. Typically when the big defender is playing up or blitzing, he was able to get a pass from Zach LaVine with the low-man not being a factor. There's more context to consider for this faction of offense, though.
There is a very limited sample of situations in which Markkanen received the ball as a rim-roller with the low-man pre-rotated to the restricted. Those are situations that require some craftiness and quick decision-making. It's not to say he's incapable, it's just not something that he's regularly used.
With how teams gameplan for Doncic in playoff environments, there is more that needs to be available to turn to than simple play-finishing outcomes. That leads us into the next point...
Evaluating the "Cons"
Atop the list of "cons" when evaluating Lauri Markkanen as a player, especially when paired with Kristaps Porzingis, would be the lack of foot-speed within the frontcourt.
As in the case of Porzingis, Markkanen is not the type of player that can handle switching against guards and holding his own out in space. If a ball handler uses change-of-pace when attacking out in space, he is going to struggle.
A seven-footer is naturally going to struggle to keep up with a small guard trying to break them down off-the-dribble out in space. That's not a unique indictment to just Markkanen, but regardless, it would need to be accounted for.
Against spread lineups, the Mavericks would need Markkanen to chase a smaller player around during off-ball screening actions and handoffs. He competes in these situations, but again, he's just naturally limited as a seven-footer.
The Mavericks would need Porzingis to recover some of his previous form as a defender, in general. He has noticeably declined in his ability to rotate as a weak-side defender, stay in front of players out in space, and protect the rim.
Within the particular context of Markkanen being naturally limited in his ability to stay in front of smaller fours, Porzingis would be needed to clean things up inside. Well... let's just say there's a reason Paul George said the Mavericks lacked a rim protector.
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With neither Porzingis nor Markkanen being proficient rebounding bigs, adding in further complication of the unit being out of position due to a lack of foot speed would require perimeter players to rapidly pick up their defensive rebounding output.
There would be a fair share of concerns with the potential fit playing both shooting bigs together on offense, too.
When Porzingis and Markkanen were to share the floor, the Mavericks would have a lot of catch-and-shoot firepower but the lack of a rim-running presence likely would be limiting. Especially when considering how Doncic thrives with a lob threat as a screener.
Having players at all five positions who can convert on catch-and-shoot jumpers from beyond the arc is undoubtedly helpful. There needs to be more versatility than just that given how defenses run spot-up players off-the-line and switch against pick-and-pop.
The optimal defensive strategy for a unit facing a lineup that features both Porzingis and Markkanen would be to switch every screen, especially in a playoff setting. One of those bigs would need to capitalize against switches in the post.
Markkanen has shown to be more capable than Porzingis of using his size in the post against smaller defenders. However, a criticism of his game is that he tends to not look to duck-in and impose his will nearly as often as he desired.
The Mavericks would need to make a determination regarding whether they have confidence in Markkanen's ability to exploit mismatches based on the limited sample size of him doing so.
If trusting Porzingis and Markkanen to capitalize on switches in the post proved to be a flop, the Mavericks' offense would continue to rely on Doncic building a heavy workload by having to frequently attack switches in isolation situations.
There is another key layer the Mavericks need to solve for. Can a big man aside from Dwight Powell consistently convert on swing passes that Doncic makes when he's getting trapped by two defenders in pick-and-roll situations.
While there are limitations to Powell's skill-set, in general, he is by far the Mavericks' most crafty finisher as a rim-roller. When the weak-side help defender pre-rotates and the rim-roller turns and there's a body between him and the rim, it's vital shot fakes, pivots, and finishing through contact are comfortable.
Neither Porzingis nor Markkanen are ball screener threats who roll much to the rim and when they do, there's a strong reliance on neutral coverages that result in simple play-finishing sequences. Expecting consistent success against low-man pre-rotation could end up in a disappointing outcome.
In the playoffs, the Clippers' defense experienced real success using a show-and-recover pick-and-roll strategy against Doncic, too. This prevents the initial drive off the ball screen a pick-and-roll would typically create and forces the rest of the unit to play off-the-catch.
If two of the four supporting cast players around Doncic are seven-footers who aren't necessarily fluid at driving from the perimeter, that potentially becomes a problem against show-and-recover coverages. It would promote greater use of this coverage.
In general, the Mavericks will need to find a secondary scoring threat that can consistently create for themselves on the perimeter, or be able to rely on an interior player that is imposing enough to deter the defense from switching and leaving mismatches.
It's vital the Mavericks promote the perception for the opposition that having a big on the floor at all times is a must. Doncic thrived against big switches and drop coverage in the playoffs by consistently exploiting Ivica Zubac. That went away by the Clippers going with Nicolas Batum in a super-small lineup.
Would an opposing team even be deterred to not go completely small and switch-everything or use a show-and-recover strategy with a Markkanan-Porzingis pairing both being inconsistent at succeeding on non-assisted scoring opportunities?
Between not having to worry about giving up easy scoring opportunities to either big after a switch, not having to fear either player getting downhill off-the-catch, and both being weak rebounders, there is little reason to be deterred from going small.
Given how Doncic was noticeably worn out during the fourth quarter of the Mavericks' playoff games, continuing to solidify a style that would require a heavy burden could result in a similar problematic pattern.
Of course, all of this isn't to say that Markkanen or Porzingis will never develop that necessary ability to counter smaller defenders in the post. Perhaps even one of them could work on attacking off-the-catch from the perimeter, too. However, at this time, that's not in the tool-box.
Should the Mavs Make the Move?
It's all about the context when it comes to a clearly imperfect potential fit. The amount of salary, projected role, and talent around a player are vital to take into account and in Lauri Markkanen's case, he is no exception.
There are concerning limitations that would occur if the expectations were that Markkanen would share the floor with Kristaps Porzingis for long stretches. Spread lineups would be a problem and that's concerning for the outlook in the context of playoff basketball, depending on the matchup, of course.
Having to not only give up assets in a sign-and-trade but pay what would likely be a relatively size-able deal for Markkanen just to have "Porzingis insurance" is a concerning indictment on the track record of Porzingis' lack of availability on a consistent basis, though. Having depth in that regard is still helpful, particularly throughout the regular season.
If Markkanen were willing to sign a contract that would pay an annual salary within the range to justify bringing him off the bench, there's a case that can be made. There's more to consider, though.
There is a risk for the Mavericks that Markkanen ends up being a liability against a fair amount of playoff matchups. Relying on him to convert on jump shots in that type of setting to make up for the defensive limitations would likely be a losing set of circumstances.
Josh Richardson ended up having his role with the Mavericks minimized as the team's playoff series against the Clippers progressed due to his lack of shooting efficiency becoming a problem. With Markkanen, there is a relatively similar risk, but for very different reasons.
The Mavericks must prioritize acquiring a secondary ball handler as the top priority. It cannot be forgotten the toll it took on Doncic throughout playoff games to have to do so much of the heavy lifting -- often leaving him tired for fourth quarters.
Whether it's before the season or prior to the start of the playoffs, the Mavericks must address that need. Giving up a few assets to pull off a Lauri Markkanen sign-and-trade potentially takes away from the availability of assets to acquire a secondary ball handler.
The other aspect to consider is that Dallas will be limited in the salary cap department after this offseason when Doncic's supermax extension begins for the 2022-23 season. If the only move available is to acquire Markkanen, that alone may be enough to prioritize getting a deal done.
It's not just the Mavericks that need to think about the restrictive landscape of free agency next offseason. By taking the qualifying offer, Markkanen would enter a free agency where three teams have salary cap space after playing a season with a clear role with the Bulls.