2019-20 Team Obituaries: Dallas Mavericks
In the NBA, only one team can be crowned champion. The other 15 playoff teams that fall short should not be disregarded though. Here at Off the Glass, I will be writing the "obituaries" for the teams that didn't get to hoist the O'Brien Trophy.
The 2018-19 season had a lot of things pointing up for the Dallas Mavericks. They started the year with a ragtag group of veterans, and finished it with a brighter future than they've had since Dirk Nowitzki's early years.
Luka Dončić's rookie campaign was pretty stellar, as he averaged 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists with eight triple-doubles sprinkled in there too. The advanced metrics also loved him, something that's very rare for rookie guards, as he posted 4.9 win shares and a 3.6 box plus-minus.
His defense was a concern, as he looked a bit slow and exhausted late in games, but what he was doing offensively was pretty awesome. That kind of workload seldom results in winning basketball for teenage guards. Dončić was, and is, different.
Everything around him was less radiant. Harrison Barnes provided 17.7 points a game on plus shooting, but was in the final year of his deal. The Mavs clearly didn't want to pay his next contract, so he was shipped for Zach Randolph's expiring and Justin Jackson at the trade deadline.
DeAndre Jordan wasn't very good in Dallas, but he didn't need to be. His one-year overpay ended up being a great move for trade purposes, as he was shipped with Wesley Matthews, Dennis Smith Jr. and two first round picks for Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke.
The New York Knicks were irresponsible enough to trade their most talented player in ages for cap space, and the Mavericks pounced on the opportunity. He was signed him to a max contract over the offseason, and the Mavs suddenly had not one, but two building blocks. Now they just needed to fill in the rest.
Dwight Powell wasn't an ideal fit next to Porzingis in the frontcourt, but he was too good to let go, if for nothing else than as a Luka lob threat. He was extended for three years and $33 million.
Two more incumbents to be retained were Maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith. The former was a developing 3-and-D big, and the latter was a defensive-minded forward with a capable 3-point shot and closeout ability. Kleber got a modest four years and $26 million, while Finney-Smith got three years and $12 million.
The outside additions were also role players. The Mavs traded two second round picks in a sign-and-trade for Delon Wright, a defensive minded guard who plays within the system offensively. They then signed sharpshooter Seth Curry to four years and $32 million. The last notable addition was Boban Marjanovic, a giant in every sense of the word who could be a nice matchup issue against small ball units.
The Mavs' foundation was set. Now it was time to see how high Luka could raise it.
It turns out that Luka and shooters is a damn good formula. The Slovenian guard was outstanding in Year 2, averaging 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists a night on a .436/.316/.758 slash line and 58.5% true shooting.
Undaunted at the rim, Dončić had no trouble fighting through contact to get what he wanted, shooting a gaudy 57.4% on two-point attempts. For reference, no one else near his workload and perimeter shot profile (at least 1000 FGA and 300 3PA) surpassed that figure inside the arc (LeBron James was next at 56.4%).
And then there was his outside game, which looked uninspiring by the numbers (31.6% on 3s) but was the antithesis of that in practice. Few humans can hit the type of step-back 3s Dončić was draining, and even fewer can hit them in the brightest moments like he did. He was a candidate for the league's Most Valuable Player award all season, and made everyone else better while doing so.
Porzingis wasn't half bad either, averaging 20.4 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks a game while hitting 35.2% of his 7.1 threes a night. He only played about a third of his minutes at the 5, so his rim protection numbers were depressed, but overall he stood his ground defensively.
More importantly, he looked close to his pre-injury self. He created offense from the 3-point line and mid range as a supersized 4, too tall for most forwards and too quick for most bigs. He also played in 57 of Dallas' 75 games, a rate well above what many expected.
The role players did their jobs as shooters and cutters, and Dončić illuminated them all. Everyone in the top 10 in total minutes averaged at least five field goal attempts a night, but only two (Luka and Kristaps) paced more than 13. They ranked second in the league in 3-point attempts and 10th in percentage. Overall, 70.2% of their shots came either at the rim or beyond the arc, a figure only eclipsed by seven other teams.
The result was the best offense in league history (by offensive rating), a 43-32 record, and one of the best 7 seeds in recent memory. An outrageously tough Western Conference would be the only reason for the Mavericks to suffer an early playoff exit.
The Los Angeles Clippers were considered a heavy favorite, led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, but they came out flat for a team with title aspirations. Several bounces didn't go Dallas' way either, such as Porzingis being ejected in Game 1 on a primitive technicality, him tearing his meniscus and missing the last three games of the series, and Marcus Morris "unintentionally" stepping on Dončić's ankle in Game 5.
One thing that did go their way was Luka's dominance, particularly in Game 4. Not only did he put up 43 points, 17 rebounds and 13 assists in a game the Mavs needed, but he also hit a game-winning step back 3 in overtime to tie the series at 2-2. Absolutely insane stuff for a 21 year-old.
The Clippers ultimately won the series 4-2 on superior talent. But the Mavericks have nothing to be ashamed of, and everything to be excited about going forward.
Of all the teams to get knocked out in the first round, the Mavericks have to feel the best. Dončić is a true superstar with the ability to get so, so much better, and the infrastructure for him to thrive is already in place.
I mean seriously: who puts up 28, 9 and 8 a night on plus efficiency, while commandeering one of the best statistical offenses ever, in just his second year in the NBA? Dončić already has the resume of an elite player, and with more seasons like this, he is bound to win an MVP award or six. All he needs around him are shooters and defenders.
Trey Burke will be missed unless he comes back on the minimum. He added an extra flare to the offense, but the Mavs don't have any way to bring him back except for very very cheap. Delon Wright really underwhelmed this season, but it's tough to see anyone taking on his next two years without compensation. Mavs are best off keeping him and seeing if he can rebound next year.
The wings could use some help, particularly in 3-and-D form. Finney-Smith was an excellent perimeter defender, but that's about it. Hardaway had an excellent season and is worthy of an extension past 2021 (he has a $19 million player option for next season), but he isn't helping the defense. Justin Jackson got booted from the playoff rotation by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist...yikes.
When healthy the frontcourt trio of Porzingis, Powell and Kleber is formidable. But Powell will miss at least the start of 2020-21 (depending on its inception) due to his Achilles tear, and Porzingis couldn't shake the injury bug. Unless Willie Cauley-Stein accepts his $2.3 million player option, the Mavs will need to shore up their frontcourt depth—or rely on Marjanovic for more minutes.
In essence, the Mavs have one of the brightest futures in the league and will probably get better naturally next season. Having someone as good as Luka Dončić makes everything else a lot easier.