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The Mavericks Are Putting All the Right Pieces Around Luka and Kristaps

Tuesday’s win over Denver showed that Dallas is capable of succeeding even when its two young Euro stars are having an off night

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas’s best players may not have been firing on all cylinders in its 109-106 win over Denver on Tuesday, but the team did show the rest of the league that it could succeed without them.

When the Mavericks acquired Kristaps Porzingis from the Knicks in January, it signaled their faith in Luka Doncic. The eventual Rookie of the Year started each of the 49 games he played in up to that point, averaging 20.4 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 5.4 assists on a Dallas team not yet fully out of contention for a playoff spot. His rapid ascendance sparked belief that Dallas finally had a piece worth investing around after years of toiling in obscurity during Dirk Nowtzki’s decline.

Mark Cuban and head coach Rick Carlisle jettisoned three key contributors—DeAndre Jordan, Wesley Matthews, and Dennis Smith Jr.—for Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. (and his bloated contract), Courtney Lee (and his slightly less bloated contract), and Porzingis. A few days later, the Mavs flipped their highest-paid player, Harrison Barnes, to Sacramento for Justin Jackson and Zach Randolph. With Porzingis out for the remainder of the season recovering from a torn ACL and Dallas’s other new arrivals adding little more than the players they replaced, the Mavericks slid down the Western Conference standings, finishing tied for the seventh-worst record in the league.

But their deadline moves weren’t about last season. They were about the next decade. The Mavs were so confident in the potential of a Doncic-Porzingis pairing that they dealt an unprotected 2021 first-round pick and a top-10-protected 2023 first-rounder to New York to secure the deal. Selecting a star player with one of those picks wouldn’t be necessary if everything went according to plan.

Doncic and Porzingis would create a spine, not unlike those of the great European soccer teams of the 21st century, and the front office, over time, would add supporting pieces around them. For now though, if one—or, God forbid, both—of the two EuroStars had an off night, especially against a good team, it was fair to assume the Mavericks would capitulate.

Or so we all thought. Dallas handed Denver its first loss despite a true clunker from the team’s centerpieces. Doncic and Porzingis combined to make just seven of 26 attempts from the floor and two of 14 shots from beyond the arc, and scored just 22 points. The Mavericks’ supporting cast carried them in Denver, with seven of the other eight players who logged minutes scoring in double digits, all clustered between 10 and 14 points, with Maxi Kleber, Hardaway, Delon Wright, and Dorian Finney-Smith leading the way.

Yes, Doncic scored a miraculous up-and-under through traffic to ice the game with under a minute remaining, but his teammates got him in a position to do so. Four non-Porzingis, non-Doncic Mavericks scored in the first four minutes of the fourth quarter, turning a five-point deficit into a six-point lead.

Sharing the wealth has worked wonders for the Mavericks, who are now 3-1 with wins over the Nuggets, Wizards, and Pelicans and a two-point loss to Portland. Thus far, Doncic has looked like the player Dallas hoped he’d be when it traded Trae Young and a future first to Atlanta to land him on draft night in 2018, and Porzingis has looked like the forward who kick-started the Unicorn Revolution in New York. But the play of the supporting cast has carried them. Seven Mavericks are averaging between 7.5 and 11.3 points this season. Carlisle has created an egalitarian commune among the Mavericks who were once considered also-rans, building a supporting cast that resembles those of last year’s Nuggets and Clippers squads.

The Mavs weren’t the only team that lacked contributions from their young stars on Tuesday, but they were the only one able to weather the storm. The Hawks cratered when their franchise centerpiece exited the floor with an injury. After a scoreless first quarter against the Heat, Young immediately picked up a bucket under the basket, and added a 3 from just inside the logo on his next possession. It seemed like the beginning of a blazing run typical of Young this season; coming into Tuesday, he’d averaged 34 points per game on 52 percent shooting from beyond the arc. But Young got tied up on his next drive and landed awkwardly on the outside of his right foot. He was later diagnosed with a right ankle sprain and will have an MRI on Wednesday. Young isn’t expected to miss more than two weeks.

When he left the floor, the Hawks trailed 36-31. By game’s end, they’d lost 112-97. John Collins logged one of the better games of his career, scoring 30 points with five made 3s, and Jabari Parker occasionally looked resurgent, finishing with 12 points on 5-of-11 shooting, but no other Hawk broke double digits, and Atlanta trailed by 20 before a late-game push made the margin of defeat less embarrassing.

Both Atlanta and Dallas fans will likely tell you their teams won the Doncic-Young trade and are building around their young stars with a well-fitting supporting cast. Dallas gave Doncic a fellow superstar and some veterans to plug the holes. Atlanta surrounded Young with rebounders and scorers. Collins, Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish, and De’Andre Hunter round out one of the most exciting youth cores in the NBA. Secondary young player Bruno Fernando and reclamation projects Jabari Parker and Alex Len similarly have upside and fit nicely next to Young.

Atlanta’s ancillary crew has a brighter future and might not be ready to carry the team when Trae’s off or absent, but Dallas’s reserves have shown they’re already up for the task.