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Are We Sure … the Mavs Didn’t Get the Offseason Right for a Change?

After a decade of whiffs in free agency, Dallas finally nailed a summer by focusing on the long view

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA offseason established a bunch of new story lines that require closer inspection. Throughout the next month-plus, we’re giving second thoughts to the most intriguing ones.

Today’s question: Are we sure the Mavericks didn’t get this offseason right?

The Mavericks are now oh-for-infinity on signing star free agents. Each offseason for the past decade, they have chased big names and stuck out every single time. This summer, they were linked with the likes of Kemba Walker and Al Horford, yet ended up with Delon Wright and Seth Curry. But the difference this time around is that Dallas already had its stars. Despite the Mavs’ best efforts in the free agency, they ended up stumbling upon the right strategy: filling out the supporting cast around Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis.

NBA teams are moving away from the Big Three model. It’s hard to keep three stars happy on offense, and even harder to build around three players on max contracts. As a result, this offseason gave rise to several Big Twos: Kawhi Leonard and Paul George with the Clippers, LeBron James and Anthony Davis with the Lakers, James Harden and Russell Westbrook with the Rockets, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving with the Nets. Doncic (20) and Porzingis (24) could have the brightest future of any of those pairings because they are much younger.

The Porzingis trade looks really good after everything that happened this summer. The Mavs gave up two first-round picks compared to four (and two pick swaps) for George, three (and one swap) for Davis, and two (and two swaps) for Westbrook. Those other teams don’t have nearly as big a window to contend, either. The Clippers have two seasons before Kawhi and George can become unrestricted free agents. The Lakers can’t look too far into the future with LeBron, a 34-year-old with more miles on his tires than any other player in the league, and Davis, a free agent next summer. And while both Harden and Westbrook are under contract until at least 2022, there is no telling how much longer Westbrook, a 30-year-old whose game is based entirely on athleticism, can play at a high level.

Dallas, on the other hand, can build slowly around Doncic and Porzingis. It signed the latter to a five-year, $158 million extension this summer, while the former is entering the second season of his rookie contract.

The Mavs may have lucked out when they failed to sign either Kemba or Horford. They didn’t need to lock in a veteran team without much flexibility around two under-25 stars. A ball-dominant guard like Kemba would have stunted the growth of Doncic and Porzingis by taking the ball out of their hands, while an undersized big man like Horford would be near retirement by the time the young stars are entering their primes.

The approach Dallas ended up using was far more sustainable. The Mavs targeted younger players on smaller contracts who thrived in smaller roles and had proved they could contribute without needing the ball. The result is a team that can grow next to Doncic and Porzingis while maintaining the flexibility to strike when a better option becomes available. Everyone in their 10-man rotation is in their 20s, and the only bad contract (the one belonging to Tim Hardaway Jr.) expires in two seasons:

PG: Delon Wright (27), Jalen Brunson (23)
SG: Luka Doncic (20), Seth Curry (29)
SF: Justin Jackson (24), Tim Hardaway Jr. (27)
PF: Kristaps Porzingis (24), Dorian Finney-Smith (26)
C: Maxi Kleber (27), Dwight Powell (28)

There aren’t a lot of big names in their new supporting cast, but this group is more talented than its collective reputation suggests.

Delon Wright: Wright, whom the Mavs landed on a three-year, $28 million contract in a sign-and-trade with the Grizzlies, is one of the most versatile guards in the NBA. At 6-foot-5 and 183 pounds, he has the length and athleticism to defend multiple positions and play on and off the ball on offense. He has always had potential; he just spent his first few seasons in the NBA backing up a perennial All-Star in Kyle Lowry in Toronto. Wright showed what he could do as a starter after being traded to Memphis in February, averaging 12.2 points on 43.4 percent shooting, 5.4 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.6 steals, and 0.6 blocks per game. In Dallas, he will take the most difficult defensive assignment on the perimeter, allowing Doncic to hide on that end of the floor, while also filling in the cracks on offense.

Seth Curry: Curry, who signed a four-year, $32 million contract after a breakout playoff performance in Portland, could become one of the best sixth men in the NBA. Seth is no longer just Steph’s brother. He’s a big-time scorer in his own right, an elite shooter (career 43.9 percent from 3 on 3.6 attempts per game) who can create his own shot off the dribble and score from anywhere on the court. There was just a limit to how much he could do on a Trail Blazers team built around two elite combo guards in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Curry averaged 15.0 points per game on 48.0 percent shooting in the nine games that McCollum missed in March and early April. He will get a ton of open looks when he’s playing off Doncic and Porzingis, as well as a lot of scoring chances on the second unit.

Maxi Kleber: Fans outside of Dallas will learn more about Kleber now that he’s playing on a better team. He’s an undrafted free agent from the same town in Germany as Dirk Nowitzki who has blossomed into one of the most versatile big men in the NBA. Kleber can stretch the floor, protect the rim, defend on the perimeter, and move the ball. The only other player in the NBA last season who reached the same benchmarks in block percentage (4.4), steal percentage (1.2), and 3-point volume (3.1 per game) and accuracy (35 percent) was Karl-Anthony Towns. The extension that Kleber signed (four years, $36 million) may look like a bargain by the time it is finished.

Jalen Brunson: The other returning player who could blossom next season is Brunson, a favorite of Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle as a rookie. Brunson slipped to the second round because of concerns about his athleticism, even though there is a long history of savvy point guards with limited physical tools excelling at the next level. He could be the next Fred VanVleet: Brunson thrived when he was on the court last season, with per-36-minute averages of 15.3 points, on 46.7 percent shooting, 5.2 assists, and 2.0 turnovers.

This is a balanced team that should be better than the sum of its parts. Doncic and Porzingis have already shown they can thrive in super high-usage roles, and they have excellent complementary parts around them. Crucially, there won’t be any fights for the ball. Look at the usage rates from last season (and two seasons ago for Porzingis) of their top six players:

Usage Rates for Mavericks’ Top Six Players

Player Last Team Usage Rate
Player Last Team Usage Rate
Kristaps Porzingis Knicks 31
Luka Doncic Mavs 30.5
Delon Wright Grizzlies 19.2
Jalen Brunson Mavs 19.1
Seth Curry Blazers 16.6
Maxi Kleber Mavs 13.5

Everyone else in the rotation has a role: Dorian Finney-Smith and Justin Jackson are 3-and-D wings, Powell is one of the best roll men in the NBA, and Hardaway is a good microwave scorer. The Mavs will have the versatility to go big with a Twin Towers lineup of Porzingis and Kleber and go smaller with waves of wings around Porzingis at the 5.

Few NBA coaches are better at mixing and matching than Carlisle. It’s hard to give a coach too much credit for a team that has averaged 30 wins over the past three seasons, but he was getting the most out of a limited group. The best indication of that is how well his bench performed. There were only 17 lineups in the NBA last season that played at least 100 minutes and finished with a net rating of plus-15.0 or higher; the Mavs had one of them, made up entirely out of reserves (J.J. Barea, Devin Harris, Finney-Smith, Kleber, Powell). That lineup dominated because each player thrived within a narrowly defined role that maximized their strengths and minimized their weaknesses: Barea and Harris took turns running pick-and-rolls with Powell while Finney-Smith and Kleber spotted up off the ball and covered for the three on defense.

With the roster changes they made this summer, Carlisle will no longer be hamstrung by players who are at the end or beginning of their careers. For as beloved as Dirk was in Dallas, his limited mobility made him a defensive nightmare. The Mavs had a net rating of minus-4.8 in 795 minutes with him (the worst of any player who was on their roster the whole season) and minus-0.5 in 3,509 minutes without him. Carlisle is also a poor fit with mistake-prone young players like Dennis Smith Jr., who was shipped off in the Porzingis trade. The only under-23 players he will have to deal with are Doncic and Brunson, who already play like 10-year NBA veterans.

The biggest key, of course, is the continued development of the franchise’s two young cornerstones. Doncic has to take care of his body, stay in good shape (if his Instagram claims are true), and start caring about defense, while Porzingis has to stay healthy and out of trouble. A woman says Porzingis raped her in 2018, and the case is still ongoing.

There is no reason the Mavs can’t contend for a playoff spot next season and keep growing from there. The goal is to be a contender by 2021, when Doncic will be 22 and Porzingis will be 26. Dallas could be a 50-win team with two young stars and enough salary cap flexibility to sign another player to a max contract. One of the biggest benefits of building around younger stars is that they don’t cost as much. The combined cap hit of Porzingis ($31.7 million) and Doncic ($10.2 million) in 2022 will be less than that of Harden ($44.3 million) alone.

Every team in the NBA is already thinking about Giannis Antetokounmpo, who will hit free agency in the summer of 2021. There is no way to know what he will want, but the Mavs could offer two All-Star-caliber players who fit perfectly with him as well as a sustainable infrastructure around them. They could sell Giannis on a Big Three of European-born players with Giannis as LeBron, Doncic as Kyrie, and Porzingis as Kevin Love. After a decade of chasing get-rich-quick schemes in free agency, Mavs owner Mark Cuban is finally building something for the long haul. The franchise could end its star free agent drought now that it has stopped trying to skip steps along the way.