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The Mavs Are Moving on From the Porzingis Era, and Toward Wherever Luka Will Take Them

Dallas didn’t exactly get better by dealing away Kristaps Porzingis at the trade deadline, but its move for Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans may ultimately help reset around Luka Doncic

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With every trade an NBA team makes, they show us who they really are. There is no more honest articulation of what an organization values or where it wants to go; even the most dazzling PR spin can’t change the shape of a deal made right in front of us, in the cold and final judgment of a front office literally choosing one collection of players and draft picks over another. Take the way the Mavericks navigated the trade deadline. By sending Kristaps Porzingis—ostensibly the team’s second-best player—and a second-round pick to Washington for two underperforming role players, the management in Dallas issued a pretty clear judgment:

Porzingis, as talented as he is, was standing in the team’s way.

There’s no real argument that the Mavericks got the best player in the deal. They didn’t trade their way into any immediate or projected savings that would justify it. There’s not even reason to believe that Dallas improved its roster by adding Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans as it prepares for a playoff run. As Mavs general manager Nico Harrison told reporters in his press conference debrief: “It was about really giving ourselves the flexibility that we needed to be the team we needed to be, and that’s really the bottom line.”

It’s hard to argue that point. A healthier, more agile Porzingis had played some of the best basketball of his career this season, but even then never seemed to be all that essential to the team’s operations. He also still missed 23 of the team’s 57 games. “Healthier” is relative; since making his Mavericks debut in 2019, Porzingis has missed a third of the team’s regular-season games, trapping Dallas in an infinite loop of adjusting to a core player being out of the lineup and then going out of their way to reintegrate him back into it. A trade was the only way to break the cycle, and the argument for one grew stronger as Luka Doncic helped carry Dallas to a 14-8 record in his costar’s absence.

This was a trade involving Porzingis, Dinwiddie, and Bertans, but about Doncic. Few players, if any, have been better over the past month; a slow start to the season (by Luka’s standards) has now crested into a master class in high-leverage shot creation. Doncic sees custom-tailored schemes every night, and burns them down to the whiteboard they were drawn up on. Even when opponents have built their entire approach to limit his passing angles, he finds them anyway. Luka is duping go-to defenders left and right, daring them to jump at his fakes or punishing them when they don’t. For a testimonial, ask the Clippers; Doncic just hung 96 points on L.A.’s hyper-flexible defense over back-to-back games.

Every franchise responds differently to that kind of surge, and to the incontrovertible proof of their superstar operating at an MVP level. Joel Embiid’s dominance gave the Sixers all the more reason to swing a huge trade for James Harden. The way Doncic has played, however, nudged the Mavs to come to terms with where they were as a team and how far they still had to go. It brought them to accept that even the best possible version of Porzingis wasn’t really up to the role they needed him to play.

Dallas deserves credit for understanding that when you have the extraordinary opportunity to build around someone like Doncic, nothing else can be nailed down. Trading a big-name player like Porzingis won’t be a popular move, but it might be the only way for the Mavs to get where they need to go in the long run. It would have been challenging for Dallas to dramatically improve its roster so long as KP’s massive contract—worth $69.9 million over the next two seasons—was on the books. Having him in the lineup also forced the team to make concessions in terms of its rotation and style of play, all for the sake of chasing a synergy that never quite materialized. The dream of Doncic and Porzingis killing teams in the two-man game had already wilted; switching defenses had so effectively neutralized Porzingis in those situations that Dallas moved away from having KP screen for Luka much at all. This season, designated roller Dwight Powell set a ball screen for Doncic almost twice as frequently as Porzingis did, according to data from Second Spectrum. As a result, setting up Porzingis meant working through the diminishing returns of his post play or relegating him to a spot-up role he resented. These days, it’s not enough just to be a 7-footer who can shoot. Every unicorn has to find a way to survive in a league that has learned to hunt them.

For as helpful as Porzingis has been on defense this season, Dallas didn’t engineer its defensive system to funnel opponents toward a game-changing shot blocker. It favored a sound, position-by-position effort with Porzingis (sometimes) attached, more luxury than necessity. There’s no plausible substitute for a 7-foot-3 big lurking about and protecting the rim, but while Porzingis has been sidelined for the last two weeks, the rest of the Mavericks forced turnovers, scrambled for rebounds, and put up some of the best overall defensive numbers in the league.

Trading Porzingis, under those circumstances, was a perfectly reasonable decision for Dallas. Where things get messy is when we consider what Dallas got back in return. Even if we frame this move in terms of flexibility, as Harrison did, the Mavs have succeeded in breaking up one unfavorable contract for two totaling just as much. Both Dinwiddie and Bertans arrive with awful seasons hanging over them and extensive injury histories behind them. It was one of the great upsets of the deadline that the Wizards were able to find a taker for both contracts. Bertans, as a one-dimensional shooter abandoned by his sole dimension, seemed borderline untradable. Dinwiddie has put up some of the most hollow production of any starting point guard this season—listless, inefficient work from a player who turned to dust when he didn’t have the ball and might have fared worse with it.

There’s no use in pretending that either Dinwiddie or Bertans is part of the Mavericks’ endgame. The appeal of effectively splitting KP’s contract is that Dallas will have seven supporting players making at least $9 million next season—eight players, if they’re able to re-sign Jalen Brunson—that can be combined in various ways to execute all kinds of potential trades. The catch is that other teams didn’t want to trade for Bertans or Dinwiddie in the first place, meaning the Mavs will have to create the incentive for their next mega-deal by dangling Brunson, the recently extended Dorian Finney-Smith, and the shiniest draft picks they can scrounge up. If they fail to re-sign Brunson, who will be an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, all this newfound flexibility could amount to nothing.

All of which creates even more pressure to retain Brunson, who over the past few months has become a key figure in the franchise’s present and future. It might seem as though a guard like Dinwiddie would insure the Mavs against the possibility of Brunson leaving, but that’s true only in the way that an electric unicycle might offer insurance for when your car breaks down. I guess technically they provide the same function. But so much of what makes Brunson valuable is the variety of ways he can play, his role broadened by the groove he’s found working alongside Doncic. Brunson will flare out to the wings and slide around the floor as his superstar teammate pulls the attention of the defense. Dinwiddie, on the other hand, is a Maverick primarily because he never really developed any kind of functional on-court relationship with Bradley Beal. (The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor also reported before the deadline that Dinwiddie’s Wizards teammates wanted him gone.) Things can always change with a reshuffle of players in a new situation, but Dinwiddie—who is shooting 37.6 percent from the field—hasn’t offered any evidence in his play this season to suggest it will.

Working Bertans into the mix feels similarly counterproductive. Here’s a top-10 defense predicated on a rotation of solid role players who can all hold their own, joined by a newcomer who assuredly, emphatically cannot. Bertans wouldn’t just be a liability—he’d be antithetical to the collective cover that has made the Mavs so effective on that side of the ball. Maybe that concession is worth it—in select situations, anyway—if he’s back to hitting 3s at a 40 percent clip. But at 32 percent? Dallas would be better off tightening its rotation and leaving well enough alone.

It’s those kinds of particulars that make this trade feel like a half-formed idea. There’s a workable premise here, a first step that could eventually help the Mavericks find their way forward. Then there are the ill-fitting role players dumped on top of that plan, weighing the whole thing down. Just because a move is transitional doesn’t mean it has to be quite this inconvenient. Dallas was a team operating on its own time, with months to wait out better returns. If they were going to trade Porzingis for lesser players on bad contracts, the Mavs should at least have been able to find some that fit more comfortably—or, should they have been so bold, maybe even a single reliable rotation player.

Dallas couldn’t wait, which is a statement in and of itself. There were so many things the Mavericks could have done at the deadline to rework their roster or completely reimagine it. Faced with every possibility, they found nothing more important than turning the page.