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Can the Dallas Mavericks Hit the Right Notes Around Luka Doncic?

Last year’s trade for Kyrie Irving was just the start of a massive, ongoing project to reimagine the Mavs. “We knew at that time that we didn’t have the right players surrounding those guys,” general manager Nico Harrison says. Which raises the franchise-defining question: Who are the ideal partners for a playmaking genius?

Alonso Guzmán Barone

When one of the Dallas Mavericks’ crunch-time sets came up empty against the best defense in the NBA back in January, Luka Doncic retreated to the huddle, took his seat on the bench, and offered a solution: Run it again. He wanted the same preamble into the same high pick-and-roll, knowing full well he was walking into the same trap. Minnesota had jumped Doncic the last time around to force the ball out of his hands—an understandable defensive mechanism when dealing with one of the most dangerous scorers in the world. Yet, in their determination not to let Doncic beat them, the Timberwolves afforded him another way in which he could. All Luka had to do this time was find Derrick Jones Jr. wide open, again, at the top of the key.

“He trusted Derrick with the ball because he knew he was gonna get double-teamed,” Mavs head coach Jason Kidd said. “And Derrick delivered with the dunk.”

Doncic might not have made the same call in the clutch a year ago, largely because none of his teammates were equipped to beat Rudy Gobert to the rim, much less finish with that kind of authority. Dallas took one of the biggest swings in franchise history by trading for Kyrie Irving last February, but that was only the start of what would become a massive, ongoing project to reimagine how to best support a playmaking genius. “We knew at that time that we didn’t have the right players surrounding those guys,” general manager Nico Harrison says. The demoralizing end to the Mavs’ 2022-23 season—in which they not only missed the playoffs, but the play-in—only confirmed it.

Building around Luka over these past six seasons has been a process of trial and error. Of resource management. Doncic is so astonishingly effective that it can be challenging to get an exact read on what his team needs. Does he need more help, or does he just need more space? Are his running mates coming into their own, or does Luka just have them playing over their heads? Those might seem like simple questions until the very structure of the roster depends on them. It’s hard to be precise when Luka’s playmaking mastery blurs the picture. Understanding where his team stands requires more art than science; it takes an impressionistic read to figure out how a squad that went to the Western Conference finals one year could miss the playoffs entirely the next.

There wasn’t anything explicitly wrong with that group. The core of the conference finals team had simply reached its limit, revealing an overspecialized roster that didn’t have much room to grow. The goal of the Irving trade was to change that dynamic—to raise the ceiling of the team first, so that, over time, the front office could figure out how to best furnish it.

“We wanted to get more athletic,” Harrison says. “We wanted to get longer. And we wanted to get better defensively.” The Mavs wanted, in effect, a roster that looked and played a bit more like Jones.

Without any real cap space or all that much draft capital at their disposal last summer, the Mavs went about making that vision a reality. Entrenched role players were shipped out, cut loose, or simply replaced. To fill their spots, Dallas signed Jones to the veteran minimum, picked up Dante Exum (on a comeback bid to the NBA after playing two seasons in Europe) and Seth Curry on modest deals using cap exceptions, added Grant Williams in a sign-and-trade from Boston, and stole Dereck Lively II with the 12th pick in the draft.

Those additions have allowed the Mavericks to scrap their way to a 27-23 record, despite a near-constant string of injuries. In context, that’s a positive outcome. Yet it’s easy to dwell on what Dallas doesn’t have, particularly when those deficits are thrown into stark relief against playoff-caliber opponents. This roster doesn’t feel complete. It has, however, proved to be more dynamic than other recent iterations of the Mavs—if also more confounding. “I feel like every time we take our foot off the gas pedal and we start hip-and-hooraying and celebrating wins like this, then next game we drop a dud,” Irving said after a triumphant January outing against the Pelicans. Dallas went on to lose its next game by 17 points.

Steady teams are all alike, but every inconsistent team wobbles in its own way. Some waver in their efforts. Some rely heavily on 3-point shooting and have to ride out the baked-in variance. Some have players in roles they’ve never filled before, or talent that is stretched to a degree that’s difficult to maintain. The Mavs have been all of the above at various points in these first 50 games, which makes sense for a reworked team pushing through so many absences.

With those injuries, however, has come the potential for discovery. Jones would have played a vital defensive role in any Mavs lineup, but longer minutes and more varied contexts allowed him to build out his contributions on the offensive end, rolling and driving and setting a new career mark for 3s made in a season by December 23. Exum—who wasn’t really in the rotation at all before Irving was sidelined by a heel injury—seized his opportunity so convincingly that Kidd assured him a starting spot before Irving even returned. The idea of not making time for a player as resourceful as Exum now seems unthinkable. “You never know what happens when you have somebody down,” Harrison says. “Dante, he really was able to show what he could do because Kyrie was out. And that’s what you hope for—you hope that you build a roster where guys can come in when it’s their opportunity and step up.”

For maybe the first time in the Luka Doncic era, the Mavericks have that. Dallas has tried responsible veterans, overmatched strivers, dedicated specialists, and oft-injured costars around Luka in recent years. This is the first season the Mavs have gone into most games with an actual athletic edge. More often than not, they’re the team with options—the party that can decide when the game goes small and how to dictate terms through matchups. With that, however, comes the work of sifting through all the possibilities, and the challenge of making all the best options fit together.

“Just because everybody’s back doesn’t mean everything is gonna go right,” says Maxi Kleber, who was still shaking off the rust from a foot injury when he broke his nose last week. “So we’ve still gotta focus on our work. Everybody’s gotta focus on their role and what they have to do.” The Mavericks identified what they needed in a supporting cast, and did well to reshape the team in that image with limited offseason resources. And that revamped roster is getting healthier, gradually returning all of its key contributors to the lineup. Some of the most promising combinations have barely had a chance to see the floor together. Now, with the hope of a fuller roster and the trade deadline looming, the Mavericks just have to figure out what kind of team they really are.

Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

There is a tension in every NBA locker room between order and belief. Basketball teams need hierarchy; even the most democratic offenses are shaped by the fact that, at any moment in time, one player has the ball while four others don’t, and five players are on the floor while about a dozen others watch. Some, inevitably, believe that they can do more—that they should play more or shoot more or be trusted with more. The Mavs are no exception, though even as players feel out what they can be, there is a certainty in what they are not.

“I think half the stuff that Luka does and Kyrie does, if any other person tried to do it, they would trip over themselves,” Josh Green says. In Dallas, there’s the perennial MVP candidate who just dropped 73 points in a game; there’s the revered, championship-minted scorer with moves for days; and then there’s everyone else. “I think it makes it easy because there’s no jostling for position,” Harrison says. “Where do I rank? Well, you’re behind these two.”

Constructing a team to complement Doncic is exceedingly simple in some respects, but there’s a fine line between making the most of his creativity and overburdening it. A costar like Irving—whose scoring is not only easily accessible, but easily scalable—helps to mediate that balance in real time.

Everything else is up for negotiation. In the nearly three years since Harrison and Kidd stepped into leadership roles, the Mavericks have almost completely turned over the rest of the supporting cast. Green, now in his fourth year, is one of the longest-tenured Mavs. Kleber has stuck around, too, as has Tim Hardaway Jr., who currently leads the league in bench scoring. Dwight Powell has shifted from every-night starter to occasional fill-in—a helpful veteran presence, but also a vestige of a team that’s moved beyond him. Every other role player is gone, as are some of their initial replacements. And now that Dallas has another ace to manufacture offense and attack mismatches, the pursuit of other shot creators seems to be a much lower priority.

For a team with Doncic and Irving, a connector like Exum is much more valuable than a bucket getter like Spencer Dinwiddie. Jones offers something more vital than a spot shooter like Reggie Bullock Jr. could and has a wider defensive range than even Dorian Finney-Smith. The lower-scoring Lively is worlds more useful for this group than Christian Wood, and might even be a better stylistic fit than the version of Kristaps Porzingis that played for the Mavs. Players who can actually augment and protect the team’s stars reinforce the structure of everything Dallas is trying to accomplish.

The Mavericks offense doesn’t start with a system so much as a premise: Give the ball to Doncic (or sometimes Irving) to create an opening and let a possession go where the desperation of the defense takes it. “They cause the problem—advantage basketball—and we believe the next guy is gonna make the play,” Kidd says. If the double comes, so does the outlet. As help inches over, the ball finds the man left unguarded. And if a defense dares to switch, a targeted, vulnerable defender has to hold up against one of the most lethal one-on-one scorers in the sport.

“We try to do as much as we can to get a mismatch on ’em, and get somebody that we know can’t guard ’em at all,” Jones says. “That has no chance.” With Doncic, especially, that’s a wider range of defenders than you might think. Luka’s game is filled with the kind of static that disrupts an opponent’s best basketball instincts, layering so many fakes and deceptions that trying to preempt what he might do becomes a defender’s undoing. You couldn’t engineer an easier shooting form to pass out of; the balance and leverage of Luka’s motion make it almost impossible to distinguish whether he’s shooting or dishing until the moment the ball leaves his hand, and by then it’s too late. Teammates like Jones, Green, or Williams are already making their next move, with as much space as they’ve ever had.

“Luka kind of sets you up where you don’t have to do much—just eat a bag of popcorn, knock down some open shots, and move on,” Williams says. The looks are clean and easy, but the reality of playing with a visionary creator who leads the league in time of possession is that your touches can be impossible to predict. A pass from Luka could come at any time from any angle. The only way to be ready for something like this …

… is to prepare like this:

And because of the way Doncic searches for and seizes advantages, the supporting Mavs never really know how involved they’ll be. “Some games, you’ll get 10 shots,” Green says. “Other games, you get two.” Not everyone is built for that, and some NBA players lose their bearings after long stretches without touching the ball. Operating on the periphery is a test of focus, but more than that, it requires a player to generate their own energy because the momentum of play won’t always be there to carry them.

It’s not a coincidence that so many of the bright spots of this Mavericks season are self-starters. Lively chases down rebounds well out of his zone. Exum is one of the most active and intuitive cutters Doncic has ever played with. Jones can go from standing in place on the wing to soaring for a tip dunk in an instant. “There’s a lot of amazing scorers in the league, and they need the ball in their hands,” Harrison says. “But they’re not better than Luka. So now we need guys that can complement that. If you watch Luka, he’s gonna give you shots that are so wide open that you almost don’t know what to do. You have so much time. So we need guys that can actually feed off that.”

The complication in that design is that it doesn’t really work without Irving, and the Mavs have had to make do without him for almost 40 percent of their games this season. When Kyrie plays—and particularly, when Luka and Kyrie play together—the offense feels layered and more fully realized. When he doesn’t, the entire structure teeters on its edge. So many games have been decided by whether Dallas, a roughly league-average team from long range, can convert the open 3s that Luka creates for the players around him. When the Mavs have made more 3s than their opponent this season, they’re 21-9. When they haven’t, they’re 6-14. Moving past that dependency means finding other ways to win, and finding other ways to win means building on the very qualities that Harrison targeted last summer: athleticism, length, and defense. But doing so on a budget required the Mavericks to roll the dice in other areas—namely, in betting that borderline shooters could, by development and the playmaking grace of Doncic, hit above their career marks.

Many of them have, though opposing defenses still dare them to shoot. Being guarded that way can flatten a good player into a specialist, reducing their game to whether their open shots fall. Exum knows that struggle. It was part of what cost the former no. 5 pick a job in the NBA back in 2021, sending his career spiraling through Barcelona and Belgrade as he tried to prove that he could knock down shots and stay healthy. Once he did, he had to come back to the league and prove it all over again—most notably in a December game when Lakers defenders barely acknowledged his existence.

“When they started sagging off me, I knew: This isn’t gonna be my season,” Exum says. He went on to hit seven of nine attempts from beyond the arc that night, torching the scouting report right there in the American Airlines Center. These days, Exum is actually working on speeding up his release—to beat the closeouts his shooting now deserves.

For as well as Exum has hit from 3 this season, his shot is often beside the point; there are so many possessions when the 28-year-old guard swings a pass to break the defense, rotates over at the perfect time in coverage, or revs Dallas up to get easy points in transition. “I just try to do whatever the team needs,” Exum says. “I knew coming back into the NBA, that was gonna be one of the biggest things: just trying not to pigeon-hole myself into one position and one role. If I was able to show that I was able to do multiple things and kind of excel at that, that would give me more opportunity. And that’s where it’s led me.”

Dallas has come to rely on that sort of cross-functional play. It’s telling that a designated shooter like Curry, who was essential to the Mavs when he was last with the team in 2020, isn’t even a rotation regular anymore. The entire lineup skews longer and less specialized. What this version of the roster aspires to—and achieves on its better, healthier days—is the versatility to work around whatever problems opponents present. As with Exum, it doesn’t always have to be about shooting for Jones, who has taken on the responsibility of guarding opposing stars and given cover to Doncic and Irving in the process. “Having him on the perimeter as a defender and also a cutter and also someone that can knock down at least one to two or even three 3s a game—it helps our offense and defense to have an identity,” Irving says.

Those two are among the best value signings made by any team this season—legitimate starters found by reimagining what a bit player on the Bulls bench could be, and by seeing a former lottery pick for his do-it-all skill set rather than his previous flaws. They’re also—due to all the complications of the nightly injury report—carrying a bit more responsibility than they probably should.

“We have role players who have to play at a high level,” Kidd told reporters after a January loss to the Suns. “That’s just the nature of our roster.”

Players like Jones and Exum not only contribute on the floor, but also reveal truths in the team around them. They thrive on energy and flexibility—and Dallas has needed both this season more than anyone could have anticipated. Given all the Mavs’ ups and downs, you can take that as evidence of something that works, or as a plea to take what works and keep going. Every franchise fortunate enough to land a superstar like Doncic faces a constant burden of proof—to give a playmaker of his caliber a team and an outlook he can work with. To alter the nature of its roster, or evolve beyond it.

Photo by Tim Heitman/Getty Images

The first lesson of this Mavericks team came before the season even started, when every lineup in their late-summer scrimmages seemed to make more sense with Lively involved. He backed up smart defense with soaring rim protection. He flanked drives with quick cuts down the baseline. So many of the team’s go-to actions were supercharged by the 19-year-old center, who—given his size—brought entirely new dimensions to what the Mavs were already running.

“We knew, ultimately, that he was going to be good,” Harrison says. “You just don’t know how long it takes.” Lively turned out to be so good so quickly that there was no turning back. And, maybe even more critically: He found a rhythm working the pick-and-roll with Doncic almost immediately.

“I think Luka, he’s especially good in just playing slow,” Exum told reporters on media day. “Once he gets in the paint, he’s playing slow, using his size, and it’s a slow-step layup or it’s a slow step to the corner or to the big. Him and Lively have just been eating it up with his ability to get in the paint and kinda confuse the big.”

Some of that is pure instinct, and some of it came from the fact that Lively reported to Dallas early, and spent his time nailing down screening technique with Mavs assistant Sean Sweeney. Together, they hammered out different styles of screen for different styles of coverage. “You’ve gotta know who’s going under, who are they going under on, who are they fighting over, who are they gonna double,” Lively says. He was locked into the details from the jump. From the Mavs’ very first preseason game in Abu Dhabi, Lively was the starter by default.

Starting a rookie center in a high-stakes season was a leap of faith, but also an expression of understanding in what this team needed. The previous version of the Mavs had run into complications by playing undersized on the back line. So Dallas strove for something different. Something more explosive. The front office took the success Doncic had in playing the pick-and-roll with Powell and tried to extrapolate it through a prospect who was big enough and springy enough to move the team forward. There is a lesson in every roster, whether in fit or limitation or even just the strange alchemy of bringing a team together. So much of the work of running a team is listening when a group tells you what it needs.

“I think one thing was: The locker room matters,” Harrison says. “Having a really good locker room—and that means the character of people—matters. You want guys to enjoy each other’s company. You don’t want a bunch of assholes. And that matters. It doesn’t mean you don’t have conflict. It doesn’t mean they’re not gonna argue and fight. But at the end of the day, you want good people that want to win who are about the team.”

The newest Mavericks weren’t targeted only for what they could do with a basketball. Jones, Williams, Exum, and Curry are hard workers with strong professional reputations. The intel on Lively has borne out in his play, as a rookie who wants to be coached and understands his role in something bigger. All of those players show up and they do their jobs. And, just as relevant for a Mavs team with more options than opportunities, they can accept that being part of a team means not always getting the role you want. “Everybody’s capable of helping us get there,” says Williams, whose playing time has slipped over the course of the season. “The competitive edge is gonna keep you motivated to be on the court no matter what happens. But you have to be mindful that there’s gonna be a night that you don’t have it, and there’s gonna be a night that someone else does.”

As the Mavs get healthier, the rotation decisions only get harder. Luka and Kyrie are spoken for, in role and in prominence. Lively should be, too. If Exum eventually joins those three in the starting lineup—and Kidd went out of his way to insist that he would—that could result in a steep drop in minutes for Green, who has been essential to some of the Mavs’ biggest wins of late. It would also leave Jones, Williams, and Kleber to battle for minutes, despite their radically different functions. Somewhere in there, Kidd will also have to make room for Hardaway, who trails only Luka and Kyrie among Mavs in minutes per game and has been a vital source of supplemental scoring all season.

You can start to feel the crunch, and that’s before accounting for the fact that Exum and Lively deserve to play more than they already do, or for the way Luka’s and Kyrie’s minutes might stretch in more competitive games. “When I started off the season, it was hard to get over that hump, as they say,” Irving told reporters. Kyrie would play a few games at a time, and then have to sit a few out. He would get in a few weeks’ work, and then be sidelined for almost a month. “There’s being in shape, and then being in great shape when you can impact the game for 40 minutes, 46 minutes, whatever your team needs you to be.”

Dallas has trotted out 29 different starting lineups this season, more than any other team in the league. None of those lineups have appeared in more than 10 games so far. But Jones, individually, has started more games than anyone else on the roster. Exum was a big reason the Mavs were able to tread water during the 12-game stretch Irving missed in December. Players like that aren’t just complements, then, but lifelines. One of the quirks of enduring so many injuries is that the best version of the team will require good players to do less than they’re used to.

“I don’t think you can prepare guys for that reality,” Harrison says. “But the goal is for us to be playing well. And if we’re playing well and we’re winning, then guys can accept not getting the shots that they want. Now, if we’re losing, then it becomes an issue.” This is why every game matters for Dallas, even in the dog days of the regular season. Depth runs on vibes. If those vibes start to turn, then the strength of the team can, too.

For now, there’s the empirical fact of what the Mavericks have been (a winning team with essentially a break-even point differential), and then there’s the fuzzy outline of what they could be. Yet even with more than half the season in the books and the trade deadline around the corner, it’s hard to take stock of a provisional team that’s been taped together with veteran minimums.

“When you think of what it is that you need—some of it we don’t know, because we haven’t seen it yet,” Harrison says.

Some of it, admittedly, we do. Dallas has been a miserable defensive rebounding team all season, in a way that’s made some of their first efforts on that end look much worse than they actually are; another big to work the glass could go a long way. This group is at its best when forcing turnovers and running the floor, but some lineups still don’t have the personnel to play the lanes that aggressively. Length and athleticism are additive qualities; a little bit helps, but a little bit more can be transformational. Dallas has a better sense of what kind of team it wants to be, but it needs to be more of it. Even rangier. More explosive. More versatile. The best additions to the Mavs this season are just a demo.

Dallas could play the market for a third star, but honestly, it might not have to. One of the benefits of having Doncic in the lineup is the way he frees you from the conventions of team building. Luka’s capacity for generating offense—and not just any offense, but transcendent, problem-solving offense—allows the Mavs to dedicate what resources they do have toward players who excel in other areas. Back-line defenders. Pick-and-roll facilitators. Veterans who profile less as stars, and more as high-level contributors. The Mavs’ registered interest in Kyle Kuzma (as reported by Marc Stein) feels instructive. A move like that could be manageable for a Mavericks team that will likely have to swing another trade to meaningfully improve its roster. You can’t always count on scrounging up starters for the minimum.

So the overhaul continues, as it should. When you have a generational talent who can roll into Atlanta and drop 73 points on a lark, the work doesn’t stop. “[Luka] gives you a chance every night,” Harrison says. “He’s that good. But then because he’s that good, you need to make sure that he has the opportunity every night.” It’s a different kind of responsibility, with a different kind of pressure. Yet because of that, any player who can keep up with Luka becomes a player of consequence. That’s what happens when your franchise cornerstone sees the whole floor: He makes all the pieces matter.

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