Back in October, I wrote about something I figured would quietly become one of the more important story lines in the league: How would the Mavericks—who opted to let highly talented guard Jalen Brunson walk—handle Luka Dončić’s usage rate, which had already been the NBA’s highest in each of the past two seasons?Heading H2… there could be more than one
Dallas was coming off a Western Conference finals appearance—albeit one it lost to eventual champion Golden State in a gentleman’s sweep—meaning, in theory, a couple of precise roster tweaks should have been enough to land the team back in title contention behind Dončić’s on-court leadership.
Instead, the offseason and early-season tweaks were mild and made very little difference. Free-agent pickup JaVale McGee has been out of the rotation for the past month since Maxi Kleber returned. Christian Wood’s 19 minutes per game in February and just 23.4 in March are fewer than coach Jason Kidd has given the big man all year, despite Wood enjoying his best true-shooting percentage month of the season. Dallas’s biggest move—the swing-for-the-fences one—involved shipping out Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith for All-Star guard Kyrie Irving just before the trade deadline, and … it simply hasn’t worked.
Even with Monday’s win against Indiana, the Mavericks have dropped four of their last five, including back-to-back losses over the weekend to a lowly Charlotte club playing without LaMelo Ball or Terry Rozier. At just 37–39, the Mavs are in 11th place in the West and on the cusp of failing to make the play-in tournament. Not coincidentally, Dončić lately sounds as frustrated as he’s ever been. “I used to have fun, smiling out on the court, but it’s just been frustrating,” he said last week.
The numbers are clear at this point: The Mavs are 8–13 since the deal—including 4–8 in games with both Luka and Irving—ranking eighth in the NBA on offense and 22nd on defense over the past seven weeks. Before making the trade, they ranked ninth and 24th, respectively. Essentially, nothing changed, except for the fact that they’ll have an even bigger headache when Irving’s contract is up this offseason. Can Dallas really afford to double down—or triple down, if you rightfully see this as an extension of trying to correct the mistake of letting Brunson leave—by bringing Irving back? Or have they seen enough to know this isn’t a sustainable setup? (Worth noting here: The Mavs did seek Dončić’s input concerning Irving before dealing for him, and it’s reasonable to suspect they’d do the same at season’s end.)
At their best, Dončić and Irving are an unstoppable duo. Both can move and draw the defense with their drives and their post-up looks. One example was Sunday. With his back to the basket on the left wing, Dončić commanded a double team and kicked the ball to Irving, who was all alone at the top of the key for a triple. The flip side of that, of course, is twofold. One: The Dallas offense, which isolates more than any team in basketball, too often has players standing in the corner, which doesn’t allow the others to develop a shooting rhythm. (You might’ve noticed that as Dončić and Irving put up a combined 29 first-half points in Sunday’s loss, while the other starters—Reggie Bullock, Josh Green and Dwight Powell—didn’t log a single point over that span.) Things can get overly predictable when opposing defenses know what’s coming. Secondly, it doesn’t help when the Mavericks’ two stars can’t even be occasionally be mistaken for defensive stoppers.
Yes, there have been nice leaps and finds over the course of the season. Josh Green had shown considerable growth and consistency as a scorer before the Irving acquisition, and, for all his warts, rookie Jaden Hardy is showing promise as a bucket-getter. Still, the failure to get more out of the Irving addition raises a question that continues to stare them in the face as they come up on the end of Year 5 with their superstar: What type of player would be best to pair alongside Dončić?
The Mavericks had, then moved on from, big man Kristaps Porziņģis—a 27-year-old who is now healthy and enjoying a career-best season in Washington—preferring the flexibility of having multiple contracts (Dinwiddie and Dāvis Bertāns) in his max-salary slot. They parted with Brunson—a 26-year-old who has lifted the long-suffering Knicks into the playoff picture and figures to be a finalist for the Most Improved Player Award—and got nothing in return. Now Irving, whose skill set is largely redundant alongside Luka’s, may be on the way out in the coming months, too. The team’s cap space almost certainly won’t be abundant enough to bring in a top-level star who has the wattage Irving does. And the assets aren’t there to land one the way Cleveland did in acquiring Donovan Mitchell from the Jazz last summer. Still, there are plenty of questions concerning basketball fit with Irving, and that’s without even giving much thought to the off-court reasons that would make it even more challenging for the Mavs to commit to him long-term.
The all-encompassing second-star question isn’t unique to the Mavericks. Not by a long shot. Interestingly enough, Atlanta, which swapped with Dallas to take Trae Young over Dončić and received another pick that landed Cam Reddish, dealt the farm to shake things up by bringing in All-Star guard Dejounte Murray. The Hawks, who like Dallas reached the conference finals not long ago, are now similarly positioned record-wise, at 37–38. And the perception is that new coach Quin Snyder is taking stock of everything, from Young on down, to figure out what needs to be changed within the franchise going forward. Paying to win more is expensive. Paying but then losing just as much—if not more—is brutal.
That between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place reality for the Mavs has led to chatter of it being best for the team to try to tank its way into keeping the first-round pick it owns this summer. As compensation for the Porziņģis trade, the Knicks will receive that pick if it lands outside the top 10. (As it stands heading into Tuesday’s games, the Mavericks currently own the 11th-worst record in basketball.)
With Dončić, 24, coming up on the end of Year 1 of a five-year, $215 million deal, it’s easy to conclude that there’s plenty of time to work through everything. “It’s just a matter of whether we can be healthy in time to make a stretch run. And if we’re not, that’s just the season. No one’s dying,” Kidd said earlier this month.
It may just be a one-season swoon. But Dallas would do well to put better support around Dončić to make sure this is the last time the club is in this spot for a while. With players of his ilk, the clock is always ticking, regardless of what Kidd says.
Meat and potatoes: Good reads from SI and elsewhere this past week
• Rohan Nadkarni had a couple of stories: one on how this coming postseason can potentially alter the legacies of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Jayson Tatum, and a separate one on how the Warriors have become the most disappointing NBA title contenders this season.
• Chris Mannix wrote on the late-changing nature of the league’s MVP race and on Ja Morant’s return to the lineup in Memphis, including what all it illustrated.
• I wrote two pieces of my own last week, aside from last week’s newsletter on the Sixth Man of the Year race: One was on the death of Knicks legend Willis Reed and the fact that we’ll almost certainly never see his brand of toughness again, and a second story was on Kings rookie forward Keegan Murray, who still might not be willing to try sushi, non-Caesar salads or halibut but has excelled at playing outside of his comfort zone to help lift the Sacramento offense to historic heights.
• The esteemed Jon Wertheim, who sat down with Charles Barkley for 60 Minutes, wrote a Daily Cover on the Hall of Famer after spending time with him in his hometown of Leeds, Ala.
• Kyle Wood handled our Power Rankings for the week.
• Emma Baccellieri has been sensational covering the second weekend of the women’s tourney, including pieces on favorite South Carolina (and how the team is only getting scarier by the game), Maryland, Miami and LSU. She also wrote on how UConn being KO’d simply shows the growth of the sport.
• On the men’s side, where all the No. 1 seeds have been vanquished, Richard Johnson wrote on Final Four darling Florida Atlantic, while Kevin Sweeney focused on the possibility of Gonzaga’s title window having closed. Pat Forde opined that the highly unusual Final Four field made a lot of sense, given there were no flat-out dominant clubs throughout the regular season.
• Jonathan Abrams wrote an incredibly smart piece at The New York Times: Joe Dumars, the league’s head disciplinarian but also one of the NBA’s former Bad Boys, wants players to do as he says, not as his teams did.
• David Aldridge of The Athletic had a great column on the Wizards and their relatively pointless pursuit of a play-in berth. In it, he had really interesting insight from Gregg Popovich, who went long on what he garners inspiration from these days in coaching a developing club. It’s not the same as winning titles, and there are “those nights when you say, ‘What the hell am I doing here? Do I need all this?’” But he sees the beauty in coaching young players.
• ESPN’s Dave McMenamin had a piece on Anthony Davis, who took McMenamin behind the scenes of what it’s felt like to deal with so many injuries over the years and hear the countless criticisms of his inability to stay on the court. During his latest rehab process, he drew inspiration from his 6-year-old daughter drawing him a rainbow, which he saw as a symbol. “At the end of every storm, there’s a f---ing rainbow,” he told McMenamin.
• Seerat Sohi of The Ringer had a thoughtful piece on Morant and the process of trying to find himself while being under a massive, public microscope, all while there are multimillion-dollar pressures to do it a certain way, and quickly.
• Logan Murdock of The Ringer got Boston’s Jaylen Brown to open up considerably, particularly on the topic of organizational trust, in the aftermath of the reported offer the Celtics made for Kevin Durant last summer. Knowing Tatum was tight with Durant, Brown placed a three-way call to Tatum and Brad Stevens, wanting clarity on what was happening.
• Mark Schindler wrote a cool story for Uproxx on Pistons assistant Brittni Donaldson, who has the full trust of the players on that young roster—because of her confidence and command with metrics, but also her experience as a former college player who rehabbed severe injuries that forced her to see the game from more of a coach’s perspective.
• FiveThirtyEight’s Jared Dubin had a data-driven piece on a tried and true way to shut down offenses: force them to use a big chunk of the shot clock.
• Lastly, on the heels of the thrilling World Baseball Classic: This past week, I came across a fascinating 2015 NPR piece from Dexter Thomas I had never read before: “The Secret History of Black Baseball Players in Japan.” Black Americans played a key role in popularizing baseball there, decades before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball.