After falling to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals in five games, the Dallas Mavericks now face a pivotal offseason with some key questions ahead of them. First off, let’s not minimize what the Mavericks just did. Not only did they win their first playoff series since 2011 by beating the Utah Jazz in the first round, they then beat the top-seeded Phoenix Suns in a seven-game thriller to be one of the final four teams standing. Absolutely no one predicted that would happen. Luka Doncic continued to build his legacy with his standout play, and guys like Jalen Brunson and Dorian Finney-Smith elevated their profile in the league with several signature performances.
However, as impressive as the Mavericks’ playoff run was, there’s plenty of room for improvement ahead of next season. With Dallas shifting its focus to the offseason, here are three major questions it will need to address in order to improve for the 2022-23 season.
1. What to do with Jalen Brunson’s free agency?
You could argue that there wasn’t anyone in the playoffs who raised their stock as much as Brunson did. It started in the first round when Doncic was sidelined for the first three games against the Jazz. During that time, Brunson carried the Mavericks to a 2-1 lead before Doncic returned, while averaging 32 points, 5.3 assists and 5.3 rebounds, and shooting 50.7 percent from the field and 41.2 percent from deep.
In that more prominent role, Brunson showed that he can be an efficient scorer and playmaker without turning the ball over at a high rate. Even when he did return to his secondary role when Doncic came back, Brunson still managed to be a reliable scorer throughout the rest of the playoffs. That’s great news for the former second-round pick in terms of finding a lucrative deal this summer when he becomes an unrestricted free agency, but for Mark Cuban and the Mavericks, it may make them sweat a little bit.
Re-signing Brunson should be at the top of the Mavericks list this offseason. His progression to becoming the second-leading scorer was integral in Dallas making a run to the West finals, and without his production the Mavs likely don’t make it this far. But Dallas won’t be the only team interested in his services. Brunson is expected to command between $20 million and $25 million this summer, with the New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons expected to pursue him. While the Mavericks are in a far better position to contend right now than the Knicks and Pistons, maybe Brunson is interested in joining a team where he won’t have to play second fiddle to Doncic.
That’s where things get tricky for Dallas. If Brunson either commands a price tag that the Mavericks don’t want to pay, or he ultimately decides he wants to play elsewhere, Dallas could either explore sign-and-trade opportunities, or lose him for nothing. The latter of the two options is a worst-case scenario, and I imagine Cuban does everything in his power to ensure that doesn’t happen.
But if Brunson is set on playing with another team, Dallas could take a look at some sign-and-trade possibilities. Perhaps they take a look at Zach LaVine, who reportedly isn’t a lock to return to the Chicago Bulls. If Detroit wants Brunson, maybe a sign-and-trade that would swap Brunson for Detroit Pistons forward Jerami Grant could be made possible for the Mavericks. Executing a sign-and-trade for any player won’t be easy for Dallas, as it has little available cap space to take on any max deals. But the Mavericks could get creative in packaging several contracts together, and possibly trying for a multi-team trade if they lack certain assets. But whatever Dallas decides to do with Brunson, it’s clear that this will be perhaps the biggest piece of the puzzle to the Mavericks offseason.
2. How to upgrade the frontcourt?
One thing that was made abundantly clear in Dallas’ series against the Warriors was how desperately they need an upgrade at center. A combination of Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber couldn’t get the job done in stopping Golden State from getting to the rim. It wasn’t just Dallas’ inability to limit Golden State’s shots around the rim, it was its poor rebounding efforts that only magnified the need for a quality big man. The Warriors out-rebounded the Mavericks by a margin of 10 over the five-game series, and the eight offensive rebounds Golden State averaged a game led to 13.8 second-chance points a night. Kevon Looney was the biggest pain in Dallas’ side in that regard. No one could stop him from crashing the offensive glass and kicking the ball back out for a 3-pointer, or going back up with it at the rim.
One big man who would immediately solve that problem is Rudy Gobert, who, per Bleacher Report, the Mavericks are interested in should he be made available through a trade this summer. The Frenchman is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, and is among the best rim protectors in the league. Though Dallas got past him and the Jazz in the first round of the playoffs this season, it wasn’t without difficulty as Gobert made life hard on Brunson and Doncic each time they tried to come into the paint.
But trading for Gobert would be costly for Dallas. He has four years and $169.6 million left on his contract, and it would take quite a bit for the Mavs to match that salary to bring him in. Aside from that, it may also not be beneficial for the Mavericks to bring in a traditional center like Gobert, regardless of his defensive acumen. His inability to stretch the floor on offense would clog the paint for Doncic, and teams have targeted him in the playoffs by pulling him away from the basket and making him defend the 3-point line. The Mavericks were successful in doing that as Kleber drained 3s with Gobert late to close out on him numerous times. So any deal that Dallas may consider for Gobert would have to take into account that teams may play him off the court by going with a small lineup.
If Dallas doesn’t want to commit that much money on a big, other options include taking a flier on Mo Bamba, who the Orlando Magic are reportedly likely to move on from this summer. Bamba had his most impressive season yet after being selected No. 6 overall in the 2018 draft. He averaged career highs of 10.6 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks while shooting 48 percent from the field and an impressive 38 percent from deep on over four attempts per game. His improved 3-point shooting would fit that need of being able to stretch the floor for the Mavericks, and his height — standing at 7-0 — would provide the rim protection needed in the paint.
There’s also JaVale McGee, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer after a strong season as DeAndre Ayton’s backup in Phoenix. Jusuf Nurkic will also be an unrestricted free agent, and depending on what the Portland Trail Blazers plan to do this summer to reload around Damian Lillard, perhaps Dallas could be in play to sign him away from there. Dallas could see what Indiana is looking for in a trade for Myles Turner, and the same goes for John Collins in Atlanta, the latter of whom the Mavericks have had interest in for several years.
Whether the Mavericks trade for a big man or sign one through free agency, they just need to make sure that they make upgrades at that position. Otherwise they’ll just keep letting teams like Golden State punish them in the paint, and lose the battle on the boards due to their lack of size and depth.
3. How does Luka elevate his game?
After the Warriors ended the Mavericks’ season, Doncic admitted that he needs to get better on defense for this team to improve, and he’s not wrong. Although winning minimizes a lot of faults, Doncic was getting picked on relentlessly in the second round against the Suns. Dallas made some adjustments, like showing help defense when Doncic was left on an island, and the superstar guard raised his effort level on that end of the floor. But there were just too many times where Doncic looked like he was stuck in sand and let his opponent drive right past him. I’m not expecting Doncic to suddenly become some All-Defensive player, but he needs to be at least average to the point where he can bother an opposing guard or forward who try to take him one-on-one.
Aside from defense, another area that Doncic needs to take seriously is his fitness level. One of the loudest critiques Doncic heard through the first half of the season was that he was out of shape, and it showed in his sluggish start to the year. There were reports that suggested he entered the season 30 pounds heavier than what his listed weight is, which if true, certainly had an impact on his game.
As the season wore on his play improved, and he admitted to eating healthier. As a result, the Mavericks finished with the second-best record in the league since the All-Star break and Doncic earned his third First Team All-NBA selection. But Doncic can’t keep showing up to training camp in subpar shape and use the first two months of the regular season to get back to his ideal fitness level. Doncic making a physical leap may be the next step in elevating his game on both ends of the floor. If he’s able to be quicker on his feet, it’ll help Dallas push the pace on offense — especially in transition — and he won’t get blown by every time on defense.
Doncic showing up next season in the best shape of his life will be important for the Mavericks, but Dallas also needs to find ways to improve the roster around him. As impressive as this playoff run was for the Mavs, relying on this roster to get back here again would be a mistake. Doncic has proven that he’s ready to contend for titles, now Dallas needs to continue building around him to ensure that happens.