Saturday, June 22, 2024

From Deep: After making Western Conference finals, Luka Doncic and the Mavericks shake things up

The Phoenix Suns are still recovering from what the Dallas Mavericks did to them. In their four wins in the second round of last year’s playoffs, the Mavericks made 42.2 percent of their 3-pointers, attempted 40 of them per game and scored 121 points per 100 possessions. It culminated in a Game 7 bloodbath on Phoenix’s home court; at halftime, Luka Doncic had 27 points, the same amount as the entire Suns team, and Dallas led by 30.

Doncic and the Mavs did not have the same success against the Golden State Warriors in the conference finals, but making it that far was an achievement. In the 10 seasons that had passed since the 2011 NBA title, they’d made six playoff appearances and lost in the first round every time. If nothing else, the way Doncic dismantled defenses served as proof of concept for a style of play that could deliver Dallas its next championship in the very foreseeable future.

In June, Suns forward Mikal Bridges credited Doncic for getting into the teeth of their defense, slow-stepping near the rim and firing perfect passes to wide-open shooters. “You just look to see if he’s about to make the shot and the dude would just skip that shit across the court,” Bridges told JJ Redick on an episode of “The Old Man and the Three” podcast

Redick, who spent the final few months of his playing career with the Mavericks, described their 5-out attack succinctly: “They’re either going to get in the paint with [Jalen] Brunson or Doncic and they’re going to score there or they’re going to kick it out for a 3.”

Even the eventual-champion Warriors were unable to stop Dallas from creating good looks. The Mavs created more wide-open 3s in their losses against Golden State (24.5 per game) than they did in their wins against Phoenix (21.5); they just didn’t make them at as high a clip (35.7 percent vs. 46.5 percent) in the conference finals. 

So the path forward seemed clear: Try to make improvements on the margins, then come back and give it another go. They’d already had their shakeup when they traded Kristaps Porzingis for Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans midseason, moving on from a once-promising partnership that had run its course. 

Instead of small tweaks, though, Dallas ended up making major changes. Mere months after Brunson dropped 41 points in 42 minutes to lead the team to a playoff victory with Doncic sidelined, he left for the New York Knicks — and a four-year, $104 million contract — in free agency. This was not the outcome the Mavericks expected when they, according to Brunson’s father, declined to offer the former No. 33 pick a three-year, $56 million extension before the season and again in January.

Dallas signed JaVale McGee and promised him a starting spot. It used its first-round pick to trade for Christian Wood on draft night. When the Mavericks return to Phoenix to open the regular season, they will start Doncic, Dinwiddie, Reggie Bullock, Dorian Finney-Smith and McGee. Dinwiddie will also run the second unit, with Wood and Maxi Kleber in the frontcourt and the returning Tim Hardaway Jr., who missed most of 2021-22 after having foot surgery, on the wing. 

You can make the case that Dinwiddie and Hardaway complement Doncic better than Brunson did simply because they’re bigger. You can make the case that the paint-bound McGee will help the spacing, not harm it, because of his gravity rolling to the basket. You can make the case, too, that Wood is in an ideal basketball situation, and that he’s the most dynamic big man Doncic has ever played with. It’s possible that the Mavs are going to build on last season, but it’s definitely going to look different. 

The conversation

Mavericks believer: I’m going to try to set the stage for this season with a scene: It’s 5:15 a.m., and Luka Doncic has just awoken. He’ll never fully get used to this extreme routine, but, for the first time, he’s up 15 minutes before his alarm. Doncic grabs his phone, and his lock screen greets him the same way it has for months: With a photo of Stephen Curry hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy, surrounded by jubilant teammates. Doncic normally doesn’t hit the gym on Sundays, but this is all the motivation he needs. 

Mavericks skeptic: What is this? Fanfic? Is this your way of telling me that you’re pleased that Doncic is finally starting a season in decent shape? This is Year 5 of his NBA career, so I’d say this is overdue. 

Mavericks believer: It was my way of telling you that the Mavericks could have beaten Golden State in the conference finals if they’d made some more of their open 3s and not allowed the misses to affect their defense. It was my way of telling you that Luka knows this, is still thinking about the loss and is about to have an MVP season. 

Mavericks skeptic: Well, you need to spice up that story! Dirk Nowitzki grew a beard in the Australian outback after the 2007 Mavs got swept in the first round; you could have at least put Doncic in the rainforest with a shaved head or atop a mountain with an intimidating tattoo. It’s appropriate, though, that you’ve gone for the cliched superstar-is-out-for-revenge narrative. Dallas’ offseason suggests it is out of ideas: Christian Wood is basically a shorter Kristaps Porzingis, and JaVale McGee is basically a bigger Dwight Powell. One warning, though: If you’re going to try to defend the Mavs for letting Jalen Brunson hit free agency instead of extending him on a bargain deal when they had the chance, you’ll need to get creative. 

Mavericks believer: You’re telling me to be more creative, and in the same breath you’re bashing the Mavs in the most predictable way possible? Amazing. So let’s talk about Brunson: Yes, I wish they’d have signed him to that extension, but, this time last year, I doubt you were screaming that they needed to get it done. They’d just lost a seven-game series to the Clippers in part because Nicolas Batum had neutralized Brunson — in the last four games he scored a total of 18 points on 7-for-22 shooting — and they were understandably hesitant to pay him about $19 million per season. Hindsight makes it seem like a big blunder, but they had no way of knowing he was going to play himself into a contract worth $26 million annually. The whole thing just looks worse than it is in light of the extension stuff and Brunson’s performances in the 2022 playoffs. 

Mavericks skeptic: They had no way of knowing that a player who had just turned 25 and was coming off a breakout season would continue to improve? The Mavs were smart enough to draft Brunson in the second round, so they should have known better than anybody that he’d — to borrow your tired premise — be motivated by his struggles in the Clippers series. You shouldn’t be letting them off the hook, and you shouldn’t be turning this into an optics issue. Losing Brunson was controversial because there will be consequences! He was their second option, and he played the part of a ball-dominant star when Doncic went to the bench. Dallas got nothing in return for him. This is a disaster! This is a catastrophe! This is a disastrophe! (See that? I made up a word to punctuate my point. Spice things up, man!)  

Mavericks believer: I am blown away, your imagination knows no bounds. It’s a bit strange, though, that you seem to be stuck on “MAVERICKS − BRUNSON = BAD.” I would have thought that a mind as sharp as yours would have examined the Mavs’ offseason from every angle and come to a conclusion that differs from all of the boring groupthink out there. Alas, I’ll have to do that for you: They deserve credit for acquiring Spencer Dinwiddie at the deadline, ensuring that they’d have a Brunson replacement at the ready. They should be applauded for turning the No. 26 pick into Wood, who will make beautiful music with Luka in the pick-and-roll (and the pick-and-pop). They should be celebrated for signing McGee, who brings some needed rim protection and vertical spacing. 

Mavericks skeptic: Dinwiddie played well after the trade, but I’m not psyched that he and Davis Bertans are all that Dallas has to show for punting on the Porzingis experiment. The Mavs sold Doncic and Porzingis as a “Dirk-and-Nash type of situation” — that’s an exact quote from Rick Carlisle, who added that “these guys are taller” — and now everybody’s just supposed to accept that it’s The Luka Show with a revolving door of supporting characters? No! I refuse! Even if Doncic covers up the Mavs’ missteps with individual brilliance, they’ll still be missteps.

Mavericks believer: The only correct take on the Porzingis trade is this: “It looked great when he was healthy. It was worth a shot. Sigh.” Anyway, you shouldn’t hold the context in which Dinwiddie arrived against him. Aside from his weird, short stint with the Washington Wizards after tearing his ACL, he has been one of the most efficient isolation and pick-and-roll players in the NBA for the past few years. Between his increased role, Tim Hardaway Jr.’s return and Wood’s undeniable talent, Dallas has more than enough firepower to make up for Brunson’s scoring. You don’t think the Mavs are going to miss Brunson on defense, do you? 

Mavericks skeptic: You’ve done an admirable job defending the indefensible. Bottom line, the Mavs overachieved by making the conference finals last year with a simple formula. I might have rationalized the Wood and McGee moves if they were simply being added to the mix, but losing Brunson at the same time throws everything off. I have questions about the starting lineup, the closing lineup, the spacing, the second unit and the defensive identity that they worked so hard to establish last season. It didn’t have to be this complicated. 

The curiosity: Josh Green 

There has been all sorts of buzz about Josh Geren lately. Jason Kidd has used him as a playmaker and raved that he has “did everything we asked him to do” over the summer. Kyle Lowry trained with him and helped him slow down so he could see plays develop. After being treated as a non-factor on offense in the playoffs and seeing his playing time evaporate, everybody seems to be saying he has returned with more refined skills and more confidence. 

“His aggressiveness is night and day,” assistant coach Jared Dudley said, via the Dallas Morning News.

As long as Doncic is the face of the franchise, Dallas can use as many athletic wings as it can get. If he shoots 3s with conviction, makes a decent percentage and can put the ball on the floor against bent defenses, there will be minutes for him. 

One more thing

What if the Mavs’ biggest addition wasn’t a player, but a move? Doncic’s skyhook was my favorite offseason subplot, and I sincerely hope he turns it into a legitimate weapon. He hasn’t used it in the preseason yet, though, so it’s unclear whether or not he brought it back with him from Slovenia. 

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