It is safe to say that the Dallas Mavericks were a major disappointment last season, finishing just 38-44 and missing the playoffs. What makes matters worse is that’s just a year removed from Dallas making an unexpected run to the Western Conference finals. Aside from some outstanding performances from Luka Doncic last season, there weren’t too many highlights in a season where the Mavericks made an all-in trade to acquire mercurial point guard Kyrie Irving in hopes of providing Doncic some much-needed help.
The ruling is still out on whether Irving is what the Mavericks — and Doncic — need, but the three-year, $126 million contract he signed this summer means he’ll be in Dallas for the foreseeable future. After last season’s poor showing, this is a make or break year for Dallas, primarily because we’ve seen countless times before how impatient star players can get if the team isn’t winning or things aren’t going their way. There have already been reports that the Mavericks fear Doncic could request a trade next summer if significant progress isn’t made. With that hovering over the team this season, the Mavericks need to bounce back in a major way and prove that last season was a fluke and not an early sign of disaster ahead.
With the 2023-24 season just a couple of weeks away, here are three keys to success for Dallas as it tries not only to get back to the postseason, but keep their star player happy.
1. Doncic and Irving need to strike the right balance
The Mavericks took a risky swing when they decided to trade for Irving last season. There’s no denying the talent Irving immediately brings to the Mavericks, but questions remain on whether he and Doncic, two ball-dominant guards, can truly coexist. Irving has experience playing with high-usage players like Doncic in the past, most recently James Harden in Brooklyn. That stint didn’t end particularly well for all parties involved, but Irving has a proven track record of being able to excel without dominating the ball.
We saw glimpses of what this duo can bring in a small stint last season, and while it didn’t result in much success in the wins column with a 5-11 record, when Irving and Doncic were on the floor Dallas had a 119.2 offensive rating. Irving will essentially be filling the role left by Jalen Brunson when he left for the New York Knicks, but unlike the Doncic-Brunson duo, the Mavericks have to make sure they’re utilizing all of Irving’s skills, especially his ballhandling. That’s where Doncic will have to get more comfortable playing off ball so that when Irving is operating he’s not just standing in the corner.
Dallas can’t afford for the offense to turn into a “your turn, my turn” battle with Irving and Doncic, because that’s a poor use of both of their talents. In order for this to work, it’s going to require Doncic to play more off the ball, something he’s already expressed interest in as he says it’s not as tiring on his body.
But beyond the day-to-day work of this duo, the Mavericks need this to work from a big-picture perspective. They’ve hitched their wagon to an unpredictable Irving, whose availability isn’t always a guarantee. He missed nearly half a season with the Nets due to not wanting to get the COVID-19 vaccine, and the sharing of an antisemitic film resulted in a suspension towards the end of his Nets tenure. If he becomes a distraction and is required to miss time, then the Mavericks will be right back at square one with Doncic forced to do everything on offense again. Only this time it could be the tipping point that could force him to request a trade.
2. Defense needs to at least be average
Remember when I said that Irving and Doncic were amazing on offense together last season, but the team struggled to turn that into wins? Yeah, that’s because they couldn’t stop a chair from scoring on them. Dallas ranked 25th in defense last season, a freefall compared to the fifth-ranked defense they had during the 2021-22 season. It was also the worst the defense has been since the 2003-04 season, per Cleaning the Glass, when the team ranked 26th in the league. Part of this was a personnel issue. The signing of JaVale McGee was a disaster as he looked like a shell of his rim-protecting self. Christian Wood, who dazzled on offense, looked lost on defense for most of the season. Doncic also struggled mightily to stay in front of guards, or generally put in a ton of effort on that end of the floor.
Fortunately, Dallas entered the offseason with defense as one of its main priorities, according to Mavericks general manager Nico Harrison.
“I think this year, it’s not about big or small. Just defense overall, we weren’t very good this year so that’s going to be a focus,” Harrison said. “We just didn’t have players that were committed to it. I think defense is not just one person – it’s a team thing.”
As a result, Dallas went out and signed Grant Williams, a strong, versatile defender capable of hitting consistent 3s on the other end. They also drafted a young big man with tons of upside in Dereck Lively II, who has already shown in the preseason flashes of being a solid defender down low. Olivier-Maxence Prosper is another first-round draft pick the Mavericks signed in June who is committed to doing the little things, like bringing high energy on defense.
But it’s not enough to just sign the players and hope for the best. The effort has to be there, not just from the new additions, but from guys like Doncic, Irving, and everyone else in between. No one expects Dallas to come out and be a top-five-ranked defense, but they at least need to be average on that end of the floor to succeed. If the defense is where it was a season ago, then it won’t matter how many points Doncic and Irving put up.
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3. Role players have to perform
In each of the last three seasons, Doncic has ranked near or in the top 5 of potential assists per game, which is a stat that tracks passes by a player that could’ve been an assist but wasn’t. If you watch a Mavericks game you’ll see why Doncic ranks that high in that category, as he’s consistently creating open looks for teammates only for them to miss. It’s an issue that always leads to the common refrain of “Luka needs more help,” and while Dallas’ front office has certainly retooled the roster around their franchise star heading into this season, we’ll have to see if it has paid off.
Additions like Seth Curry will certainly help in that category, as he’s a career 43.5% shooter from 3-point range, and in his previous two stints with Dallas, he proved to be a seamless fit. Williams also shouldn’t have an issue finding his role on this offense as he’ll get great looks from passes by Doncic and Irving. But that isn’t going to be enough if the Mavericks want to distinguish themselves amongst a crowded Western Conference. It’s going to require young guys like Josh Green and Jaden Hardy to have essentially breakout seasons as they’ll likely get heavier workloads than last year. Lively will have to develop quickly if Dallas wants him to be the starting center. Maxi Kleber will have to be more durable than he’s been in each of the last two seasons.
Dallas’ success starts with Doncic and Irving, but it’ll be the performance of their role players that will determine how well this team does. It won’t be an easy course back to the postseason, but if the Mavericks manage to improve on defense, get Doncic and Irving to click and have standout role players then they should certainly be in the mix for one of those eight spots.