The Dallas Mavericks finished a successful regular season strong last year and carried that momentum into the playoffs. They overcame a 2-0 deficit to defeat the conference-leading Phoenix Suns in Round 2 to make it all the way to the Western Conference Finals, but did not have enough magic left to get past the Golden State Warriors.
They followed that up with an eventful offseason that leaves the question whether their team became better or worse. The Mavericks traded for Christian Wood, who will be an impactful player, but lost Jalen Brunson in free agency, who had been their second-best player and a key piece of their success. Brunson was a steady contributor and losing him is a bad blow, but nevertheless, the Mavericks are in the conversation as a possible title contender. The team added additional depth, with JaVale McGee coming over in free agency, Tim Hardaway Jr. returning from injury, and last year’s mid-season acquisitions Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans now in the fold for the full season.
The main reason why Dallas is considered championship material is their star point guard Luka Doncic. Doncic will once again be on the short list of viable candidates for the MVP award this season, as he was already last season before his slow start and early season injury put him behind his contemporaries.
Despite his talent, Doncic has often been criticized over his level of fitness; however, he is coming into this season in better shape than ever after playing in the EuroBasket tournament over the summer. The three-time All-Star is entering his fifth season now and averaging 26.4 points per game for his career, which would be 7th all-time if he had enough games to qualify.
One problem with Doncic is that, outside of him, the Mavericks do not have many other options to create offense. The team relies on him a lot, possibly even too much, considering that carrying this much responsibility for an entire season can become very tiring. Doncic has led the league in usage rate three years in a row, and last year it was a staggering 40.9%.
When Doncic appeared on NBA Today, he told host Malika Andrews that the Mavericks do not need another All-Star to win. We will see if he is right, but history indicates that it’s unlikely. Doncic can carry the team quite far as the proverbial center of the universe, but probably not all the way to a championship.
Along with Doncic, Dallas have started the season with Spencer Dinwiddie, Reggie Bullock, Dorian Finney-Smith, and JaVale McGee in the starting lineup. The Mavericks acquired Dinwiddie last season to add some ballhandling and playmaking to their bench unit, but with Brunson gone, he will have to step up into a larger role.
Dinwiddie has some experience with taking on the role of secondary ballhandler, though it did not work out too well during his time with the Washington Wizards. There is hope, though. Dinwiddie did not have a player like Luka alongside him in Washington, and put up some of his best career numbers after the trade to Dallas. It is important that he maintains this production; without him in top form, the Mavericks do not have enough playmaking on their team.
Reggie Bullock, who has been taking over the starting small forward spot so far, is another player who needs to be at his best if the Mavericks want to have a successful season. Last season, Bullock had some ups and downs during the regular season but elevated his game to another level in the playoffs. He stepped up, especially during the games Doncic missed. Bullock can be an effective scorer and is a great defensive stopper. If his two-way play is at its best, he will be a key piece to the Mavericks’ success.
Arguably even more valuable on defense than Bullock is Dorian Finney-Smith. Finney-Smith is the perfect 3-and-D player prototype and takes on the toughest defensive assignments for the Mavericks. His was the driver to the success of the Mavericks’ team defense, as he is versatile enough to guard top scorers on several positions and have a huge impact on that end of the court regardless of which lineup combination he is part of. On offense, Finney-Smith had his most productive season, averaging 11 points and almost 2 assists. It’s important that he contniue to provide this kind of two-way impact, but with Brunson gone it would also be helpful for Dallas if Finney-Smith could be a more consistent and productive scoring threat on the offensive end.
Last but not least, new addition JaVale McGee is the starting center for the Mavericks. McGee is already 34, but the veteran is still a valuable addition to their frontcourt. The Mavericks struggled to defend the paint last season and hope that McGee will help with that. He has been a champion twice with the Golden State Warriors and once with the Los Angeles Lakers, so McGee certainly brings some championship experience and a winning mentality to the roster. The question is, however, how much of his championship caliber play he has left at 34. The Mavericks need a reliable backup for the minutes or even games that McGee needs to rest, but between Christian Wood and Dwight Powell that should not be much of a problem; both have started in the past and provide different skill sets that will allow the Mavericks to match up as needed with the opposition.
Christian Wood is arguably the most important player on Dallas’s bench. He still needs to prove himself in the long term, but the expectations for Wood’s impact on Dallas’s season are high. Wood is athletic, big and can score either off of other players or by creating for himself, which the Mavericks did not have in any of their big men before. Wood is talented enough to start, but the bench role gives him more of an opportunity to revolve the offense around him when he is in the game and keep him engaged.
In the Mavericks’ season opener Wood scored 16 straight points, but did not make the cut for the closing lineup. Coach Jason Kidd went with Maxi Kleber instead because he trusted his defense more. Wood needs to improve on defense to solidify a greater role on the team, but he is still the Mavericks’ best option for finding a second scoring option within their own ranks. Especially in minutes paired with Doncic, Wood should be a great pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop threat. The newcomer brings an impact on both ends of the floor and has a good chance to win the Sixth Man of the Year award.
Last season, it was Dwight Powell who ran pick-and-rolls with Doncic. Powell’s game is less advanced than Wood’s play, but he does all the little things well, like setting solid screens, being a dangerous roller, and never turning over the ball. With the addition of McGee, Powell had to move to the bench, though, so the question is how effective he will be without Doncic or Dinwiddie there to throw him lobs since that is how he primarily scores. There is a good chance that Powell will fade into the background in Dallas’s rotation unless he gets some minutes with a good ballhandler who can set him up. This might be difficult, though, because Dinwiddie had to take over Brunson’s starting spot, taking his playmaking away from the bench unit. Powell’s impact on the season will also be determined by how much McGee will actually be able to play.
Just like Powell, pretty much every other player on the team is also affected by Brunson’s departure. Dallas will most likely not be able to completely replace Brunson with just one player on their roster. Instead, they will have to fill the scoring void collectively with Wood and the returning Tim Hardaway Jr. as main components.
Hardaway suffered a fractured foot and missed most of last season’s playoffs, but now he is on his way back onto the court and motived to compete. He is just returning from an injury and might need some time to find his rhythm again, but if the Mavericks want to win, they need him to be a secondary scorer and leader for the bench unit.
Considering their successful run last season, expectations for Dallas are high, although they are not facing nearly as much pressure as some of the other teams in the conversation for title contention.
The West will be much stronger this season and while the Mavericks have one of the best young stars in Doncic, he might not be enough anymore if they want to clear that last hurdle. Currently, the Mavericks have no second star; will one of their own step up and rise to new levels, or will they have to make a trade? Or will this be one of those rare scenarios where putting the right veteran role players around a major star can get it done, as the Mavericks were able to do in 2011 by surrounding Dirk Nowitzki with capable veterans like Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, and Tyson Chandler?
Whichever one it will be, Dallas should make a decision soon because their roster is aging. Six players on the team are at the age of 30 or over, four players are between 27 and 29 years old, and only four players are in their early twenties, the only notable one being Doncic. Dallas’ lone young prospect with the potential for a bright future in the league is Jaden Hardy, who had a good preseason but is not even a part of the rotation yet.
The Mavericks assembled a talented team centered around Doncic, but it does not appear to be quite enough yet. It will be interesting to see how this season will play out and how much Doncic can still grow, but they might have to make another move to truly contend, and they should do it soon while most of their established players are still in shape and can be effective rotation players.
Tim Hardaway Jr.