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  • Rene Ramirez

The Dallas Mavericks' run from reality is finally catching up to them

- By Rene Ramirez

Entering the regular season’s third-to-last weekend of play, the Dallas Mavericks found themselves at the brink of playoff seeding in major part to their status as a sub-.500 team, a label not worn since December 19th.

Sunday’s 109-117 loss to Charlotte Hornets, who, two weeks ago -- became the 4th team to be eliminated from the playoffs -- saw the Mavericks getting swept for the season series in just a span of 36 hours. In both games, former Maverick draftee Dennis Smith Jr. hit dagger shots, one in the form of a heavily contested three and another in a backdoor cut alley-oop. It was only poetic for -- what seems to be the last straw of the Mavericks’ season -- to be broken by their past.

As of now, a team who is only 10 months removed from a Western Conference Finals appearance sits at a:

● 36-39 record (11th in the West)

● 7-13 record since the Kyrie Irving trade (Feb. 5th)

● 118.5 team defensive rating since the All-Star break

These statistics are simply symptomatic exemplifications of a much more grim reality, of which, the team has been actively trying to avoid.

The root of the Maverick’s current issues isn’t just one thing, yet a common denominator that has kept the team from seriously contending -- even with a top-five player in the league -- has been inconsistent roster construction.

Starting with the front office, January 31st, 2019 can be looked at as the first benchmark in the teams’ shift to an “all in” approach.

The Kristaps Porzingis trade, which in totality included seven players, was the Mavericks’ first attempt to supplement Luka Doncic with high-end talent. Immediately, the Mavericks became yearly playoff contenders. However, the underlying issue of Porzingis’ health and misfit, proved his five-year, $158 million to become too burdensome to the Nico Harrison-led revamped front office. Thus, in a surprising move ahead of the 2021-22 trade deadline, Porzingis was sent to the Washington Wizards in exchange for Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans. Short-term, the new-face Mavericks made a deep playoff run that same season, yet the Porzingis miscalculation diminished opportunities to build roster depth through free agency and the draft.

The Maverick’s first roster misstep came one year earlier, with the shipping of Seth Curry to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Josh Richardson and the 36th overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. The Mavericks took the gamble on interchanging a sharpshooter, who they locked up on a four-year contract the prior offseason, for a 3&D guard, who had regressed from his Miami Heat days. It only took a year for Richardson to be traded to the Boston Celtics, with Moses Brown going to Dallas. Brown eventually only appeared in 26 games for the Mavericks. In essence, the return on Seth Curry, who went on to become a pivotal piece of a contending 76er team, was next to nothing.

In a call with the Warton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Mark Cuban interacted with a student, who brought up the lopsidedness of the trade, to which Cuban jokingly answered “I hate you, next question”.

The Maverick’s most recent misfire has the potential to be the most significant in the coming years. Jalen Brunson, a 2018 draft-day steal for Dallas, took only three years to bloom into the team’s true second option. More importantly, Brunson was the piece that put the Mavericks over the edge in their 2022 playoff run. In the first three games of the first round against the Utah Jazz, Brunson willed the Doncic-less team to a 2-1 series lead, highlighted by, at the time, a career-high 41 points in Game 2.

By that point, Brunson had previously desired a contract extension in the range of Dorian Finney-Smith’s four-year, $56 million extension. The Mavericks had plenty of time to offer Brunson an extension, in anticipation of his exponential market value growth. The post-trade deadline timing of the Maverick's offer came too late, as Brunson recognized the potential of this timing as a possibility of him becoming trade bait in the upcoming offseason.

In that offseason, the New York Knicks acquired Brunson on a four-year, $104 million deal, an offer much higher than that of Dallas’. What seemed like an overpay at the time, is on track to become a bargain, with Brunson’s borderline All-Star production being at the core of the Knicks’ reinvigorated presence in the Eastern Conference.

In an interview with J.J Redick’s “The Old Man And The Three”, Brunson stated, “Business came knocking on the door”, later citing his previous desire to stay with the Mavericks “I talked about it with my dad since year one or two, said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to be here for the rest of my career.’”

The loss of Brunson somewhat influenced the Mavericks’ gung-ho approach to the Kyrie Irving trade. Pre-All-Star break, Doncic’s usage percentage was 38.7, second in the league to Giannis Antetokounmpo. As a preventative measure for Doncic’s durability in the playoffs, the Mavericks sent one unprotected first-round pick (2029), two second-round picks (2027,2029), along with Spencer Dinwiddie, and most importantly, Dorian Finney-Smith. Finney-Smith was the glue that held a mostly negative defensive team to end up 6th best in defensive rating the season prior. The departure of Finney-Smith shouldn’t have been as impactful if the Irving trade was followed up with the prioritization of acquiring a wing defender, even if they were several notches below Finney-Smith.

Now the Mavericks remain a roster deprived of a frontcourt that can outrebound Doncic on a nightly basis. Furthermore, the offensive double-dipping with the Irving acquisition has produced high-scoring games, but consequently, the stripping of depth has intensified the defensive pressure on non-defensive players.

With the increasing likelihood of the Dallas Mavericks missing the playoffs, it seems as if the team’s roster mismanagement is coming back to haunt them.

The expiration of Irving’s contract in the upcoming offseason, in addition to the minimal draft capital in the coming years, handcuffs the Mavericks to a position in which re-tooling will only be possible through free agency and/or the flipping of players for assets.

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