May 9, 2020, 1:04 pm
The Dallas Mavericks’ transition from the Dirk Nowitzki era could not possibly be going smoother, to tell you the truth. Without missing a beat, the Mavericks went from one transcendent international superstar to the next when they traded for Luka Doncic in the 2018 draft. He was sensational in his rookie season, and left no indication that he wasn’t prepared to become the MVP-caliber player people always believed he could become.
If that wasn’t enough to have pulled off in year one of a rebuild, the Mavs also pulled off a rare trade for an established, young star, securing a depreciated asset in Kristaps Porzingis who was coming off a year-long absence from an ACL tear in the 2017-2018 season. The big-man had all of the talent in the world, but needed time and care to get himself back to speed. Landing in a situation like Dallas, where the pressure of being a number one option was removed and expectations for team success were well in check, could not have been better for the Latvian star. If he were to return to even 80% of the player he was in New York, Dallas would have a potential title-contending core to build around for the next seven years.
For just being in the second season of the post-Nowitzki era, the Mavericks are right where they should be. They’re a low-end playoff team with young stars and a supporting cast that of players who are all still trying to find their way. They likely could have risen higher had they not faced several injury stints with Doncic, Porzingis, and other critical role players such as Dwight Powell and Jalen Brunson. The good news is that they have a very easy roadmap to building on their relative success this year. Here is everything that went right, and went wrong for the 2019-20 Mavs.
Luka’s March to Superstardom
Luka Doncic’s second season saw him continue a meteoric rise into superstardom. The 20-year old phenom came firing out the gates to averages of 30.4 points, 9.9 rebounds, 9.3 assists and 3.2 triples per game through roughly the first two months of the season – soaring past the lofty expectations that were set for him following his rookie campaign. What really stood out about his performances early on was how efficiently he was coming by his offensive output, shooting 48% from the floor and 80% from the line. They were easily the biggest areas of improvement for Doncic, who shot 42% and 71% from those areas respectively as a rookie.
This torrid start to the season was, predictably, paying off in a big way for fantasy owners as well. Doncic was a top-five fantasy player in both 8/9-cat leagues, a far cry from the top-80-100 guy he was for the majority of his first season. This statistical run also had a nice impact on the standings page, as the Mavs were a top-4 Western Conference team with a record of 17-7, earning them buzz as an early dark-horse contender and making matchups with other upper-echelon teams can’t-miss television.
Then, the unfortunate twist to his season. Of an ankle, to be exact. Doncic rolled his right ankle in the opening minutes of a loss to Miami in mid-December, forcing him to miss that game and four others to follow. This right ankle ended becoming a moderate area of concern, as Doncic went on to roll the same one again nearly two months later during a practice, forcing him to miss an additional 7 games, and segmenting his season into three sections around those 11 total missed games for the same ankle.
Though Doncic was able to return rather quickly from his first ankle injury, the absence seemingly sapped him of the efficient scoring run he was on before going down. His FG percent shot back down to 44% and his FT percent returned to virtually the same place as it was the previous year, hovering around 71%. The success the Mavs saw in the win column also seemed to go the way of Luka’s percentages, as they went just 10-8 during the stretch of games between Luka’s first ankle injury and his second.
The counting stats were all still there for Doncic, but the shooting woes limited his fantasy upside to just around top-70 value in 9-cat and top-45 value in 8-cat. None of this is to suggest that Doncic stopped being a force — he clearly hadn’t — but with his hot start to the season behind him, it became clear which area of his game would need the most improvement.
Through the entire season, Doncic finished with averages of 28.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, 8.7 assists and 2.9 triples per-game while shooting a 46% clip from the field and 75% from the line. All of this was good enough to place him inside second-round value in both 8- and 9-cat leagues, which is still a remarkable step up from the year before. With the majority of his game seemingly figured out, and his biggest area of need to improve identified, the sky’s the limit for Doncic. He is sure to be a popular early round pick heading into next season.
Porzingis’ Remarkable Return
With an entire year and a new team between this season and his previous one, Kristaps Porzingis’ inaugural season in Dallas should be seen, on the whole, as a great success. Of the first 32 games, Prozingis played in 31 while averaging over 30 minutes per game. Fans and fantasy managers alike had well-founded concerns that Porzingis’ return from a year-long recovery from his ACL injury would limit what he would be allowed to do out of the starting gate, but Dallas’ coaching and medical staffs clearly felt good enough about his conditioning to allow him to play himself back into game-shape, and work off the rust of being shelved for a year.
From a fantasy perspective, Porzingis was barely posting top-50 value through this stretch in large part due to his wack percentages (40% from the field, 72% from the line), but the good news was that he was giving fantasy owners exactly what they bargained for on draft day, the tantalizing combination of two triples and two blocks per game.
Perhaps the biggest drawback of running Porzingis out the way Dallas did for their first 30 games was the following 10-game stretch, where Porzingis sat out due to soreness in his right knee. It was the longest extended absence of his season, and was likely born out of an abundance of caution considering that he missed 20 months of basketball activity due to his left knee. KP ultimately returned, however, and missed a total of five games for various non-serious ailments. Unlike Luka Doncic’s bouts on the sidelines this season, Porzingis began to round into form following his lengthy absence, posting first-round value from his return all the way through the unofficial end of the regular season on March 11th. He worked his way through the rust, and looked very much like the Unicorn of old.
Porzingis finished the season with averages of 19.2 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.5 triples and 2.1 blocks, giving him second/third round value in 9/8-cat leagues, which virtually matches his ADP from draft season. The Mavs weren’t exactly bold in their decision to acquire Kristaps from the Knicks (for the price they bought him at they’d be fools not to make that deal), but their approach of initial caution when they first acquired him and then confidence in his ability to stay healthy as he played himself into form proved to be the right call. Whenever NBA play resumes, Porzingis figures to be an invaluable number two to Luka Doncic for the foreseeable future, giving the Mavs perhaps the safest foundation of any team in the league.
The Center Question
After you get past the glamor of Dallas’ two stars, the rest of their roster leaves a lot to be desired. The supporting cast isn’t bad, but their skill sets all border the average line and many of the players fall into specialist buckets. For the Mavs to ascend to the contender status that they hope to get to with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis as the centerpieces, they are going to need to find a couple more above-average NBA starters to compliment them.
The closest player to that designation was Dwight Powell, who meshed really well with Doncic and Porzingis as a rim-running modern five. Powell came onto the scene in the 18-19 season, really excelling in the second half of that campaign as the recipient of many Doncic dishes. He essentially operated as Doncic’s safety blanket; an easy bucket when plays broke down. Heading into this season, Powell faced early struggles finding consistency next to Porzingis, but noticeably improved during the winter months at finding his spots to be effective on offense and communicating more on defense. He was rounding into form in terms of fantasy as well. At Powell’s peak on the year he was a top-90 type of player thanks to efficient scoring with a smattering of rebounds and steals, making him a useful end-of-bench center.
This of course was all taken off the table when Powell blew out his Achilles in mid-January, sidelining him for the rest of the season and likely the majority, if not all, of next season as well. The Mavs are now down their third most impactful player, and likely won’t have him around as they try to build their young core into a contender whenever NBA games resume.
The in-house options to replace him didn’t exactly pan out. Maxi Kleber was the logical replacement for Powell as the next most talented big on the roster, but the redundancy of his game and Porzingis’ game made him far less effective than Powell was as a complementary piece. The Mavericks’ mid-season acquisition of Willie Cauley-Stein went pretty much nowhere as well. The transient big-man’s skill set made him seem like a logical replacement for Powell’s rim-running abilities, but his inability to catch onto Rick Carsile’s system quickly limited him to just playing in 13 games as a Mav, barely cracking 12 minutes per contest.
The Mavericks barely cracked .500 without Powell in the lineup, going 13-11 during that span. It seems likely that they will be targeting some sort of help in the middle heading into the offseason given the ineffectiveness of their current options. If they can’t find a suitable replacement, that will create an even bigger onus on seeing some improvement out of their other complementary pieces.
The Other Guys
There’s not a lot to write home about in this section, particularly from a fantasy perspective. As previously mentioned, a lot of Dallas’ supporting cast is average at best, and with Rick Carlisile’s penchant for mixing up his rotations to play to matchups, this created a lack of consistency among these ranks of players.
We’ll start with the most consistent of the bunch: Dorian Finney-Smith. DFS started more games than any Mavs player this season, and through all the turbulence of the injuries sustained by their most important players, his production, for the most part, stayed more or less the same. All year-round he hovered at about nine points, six rebounds, a couple of assists and about 1.5 defensive stats per game. From a fantasy standpoint that’s not unuseful, but hardly anything to write home about. His per-minute production is especially low, and there doesn’t seem to be any amount he could play to ever have sustained value in competitive formats. He’s a beloved teammate and player by the coaching staff for his glue-guy nature and ability to play multiple positions. He figures to be a part of Dallas’ long-term plans, though it is unclear if his future will continue to feature the starting small forward gig.
The other starter on this team is Tim Hardaway Jr., who didn’t permanently ascend into the role until late November. THJ has been the same player at every stop in his career. He’s a 3-point gunner who offers little else beyond his scoring production. He doesn’t even really come by that scoring efficiently, and by no means does he come across it consistently. This season he cycled between having games where he could blow up for 30 points and seven triples, and then followed that up with three duds on inefficient, high-volume shooting. The SG position seems to be the area in which Dallas could use a replacement the most, as THJ’s game seems more suited for a bench role rather than one as a 30-minute per night featured player.
The other bench wings didn’t fare much better on the season than the two mentioned above. Delon Wright was brought onto the team with some moderate hype after looking decent in a featured role with Memphis in the second half of last season. Both in real life and in fantasy, Wright was thought to have been a guy who could bring valuable defensive versatility to the table, making for a player who can guard 1-through-3 and pile up defensive stats to bolster fantasy squads. He was done in by wild inconsistency throughout the year, however. His minutes were yanked around from the jump, hovering anywhere between 15 to 22 per night. In those games where he was able to see the floor for extended periods of time, he rarely made it count. His on-paper fit seems to have outweighed his actual fit on the squad.
Perhaps the brightest spot of all of these guys is Seth Curry, who finished out the season on a particularly strong streak with really efficient 3-point shooting. Over his last 20 games, Curry averaged close to 17 points and 3.3 triples per game on a scorching 56% from the field. He saw extended time as the primary backup PG after Jalen Brunson (shoulder) went down and had multiple spot-starts through various injuries to the Mavs backcourt. The season ending when it did allowed him to leave a particularly strong impression as a high-octane 3-point specialist, and he could plausibly compete for starting time at SG next season when training camp rolls around.
If the season were to magically resume tomorrow the Mavs would be locked into a first round matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers, easily making for the most compelling first round series out there (though Celtics-Sixers could make a reasonable argument for that title as well). Why? It’s all star power. The Mavericks have moved into the post-Dirk era as smoothly as one could have ever dreamed. Luka Doncic is sports stardom dynamite. Kristaps Porzingis looks like he’s rounded himself into form, flashing a unique skillset that makes him a formidable second option. Rick Carslile is still one of the league’s best head coaches and will likely be in Springfield one day.
The Mavericks have all of the tools to become a beloved, nationally recognized squad. All they are missing is a true cast of players who can accentuate the unique sills that Luka and Kristaps bring to the table. They clearly do not have that yet, and it is partially why they struggled so much to weather the storm when the two were out of the lineup for their various ailments. Their next step to actual title contention will only come when they have an established number three option, when they have a bench unit who all fit into specific, and consistent, roles, and most importantly, when their two stars are able to share the court without one or the other missing weeks at a time to different ailments.
The hard part is done; they have the most important aspects to winning a title. All the Mavericks have to do now is remain vigilant, and fill out the rest of their team.