I spent a good portion of Sunday night’s game story lamenting Luka Doncic’s heavy usage rate, and it was fair, but it wasn’t the whole picture.
The Dallas Mavericks lost to the Los Angeles Clippers, not only because of Doncic but also because of poor roster construction and cap space management. Those mistakes can date themselves back to the summer of 2019, where the Mavs were in a position to swing big but instead fell short. Let’s hop in the time machine and take a look.
In the summer of 2019, the Mavericks had cap space and were presumed, big spenders. They used that cap space to bring in Seth Curry and Delon Wright. Though each player was serviceable in their own right, those two never played a minute for the Mavericks in the 2021 NBA Playoffs. Instead, their contracts quickly turned into negative returns during this year’s postseason. Josh Richardson, the returning player in the Curry deal from last summer with Philadelphia, averaged 4.9 points per game in the playoffs. And in regards to Wright, he turned into James Johnson, who turned into JJ Redick, who never played a single game in this year’s playoffs.
Spend big to compete:
Call it a case of Moneyball-itis, but the Dallas Mavericks have routinely underpaid and hoped for overperformance. However, in the NBA, that’s not how things tend to work. The teams that compete for years are the teams willing to spend big in order to guarantee top-end talent. It’s why the Clippers paid such a steep price for Paul George. And it’s why every team with LeBron James on it in the last decade has one of the highest payrolls in the league. To play with the big boys, you have to spend with them too. And this why, for a decade, the Mavericks haven’t found success in the playoffs.
The NBA postseason is where teams finally see a return on their investment. The Clippers paid the price for Paul George because it got them Kawhi Leonard, who had a miraculous Game 6 and a steady Game 7. The Los Angeles Lakers forked up Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball because it won them a championship with Anthony Davis and LeBron in the bubble. The Warriors suffered through paying the luxury tax because it guaranteed them Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. Meanwhile, the Dallas Mavericks, with Doncic on his rookie scale contract, paid Wright $9 million instead of finding a secondary ball handler. And when that failed, they went to Johnson, who then turned into an injured and disgruntled Redick.
Instead of paying top dollar for a wing shooter who defends, the Mavericks paid Seth Curry, who after a solid season, they gave up to Philadelphia for a wing defender who struggled on defense and was abysmal on offense. In the NBA, you get what you pay for. This first round exist is exactly what Dallas paid for with a No. 19 ranked payroll in the league.
It’s not a coincidence that the last time the Mavericks paid the luxury tax – 2011- was the last time they won a championship.
The Moneyball method in building a team is always better in theory instead of practice. Organizations tend to forget that even that Moneyball Oakland Athletics baseball team didn’t win the World Series in 2002, that was the Angels, who ranked in the top half of the league in payroll.
Where to go from here:
The ‘how do you fix it?’ is always harder than pointing out the problem. But a place for the Mavericks to start is figuring out where they want to go with former All-Star Kristaps Porzingis.
I’ve already written extensively about Porzingis’ misuse during the playoffs, so I won’t beat a dead horse. However, the idea boils down to this: the Mavs didn’t pay Porzingis a max extension to function as a floor-spacing, role-player, big man. His current role on the team stems from the stylistic Luka-centered game the organization has bought into. Porzingis doesn’t fit that mold, so if he isn’t the answer, testing his value on the market should be the natural progression. And when asked about his role on the team moving forward, Porzingis chose to admit that he hasn’t thought about it. He just wants to control what he can control moving forward.
“I try to put in the work and work hard. I do my part and listen to the coaches. And that’s it. I try to keep it simple so I don’t overthink think. I try to focus on what I can control,” Porzingis said. “I’ll put the work in to get better, and the rest of the stuff will resolve itself.”
Outside of the Porzingis enigma, there is the asking price for Tim Hardaway Jr. He’s a sensational heat check player, but he can’t be one of the highest-paid players on a championship team. Dallas already admitted to having an interest in bringing him back, but in the name of improving the roster, it’s uncertain what Hardaway adds that he didn’t this season.
Looking at Maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith, they add great value, but with both of them in the rotation as two of Dallas’ top eight players, they aren’t moving the needle in the playoffs.
Richardson is an obvious one. He didn’t work out in Dallas, and extracting any sort of value for him this offseason will harbor difficulties, but it can be done.
In short, what I am saying is this: every player outside of Doncic needs to be looked at in the framework of will they change the game for Dallas in the NBA Playoffs? If that answer is no, then a change ought to be made.
Heading into the summer:
The Summer of 2019, set Dallas up for these two back-to-back first-round exits. However, the organization’s team-building philosophy has given Dallas a decade of first-round exits. Being frugal around the edges will only lead to playoff disappointment. And with the clock ticking on Doncic, whose only goal is winning an NBA championship, it’s time the Mavericks ditch Moneyball to start spending big.
In the NBA, it’s a zero-sum game. There is a limited number of talented top-end players in the league every year, and they often go to the highest bidder. It’s high time for Dallas to start putting its money where its mouth is and improve the roster heading into next season.
“I don’t know,” Porzingis said, regarding his thought process on how the Mavs can improve next season. “People up here are really smart, and they will make the right decision for this franchise moving forward.”
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Feature image via Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports.