The Mavericks trade deadline presents a fundamental dilemma: Prioritize now or the future?
In Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” there’s a familiar scene on a water planet where Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway’s characters have to track down an old NASA probe. When they barely escape the massive waves and return to their ship, they discover that their one-hour mission lasted the equivalent of 23 years on Earth due to time dilation.
In the past two weeks, the Mavericks have lost twice to the Clippers, an all-too-easy parallel to the franchise’s two first-round losses to the same team in 2020 and 2021. N.B.A has hummed and moved around, these games can give the impression that time has slowed to a crawl. In Sunday’s 112-98 loss, the three Mavericks players who got the most minutes: Luka Doncic, Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith – were the same three players who played the most in the 2021 series. Dallas has, of course, changed and tweaked its roster over the past two years, but the sense of stagnation feels stronger in a matchup like this, especially considering the unsuccessful results.
The NBA’s trade deadline is 18 days. There is a growing feeling around the league that the Mavericks will make a move, and internal signs of unease from key figures in the organization have become more visible in recent days. last wednesday ESPN reported that Dončić “has strongly indicated” his desire to improve the squad. That night, the Mavericks lost to the Atlanta Hawks thanks to a terrible defensive effort.
“If it’s with this personnel, then you have to keep asking or demanding that these guys play defense,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said afterward. “It’s not just the offensive end.”
Kidd’s quote was notable for his harsh assessment of the team’s performance. But those first words — “if it’s with this staff” — feel even more remarkable in the big picture because Kidd often references the Twitter speech or hints at current stories when speaking to the media. If Dončić wants to see the team’s roster changed in the coming weeks, he probably wouldn’t be the only one within the Mavericks organization.
The Mavericks need a change. Dallas’ 25-23 record is its worst mark in 48 games since Dončić’s rookie season, and the team’s formulaic approach to its best performances, essentially a great performance by Dončić, in more than at least 15 made 3s, plus a stout defense that matches the ability to beat most teams in the league — has been too unreliable and frustrating to project meaningful postseason success.
Of course, this list should change. The hard part for Nico Harrison’s front office is deciding how.
Dallas is expected to trade its 2023 first-round pick to the New York Knicks this summer, which will finally allow Dallas to have full control over all future first-rounders. The Mavericks could certainly improve their roster this season by packing one for someone like, say Detroit‘s Bojan Bogdanović. (It should be a first round of 2025 or later, indeed). But those kinds of improvements, a 33-year-old not throwing them into title contention, only serve the team’s short-term interests. The team is unlikely to trade any first-round capital at this deadline for that reason.
The team, however, has an imminent decision to make Christian Wood, who becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer except for a season extension. If Dallas isn’t committed to re-signing him this summer, it begs the question of whether he should be traded in the coming weeks. But the 27-year-old center is a better fit for a team like Dallas, which has a roster short on talent and a role that needs to be filled. There are only so many franchises in similar situations around the league that the Mavericks could try to trade with. It limits Wood’s market, even though his time in Dallas has been pretty successful given expectations.
It is difficult to find the balance between a focus on the future and the pressures of the remaining season. Tim Hardaway Jr., a player the Mavericks openly looked to trade last year before his season-ending injury, is one example. While Hardaway’s decline in 2-point efficiency has made him a more one-dimensional scorer, his 3-point shooting remains a key cog in the team’s winning formula. Dallas is 10-3 when they hit at least four 3s and Dončić makes the play. Like me wrote earlier this month, “That’s the dilemma about any potential deadline deal: Should Dallas accept that it’s a team that needs Hardaway or aspire to become a team that doesn’t?”
Reggie Bullock he can see himself in a similar situation to Hardaway: someone who has been crucial to the team’s success in the past, but is almost certainly not a long-term contributor in the team’s future. Both he and Hardaway, if traded, could make the team worse this season, even if it helps the long-term vision of management’s attempts to build a title contender around Dončić.
An example of this current and subsequent situation is a potential trade that has been hotly debated by Mavericks fandom online: a straight trade of Hardaway for Cleveland‘s Dear LeVert. Yes, LeVert obviously has talent, but he’s been an inefficient scorer for most of his career. Dallas could trade Hardaway for a 30-game look to see if LeVert is a better fit next to Dončić than at previous career stops. But if he doesn’t, Dallas has a real chance to be a worse team in its final 30 games, and LeVert’s expiring contract means he leaves the team this summer for nothing.
There are endless player combinations and trade structures the Mavericks could and have considered, which we’ll continue to talk more about later this week. But while the need for change may be obvious to any fan or Hollywood movie director watching this team, the actual decisions this team must make are complicated by this present-future conundrum.
And if the team doesn’t feel there are moves that will help now and later, maybe they should just pick one.
(Top photo of Christian Wood and Luka Dončić: Tim Heitman/Getty Images)
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