Sunday, March 3, 2024

New-look Mavericks make strong opening statement after bold trade deadline moves

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DALLAS — The new-look Dallas Mavericks have already taught us one thing: They’re going to be fun.

Dallas smashed the Oklahoma City Thunder 146-111 on Saturday in the debut games for trade deadline additions P.J. Washington and Daniel Gafford, building a demonstrative lead early with a franchise-record-setting 47 point first quarter and parrying away the Thunder’s only real comeback attempt when they cut the lead to four points in the second. It was high-flying basketball featuring 11 dunks from six different Mavericks, just one away from the team’s highest number of dunks in a game this season. Both new additions, in fact, scored their first points with their new franchise on lobs from Luka Dončić.

“It’s amazing,” said Gafford when asked about Dončić referring to him as the type of center he’s wanted for years. “A guy of his caliber liking a guy like me, it just feels like I’ve never had that happen before.”

Dallas (30-23) now has two such centers, although breakout rookie Dereck Lively II missed Saturday’s game, his fifth straight, with a broken nose. Lively is seventh in the league in dunks this season, but Gafford is eighth without pick-and-roll maestros like Dončić and Kyrie Irving feeding him passes. When Lively returns, perhaps in one of the team’s two remaining games before the All-Star break, Dallas will be able to deploy 48 minutes of high-rising center play. Which is, of course, the main reason that the team sought to acquire him.

Washington also dunked twice, matching the total Grant Williams, the man he replaced, tallied in his entire 47-game stint in Dallas. Williams didn’t fit, and recent reports that his personality exacerbated his on-court struggles in Dallas have some truth to them. But it was his struggle to fit in on the court that was the primary reason he was moved before the trade deadline. Since general manager Nico Harrison took over, the Mavericks’ front office has very visibly skewed toward putting more athleticism around Dončić. Williams was a brief departure from that ethos — albeit in an offseason that saw the Mavericks also acquire former Slam Dunk Contest winner Derrick Jones Jr. — and his inability to attack closeouts or serve as a top point-of-attack defender wasn’t what Dallas wanted. Once Williams’ shooting struggles began, the front office began reconsidering his fit.

In Washington, the Mavericks now have a player much more capable of attacking on the move. Mavericks coach Jason Kidd highlighted one specific play in his post-game comments, one where Jones assisted Washington for an easy dunk after Washington’s drive-and-kick left him free at the rim.

 

Dunks are just one representation of athleticism, but it’s a telling one. In Dončić’s rookie season, Dallas averaged 5.2 dunks per game. That average has declined in each ensuing season, cratering at just 3.7 such attempts per game in 2022-23. This season’s Mavericks have come closest (4.9 per game) to matching the team’s mark in Dončić’s rookie season, and the additions of Washington and Gafford might finally move this unit past that 2018-19 mark.

Dallas is led by two non-dunkers, sure, with Dončić and Irving completing just two apiece this season. But dunks are a representation of autonomy.

“(It’s) the ability to have athletes who can put the ball on the floor and not have to worry about Luka and (Kyrie) doing all the work,” Kidd said.

Dallas’ success this season has been intertwined with its 3-point shooting: The team is 23-9 when converting more shots from distance than its opponent. But Dallas beat Oklahoma City even though they took (37) and made (15) fewer 3s than its season-long average. And since the Thunder made 17 such shots in a losing effort, the win was Dallas’ seventh in the 21 instances where it converted fewer long balls than its opponent.

“We’ve been a team that’s going to shoot a lot of 3s,” Kidd said. “There will be nights where we do that because of the double teams, but there’s (also) going to be nights where we can dominate the paint.”

Good teams learn to win in different ways, and Saturday’s win felt like an education in that. The Thunder’s young core has made the league notice them this season, and they arrived in Dallas on four days of rest. But the Mavericks now have just two rotation players over the age of 25, and the team’s hectic schedule — this was their fourth game in six nights — didn’t stop them from running over the Thunder to the tune of 33 fast-break points. And while the Mavericks’ offensive rebounding stats weren’t as dominant, Gafford did earn a half-minute ovation from the American Airlines Center crowd with this contested rebound that led to free throws.

The trade deadline additions represent a doubling down on the explosiveness Dallas set out to achieve early this season, one which has the team eighth in the league in pace. Dallas is just 26th in offensive rebounding percentage, but Gafford’s inclusion should help tick that number upward. In the Dončić era, Dallas has never been this athletic with this many players capable of two-way production. And after two long months slogging through various injuries, Dallas appears on course to finally be fully healthy following the All-Star break. We’ll learn then, surely, how good this team might actually be.

That’s the most important question, one which will either vindicate or raise more eyebrows about the price Dallas paid to change the team at the deadline. It isn’t about the front office trading two future first-round picks — they had to at some point — but about whether making these moves now represented the best the team could yield out of what they had to spend. That will be a running season-long narrative to keep checking in on.

What Dallas did on Saturday certainly looked dominant in a manner we haven’t often seen this season. It’ll take more time to know how real that is. But that journey, if Saturday told us anything, will be a fun one to witness.

(Top photo: Glenn James / NBAE via Getty Images)

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