How The Dallas Mavericks Built A Title Contender In A Year

The 2022-23 season was a gigantic disappointment for the Dallas Mavericks. A year after reaching the Western Conference Finals, the franchise took a huge step back due to their own mistakes in judgement. The Mavs had scrapped their initial plan for how to build around Luka Doncic, initially pairing him with Kristaps Porzingis in what became an ill-fated tandem, and misjudged Jalen Brunson’s ascent, leaving them at a talent deficit going into the year after he bolted for New York.

Despite Doncic’s brilliance, the Mavs sputtered, and tried a Hail Mary at the trade deadline to bring in Kyrie Irving to provide Doncic with some needed offensive support. The two found success on that end, but the Dallas defense was a disaster, and they eventually tanked out of the Play-In race to increase the likelihood they held onto their first-round draft pick, which was top-10 protected in 2023. That was, at the time, a controversial move, but it paid off as they held steady at No. 10, giving them an opportunity to add young talent to a roster that didn’t have a lot of avenues for offseason upgrades.

It was critical for the Mavs to nail the summer of 2023, needing to right the wrongs of the summers prior and figure out how to build out a balanced roster around their two backcourt stars. They started with a Draft night trade that saw them drop back to 12th so they could dump Davis Bertans’ salary, still landing the player they had long been connected to in Duke center Dereck Lively II. Then, they added Richaun Holmes and the 24th pick, which turned into Olivier Maxence-Prosper, from the Kings by absorbing Holmes’ deal into the trade exception created by the Bertans deal.

They also had no choice but to give Irving a three-year max deal that was considered a bit risky given his recent history. From there, they tried to bolster their frontcourt defense by adding Grant Williams on a long-term deal as part of a sign-and-trade, hoping he could be a versatile wing defender and floor-spacer in a starting role, filling the void left by Dorian Finney-Smith after the Irving trade. They also brought in Derrick Jones Jr. on a minimum deal, adding the high-flyer in their continued quest to add some defensive-minded wings. Finally, they signed Seth Curry, bringing a familiar face back to Dallas in hopes he could regain his past form as a high-level three-point threat.

After spending years trying to figure out the formula to building a contender around Doncic, it seemed the Mavs finally had a vision. They felt they had the right secondary creator and shotmaker in Irving, and chose to build the rest of the surrounding roster out of defenders and play-finishers. It was a coherent plan, but required some further fine-tuning to get it right.

Not all of those offseason moves worked out. Lively emerged as an immediate impact player on both ends, giving Dallas some much-needed rim protection and a terrific lob threat for Doncic and Irving who didn’t need the ball otherwise. Jones Jr. quickly became their starting small forward, giving them some needed length on the perimeter and similarly embracing a role as a play-finisher while shooting a career-best 34.3 percent from behind the arc. The other three failed to pan out. Holmes was unable to regain his form and really crack the rotation, Curry likewise struggled to make a real impact, and Williams simply never fit in his new role in Dallas. As the deadline approached, the Mavs realized there was still work to do to make this team — which was at the time a bottom-10 defense in the league — a real contender.

The Mavs moved their three sputtering summer acquisitions in two trades that changed their trajectory as a team. Holmes got flipped to Washington along with a first round pick for Daniel Gafford, while they sent Williams, Curry, and another future first to Charlotte for PJ Washington. Gafford added another strong rim protector and lob finisher, meaning the Mavs are able to keep at least one elite shot blocker on the floor who is also a strong pick-and-roll partner for their guards at all times. Washington gave them the versatility defensively they were seeking by adding Williams, and seemed more comfortable in his role, even with spottier three-point shooting — of course, he caught fire in their series against the Thunder, which was crucial as Dallas won that series.

Potential was not the concern of this Mavs team, as they needed players that could impact winning now. However, when few teams want to be sellers at the deadline, you can’t often find players with strong track records in winning situations. The difficulty in adding players coming from aimless, struggling teams — like the Wizards and Hornets — is deciphering which deficiencies are the player’s and which are the product of their situation. Dallas provided a bit of a blueprint for how to do it with the acquisitions of Washington and Gafford, as they focused on finding players with strengths that would fit specific roles they had in mind.

There was undoubtedly risk involved in moving future first round picks for those two players, but they were calculated risks. The Mavs needed to build a contender sooner than later to satiate the desires of their young superstar, as the unforgiving clock we put on superstars was already ticking on the 25-year-old Doncic. The Mavs, as such, had to be willing to risk future assets to prove to Doncic they were moving in the right direction, particularly after some significant missteps in the past. They did just that and righted the wrongs of the past by having a plan for who they brought in that went beyond simply seeking out talent. By having a defined role waiting for them, they were able to immediately focus Washington and Gafford in ways they simply weren’t in their past homes. The same can be said for Jones Jr., who has long been a ball of potential, but was never given a role to fully thrive in that asked him to simply play to his strengths.

What Dallas did over the past calendar year, starting in June and continuing through the February deadline, has been an incredible job of crafting a plan with clear input from the coaching staff and executing on a team-building vision. Rather than trying to add more cooks to the kitchen, they recognized they had the two chefs they needed and worked to build a functioning team around them on both ends of the floor. The Mavs added players with a defensive mindset that would be able to execute Jason Kidd’s vision for what the defense should look like. They also realized that floor spacing isn’t just loading up behind the three-point line, using vertical spacing in the form of lob threats to further stretch the floor and take advantage of their lead star’s incredible gifts as a passer.

It’s not that every move Nico Harrison and his staff have made has been perfect, but there has been a humility with which they’ve operated that you don’t often see. Ego is the worst attribute of an executive, as it leads to being defiant in the face of evidence something isn’t working. Harrison, to his credit, recognized opportunities when they presented themselves and moved quickly to fix errant decisions, most notably the Williams addition. They were able to do that in part because they didn’t take a singular swing on a boom-or-bust third star once they locked in Irving — who deserves credit for embracing his place on this team and making that extension look like a no-brainer in hindsight when it was anything but. By working more on the margins, they always had outs in the form of tradable contracts that could bring back players they deemed misused or underutilized by other teams — it’s always easier to move an underperforming player who makes $16 million, rather than $32 million.

Thanks to a year of wheeling and dealing, the Mavs find themselves in the NBA Finals with a team that looks every bit a threat to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. The credit for this run goes throughout the organization. The front office has steadily figured out the right build for this roster and pulled the necessary strings to put a strong two-way team together. Jason Kidd has pushed the right buttons, getting players to buy-in on both ends of the floor and crafting a system on both ends of the floor that plays to the strengths of not only his stars but role players as well. And most importantly, the players have embraced their roles up and down the roster, recognizing the opportunity to be a part of something special and being willing to put the team’s success first.