The Mavericks began mandatory individual practice sessions Wednesday knowing that four players who once were in the playing rotation won’t be available when they start playing games in Orlando later this month.
So how did they come to the decision that 6-foot guard Trey Burke was the right player to fill one of those spots – the only open spot, as it turns out?
President of basketball operations Donnie Nelson walked us through the anatomy of a personnel decision that led to Burke’s signing on Wednesday. He technically will fill Willie Cauley-Stein’s spot on the roster. Cauley-Stein opted out of the Orlando bubble to be with his girlfriend for the birth of their first child, a move the Mavericks obviously endorsed.
So how did the decision come about to replace a center with a point guard? It starts with the Mavericks’ level of comfort with their big men. Allow Nelson to explain.
“It was really a function of the best player on the board, given our needs,” Nelson said Wednesday as the Mavericks convened for individual workouts at their practice facility. “Logic would say: we’re going to have to replace a center with a center.”
However, with guards Jalen Brunson and Courtney Lee out with injuries, the situation was not so simple. Plus, with Kristaps Porzingis, Maxi Kleber and Boban Marjanovic, how many minutes are going to be left at center?
“There aren’t free agents out there on the market that are going to replace those guys,” Nelson said. “And so you’re making the best of a difficult situation. The first thing you do is analyze (things). Is there anyone out on the marketplace at the five spot that’s better than Boban?
“KP is going to get the lion’s share of those minutes. Maxi’s going to back him up and Boban is our third center. So who in the marketplace would we play over Boban and the answer was none of the guys on the list that were willing to come to Orlando were as good as Boban.”
So the Mavericks were comfortable at center. And their forwards, especially in smaller lineups with Dorian Finney-Smith at power forward, were well-stocked with contributors.
That landed them in the backcourt. Lee had been a valued contributor in the time before the COVID-19 hiatus after Brunson’s shoulder injury. But Lee was lost when he got injured during the down time.
So, Nelson painted a picture of the nine-man rotation being Luka Doncic, Tim Hardaway Jr., Porzingis, Finney-Smith, Seth Curry, Kleber, Delon Wright, J.J. Barea and Justin Jackson. That leaves Marjanovic, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Antonius Cleveland to provide the rest of the depth.
“As we looked at the profile of the team, we felt there was more of a need at that backup (guard spot), scoring off the bench,” Nelson said. “It was looking at the depth and needs.
“And it wasn’t lost on us that Trey not only won an NCAA championship with Timmy, but also knew our system. He’s been with us, he understands us. We were looking at the best players on the board at the time, the centers or threes we looked at weren’t at the same level of punch and need for our team and that’s why we signed Trey.”
Nelson also has the responsibility of ultimately deciding how to best care for the Mavericks while they are in the Orlando bubble.
He and coach Rick Carlisle have worked closely with Mavericks director of player health and performance Casey Smith to give the team its best chance of being free of the coronavirus as they head to Orlando.
They will travel on July 8 and begin practices in training camp a few days later.
“We’re going to be in Orlando in probably one of the safest, most sterile environments in America (with) all the precautions that the league has taken,” Nelson said. “It’s not risk-free . . . it’s impossible to ensure ourselves of a 100 percent COVID-safe and COVID-free environment.
“Our guys are really excited, champing at the bit, tired of shooting one basket to one coach. We’re excited about getting on the plane going down there and hopefully making a nice run. There’s nothing more important than staying COVID-free. Positive tests involve being out of action.
“In a lot of respects, the teams that stay the healthiest will probably have the best chance of going deep (in the playoffs). And that is absolutely, 100 percent the most important thing that Casey and our medical team are being meticulous about now. We want to get on that plane on the eighth, we want everyone to be safe, COVID-free and enter the bubble with all our bodies intact, all of our players intact. That’s the most important thing.”
And what happens if there are players who become positive for COVID-19?
As Nelson said, it will be a fast scramble to get replacements, but they have their list of available free agents – as do all the other 21 teams going to Orlando.
The bright side is that the Mavericks are headed to the playoffs. The eight games to close out the “regular” season will be important for seeding purposes, but the Mavericks will – barring some crazy scenario – finish no lower than the seventh seed.
“It’s a sailor’s existence,” Nelson said. “These guys don’t know if they’re going to be at sea for a month or 2½ (months). Our hope is it’s a nice long run, closer to 2 ½ than a month.”
Grant to accompany Mavericks: Nelson said the Mavericks’ front-office representative for the duration of the stay in Orlando will be assistant general manager Keith Grant.
“Keith will be there logistically,” Nelson said. “And then it’s our traveling team. Mark (Cuban) and myself, Mike (Finley) will come and go (not in the inner bubble). But as far as logistically inside the bubble. Keith is the guy.
“Keith is on every road trip for it seems like the last hundred years. Keith has been invaluable for this franchise. Keith is historically the guy who goes on every trip, so he will represent us in the bubble.”