For the second consecutive season, the Dallas Mavericks’ brief stay in the NBA playoffs ended in the first round at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers.
Last year it was six games. This year it was seven games.
As the Mavs’ players and front office management met during Monday’s exit interviews to peel back the onion and determine what’s next for this franchise, re-signing unrestricted free agent small forward Tim Hardaway Jr. is at the top of the team’s offseason wish-list.
But as the Mavs look to surround point guard Luka Doncic with some more talent, that’s not all they’re looking to do this offseason.
“We’re in an upgrade business, as you know,” said Donnie Nelson, the Mavs’ president of basketball operations. “Whether it’s 17 (players), 16 (players), 15 (players), all the way up, we feel that we’ve got some really good pieces that fit with Luka. We feel that we’ve got some depth and some versatility.
“Of course if we can add another significant veteran with experience that is a standout, no-brainer, top three player on this roster, no question you pull the trigger and don’t look back whether it’s for trade or free agency. But we really do like the chemistry and the way things are moving and trending.”
Coach Rick Carlisle said a priority is to find a “rugged defender” that can compliment Doncic, who will be eligible to sign a rookie max contract extension this summer worth over $200 million spanning five years if he makes the All-NBA team this year.
“It’ll be great to find a rugged defender who is a deadeye shooter and can make some simple plays,” Carlisle said. “Hey look, our eyes are always open, and we have some young guys that are developing too. I think those are all realistic avenues.
“As we get into free agency and everything, we’re going to have some cap space. So there’s going to be some opportunities to do some things with the roster, but some of that is going to be a wait and see.”
After being eliminated from postseason play by the Clippers – the Mavs dropped Game 7 on Sunday, 126-111 — it’s clear that Doncic needs some help carrying the load. And whether it be through free agency or a trade — the Mavs don’t have a pick in this year’s draft — the Mavs plan on getting Doncic that necessary help.
“We’ll be aggressive in the offseason,” Nelson said. “It’s a big summer for us. We’re looking forward to putting the other building blocks in place. We’ll look internally first, as we always do. We like a lot of the things that we’ve seen.
“We think as a young team we’ve kind of taken the next step. Obviously we ran into a little bit of a veteran buzz saw (in the Clippers). Some of the guys we were slapping up against took it to a different level. But as we try to figure out the pieces to augment our situation we’ll meet with Rick, (owner) Mark (Cuban) and obviously the staff in the next couple of days and hit the ground running in Chicago (for the NBA Draft Combine on June 21-27).”
In addition to Hardaway, the other Mavs’ unrestricted free agents are center Boban Marjanovic, forward Nicolo Melli and guard JJ Redick. Also, guard Josh Richardson has a player option that pays him $11.6 million next season, while center Willie Cauley-Stein ($4.1 million) and guard Jalen Brunson ($1.8 million) each has a team option for next season.
“We think that we’re going in the right direction,” Nelson said. “This was another step, although right now today as we sit here we’re really disappointed.
“The good news is that we have some really good nice young pieces that fit together. And then of course we’ve got to add to that, which is our priority.”
Looking back, the Mavs finished this season fifth in the Western Conference with a 42-30 record. All four of the teams that finished ahead of the Mavs in the standings – Utah, Phoenix, Denver and the Clippers – made it out of the first round and are still playing.
The Mavs also won the Southwest Division — their fourth division title in franchise history — and were 21-15 at home and also 21-15 on the road. But it was clear the Mavs were a much better team on the road than they were at home.
That became very evident as the Mavs won three playoff games on the Clippers’ court, but lost all three of the playoff games that were played at American Airlines Center. If they could have won just one of those three home games, the Mavs would have advanced to the second round of the playoffs.
“It was excruciating for us,” Nelson said. “I think the momentum that we got on the road, the kind of reception that we got at home, our fans took this building to a whole another rock-ability. It was deafening in there. And to not be able to come up with the result was frustrating for all of us.
“The good news is against that (Clipper) squad, to win (three) road games and put ourselves into a Game 7 situation, you’re always pulling from those experiences and taking positives. But look, Game 6 is one we really should have tended to business, and we let one slip away. And then Game 7 anything can happen, and unfortunately they had a couple of guys that took it to a different level on both ends, and then they had some support off the bench that realty took it up as well.”
Because the Mavs have yet to win a playoff series since the 2011 championship season, they’re also looking to take things to a different level. The secret to that happiness coming to fruition will come from what moves the team will make this summer.
“We’ve got to do anything possible to upgrade the roster,” Carlisle said. “And we’re always looking for good defensive players.
“I think that’s an area where we continue to look at ways to improve, and that’s kind of where I see it.”
Carlisle has high hopes that the combination of forward/center Kristaps Porzingis and Doncic will rise up and become one of the top two tandems in the entire NBA. But so far, Porzingis’ issues with injuries has kept that progress for taking shape.
“KP’s health is the biggest thing,” Carlisle said. “I really felt as this series ended that his legs were as strong as we’ve seen them, his movement patterns were as positive as we’ve seen them, his defense in those (last) three games was the best that we’d seen.
“He’s a very unique player. I just think that there are so many things that he can do at 7-3 that very few guys in the history of the game that I’ve ever seen can do. We’ve got to keep studying our offense in ways to bring more of those positive things out.”
Thus, the changes the Mavs hope to make will be made with the idea of getting them to playing next-level basketball among the NBA’s elite.
“Look, the idea (this season) would have been to take the next step (and) get out of the first round,” Nelson said. “That would have been the prototypical block-by-block progression chart so to speak, but it didn’t happen.
“(The Clippers) matched us well, their veterans took it to a different level and we weren’t able to match that. As a result, we’re sitting here disappointed. But overall, we really like the core group. We would like to add, obviously talent, but this was a good successful, let’s call it a second-year trajectory.”
A second-year trajectory the Mavs made following a short offseason, a truncated 72-game season, and all in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic that saw several Mavs players miss a slew of games either with COVID-19 or due to contact tracing. Even Carlisle had to miss the April 2 game in New York City against the Knicks because he had a false-positive test for COVID-19 earlier that day.
Meanwhile, Saturday will mark the 10-year anniversary since the Mavs captured the franchise’s lone NBA title. And they’ve grown tired of being reminded that that’s also the last time they’ve gotten out of the first round of the playoffs.
“As we look forward to a productive summer for all our guys, training camp — which will be here before we know it — a fresh start and good health are very important things,” Carlisle said. “I can assure you this, we’re looking forward. We’re not an organization that’s living in the past and talking about a championship 10 years ago.
“We’ve got to work to keep moving this thing in the correct direction.”