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The Mavericks Are Running Out Of Time To Become Normal

DALLAS, TEXAS - MARCH 13: (L-R) Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving watch first-half play against the Memphis Grizzlies at American Airlines Center on March 13, 2023 in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images)
Sam Hodde/Getty Images

Read one way, the Dallas Mavericks' 104-88 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday featured plenty to be excited about. Absent his two best players, Jason Kidd handed the keys to the offense to 22-year-old Josh Green and 20-year-old Jaden Hardy, and the two youngsters combined for 51 points, 13 boards, 10 assists, and eight three-pointers. Off the bench, second-year point guard McKinley Wright IV scored the team's third-most points. The Mavericks have needed more juice for what feels like 10 straight seasons now, and seeing two extremely inexperienced guards take on a bigger role and acquit themselves well in a national TV game against a physical, combative team like the Grizzlies is a very promising sign. A team that's as short on picks as the Mavericks really needs their guys to hit, and it seems like they have.

The problem is, it's March and the Mavericks are trying to win a championship this year. Developmental success and promising signs that your draft picks can play basketball are nice things to see, though all the future-casting doesn't matter when you just made a huge swing on a win-now trade, are 34-35, and stand a real danger of missing the play-in tournament just one year removed from a staggering conference finals run. You cannot be playing McKinley Wright IV this many minutes if you want to win a title in a few months.

A bit of daylight is starting to peek through on the clogged-up Western Conference standings, with the Clippers and Warriors getting themselves right enough to clamp down on the last two automatic playoff spots. The Blazers seem to be letting go of the rope, but the Mavs, who were up in the safety of fourth place one month ago, are in the middle of the six-team clump between seventh and 12th separated by two games. They're probably playing the worst basketball out of everyone in that group.

The cause here is not complicated. Luka Doncic had to leave last week's loss to the Pelicans with a thigh injury, which caused Kyrie Irving to play 41 minutes and hurt his foot, which then caused him to miss two games against Memphis. Christian Wood is also out. Every team suffers without their best players, though few are as schematically dependent on theirs as Dallas is. For three years now, the Mavericks offense is set up to space the floor out for Luka Doncic. He dribbles for like 14 seconds, puts his shoulder into someone, makes a tough shot, then screams at the nearest referee as he runs back to get smoked on defense. That's their whole thing, and as crude as it's been, it won them two playoff series last year.

The clear unsustainability of that brand of offense prompted the team to trade for Kyrie Irving at the deadline, a risky move for both on-court (the Mavs' defense is already stinky) and off-court (lol) reasons that nonetheless makes a crude degree of sense. Early results were bumpy, but the two are +7.2 per 100 possessions in their 232 minutes together, with a Sacramentonian 120.6 offensive rating. Their team is also 3-6 in the nine games they've played together, and as last night's dismal showing against the Grizzlies highlighted, the rest of the team isn't exactly clicking; non-Hardy or Green Mavs shot a combined 16-for-50 from the field. Since making the trade, the team is 6-9.

Considered alongside their injury and identity issues, this is all quite concerning. The Mavs have more talent than most of their fellow play-in teams, but their inability to stop anyone makes a one-off game feel extra-risky. Last night's loss felt telling. Hardy's shotmaking kept them in the game for the first half, though it only delayed the inevitable. Eventually, his water got turned off, and the Grizz won a comfortable game through explosive muscularity. Maxi Kleber and Tim Hardaway and Dwight Powell should not be getting bullied by rookie David Roddy, yet they couldn't do a thing. With the caveat that everyone has a tendency to overrate their teams' talismanic Weird Wing Guy, Dorian Finney-Smith was a lynchpin for the Mavs, and a bedraggled Reggie Bullock is showing why he was benched. This team will still have the best player in most matchups, and their schedule is tissue-soft the rest of the way. They're still going to have to do it in the play-in, though, which gives them zero time to cohere and harsh consequences for failing to do so.

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