by Paul West
‘Built for the playoffs’ was, not too long ago in the grand scheme of things, a fairly new arrival to the mainstream sports lexicon. It’s since become something of an overused cliche, and even a fallback narrative for teams who underperform in the regular season.
Still, there is such a thing; and every so often, we see it round into form. The 2021-22 Dallas Mavericks look like just such a team.
When the Mavs acquired players like Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie, it was to take pressure off their central figure: Luka Doncic, a generational talent; who’s already put up historic numbers by age 23 and drawn comparisons to all-time greats. Doncic is built like a forward in terms of size and frame, but an elite shooter from all over the floor and an astounding playmaker and passer–a Larry Bird/Magic Johnson hybrid of sorts; in this way, he and Lebron James–a Bird/Magic hybrid in his own right, though more physically dynamic and not as elite a shooter–are in a category unto themselves. Unlike Lebron, however, Doncic is a mostly below the rim player who can’t impose his will via pure physical dominance (which, as an aside, is why LeBron is so special: while not quite the shooter Doncic is or Bird was, he uses his NFL linebacker physique to bring a Wilt Chamberlain-like force of nature element to his historic combination of size, vision, passing, and skill)….which is why, in a playoff setting, his version of a one-man show is harder to sustain. Even as he’s gotten lighter and fitter, and gone easy on the kind of wear & tear that’s contributed to soft-tissue injuries, the Mavs were always destined for early playoff exits as long as Doncic comprised so much of their threat potential. Hence the aforementioned acquisitions.
At first glance, picking up Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie seemed designed to give Luka some back court help and someone to run the second unit while he recharged; but their net effect was questionable. Or so many of us thought. Instead, Doncic’s playoff-eve calf injury–which most observers believed meant doom for the Mavericks—-turned out to be a happy accident, as Brunson broke through in spectacular fashion and their roleplayers showed they’d been previously underestimated.
Brunson and Dinwiddie, suddenly called upon to be a starting backcourt, gave the Mavs a dynamic combination of shooting, playmaking, and backcourt rebounding; they also provided leadership and energy to a team many thought would deflate in the absence of their centerpiece. Doncic, to his credit as both leader and teammate, was an enthusiastic supporter from the sidelines as his former second fiddle spent a week looking virtually unguardable; meanwhile, the Mavs’ supporting cast played with a classic ‘prove you wrong’ chip on their collective shoulders. Dorian Finney-Smith fleshed out his D-and-three role and became more consistently dynamic at both ends of the floor; center Dwight Powell flourished in an unexpected scoring role, one he’d begun via Luka’s lob passes and pick-and-roll rim-rocking and now continued via Brunson’s skillful deliveries; and Reggie Bullock, never quite given his shot with the Knicks, underwent a transformation like Finney-Smith’s: from D-and-3 specialist to an aggressive rebounder and disruptor, who flavor-enhanced the Mavs the full length of the floor. Dinwiddie stat-stuffed in a variety of ways, sometimes providing scoring and other times just grabbing boards and playmaking but always providing presence and leadership.
Together, Brunson and the Mavericks puled off a first-round upset of the Utah Jazz, capped by a fabulous return performance by Doncic–who fit in well with his newly blooming supporting cast, rather than overshadowing them or jumping into a hero-ball role. Dinwiddie moved back to the second unit, and the Mavs suddenly looked and felt like well-rounded team with a two-headed monster of a backcourt and game-changing roleplayers. Just as importantly, the Mavs looked and felt like a team that played with the power of belief.
Going into the second round, the Mavericks face a Phoenix Suns team whose vulnerabilities were exposed by a team that was as much of a one-man show as the Mavs were until recently: the Denver Nuggets, a decimated squad trying to win on force of will and do-it-all MVP Nicola Jokic. Granted, the Suns dealt with injuries of their own, most notably to Devin Booker; but the blueprint is now set. The Mavericks are a dangerous team, led by an MVP candidate and suddenly characterized by tenacity and depth; and they were already a 50-win team, despite their aforementioned flaws and injuries. All of a sudden, they look like a team that the Western Conference should take very seriously.