The Dallas Mavericks' season ended a few weeks ago after losing in six games to the Los Angeles Clippers in the opening round of the playoffs. While many thought they didn't stand a chance at all against that team, Luka Doncic and Co. proved that this squad can more than hold its own against the top teams in the West. If it weren't for an injured Kristaps Porzingis and a banged-up Doncic later on in the series, Dallas might've found a way to pull off an upset.
The Mavs are now at home and watching the rest of the postseason unfold while this franchise looks toward the future and the upcoming offseason. There were many positives that came out of the 2019-20 season for Dallas, including a great first run of the Doncic-Porzingis pairing, a postseason berth for the first time since 2016 and an electrifying game-winning shot that for a moment had everyone thinking that perhaps the Mavs could beat the Clippers. The season didn't end in a championship, though, which is every team's ultimate goal. Still, the Mavericks will look to improve upon their success for a chance at getting closer to obtain that second franchise title.
Here are four key offseason questions facing the Mavericks before next season.
1. What will Luka improve upon in his third season?
After winning Rookie of the Year in his first season and being named an All-Star starter and to the All-NBA first team as a sophomore, Doncic is quickly checking off a lot of items on a to-do list that he made before entering the league. He also finished fourth in MVP voting this season, becoming the youngest player in NBA history to finish in the top five for that award. After the Mavericks lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Clippers, though, Doncic told the media that his focus this offseason will feature several aspects of his game, but specifically his shooting.
"There's a lot of things to improve on. You can't work on just one thing, you've got to work on everything," Doncic said. "But I'll especially work on my shooting. That's my key."
Among the 52 players who attempted six or more 3s per game, Doncic ranked 48th on the list. He shot just 31.6 percent from deep, a tick below what he averaged in his rookie season (32.7 percent), and still nowhere near the level of efficiency that Dallas needs him to be hitting them at if he's going to shoot nine a game. In the postseason, his shooting from 3-point range did improve considerably (36.4 percent), but he had a tendency to run hot and cold throughout their one series, where in two games he shot 16 percent from deep.
When Doncic is cooking from 3-point territory, he looks unstoppable, but throughout the season -- and the playoffs -- he wasn't consistent with the mechanics of his 3-point shot.
Sometimes he won't get enough lift under his shot, causing him to airball it. Other times his feet won't be set, or he'll rush through the movements to try and sell the contact and get a foul call, which doesn't always happen. Doncic is a savvy player, but he has to pick his spots better and be more consistent with his form every time he launches from deep.
While Doncic didn't specifically mention it, another area where he can stand to improve on offense in the offseason is his free-throw shooting. During the postseason, he attempted the second-most free throw shots of any player (10.7), but made them at a 65.6 percent clip. That's unacceptable for a player of his caliber to be such an inconsistent free-throw shooter. During the regular season, he improved his percentage from the charity stripe to 75.8 percent, but for a player who tries to create contact on his way to the rim, the Mavericks need him to shoot in the upper 80s from there.
Doncic has had two historic seasons in the league already, and although it may seem like he can't outdo himself, there's always areas for improvement even for someone as talented as him. He's already an elite passer and scorer. If he can get his shooting up a notch for next season, he'll continue to reach new heights of his game.
2. Should Porzingis' long-term health be a concern for Dallas?
Porzingis didn't play much against the Clippers as it was later discovered that the 7-foot unicorn suffered a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee in Game 1, which forced him to sit out the last three games in the first-round series. His absence was a monumental blow for a Dallas team that appeared to be holding its own in many of the contests against L.A., but the Mavericks had to keep the bigger picture in mind and realize this team is built for the future, not right now.
The meniscus tear is just the latest leg injury for the big man, whose list of ailments are incredibly lengthy (torn ACL, sore Achilles, sore knees, sprained ankles, strained quad, bruised thigh, sore foot and knee tendon inflammation). Porzingis said that he "can't be too frustrated" about the latest injury, given that its part of playing a contact sport, but the road map to his recovery still isn't entirely clear.
Porzingis received platelet-rich plasma injections to his right knee following the diagnosis, and he's hoping that will be enough to help his recovery process in order to avoid surgery, but the ruling is still out on that. If he does undergo surgery, that will just extend his recovery timeline further. With the start date for the 2020-21 season still up in the air, the undetermined amount of time bodes well for Porzingis to get strength back in his knee before the start of next season, but looking at the long-term future of this franchise, his injury issues should be a bit worrisome for Dallas.
The Mavericks signed Porzingis to a five-year, $158 million deal last summer, and they knew his injury history when they put pen to paper. They also knew the type of player he could become alongside Doncic. In the postseason, he was dangerous from downtown, shooting 52.9 percent, and averaging 23.7 points and 8.7 rebounds through three games. When he's healthy, Porzingis is the ideal partner for Doncic -- someone who can be a threat in the pick-and-roll by either catching a lob or popping out for a jumper -- but he has to stay healthy for this partnership to flourish.
No one should be pushing the panic button yet, but at 25 years of age, Porzingis has dealt with more injuries than one would hope for someone that young in this league. On the flip side of that, though, he has regained his form this season since tearing his ACL, proving that injury is far behind him now. He's been able to come back from every injury he's sustained, which is a positive sign for Dallas. It would just be beneficial if he didn't have to experience all these minor setbacks that forces him to sit out for chunks of the season.
Porzingis said his focus this offseason will be to get stronger in his legs to help prevent any sort of injury or soreness to them going forward. Hopefully that helps, and this string of injuries becomes less concerning in the next couple seasons. Otherwise, the Mavs will have a very expensive -- and incredibly talented -- player who can't stay on the court long enough to make a real impact when it matters.
3. How can the Mavericks add some toughness to the roster?
In Doncic's young NBA career, he's shown that he won't back down from trash-talk by an opposing player, and that reared its ugly head against the Clippers. L.A. is a physical team that built a reputation this season for playing a little chippy and talking trash, which greatly impacted the series for Dallas on several occasions. In Game 1, Doncic got into a verbal spat with Marcus Morris, which resulted in Porzingis getting in Morris' face to separate the two players. Morris shoved Porzingis, which led to a bizarre double technical, but because Porzingis already had a technical early in the game, he was ejected.
Even though K.P. didn't really escalate the situation, putting himself in between Doncic and Morris was a questionable move because from the referees' perspective all they're going to see is him trying to get into it with the Clippers. While it's great that Porzingis wanted to back up Doncic in that situation, he's far too important to the Mavs on both ends of the floor to risk getting into skirmishes that could lead to technical fouls, and in that case, an ejection.
That's where an enforcer comes in for Dallas.
The Mavericks haven't had a tough, physically imposing player who could fight the little battles since Tyson Chandler in 2011. Chandler wasn't afraid to bang around in the post and jaw with opposing players, which gave that championship team a little edge. They don't need someone who is just all talk and no substance, but they certainly need a guy on this roster who can take up for Doncic and Porzingis and be the fire of this team. The Clippers have two of those guys in Patrick Beverley and Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell. They get under opponents' skin, and in Harrell's case, are a valuable piece on both ends of the floor. The Mavericks desperately need someone to fill that role for this team, because Doncic will continue to get hunted by opposing teams in every game, and he won't be afraid to back down from them.
Someone who should be at the top of the Mavs' list to fill that role is Jae Crowder, who will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Crowder began his NBA career with Dallas, before being traded to Boston in the failed Rajon Rondo experiment, and he's raised his profile considerably in the postseason with the Miami Heat. Crowder is averaging 13 points and six rebounds, while shooting 38.5 percent from deep for Miami. He's a hard-nosed wing defender -- something Dallas can also benefit from -- and can knock down 3s on the other end. He'll likely have many suitors when the season's over, including Miami, but that type of player is who Dallas should be eyeing to make this team tougher next season.
4. How can this roster improve through free agency or trades?
Dallas will have six players who will either be restricted or unrestricted free agents this offseason, in addition to Tim Hardaway Jr. and Willie Cauley-Stein, who both will likely opt in to their player options. Among the free agents the Mavericks have, only one of them seems like a realistic option to bring back, Trey Burke, who was one of the pleasant surprises of the NBA bubble.
The other names hitting free agency include Courtney Lee, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Antonius Cleveland, Josh Reaves and JJ Barea, though all seem less likely to return considering none of them logged consistent minutes for the Mavs throughout the season, and only Kidd-Gilchrist saw action in the postseason. Barea has spent 11 of his 14 years in the league with Dallas, and even helped the team win a championship. Yet after tearing his Achilles two seasons ago, and with Dallas having a crowded backcourt, his minutes greatly diminished this year.
It's unclear how much cap space Dallas will be operating with given that the COVID-19 pandemic significantly hindered the league's revenue, but this team will have the opportunity to sign players to smaller contracts to improve. The Mavs can use that money the most on wing players, where they don't really have anyone to fill that role. Tim Hardaway Jr., can switch between shooting guard and small forward if Dallas wants to go small, but then he's typically overmatched on defense, and Dorian Finney-Smith hovers more between small forward and power forward.
In a league where having elite wing players are incredibly essential to have, Dallas needs to address that hole. It may not be this offseason, since every team will be trying to preserve as much cap space as possible for the 2021 offseason when two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo will hit the market, but it's something that's crucial for the Mavericks to have in order to take that next step toward championship contention.
As far as trades go, Dallas has limited options to put on the table. Players like Jalen Brunson and Maxi Kleber could draw teams in, but only if it's a situation where the Mavericks would be getting a great player back. Brunson and Kleber have been key guys for Dallas the past two seasons, so giving them up for the same level of player wouldn't make sense. Dallas does have the 18th overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, which might move the needle a bit more in a trade package, as well as the 30th pick. With a lackluster draft class, there aren't many names there who could make an immediate impact on this Dallas roster, something this team needs right now.
Whatever Dallas does in the offseason, though, it will be with the intention of pushing this team into the upper echelon of the Western Conference to compete for championships, something this franchise hasn't been in a position to do since the height of Dirk Nowitzki's career.