The Long Two: Warriors are back and the Mavs have arrived

Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, NBA

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This isn’t the same Golden State team that once ran the NBA, but these playoffs have proven that Steph, Draymond and the Warriors are still a force.

Only for a team spoiled by dynastic success could two years away from the NBA Finals seem like an eternity, and yet it feels like forever ago that the Golden State Warriors hung over the rest of the NBA like a storm cloud waiting to pour.

After seeing the best team in modern NBA history crumble in 2019, the Warriors spent the next two seasons toiling in the wilderness, decimated by injuries and stuck between trying to maximize the rest of their veterans’ primes and working new players into their system. Even this season, Golden State only looked like a championship contender in flashes. A dominant early-season defense and a return to the free-flowing offense that defined the peak Warriors evinced a team that could get back to the NBA Finals if everything broke right.

But overlapping injuries to Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Steph Curry turned seemingly every break against Golden State. Meanwhile, ascendant young teams like the Grizzlies and Mavericks accelerated their timelines while the Suns steamrolled to one of the best regular seasons in NBA history. It was as if the basketball gods wanted to make clear that this was not going to be the Warriors’ year.

This Warriors team is different but built on the same foundation

Now, 10 weeks after Curry suffered a foot sprain that jeopardized the team’s title hopes, Golden State stands on the precipice of its sixth Finals appearance in eight years, a run of sustained dominance matched only by a handful of teams in NBA history. This iteration of the Warriors isn’t the near-invincible monolith that claimed consecutive titles or the scrappy upstart that revolutionized the sport.

Instead, it’s a team that embodies the “Strength In Numbers” ethos, with the assurance and resolve that can only come from being thoroughly tested in the playoff crucible. That’s a testament to the skill, toughness and longevity of the team’s principal figures, but also to the contributions from the rest of the team. Most every Warrior who has seen rotation minutes in the playoffs has provided some sort of meaningful contribution, even as the team became increasingly thin due to injuries.

This is one of the many benefits of structuring a team around a selfless group of veterans whose play style maximizes everyone around them. The value of Curry and Green’s partnership, in particular, isn’t just in how easy they make the game for one another, but in the way they unlock other smart, unselfish players who understand the system.

The Mavericks are one of the best teams in the NBA at taking opponents out of their initial action and forcing them into less preferable options. The issue with defending the Warriors is how easily they pivot into the next option, and the next, and the next, until suddenly a shooter springs loose for 3 or a screener cuts down the lane for a layup. The action is often random, and because no one dominates the ball every player is a threat to score on a given possession.

After shutting down the NBA’s first- and third-ranked offenses in successive playoff rounds, Dallas has looked mostly helpless against Golden State’s dynamic, decentralized attack, allowing nearly 121 points per 100 possessions in four Conference Finals games. The Mavs shrunk the court against the Jazz and Suns, taking away the shots their opponents wanted most and forcing them into slightly worse looks. But the Warriors have made Dallas cover more ground and react on the fly, leaving an elite defense uncharacteristically out of sorts.

The Mavericks have generally varied their coverages well and generated good shots in the series — especially in Tuesday’s Game 4 win — and it simply hasn’t mattered against an opponent playing with superior pace, instinct and execution. Curry has been the best late-game scorer in the playoffs, but it’s the way he subtly pulls defenses apart over an entire game that makes him such a devastating offensive weapon.

It’s not enough just to get over a ball screen, take away the pull-up 3 and make Curry give the ball up; defenders must also stay glued to him as he runs around the court without the ball, which creates breakdowns that the Warriors exploit with surgical precision. If NBA statisticians tracked “gravity assists” (as they do screen assists) Curry would lead the league by a wide margin, and Golden State has generated 33 shots in this series as a result of him attracting multiple defenders in the pick-and-roll or with his off-ball movement:

That the Warriors have two other players in Thompson and Jordan Poole who also create that effect only makes things harder for Dallas. The panic those shooters induce with their movement forms wider seams in the defense, and perhaps no Warrior has benefited more from those openings than Andrew Wiggins.

The eighth-year wing is playing the best all-around basketball of his life and has been the most important part of Golden State’s success in the playoffs outside of Curry and Green. Playing off of his teammates’ movement has activated Wiggins as a cutter, and while his 3-point shot has come and gone during the playoffs, he’s compensated by attacking the offensive glass, making assertive decisions and playing within the flow of the offense.

His most important contribution in this series — and where he truly changes the Warriors’ complexion — has been his defense against Luka Dončić. Any individual defender tasked with slowing one of the game’s best offensive weapons goes into it with at least some acceptance of the fact that he will get beat, and Dončić has gotten the better of Wiggins many times.

The goal, however, isn’t to take Dončić out of the game entirely, but to make his shots as difficult as possible and to spare more limited defensive teammates from getting abused. Wiggins has done both of those things extremely well in this series, fully committed to fighting over ball screens, applying on-ball pressure and contesting every shot as best he can, and he looks a completely different player than the shot-hungry, apathetic defender who disappointed in Minnesota.

This is the player the Warriors believed they were getting when they traded D’Angelo Russell for Wiggins and a pair of draft picks in 2020. Wiggins had plenty of warts in his game, but his athleticism, length, ball skills and shooting ability could be useful to a team trying to win a championship if channeled in the right ways. It took him the better part of two seasons to refine his shot selection, hone his defensive habits and learn Golden State’s offense, but Wiggins is now an indispensable part of a team within arm’s reach of an NBA title.

Curry’s joy and Green’s intensity have clearly rubbed off on the more stoic Wiggins, who’s playing with force on both ends, talking on defense and outwardly displaying more emotion than he ever did as a Timberwolf. The Warriors deserve credit for facilitating that transformation, but so does Wiggins for buying into an essential role that would allow him to actually impact winning.

Golden State’s championship hopes ultimately rest on how well its stars play against Boston or Miami’s tenacious defense, but they’ll also depend on how much they get out of ancillary players, and both variables should give the Warriors cause for optimism.

How can the Mavericks build on this season?

Barring an unprecedented comeback in the Western Conference Finals, the Mavericks’ season will meet its end this week after the franchise’s best postseason finish since 2011. This season was a statement of Dallas’ arrival as a bona fide title contender, and soon the work of staying in the NBA’s inner circle will begin. A midseason jolt propelled the Mavs to a top-10 offense and defense over the last half of the regular season, and the team proved adaptable against different playoff opponents, resilient in the face of adversity and more than capable of scoring against some of the best defensive teams in the NBA. Next year they’ll be playing under the weight of greater expectations, and the urgency to maximize the 23-year-old Luka Dončić’s prime will increase.

There are two general theories of how a team can build around a superstar playmaker like Dončić (rarely can front offices accomplish both): it can double down on offense by surrounding him with shooting and secondary playmaking, or it can try to supplement a high offensive baseline with a defensive-minded roster. This season, the Mavs leaned into the former style, using a five-out attack with three playmakers to scramble defenses off the dribble and create open 3s while scheming together an effective defense with relatively limited personnel. Jason Kidd transformed what had been a bottom-10 defense into a top-10 outfit, and the principles that defined the Mavs’ success on that end are ones they can build upon in future seasons. But having seen their offense stall out at times while struggling to track all of Golden State’s shooting threats could cause Dallas to rethink its philosophy over the offseason.

As things currently stand, the most pivotal decision the Mavericks will face is whether or not to retain Jalen Brunson, who will likely earn between $15-20 million annually in free agency (a significant increase over his $1.8 million salary this season). Because he was a second-round pick in 2018, Brunson will be an unrestricted free agent, which means Dallas can’t simply match another team’s offer sheet to keep him like teams can for most players coming off rookie-scale deals. The Mavericks can exceed the salary cap to keep Brunson because they have his Bird rights, but even without him on the books, this will be an expensive team moving forward (though Mark Cuban has historically been willing to pay the luxury tax for championship-caliber teams). Dallas could create cap space by letting Brunson walk and trading two or three of Dwight Powell, Dāvis Bertāns, Spencer Dinwiddie and Tim Hardaway Jr., but as things stand they’ll have only the mid-level, biannual and minimum exceptions to sign free agents.

Losing Brunson would diminish the Mavs’ firepower and reduce their margin for error (or injury) on offense, but it wouldn’t necessarily cripple them, depending on the replacement. For all of his individual scoring craft and success against Utah and Phoenix, his on-court fit with Dončić has never been seamless, and the Conference Finals have highlighted some of Brunson’s weaknesses — namely his inability to consistently create for teammates, his physical limitations on defense and his lack of a reliable pull-up 3-pointer.

Many of his best skills are things Dončić is better at, and he may not provide enough as a defender or off-ball weapon to outweigh those diminishing returns. Replacing Brunson with a bigger, more versatile wing who could space the floor around Dončić and provide more defensive utility might put Dallas in a better position to switch and cover for Dončić on defense. Yet given Dallas’ cap situation and the advantage of having Brunson’s Bird rights, the most practical option seems to be keeping Brunson and proceeding with mostly the same core it has now.

If there’s a glaring hole on the roster, it’s at center, where Dwight Powell has been unreliable defensively and Maxi Kleber doesn’t possess quite the size or physicality to play full-time. The Mavs had success playing small this postseason, though it has often been their only viable two-way alignment and noticeably compromised their rebounding, paint protection and scoring at the rim.

A D-and-dive center like Rudy Gobert would help fix those issues and give Dončić a pick-and-roll lob target who can stay on the floor throughout a playoff series. He would also help mask Dončić’s poor defense, which has been a major problem for the Mavs throughout the postseason. Dallas could also target other centers on the free agent and trade markets, or go the other direction and redouble its commitment to playing small by chasing versatile wings.

The Mavericks’ improvement next season will also depend heavily on how Dončić alters his own game. Arguably Dallas’ biggest problem right now is that its best player isn’t in good enough shape to carry the offensive workload he does and still hold up on defense. Both the Suns and Warriors have exploited Dončić’s slow feet and poor effort on defense, and while Dallas has found ways to hide him from targeted pick-and-roll attacks, that kind of preventative scheming compromises the team’s defense in other ways. The Warriors haven’t been as intentional about going after Dončić on the perimeter as the Suns were, but they’ve exploited him just as effectively by forcing him to cover ground, work through off-ball actions and make multiple efforts.

In addition to improving his conditioning, one way for Dončić to get better on defense might be by dominating the ball less on offense. His 40 percent usage rate this postseason leads the NBA, and the amount of energy he expends bringing the ball up the floor, constantly running pick-and-rolls and driving into the teeth of elite defenses has clearly sapped his energy on the other end.

Making himself into a better and more willing cutter, screener or catch-and-shoot threat would diversify his game and allow him to thrive alongside other playmakers (and vice versa) rather than taking turns running the offense and standing in the corner. The prospect of a more versatile Luka who can play off the ball strengthens the case for re-signing Brunson and holding onto Dinwiddie. The three played just 120 minutes together in the regular season, and if Dončić could even slightly recalibrate his offensive approach the Mavericks might have a more dynamic playoff offense.

Maybe fretting over the fit between Dallas’ playmakers is overthinking the situation, and calling for substantive changes to an effective ecosystem misses the obvious point that the Mavs came within an arm’s reach of the NBA Finals. Perhaps a different Conference Finals matchup would have yielded a different result, and Dallas would have definitive proof that it can contend for championships exactly as constituted. Instead, we learned how much distance still exists between the Mavs and the West’s best team.

Golden State may have another year or two to compete for titles with its current core; Memphis will enter next season with a realistic chance of winning the West, Phoenix remains a threat, Denver will get healthy and Minnesota will get better. Dallas can’t afford to lose ground on any of those teams, and with Dončić now squarely in the front end of his prime, the clock is ticking.

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