For the second successive season, the Dallas Mavericks have been eliminated in the first round of the NBA playoffs. It's a particularly disappointing exit for Luka Doncic, who has proven himself to be one of the league's best young players.
Doncic did all he could to push the Los Angeles Clippers to seven games, averaging 35.7 points (the highest among all postseason players), 10.3 assists, 7.9 rebounds and 1.3 steals while shooting 49.0 percent overall and 40.8 percent from three.
The 22-year-old's 46 points and 14 assists generated 77 total points in the series finale, the most ever in a playoff Game 7, per Elias.
Still, it wasn't enough to get the Mavericks out of the first round. Again.
It goes without saying this is an important offseason in Dallas.
Change is needed for growth, but in what areas? What options do the Mavs have in free agency and the trade market? What does the future have in store for Kristaps Porzingis and head coach Rick Carlisle? Despite his age, Dallas can't afford to be patient with Doncic, or risk going down the same path of another young superstar.
There don't appear to be any major coaching changes in store, as team owner Mark Cuban told ESPN's Tim McMahon that Carlisle would be keeping his job.
The 61-year-old has been Dallas' head coach since the 2008-09 season, winning a championship in 2011. Since then, however, Carlisle has yet to make it out of the first round in six attempts.
This has primarily been a roster issue, however, as Dirk Nowitzki was going into the twilight of his career with little young talent around until Doncic was drafted in 2018.
With no change at head coach, what else needs to stay the same?
Doncic is still on his rookie deal and will be back. The Mavs also have some role players on great contracts as well, including Maxi Kleber ($8.9 million), Dorian Finney-Smith ($4.0 million) and Jalen Brunson ($1.8 million). There's no reason why all shouldn't return.
Single Stars Aren't Enough
The overall problem with the Mavericks is the pure averageness of the roster outside of Doncic.
Dallas finished 10th in net rating this season (plus-2.3), although there's still real defensive concerns (112.3 rating, 21st overall). The Mavs were also near the middle of the pack in three-point shooting (36.2 percent, 18th) and rebounding (49.6 percent, 16th) and despite Doncic's playmaking skills, fell to 28th in team assist percentage (55.7 percent).
The Mavs had some good role players in Tim Hardaway Jr., Josh Richardson, Kleber, Brunson, Finney-Smith and even Trey Burke at times, with the issue lying primarily with the team's second star.
Dallas officially has a Kristaps Porzingis problem.
The raw numbers for the 25-year-old weren't bad this season. The 7'3" power forward averaged 20.1 points, 8.9 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and was an effective floor-spacer with a 37.6 percent mark from three.
The issues with Porzingis lie in both his injury history and recent playoff performance, especially for someone who's currently dominating the Mavs' payroll with his max contract.
Knee and ankle injuries limited him to just 43 games this season. Porzingis hasn't played in more than 66 contests since his rookie season in 2015-16, and missed the Mavs' final three playoff games last year after tearing his meniscus.
While he played well in two of the three 2020 playoff games for which he was active, Porzingis merely looked like a role player in this latest series against the Clippers.
Averages of 13.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and a measly 29.6 percent mark from three were a huge disappointment, especially against a small Los Angeles team that got just 18 minutes out of Serge Ibaka all series due to injury. When the Mavs needed Porzingis to impose his will, he continually came up short.
If the Mavs wish to trade Porzingis this offseason, they won't get near what they had to give up for him just two years ago. He's owed $65.5 million over the next two seasons with a $36 million player option in 2023-24—something that definitely looks like will get picked up.
Dallas needs to at least explore the trade market and see what offers exist from teams still willing to take a gamble on his potential. Even finding a team with a massive amount of salary-cap space (San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder) to simply take Porzingis and his contract should be an option.
With Doncic looking like a bona-fide alpha, the Mavs need a reliable second star to put next to him. Porzingis just isn't it.
Free Agency Options
This offseason is perhaps the Mavs' last chance utilize free agency to re-shape the roster around Doncic.
Doncic will be eligible to sign a five-year, $201.5 million max extension this offseason. Locking Doncic into an extension would be tremendous for the franchise, but it also severely limits what the team can spend in 2022 and beyond, especially if Porzingis is still on the roster.
Dallas' cap room this summer will depend on Richardson, who carries an $11.6 million player option that the Mavs should hope he turns down.
If Richardson opts to become a free agent, the Mavericks project to carry $36.9 million in cap space, enough for a max contract. If Richardson wants to return on his option, this number gets slashed to $25.3 million. That's enough to sign a really good player, to be sure, but out of max territory.
Dallas will also have a full mid-level exception to use, valued at $9.5 million.
This isn't a great free-agent class, however, as it features players either expected to return to their current teams or well past their primes.
Kawhi Leonard (player option) isn't leaving the Clippers to join the team he just knocked out. John Collins, Jarrett Allen and Lonzo Ball are all restricted free agents. Kyle Lowry, Mike Conley Jr. and Chris Paul (player option) are all 33 and older and don't help solve any long-term issues with the Mavs.
Dallas' best bets would include DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell, Duncan Robinson, Kelly Oubre Jr., Richaun Holmes and their own free agent, Hardaway. All are either in the primes of their careers or a year or two away.
The Mavs could throw a big offer sheet at a player like Collins or Allen and hope the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers don't match, but that could take a max deal for two guys who don't look like No. 2 options.
Talen Horton-Tucker would be an intriguing name. The 20-year-old Los Angeles Lakers wing has star potential and is a restricted free agent. With so many players in L.A. needing a new contract, the Mavs could try and make an offer the Lakers simply can't match.
The Mavs are limited in trade assets because of the deal for Porzingis, with their 2021 and 2023 first-round picks going to the New York Knicks. Dallas doesn't even possess a pick in this draft, dealing their second-rounder to the New Orleans Pelicans for JJ Redick.
Due to the Stepien Rule, the Mavs can't trade another first-round pick until 2025, yet could offer pick swaps of their 2022 and 2024 firsts.
Josh Green and Tyrell Terry are both current rookies who could be appealing to a rebuilding team, although neither got a real opportunity to show anything of value this season.
Dallas should eye good players that have either fallen out of their current team's plans or come overpriced, thus lowering their trade value. This would include guys like Buddy Hield, Steven Adams and Kemba Walker. CJ McCollum would also be a tremendous trade target if the Portland Trail Blazers decide to shake up their roster.
Unfortunately, the Mavs probably don't have the trade assets to pull off a deal for a true superstar, and will have to get creative by finding some starters or high-level rotation players instead.
Avoid the Quick Fix
While the Mavs should absolutely try to win now, Doncic is still just 22 and will presumably sign a five-year extension this offseason. Barring a trade demand, he'll be in town for a while.
Dallas needs to avoid the mistakes of another young team trying to fill in the gaps around a phenom, as the Cavaliers did with LeBron James from 2003-2010.
Doncic is arguably the most talented player we've seen come into the league since James, and not even the four-time MVP averaged at least 25 points, eight rebounds and seven assists over his first three full seasons like only Doncic and Oscar Robertson have.
Like those Cavs, these Mavs got too good, too quick to keep racking up high draft picks with the hopes of selecting another star. Cleveland instead turned to free agency, blowing money on players like Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall and Damon Jones following failed pursuits of Ray Allen and Michael Redd. Dallas has to use its free agency money far more wisely.
Poor signings eventually led to poor trades in the Cavs' quest to find James a sidekick, with the deck chairs on the Titanic shuffled from Hughes to an aging Ben Wallace to a recycled Shaquille O'Neal.
Of course, all of these failures eventually made James' decision to leave in unrestricted free agency an easy one—a decision Doncic hopefully won't have to make until 2027.
Dallas needs to find talent that can still grow alongside its star, looking for long-term solutions instead of just year-by-year fixes. As the Redick trade showed this season, quick fixes rarely work.
Getting Doncic to agree to the five-year extension is by far the most important part of the Mavericks' offseason. This is perhaps the team's last chance to spend in free agency, with a trade of Porzingis likely needed.