Luka Dončić’s longest-tenured teammates, Dwight Powell and Tim Hardaway Jr., both joined the Dallas Mavericks as afterthoughts. Thrown into trades headlining others — Powell in the 2014 deal for Rajon Rondo and Hardaway in 2019 when Dallas acquired Kristaps Porziņģis — they’ve stuck around year after year. And as the Mavericks’ roster continuity turned into stagnancy, they came to represent it.
Since last season’s trade deadline, Dallas has finally achieved a major roster overhaul, the most serious reshuffling since Dončić arrived in 2018. In the past three seasons, Dallas had been one of only two teams that had at least 75 percent of its minutes come from players on the previous year’s roster. That will finally change this coming season, with only six players remaining from last year’s training camp roster representing just 44 percent of the minutes played before the team’s February trade for Kyrie Irving.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be here if I’m going to be honest with you,” Hardaway said at the team’s media day, referencing the team’s widely known attempts to trade him.
He and Powell have survived prior replacement attempts, inevitably returning to the starting lineup after being benched. Now, that cycle has begun anew, and we’ll see if the outcome is different.
After last season’s playoff-missing embarrassment, Dallas has restocked its roster with a deep bench filled with athletes and defenders. It isn’t fair that Powell and Hardaway, both known to be hard-working professionals, have come to represent what has been the front office’s long-running failure to surround Dončić with a championship-caliber roster. But both are defensive liabilities with specialized offensive roles, and Dallas knows Dončić’s desire to contend needs to be satisfied soon. This season, head coach Jason Kidd’s first and possibly biggest challenge will be finding new lineups to replace departed players Dallas has spent years relying upon.
That includes the team’s most productive three-man lineup from last season, a long-successful permutation that Dallas has leaned on for years: Dončić playing with Powell and Hardaway.
Amidst last season’s catastrophic results, it was Dončić-led lineups with his two longest-tenured teammates that often offered the most consistent results. When those three played together, the Mavericks averaged an eye-popping 129.4 points per 100 possessions while outscoring opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions. But more notable was how the team fared when Dončić played without either of them: just 112.9 points per 100 possessions while being outscored by eight.
Even after Irving’s arrival, Dallas still played its best basketball with these long-lasting holdovers on the court. Yes, Dončić props up every teammate, but there’s no statistical context that can completely dismiss such massive margins.
The team’s conference finals run two seasons ago made it clear that Dallas does need to move on from Powell and Hardaway. Powell played an increasingly reduced role due to his postseason limitations, while the Mavericks’ impressive defensive revival had some correlation with Hardaway’s absence due to a season-ending injury. Even if that wasn’t the case, both players have started showing the natural decline that comes with serious injuries and age (Powell, 32; Hardaway, 31).
But it’s harder to move on from those two than it might seem.
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The roles they play in a Dončić-led offense, even more than their abilities as players, have been crucial to this team’s success. Powell isn’t just one of the league’s best rim-running centers — among the 30 players who set the most screens last season, his led to the highest average number of points scored per pick — but a connecting hub for handoffs in the high post and kick outs in the short roll.
Often, those passes go to Hardaway, whose willingness to shoot is unquestioned. Only two players, Klay Thompson and Lauri Markkanen, attempted more catch-and-shoots 3s per game than Hardaway (6.0) last season. Those skill sets passively add to the Mavericks’ spacing on every possession, and they amplify Dončić as much as he amplifies them.
And on a team that enters this season without any defined hierarchy, it won’t be shocking if they yet again procure larger roles than the team may hope.
Along with its six returning rotation members, Dallas has acquired three players who played in another team’s rotation last season (Grant Williams with the Boston Celtics, Seth Curry with the Brooklyn Nets, Derrick Jones Jr. with the Chicago Bulls), one former lottery pick (Dante Exum) coming back from an overseas stint who Kidd says will be in the team’s opening-night rotation and two 2023 first-rounders (Dereck Lively II, Olivier-Maxence Prosper) who the organization believes will be given chances to play. Only Williams is guaranteed to start next to Dončić and Irving, and even Irving will need more time to gel with this Dončić-led team after playing just 20 games last season. But, unlike prior seasons, there are many more capable players than ever before.
“We do have a lot of new guys,” Kidd said after the team’s first practice. “Talking to those guys at the meeting (the day before training camp began), it was eye-opening how many.”
What Kidd has been tasked with this season isn’t just the team’s rotation, but its identity. Because last season’s high-octane offense couldn’t overcome Dallas’ atrocious defense, it’s logical to reallocate some minutes provided to offensive talent to more defensive-minded players. But even Dončić can’t turn any five-man unit into an elite scoring machine, something exhibited by the 16-point margin per 100 possessions when playing without Powell and Hardaway. Should Kidd emphasize size and defense? Skill and offense? Can he find the right balance between those two? Dallas has enough playable depth to go in either direction, but there’s not enough established talent to know which direction maximizes this Dončić-led roster.
Kidd’s first attempt involved the team’s two first-rounders, Lively and Prosper, who he started in the team’s first preseason game in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, alongside Dončić, Irving and Williams. In the over 10 minutes Dončić played with both rookies, Dallas was outscored 21-14 by the Minnesota Timberwolves. It’s preseason, of course, with Dončić playing more like a trick shot artist than a head hunter. But the spacing was askew, and while Lively did score his first NBA points from a Dončić lob late in the second quarter, he certainly doesn’t provide the same fluidity as Powell — yet. If Lively plays with Prosper, who has shot poorly through two games, that lineup’s defensive upside might not compensate for the static spacing and raw inexperience on the other end.
In the second game against Minnesota in Abu Dhabi, Kidd replaced Prosper with Josh Green, who offers a more dynamic offensive game. But Green isn’t a proven permutation, either, and has thus far struggled to find his role next to two ball-dominant stars. When Green played with Dončić and Irving last season, Dallas scored only 117.6 points per 100 possessions. When Hardaway replaced Green in those Dončić-Irving lineups, the offense leaped more than 10 points per 100 possessions. Green consistently producing as an impactful two-way player — taking more 3s and finding more spots to showcase his on-ball creation and off-ball freneticism — would go far to help solve Dallas’ dilemma.
Kidd has more options with specialists on either end, both offensively (Curry, Richaun Holmes, Jaden Hardy) and defensively (Prosper, Exum, Maxi Kleber). Jones is one of the most interesting additions due to specialized skills on both ends, even though he’s not immediately slated to be in the team’s rotation.
But there’s no telling which permutations are the right ones, or if any are. Dončić’s symbiotic on-court relationship with Powell and Hardaway has been so hard to replace despite Dallas’ best efforts, and they still might have more pedigree than the team’s other available options. While Lively and Prosper are better long-term fits for what’s needed next to a Dončić-Irving star duo, they might still be a year or two away from learning the NBA’s intricacies — which is little help to a superstar duo whose time to contend is right now.
Two seasons ago, his first in Dallas, Kidd got far more from a roster than its talent level suggested, especially on defense. The players swirled and shaped their way around the court in a manner that led them to a conference finals appearance. This past season, it’s safe to say that the opposite happened. Dallas wavered in late-game situations and gave up several historic leads, for which Kidd must take some fault. His initial opening night lineup didn’t feature Powell or Hardaway — and it was Kidd who pushed for JaVale McGee’s signing — only for those two to end up starting 109 combined games.
Getting more from this new-look roster and finding this rotation’s right combinations is a challenge. That it looks more like Kidd’s first season than his second is important for Dallas’ success.
As for Powell and Hardaway, it’s still in the Mavericks’ best long-term interests that the team moves on from these two veteran survivalists, whose recurring importance speaks more to the barren rosters put around them than the players themselves. And while the roster has changed, there aren’t yet solutions to replace them and not without the delicate touch of a head coach who can find them among a haphazard group of capable bench lifers and still-developing youngsters.
If Kidd cannot discover those solutions, there’s a real chance he will turn to the only players the team knows. The same as it ever was.
(Top photo: Rocky Winder / NBAE via Getty Images)