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How the Dallas Mavericks rose to become NBA Championship contenders

The Mavs celebrate reaching the NBA Finals
The Mavs celebrate reaching the NBA FinalsProfimedia
Just over 12 months ago, the Dallas Mavericks failed to make the NBA Playoffs, tanking their final game of the season in an attempt to improve their draft hopes. It was a dismal end to a campaign for a franchise that had reached the Western Conference Finals the season before. But in the end, it proved to be a crucial step that would drastically turn their fortunes around and reach the NBA Finals a year later.

Since Luka Doncic made the move from Real Madrid to the Mavs in 2018, the team has been heavily reliant on the generational superstar to carry them and win games for them. Even during their run to the Conference Finals in 2022, it was all about 'Luka Magic' with the likes of Dorian Finney-Smith, Reggie Bullock Jr and Maxi Kleber applying support on defence as they played 'small ball'.

Yet it wasn't enough. They had overachieved to even reach that stage, and needed to upgrade if they wanted to progress. The Mavericks required some more attacking firepower to support Doncic, as well as some size and athleticism in defence.

Despite losing Doncic's running mate, Jalen Brunson, in the summer of 2022, they started the season relatively well, and by February, were sitting fourth in the Western Conference.

And a lot of that was down to the Slovenian. Their defence had declined dramatically, especially with Kleber sustaining a long-term injury. They were a shadow of the side that was a top-10 defence in the year prior.

But with Doncic performing, they were able to hang around at the top.

So the Mavericks traded in eight-time All-Star and 2016 champion Kyrie Irving from the Brooklyn Nets, with the aim of creating one of the most formidable offences in basketball alongside Doncic. In the process, they lost one of their important defensive cogs, Finney-Smith, and Spencer Dinwiddie.

Irving and Doncic were paired together
Irving and Doncic were paired togetherProfimedia

Immediately, due to Irving's controversial past and recent moves, there were doubts over whether the tandem would work, and whether he would click alongside Doncic. There was also huge concern about whether they had left themselves short defensively.

Irving is one of the most naturally talented and skilful players of all time, so no one doubted the quality he could potentially bring to Dallas. Many just saw it as a risk simply not work taking.

From that point on, the Mavs season petered out in pretty sad fashion. They ended up finishing 11th with a record of 38 wins and 44 losses, and had the seventh-worst defence in the league statistically. 

The main issue for the fall-off was the lack of defence. There was simply not enough size for the Mavericks to compete.

The duo of Doncic and Irving hadn't totally taken off either, but there were some good signs. Their performances in the loss to the Phoenix Suns stood out, in which the former scored 34 points and the latter 30. 

There were bound to be teething issues as they settled and adapted to eachother's games, so patience was needed on that front. It wasn't a concern.

So as previously mentioned, the Mavs ended up tanking their final game of the season, giving them a better draft pick.

And that summer, they drafted 7-foot-1 centre Dereck Lively II. A good selection, but as a rookie, he was not expected to make much impact. However, due to his impressive performances and incredible maturity, he instantly became the starting centre for the Mavs - to very good effect.

Lively was the 12th overall pick
Lively was the 12th overall pickProfimedia

During the trade window, they also bought in Derrick Jones Jr, Dante Exum and Grant Williams.

Jones' freakish athleticism proved to be an important plus in the Mavs side, while Exum's ball-handling and three-point shooting came up clutch on a number of occasions. But the Williams trade was an awful one, contributing nothing on either side of the court.

So the 2023/24 season began in pretty similar fashion to the previous one. With Irving suffering a number of injuries during the first few months, they relied on the genius of Doncic, while their defence struggled. 

Lively and Jones were major plusses, but putting so much pressure on a rookie with no real cover was always going to be hard on him. 

They also suffered a major injury crisis during the first half of the season, with Irving, Lively, Kleber, Jones and Exum having numerous issues.

So by February, the Mavs were in a battle to get into the playoffs, sitting eighth in the Western Conference. They were banking on Doncic once more, who was enjoying his best individual season to date, averaging a whopping 35.8 points per game.

If Dallas wanted to climb up the table, they needed to get a lot stronger defensively. So at the trade deadline, general manager Nico Harrison acquired P.J. Washington from the Charlotte Hornets, who possesses a 7-foot-2 wingspan, and 6-foot-10 centre Daniel Gafford from the Washington Wizards.

Two lengthy and athletic options, with Gafford one of the best blockers in the league, averaging 2.1 blocks per game in the regular season.

And these two trades flipped the Dallas Mavericks' season on its head.

In their first game with Washington and Gafford in the team, they secured a 146-111 blowout win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. That was a sign of things to come.

During their last 20 games of the season, the Mavs lost just four games, with two of those coming in the final two games once they'd secured a fifth-place finish and were resting all their starters.

Following the trade deadline, the Mavs boasted the seventh-best defence in the league with a 111.5 defensive rating. To be honest, they had become one of the best two or three defences in the league, but they went on a stretch where they lost a few games as they settled on their strongest starting five and players became accustomed to a new style.

With Gafford starting and Lively coming off the bench, they had incredible size in the paint and two phenomenal rim protectors.

The tandem of Doncic and Irving also finally took off. After the All-Star break, Irving averaged 25.9 points per game, while Doncic averaged 33.2 points, 10.3 assists and 10.1 rebounds per game - mind-blowingly good.

The chemistry the duo were showing was unparalleled, and with Doncic's sublime passing range, they became the biggest lob threat in the NBA.

During the game against the Jazz, the Mavs had a franchise-high 18 dunks. Gafford slammed 10 of those dunks.

Rising to fifth in the Western Conference, Dallas suddenly became dark horses for the NBA title. A starting five of Doncic, Irving, Washington, Jones and Gafford had a blend of everything. They were ready for a deep playoff run.

And that's exactly what happened. 

The Mavs sent the LA Clippers home in the first round with a 4-2 victory, before stunning the number one seed Thunder in the semi-finals by the same score. They then came up against the best defence in the league, the Minnesota Timberwolves, in the Western Conference Finals, but they were simply no match for Doncic and Irving as they soared to a 4-1 win.

The pairing of Doncic and Irving had become so good, people were debating whether this was the most talented backcourt in NBA history. Perhaps a bit premature, but this was the level they were playing at.

During the Conference Finals, Doncic averaged 32.4 points, 8.2 assists and 9.6 rebounds per game. He was a man on a mission as he was named MVP.

Throughout the playoffs, Irving averaged 22.8 points and 5.2 assists per game, and regularly came up clutch in the fourth quarter when Dallas needed him.

But his experience and leadership had been equally important. At 32 years old, he is one of the oldest players in a youthful team. After controversial stints in Boston and Brooklyn, Irving seemed to have matured and found a place where he was truly happy.

Their defence continued to be phenomenal, with many touting them as the best defensive side in the league alongside the Timberwolves.

Lively's emergence throughout the playoffs was also staggering. He became the Mavericks' third most important player behind Doncic and Irving, which is an amazing achievement for a rookie.

When he is on the court, they are a better team. His athleticism and intelligence on both ends are vital, and his playmaking and screens are invaluable. 

Washington and Jones' perimeter defending meant teams were suffocated offensively, and they both came up with hugely important three-point shooting games during the playoffs too. Washington's shooting performances against the Thunder were invaluable. 

While Doncic was struggling with a knee injury, Washington top-scored for the Mavs during Game Two, Game Three and Game Four against the Thunder.

And a lot of the credit has to go to coach Jason Kidd. A former Maverick himself, he has created a bond and unity within the team. The chemistry is off the charts, and every single player plays for each other.

Doncic alongside Kidd
Doncic alongside KiddProfimedia

Tactically, he adapts to his opponents defensively, showing consistent versatility. 

But now they face their toughest test. In the NBA Finals for the first time since 2011, the Mavericks face the Boston Celtics - the best team in the league this season.

If they want to win their second Championship, they will have to be at their best to keep an electric offence quiet, which they are capable of doing.

Doncic is making a case for being the best player in the world, and alongside Irving, the Mavs can hurt anyone.

It promises to be one of the most exciting Finals in recent years, and if the Dallas Mavericks can get over the line, it'll go down as one of the most dramatic mid-season turnarounds the NBA has ever seen.

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