Mavericks swung big to get Kyrie Irving, but concerns remain on defense after no additional moves at deadline
The trade deadline passed and the Dallas Mavericks‘ lone move was acquiring controversial All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving from the Brooklyn Nets. The Mavericks gave up their most capable defender in Dorian Finney-Smith, in addition to Spencer Dinwiddie, a 2029 first-round pick and two second-round picks to land Irving. It was a win-now move, something that addresses Dallas’ need for a second star to take some of the offensive responsibility off of franchise centerpiece Luka Doncic. However, losing Finney-Smith raises even more concerns about how the Mavericks will fare on the defensive side of the ball for the rest of the season.
Finney-Smith gave Dallas a versatile wing defender, capable of guarding multiple positions. He was often tasked with defending the opposing team’s best player for the Mavericks, and his consistent improvement as a 3-point shooter over the years made him a vital cog in Dallas’ starting lineup. But now that he’s in a Nets uniform, the Mavericks’ defense could go from bad to worse. Dallas already ranked 24th in the league on defense prior to the Irving deal, but with so few defensive-minded players on the roster, losing one as important as Finney-Smith is never great.
With no trade on Thursday to make up for that loss, it means the Mavericks are going to rely heavily upon third-year guard Josh Green and Reggie Bullock to carry most of the defensive workload out on the perimeter. Dallas’ most recent win against the Los Angeles Clippers showed that perhaps the team will be okay rolling the dice with Green and Bullock, as the Mavericks held Kawhi Leonard to 18 points and Paul George to 20 points. Green brought his typical high energy on both ends of the floor, impacting shots and doing a solid job guarding Leonard as the primary defender. Bullock, who already has a reputation for being a solid defender, had a similar standout performance against George.
But one game isn’t nearly enough to say Dallas will be just fine on defense, it’s also not the only area where they struggle on that end of the floor. The Mavericks’ interior defense has been a sore spot going back to last year’s Western Conference finals, where Dallas made Kevon Looney look like an All-Star. This season, Dallas ranks dead last in rebounding, an issue that could’ve been addressed by trying to trade for a big man ahead of Thursday’s deadline. Instead, Dallas will have to stick with a frontcourt rotation of Dwight Powell, Christian Wood, Maxi Kleber and JaVale McGee.
Kleber is the most capable defender of the bunch, but his injury history, including currently recovering from hamstring surgery that has kept him sidelined for the past two months, is always worrisome. Wood is the best talent on the offensive side of the ball, and despite showing effort to improve on defense, is still a liability in the paint. McGee was signed in the offseason to address the need for a rim protector but has collected more DNP-CDs than blocks. Powell has always been a successful pick-and-roll partner for Doncic, but he often struggles on defense against capable big men.
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The frontcourt issues could become a problem if the Mavericks have to face someone like Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets in the playoffs, or Jaren Jackson Jr. and Memphis. The same is true of the perimeter defense against someone like Kevin Durant, who was traded ahead of the deadline to the Phoenix Suns. And even though the Mavericks got the best of the Clippers Wednesday night, Leonard and George still pose very difficult matchup problems despite Green and Bullock’s best efforts.
While the Mavericks got considerably better on offense with the addition of Irving, which now forms the highest-scoring duo in the league with Doncic at a combined 60.4 points per game, Dallas may have some difficulties in stopping anyone. Green has taken great strides in his improvement this season, and he’s more versatile on offense than Finney-Smith is, but he’s still green (no pun intended), and unproven. Bullock is as solid a defender as they come, but he can’t guard every position on the floor.
There’s always the possibility that the Mavericks try to add someone on the buyout market ahead of the March 1 deadline that could address some of those needs either as a wing defender or a defensive-minded big man. But as of right now, Dallas’ defense could be even worse than before as the season carries on and into the postseason.