How the Mavericks are preparing for the No. 10 pick: Trade or keep it?

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It’s unquestioned that the Dallas Mavericks’ blatant end-of-the-season tank wasn’t noble. It offended sensibilities. It put a face to target on a punching bag of mockery that was this team’s miserable season. It earned Dallas a $750,000 league fine for the team’s artless execution of its pragmatic decision.

It also worked.

Dallas begins this week with certainty: The team now knows that the two thrown games to end this dreadful past season achieved its stated objective and retained the No. 10 selection in the 2023 NBA Draft. If they had won the final two games, they wouldn’t have. They wouldn’t have made the postseason, either, nor would they have been likely to make some statistical-defying Western Conference finals repeat run. In fact, they would not have made it — anyone who watched them knew this.

What Dallas did to prioritize the retention of this season’s pick was right, even if blind competitiveness might still be seen as noble. But headfirst infantry charges into artillery lines were once seen the same.

That said, the Mavericks still enter an offseason which pits them against a superior side known as “conventional basketball team building,” something the team hasn’t done successfully in the five years since drafting Luka Dončić. The No. 10 pick adds ammunition to what seems likely to be a summer focused on a roster overhaul. Maverick fans — it was shown in The Athletic’s fan survey earlier this month — aren’t wholly confident that it will be anything other than a refurbishing.

Which means that there is more focus than ever on that No. 10 pick: what it means, who could be add to this roster with it, and how that might happen. And the answer — draft someone, trade it for salary relief, package it with young players — is an exceptionally difficult one to answer.

How Dallas prepares to potentially trade its pick

Last week in Chicago, members of the Dallas front office expressed relief at the lottery’s results. It’s not only that Dallas’ late-season strategy worked but that the hypothetical scenarios the team has been working on can become more rooted in reality.

That’s the most thankless responsibility of a front-office member: Those working within the braintrust of an NBA team, especially those below the decision-making level, spend countless hours and meetings imagining what might happen so that the team can be ready for what does. The team planned for the hypothetical scenarios were Dallas moved up in the lottery, and also if they fell one spot to lose the pick.

They also imagined how other teams around the league might react if they moved up or down, hypothetical scenarios that have been buried now that the league’s official draft order has been set. On Tuesday, if the Dallas front office was only now reacting to the No. 1 to No. 14 ordering of this year’s draft, the team would be behind.

The Mavericks already had imagined what might happen if the Portland Trail Blazers moved up and sought to trade this year’s pick. Now that Portland has secured the No. 3 selection, Dallas is launching into further conditional plans where it gathers intel and imagines what the Blazers might choose to do — and how those actions would reflect upon the Mavericks’ own objectives for this season. The work of a front office is preparation as much as it’s action. The stressful windows where action can take place are too brief for the proper consideration front offices strive to have when they make moves.

Portland is the team that will set this offseason’s course for teams like the Mavericks. Dallas’ No. 10 selection is a valuable asset, but it doesn’t hold nearly the same value as Portland’s top-three pick in a draft where the non-generational tier of prospects — the ones who would be considered first overall if not for Victor Wembanyama making that choice obvious — is viewed as being two players deep. (Scoot Henderson and Brandon Miller almost certainly will be this draft’s second- and third draft picks.) Portland, not Dallas, is the league’s first call when teams begin to hold conversations about moving up.

Dallas isn’t the second call, either. Several teams between the Blazers and the Mavericks are reportedly willing to consider trading their top-10 selection, and in reality, every team beyond the San Antonio Spurs (and possibly the Charlotte Hornets) is at least willing to entertain it. Thus begins the exhausting mission that is the life of an NBA front office over the coming weeks: constant assessment and reassessment of what other teams might do, and how that would affect Dallas’ own decisions for this significant summer of change.

Why Dallas would want to trade it

The Mavericks are likeliest to trade next month’s pick. There, let’s say that definitively.

Dallas enters this summer needing win-now talent on a roster that conclusively proved it didn’t have enough of it. Using this summer’s choice to add another such player could help them sooner than developing a rookie who might be a year or two away.

But Dallas also understands that its No. 10 selection isn’t so valuable that it would be the centerpiece for one of the league’s many talented players nearing their migratory seasons. For example, the Toronto Raptors aren’t trading O.G. Anunoby for the No. 10 pick alone, not when they have their own selection three spots later. Dallas’ valuations of its internal draft pieces — what if, say, Jaden Hardy or Josh Green was included along with the No. 10 selection and Dāvis Bertāns in one such deal — are already being debated within the team’s front office. It’s a multiphase process, one which determines whether Dallas would even listen or mention such a deal to the Raptors in conversations, which happens long before Dallas even determines whether it’s a scenario that actually interests them and their broadest objectives. If that deal is mentioned to Toronto and the team scoffs at it, then it likely never even gets to that point.

To broadly describe the league’s various interests this summer, it does seem like there are teams interested in moving up for specific prospects — so far, many of them in the No. 3 to No. 9 range — and there are teams looking to deal down for multiple first-round picks. Dallas could engage with teams in the former category and could end up included in the second. Up until this point, some general managers prefer their front offices rank prospects only in tiered lists. Many are only just now ranking prospects in proper numerical order based on the intel and measurements gathered at this past week’s NBA combine, which is when teams seeking specific prospects who might be available at the 10th pick might begin talking to Dallas.

It doesn’t help that Dallas’ selection is broadly seen around the league as the start of this year’s third tier of prospects. After the seventh or ninth pick, available players either have wide (and thus risky) floor-to-ceiling ranges or far less potential to go along with their proven skills. It might mean that few available prospects at No. 10 will be viewed as ones who have “slipped,” meaning teams won’t be as incentivized to match Dallas’ own needs in any potential upward trades.

Still, at D Magazine, Iztok Franko argued for the Mavericks trading this year’s pick thanks to his statistical analysis of past No. 10 selections, in which he determined that only “around 40 percent of previous No. 10 picks hit” in any meaningful manner. Past draft results can’t predict draft results of any given year, of course, but there’s no certainty the Mavericks can find a ready-now winning player who fits their needs with the 10th spot. It’s just tough in late May to know with certainty who and what that might be for until the league’s other dominos begin to fall. In the meantime, what the Dallas front office can do is begin anew another set of hypothetical contingencies — most of which will be set off on their own Viking funeral, but ones which will have them prepared to react whenever the time comes.

Why Dallas would consider keeping its pick

For as many years as the Mavericks eschewed drafting as a team-building strategy, the team actually has a startlingly successful record of late: Dončić and Jalen Brunson needed no explanation, while Green and Hardy both showed on-court value along with even further upside this past season. If Dončić hadn’t been so good so soon, and if Dallas hadn’t had to trade its 2019 first-rounder to move up for him after falling in the lottery, the team might have built slower and more traditionally.

Instead, the team’s relative lack of first-round picks and prospects has collided with its collective, years-long talent drain that has left this roster desperately needing reinforcements. Is it too late? That’s the question that hangs over this year’s selection, an unexpected late lottery prize that could bolster this team’s long-term core if used correctly.

The same tiers that may diminish the No. 10 pick’s leaguewide value also affect Dallas if the team actually uses this pick. It’s unlikely that players who fit the team’s immediate and long-term needs — Cam Whitmore, Taylor Hendricks, Jarace Walker, Anthony Black — will be available when Dallas comes up on the clock. The options that Dallas could have is a gaggle of combo guards like Cason Wallace and Keyonte George or a field of developmental forwards like Bilal Coulibaly and GG Jackson. Dereck Lively II, a low-ceiling, high-potential, rim-protecting center, is an interesting idea at No. 10 — something we’ll explore in a prospect-specific article later this week. But drafting him at No. 10 would be on the highest end of his projected range, which might incentivize the team joining other teams trying to trade down but not out entirely.

But really, the question remains the same: Is it too late for Dallas to build slowly? Does this team have enough time to add another young player to next season’s roster without repeating last year’s calamitous results and before Dončić begins growing antsy? There are countless scenarios for the Dallas front office to sort through, and in late May, it seems irresponsible to settle on any specific one or any definitive outcome before the league’s offseason outlook begins to become more clear.

Of all the many online arguments and written dissertations made last week about the Mavericks’ No. 10 pick, it was Mavs Moneyball’s Josh Bowe who made the most convincing one: It doesn’t matter what they do, but they have to get it right.

(Photo: Jerome Miron / USA Today)

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