The Mavericks swung a bold trade at the 2018 NBA Draft on Thursday, moving up two picks to pick Luka Doncic at No. 3 in exchange from their own No. 5 pick — Trae Young, eventually — and a top-5 protected 2019 first-round pick.
This is really a synthesis of two bets.
The first bet is on Doncic, the Slovenian wunderkind aptly nicknamed Wonder Boy. Luka is a 19-year-old swingman who just won three major championships in three years. He and Heat point guard Goran Dragic led Slovenia to its first ever EuroBasket championship in 2017, with Doncic (then 18 years old) making the all-tournament team. Then, Doncic led Real Madrid to the EuroLeague and Spanish ACB league titles, winning MVP honors in both competitions.
Doncic is one of the best draft bets made in the last five years. The EuroLeague is the top basketball competition in the world outside of the NBA, and Doncic was its best player at age 19. By every statistical and scouting indicator, he is the best European prospect ever.
The Mavericks have a little bit of experience with elite Europeans, as you may recall.
During the draft, every team is making bets on certain players and, implicitly, against other players they pass up. While Doncic did slip to No. 3 in the 2018 derby, there is little belief anywhere he won’t be a good pro, and perhaps a great pro. This is a bet, but it’s a pretty safe one.
The bolder bet is that the Mavericks, with Doncic, will bounce back quickly and won’t regret giving up a potential lottery pick in 2019.
Dallas did smartly protect the future pick heading to Atlanta through the top five. That means that if the Mavericks’ 2018-19 season is pure disaster, or if it’s simply mediocre but the Basketball Gods smile upon Dallas in the reformed NBA lottery, the team might keep its pick and add to the roster. But odds are that with Doncic, a nearing-retirement Dirk Nowitzki, exciting young Dennis Smith, Jr., and solid Harrison Barnes, plus an intent to win from the start of the season, the Mavericks can actually be decent.
Grabbing Doncic is worth losing a late lottery pick in 2019. If the Mavericks make it back to the playoffs next season, the pick sent to Atlanta will be a total afterthought, especially if Doncic is a huge reason for Dallas’ quick revival.
What the Mavericks are betting here is that they don’t actually need to rebuild.
Dallas clearly tanked this season. Once the team got off to a poor start, the Mavericks no longer had an incentive to win. Young players went hard, and while franchise owner Mark Cuban was fined for comments on tanking, the team wasn’t egregious in its attempts to boost lottery odds. Regardless, it was just one season. Dallas was bad in 2016-17, but not intentionally.
But teams engaging in a multi-year rebuild — like the Sonics/Thunder a decade ago, or the Sixers five years ago — don’t trade future picks to get better prospects now. They do the opposite: they stockpile picks and angle to land top talent out of the draft multiple years in a row.
The Doncic trade tells us the Mavericks have no interest in following that path. That they have no interest tells us they think they have a better path back to winning basketball.
The Mavericks also have cap space! With a hole at center, we’ll see if Dallas can land the big man they’ve been chasing for years. Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan are both free agents again, and they are some other options expected to be available on the trade market. Rick Carlisle told reporters Thursday night that the Mavericks are ready to fill holes in free agency, and we know Cuban is ready to spend.
Reporter: “A lot of people think the Mavs we’re going to take a big man, how would you address those people”— Nick Angstadt (@NickVanExit) June 22, 2018
Rick Carlisle: “July 1st is right around the corner”
The only question is whether the front office can actually land someone this time around.
That could effect just how well this instant reboot goes for the Mavericks. Dallas is all in on it, though, and it looks mighty wise at this moment. We’ll see if it pays out soon enough.
More SB Nation coverage of Luka Doncic
By Matt Ellentuck, Jun. 18, 2018
Not only is Doncic proven by dominating the best competition he possibly can be at 19 years old, he projects to fit the NBA’s high demands from day one. Unlike the next-best prospects available, you don’t have to imagine much with him. He has the receipts.
Luka Doncic was too busy winning championships for your silly NBA Draft workouts
By Tom Ziller, Jun. 19, 2018
Consider Doncic’s accomplishments. Last summer, he helped lead Slovenia to the EuroBasket championship, making the all-tournament team at the age of 18. This season he won EuroLeague MVP, EuroLeague Final Four MVP, EuroLeague Player of the Week four times, first-team All-League, EuroLeague Player of the Month once, and the EuroLeague Rising Star award as he led his team to championship.
By Ben Collins, Mavs Moneyball, before the trade
After a decade of this, I am now acutely aware of Rick Carlisle’s often severe and dramatic whims. I have seen him drag rookies off the court for getting lost on a pick and roll, only for them to resurface months later in dark gyms on teams that sound like Outkast albums. (Both Rodrigue Beaubois and Shane Larkin went to Baskonia, where they tore it up, but quietly and respectfully, as not to prove Carlisle wrong.)
Luka will not be party to this sort of wack-ass treatment, and it’s in part because of Carlisle’s desperation for penetration from lead guards in his offense, which he will never change, even if his point guard is, say, OJ Mayo, Mike James, Jose Calderon, Delonte West, 47-year-old Devin Harris, or 2016’s most effective penetrator, the Mesozoic rock formation commonly known as “JJ Barea.”
Imagine a 6’8” version of that with better ball skills than any of them, and Harden-like moves.