How a $750,000 tanking fine helped the Mavericks reach the NBA Finals

THE DALLAS MAVERICKS’ disappointing 2022-23 season had slogged to its final two games.

It was April 7, 2023, and the Mavs had fallen one game behind the final spot in the Western Conference play-in tournament. They weren’t mathematically eliminated from the postseason, but the odds were stacked against them heading into a home game against the Chicago Bulls.

And Dallas was preparing to wave the white flag.

Mavs superstar guard Luka Doncic declared that he’d keep playing if there was even a “little chance” of Dallas qualifying for the play-in. He was overruled, as the front office made what coach Jason Kidd described as an “organizational decision” to prioritize the draft over pursuing the postseason.

It was a transparent attempt by the Mavs to hang on to the top-10-protected pick they owed the New York Knicks as the final payment on the Kristaps Porzingis blockbuster deal that ended up going bust in Dallas.

The front office made the contentious decision knowing they needed that No. 10 overall pick, a potentially key asset in what needed to be a rapid roster renovation around Doncic and Kyrie Irving. The worst-case scenario was losing it.

The Mavs’ loss to the Bulls that night — during which Doncic sat after playing the first quarter, a sheepish attempt to satisfy fans on “I Feel Slovenia” night at the American Airlines Center — officially eliminated Dallas from the play-in and broke a tie between the teams for 10th place in the lottery standings.

Two days later, Doncic sat out the regular-season finale and curtly responded to a question about the late-season tank. “I didn’t like that decision. That’s it,” he said.

“Not to rehash old stuff, but once we didn’t control our own destiny, it was like, all right, we can’t be foolish,” Mavs general manager Nico Harrison told ESPN. “The worst-case scenario was we were 11 versus being 10 — and you don’t make the play-in and don’t get your pick. Then I think I would probably look more foolish than doing it the opposite way.”

Seven days after that loss to the Bulls, the NBA fined the team $750,000 for “conduct detrimental to the league” and issued a scathing statement.

“The Dallas Mavericks’ decision to restrict key players from fully participating in an elimination game last Friday against Chicago undermined the integrity of our sport,” NBA executive vice president Joe Dumars said.

“The Mavericks’ actions failed our fans and our league.”

Fourteen months later, despite the controversy and risking the wrath from Doncic, the move looks to have been a stroke of genius.

That’s because the payoff from that first-round pick was prized rookie Dereck Lively II, a 7-foot-1 center who has made a massive impact for the Mavs. The second-team All-Rookie selection, who was actually selected at No. 12 after Harrison traded down, has been worth every bit of the $750,000 fine.

It’s all a distant memory now, and certainly not a source of any discontent for Doncic. He adores Lively. A smile lights up Doncic’s face any time he discusses the 20-year-old big man, the sort of lob threat and rim-protector that the perennial MVP candidate has long coveted.

Lively’s early contributions exceeded all expectations, playing a key role in the Mavs’ run to the Finals — and built excitement for the Mavs’ future.

“It’s insane, man, and he’s doing this while being a rookie,” Doncic said after Lively’s 12-point, 15-rebound performance in the West semifinals Game 6 closeout win, in which Dallas outscored the Oklahoma City Thunder by 26 points in the big man’s 30 minutes.

“He has some unbelievable potential, and I’m just glad that the Mavs drafted him.”

BEFORE HE EVEN stepped on the American Airlines Center floor, Lively was intrigued by the possibility of playing alongside the superstar backcourt duo of Doncic and Kyrie Irving. In fact, he said Dallas quickly became his preferred destination.

“When I looked at the draft, this is the spot where I wanted to be because I knew if I came here, I was going to make an impact,” Lively told ESPN. “I could come here, learn, and just try to be myself. That’s what I’ve done this whole time and I feel like I’ve grown.”

Lively, however, readily admits that he didn’t envision having this sort of success so early in his career. Dallas has a net rating of plus-19.7 points per 100 possessions in the 261 minutes that Lively has played with Doncic and Irving during the playoffs, the best of 178 trios in the league to play at least 175 minutes this postseason.

Like the Mavs, Lively was also coming off a disappointing 2022-23 campaign after arriving at Duke as the top national recruit in ESPN’s rankings. He averaged only 5.2 points and 5.4 rebounds in 20.6 minutes per game during his freshman year before declaring for the draft.

Lively was widely considered a project — a springy 7-footer who lacked polish and would require patience before becoming a quality rotation player. But the Mavericks brass identified him as their primary target during the draft process.

The Mavs’ analytics staff had Lively, who in college shot 65.8% from the floor and blocked 12.7% of opponent’s shots when he was on the floor, rated among the top five players in the draft. Harrison and VP of basketball operations Michael Finley were impressed by Lively’s intangibles — especially his resiliency, as evidenced by how Lively dealt the childhood trauma of his father’s death from a drug overdose or his mother’s decade-long experience with Hodgkin’s lymphoma — as well as how he handled the spotlight of being a high-profile Duke recruit.

Lively’s energy and competitiveness during his Klutch Sports pro day performance impressed the coaching staff even more, prompting comparisons to a teenage Tyson Chandler, a name that will forever carry weight in Dallas as Kidd’s teammate on the 2011 title team.

And center was the Mavs’ primary need, specifically an alley-oop partner for Doncic, arguably the league’s best pick-and-roll orchestrator.

“I mean, he’s exactly what you would want Luka to have,” Harrison said. “Maybe you would want him to be a veteran and not a rookie, but he is the prototype.”

That connection clicked instantly and has improved as Lively has studied the art and science of screening. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Doncic has assisted Lively on 47 alley-oop dunks, the most lob completions of any duo this season, including the playoffs. Doncic has fed Lively for 49.8% of the 273 buckets (141 of which were dunks) he has scored in a Mavs uniform.

“He’s been amazing this season,” Doncic said. “These playoffs, he took not one, not two, three steps forward. He’s a rookie. I think people forget this sometimes. So his ceiling is going to be huge.”

Dallas didn’t anticipate relying so heavily on Lively, who averaged 8.8 points and 6.9 rebounds per game while starting most of the regular season, during his rookie year. The Mavs explored the trade market in search of a starting center around the draft, team sources said, including engaging in discussions about Deandre Ayton and Clint Capela. Even after Lively played in the Las Vegas Summer League, Dallas wasn’t sure when he’d be ready to crack the rotation.

“I tried not to put a limitation on it,” Harrison said. “I always felt he was going to help us. I just didn’t know how long it was going to take. I felt he would help us this year. Would it be December? Would it be November? Would it be in February? I didn’t know.”

Lively stayed in Dallas all summer after the draft, moving into an apartment by the arena with his mother, Kathy Drysdale. He reported daily to the Mavs’ nearby practice facility to work with assistant coach and longtime Kidd confidante Sean Sweeney. The on-court work spanned from fundamental basketball drills to the unconventional, such as when Dallas Cowboys tight end Lunda Wells came into work with Lively on catching the ball in traffic. During one drill, they would wrap a towel around Lively’s arm and pass him the basketball, forcing him to fight to free his arm quickly enough to catch the ball.

“He asks great questions,” Sweeney, who continues to work with Lively on a daily basis, told ESPN. “So there’s not necessarily a monologue when you’re coaching him or watching tape with him. It’s a dialogue, and that to me is the engaged learner that he is.”

Chandler, working as a volunteer, also attended most of those sessions and has been a regular at the Mavs’ home practices throughout the season because he so thoroughly enjoys aiding in Lively’s development. Chandler, whose 19-year career was highlighted by the Mavs’ championship and a Defensive Player of the Year honor won with the New York Knicks two seasons later, has watched as Lively learned and implemented the dirty-work details of the game that Chandler said took years for him to fully grasp.

“I didn’t know he’d be this sound as a rookie. I think that’s more impressive than anything,” Chandler told ESPN after Lively averaged 11.5 points and 11.3 rebounds in four consecutive wins bridging the West semifinals and finals. “He steps into the moment and is not afraid of the moment or second-guessing himself.” Kidd, for his part, sees the easy parallels between the two big men.

“Not just his physical [attributes] or his build, but his voice,” Kidd said, regarding how much Lively reminded him of Chandler. “As a rookie, he talked a little bit more than normal. You could see the future of him being the anchor of the defense.”

Lively ended up working his way into the starting lineup on opening night, when he had 16 points and 10 rebounds in a road win over the San Antonio Spurs, outplaying No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama, this season’s eventual unanimous Rookie of the Year.

THE RESILIENCE THE team sensed from Lively early in the draft process was tested very early in his career. Beyond the series of injuries that likely cost him a spot on the All-Rookie first team — a sprained ankle, a broken nose that required surgery, a sprained knee — his mom, who had been in remission and a constant presence at home games, took a very sudden turn for the worse. Her cancer had returned.

Lively missed a March 9 road game for personal reasons. A month later, on April 12, she died.

Hours before his mother passed away, Lively attended the Mavs’ morning shootaround at the American Airlines Center to share what he was going through with his teammates and tell them how much their support meant to him. He attended the game that night, sitting on the bench wearing a Mavs jersey that had his mom’s surname on the back and the No. 42, Drysdale’s number during her days starring for Penn State.

“He’s been able to take everything that he’s going through and channel it into something positive, and it’s been beautiful to watch,” Chandler said. “Sometimes it tugs on you, what he’s had to go through, but it’s been beautiful to watch him fight through everything, rise through everything and his perspective on how he deals with everything.”

Added Harrison: “I go back to him being such a resilient kid. He’s shown it his whole life. I mean, I’m in awe of it, but I’m not surprised by it.”

Lively has continued to honor his mom with his performance throughout the playoffs, where he’s ranked second among all Western Conference players in plus-minus (plus-108), behind Irving.

“I’ve just been able to just try to put away anything that’s been going on in my life,” Lively said. “Any problems, any situations that’s not been going good — because it’s been a lot — I’ve just been trying to just lock in to what’s going on.”

He holds conversations with her in his head while shooting free throws and points toward her in the heavens to celebrate wins.

“When I’m out there on the court, I’m having the most fun of my life. And I feel like when I’m on the court, I’m the closest to my mom.”

BEFORE EVERY OPENING tip throughout these playoffs, Lively gives fellow center Daniel Gafford the same one-sentence pep talk. And when Lively subs in, Gafford tells the rookie the same message:

“Go be a monster.”

Regardless of his role.

Such a mantra was tested when Kidd informed Lively before the Mavs’ March 7 home game against the Miami Heat that Gafford, acquired just before the trade deadline, would start at center. Kidd had expressed concern that Lively had hit the rookie wall months into a physically and emotionally taxing season.

Instead of pouting, Lively embraced being the second member of the rim-running tag team and followed through on his vow to play with the same relentless energy. Dallas outscored the Heat by 17 points during Lively’s 23 minutes that night, beating Miami to bust out of a 1-5 funk coming out of the All-Star break. The win began the Mavs’ 16-2 run that generated momentum that carried into the playoffs.

“He loves and cares for his teammates,” Chandler said. “He’s trying to do the right thing. He wants to be there in the moment for his team. Everything he does is for his team.”

Lively’s success early in the season — and the Mavs’ struggles when he was forced to miss games — factored into the decision to acquire Gafford at the trade deadline. Dallas was 22-14 with Lively in the lineup and 6-9 without him at the time. It made sense to ensure that they’d always have an active finisher available at center.

That transaction was also an extension of the pick that the Mavs tanked to keep last season.

Harrison dumped Davis Bertans’ contract by trading down two spots with the Thunder, who were concerned about a team leapfrogging them in the draft to take guard Cason Wallace. In doing so, the Mavs also created a $17 million trade exception. They used that later that night in a deal with the Sacramento Kings, who attached reserve center Richaun Holmes (two years, $25 million left on his contract at the time) to the No. 24 overall pick, which the Mavs used on wing Olivier-Maxence Prosper, a prospect who spent most of his rookie year in the G League.

Holmes’ contract ended up being the salary ballast Dallas sent to Washington in the Gafford deal, attaching it to the LA Clippers’ 2024 first-round pick the Mavs acquired from Oklahoma City during the pre-deadline frenzy in exchange for 2028 swap rights.

Lively was vaguely aware that the pick would have gone to the Knicks if it landed later in the draft, as it will this year as the No. 24 overall selection. But he was surprised to learn that the pick is the final piece owed from the Mavs’ trade for Porzingis, who he’ll now face in the Finals.

“I ain’t know that!” Lively said, his eyes widening. “I knew there were some things going on, but I didn’t know whose teams was involved.

“I’m just glad and happy I was able to land in a perfect spot like this.”

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