Mavericks trade deadline features a fundamental dilemma: Prioritize now, or the future?

In Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” there’s a well-known scene from an aquatic planet where Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway’s characters must locate an old NASA probe. When they barely escape massive tidal waves and return to their ship, they discover that their one-hour mission lasted the equivalent of 23 years on Earth due to time dilation.

A little known fact is that Nolan was inspired to write this scene after watching the Dallas Mavericks and LA Clippers play each other.

In the past two weeks, the Mavericks have lost twice to the Clippers, a too-easy parallel to the franchise’s two first-round defeats to the same team in 2020 and 2021. While the NBA has hummed and moved around them, these games can give the impression that time has slowed down to a crawl. In Sunday’s 112-98 loss, the three Mavericks players who received the most minutes — Luka Dončić, Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith — were the same three players who played most in the 2021 series. Dallas, of course, has changed and tweaked its roster in the past two years, but the sense of stagnation feels stronger in a matchup like this, especially given the unsuccessful results.

The NBA’s trade deadline is 18 days away. There’s a growing sense around the league that the Mavericks will make a move, and the internal signs of restlessness from key figures of the organization have become more visible in recent days. Last Wednesday, ESPN reported that Dončić “has strongly indicated” his desire for roster improvement. That evening, the Mavericks lost to the Atlanta Hawks thanks to a dreadful defensive effort.

“If it’s with this personnel, then you’ve got to keep asking or demanding for those guys to play defense,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said afterward. “It’s not just the offensive end.”

Kidd’s quote stood out for its harsh assessment of the team’s performance. But those first few words — “if it’s with this personnel” — feel even more notable to the bigger picture because Kidd often references Twitter discourse or hints at current storylines when he speaks to the media. If Dončić desires to see the team’s roster change in the coming weeks, he likely wouldn’t be the only one within the Mavericks organization.

The Mavericks need change. Dallas’ 25-23 record is its worst mark through 48 games since Dončić’s rookie season, and the team’s formulaic approach to its best performances — essentially, a great Dončić performance, plus at least 15-made 3s, plus feisty defending equaling an ability to beat most teams in the league — has been too unreliable and frustrating to project meaningful postseason success.

Sure, this roster should change. The hard part for Nico Harrison’s front office is deciding how.

Dallas is expected to convey its 2023 first-round pick to the New York Knicks this summer, which will finally allow Dallas to have full control over every future first-rounder. The Mavericks could certainly improve their roster this season by packaging one of them for someone like, say, Detroit’s Bojan Bogdanović. (It’d have to be a 2025 first-rounder or later, in effect). But those types of improvements — a 33-year-old who doesn’t vault them into title contention — only serve the team’s short-term interests. The team remains unlikely to trade any first-round draft capital at this deadline for that reason.

The team, however, does have a looming decision to make regarding Christian Wood, who becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer barring an in-season extension. If Dallas isn’t determined to re-sign him this summer, it leads to the question of whether he should be traded in the coming weeks. But the 27-year-old center best fits on a team like Dallas, which has a talent-strapped roster and a scoring role needing to be filled. There are only so many franchises in similar situations around the league with which the Mavericks could attempt to negotiate. It limits the market for Wood, even if his time in Dallas has been fairly successful given the expectations.

It’s difficult to find balance between a future-focused approach and the pressures of the season that remains. Tim Hardaway Jr., a player who the Mavericks openly looked to trade last year prior to his season-ending injury, is an example of that. Even though Hardaway’s declining 2-point efficiency has made him a more one-dimensional scorer, his streaky 3-point shooting remains a key cog to the team’s winning formula. Dallas is 10-3 when he hits at least four 3s and Doncic plays. As I wrote earlier this month, “That’s the dilemma about any potential deadline deal: Should Dallas accept that it’s a team that needs Hardaway or aspire to become a team that doesn’t?”

Reggie Bullock can be viewed in a similar situation as Hardaway: someone who has been crucial to the team’s success in the past, but almost certainly isn’t a long-term participant in the team’s future. Both him and Hardaway, if traded, might cause the team to be worse this season even if it helps the long-term vision of the front office’s attempts to build a title contender around Dončić.

An example of this now-and-later predicament is a potential trade that has been discussed aplenty by the online Mavericks fandom: a straight-up swap of Hardaway for Cleveland’s Caris LeVert. Yes, LeVert is obviously talented, but he’s been an inefficient scorer for most of his career. Dallas could trade Hardaway for a 30-game look at whether LeVert fits better next to Dončić than he has at previous stops in his career. But if he doesn’t, Dallas has a real chance to be a worse team in its final 30 games, and LeVert’s expiring contract means he leaves the team this summer for nothing.

There are infinite combinations of players and trade structures that the Mavericks could and have already considered – which we’ll continuing talking more about later this week. But while the need for change might be obvious to any fan or Hollywood movie director watching this team, the actual decisions this team must make are complicated by this present-future conundrum.

And if the team doesn’t feel like moves exist that would help now and later, it might have to choose just one.

(Top photo of Christian Wood and Luka Dončić: Tim Heitman / Getty Images)

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