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Teammates-turned-finals-foes helped launch Mavericks’ rise to contention

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It was an odd way to create a monster, a flap of butterfly wings that somehow started a hurricane.

On March 24 and 26, 2023, the Charlotte Hornets were playing out the string of another lost season with a home-and-home series against the Dallas Mavericks. With Charlotte missing All-Star guard LaMelo Ball and starters Terry Rozier and Kelly Oubre, and the Mavs featuring All-Star guards Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving, it figured to be easy sledding for Dallas as it tried to worm its way into a crowded Western Conference playoff field.

It’s easy to forget how close this playoff race was. With two weeks left in the regular season, the Mavs entered the game as one of six West teams with exactly 37 losses; they were a game out of the NBA Draft Lottery on the low end but a game out of sixth place and an automatic playoff berth on the other. These were must-win games against an overmatched opponent with one eye on Cancun; surely the Mavs would cruise.

Narrator: They did not.

Instead, the Hornets basically ended Dallas’ season with a stunning two-game sweep. Charlotte forward P.J. Washington — yes, that P.J. Washington — scored 49 points across the two games. Guard Svi Mykhailiuk scored 13 in the first one while starting and taking turns defending both Dončić and Irving, and the Hornets stunned Dallas 117-109 in the first game and 110-104 in the second.

“Last year in Charlotte, we were out of the playoffs; playing the Mavs, I just wanted to end their season as well,” Washington said between Games 1 and 2 of the NBA Finals against Boston. “It helped in the long run.”

Mykhailiuk, who is now a Celtics reserve, said “nobody really expected” Charlotte to win.

“It was great, everybody got to play, it was good games,” Mykhailiuk said. “We were a young team and could play hard with house money.”

If you require proof this really happened, here’s Washington driving-and-kicking to set up Mykhailiuk for a back-breaking 3 to help ice the win in Dallas.

 

And here’s Mykhailiuk returning the favor two days later for the go-ahead triple in the fourth quarter of the win in Charlotte.

Thus began our sliding-doors moment in Dallas, because there is no way the Mavericks would be in the NBA Finals right now if they had won those games. The sweep effectively ended Dallas’ season; by the final weekend, the Mavericks decided to wave the white flag and tanked their final two games to preserve a top-10 protected draft pick.

The NBA fined Dallas $750,000 for “conduct detrimental to the league” for violating the league’s injury policy and sitting out healthy players in an elimination game, as well as for the unstated crime of brazenly admitting this was what it was doing.

As it turned out, it was the best $750,000 the Mavericks ever spent and opens some questions about what the league can do to prevent a similar situation. Preserving a top-10 protected pick owed to the New York Knicks from the Kristaps Porziņģis trade allowed Dallas to add center Dereck Lively II on draft night, a massive key in its playoff run. (The Mavs had the 10th pick but traded it and forward Dāvis Bertāns for picks No. 12 and No. 24 and the since-departed big man Richaun Holmes; they selected Lively 12th.) Following a 50-win season in 2023-24, Dallas will send New York the 24th pick in a much weaker draft later this month.

In that vein, I asked Adam Silver this week whether the league’s penalty was enough and whether the league should change the rules on protecting draft picks.

“We sanctioned them,” Silver said. “We did what we thought was appropriate at the time. I would only say that the success they saw this season, that they’re now seeing in the playoffs and here they are at the finals, I don’t attribute it to one draft pick, as important as that draft pick has been to their team.”

Silver added that the league is constantly evaluating team incentives on several levels, including the draft, but did not suggest any changes were imminent.

One idea the league could consider, based on this episode and other similar ones, is eliminating pick protections in the 5-to-12 positions. That’s the range where a team out of the playoffs could intentionally lose games at the end of the season to preserve a draft pick. This strategy hasn’t been confined to the Mavs and Lively, by the way; the Golden State Warriors, for instance, helped usher in their dynasty by torpedoing their 2011-12 season to keep the pick that became Harrison Barnes.

Nonetheless, what’s done is done. Dallas’ tank job might have been embarrassing, but the return on investment in humiliation is hard to deny. It’s hard to believe that, from that rock-bottom moment, banished to the lottery by an injured, 27-win team after a conference finals run in 2022, the Mavs got off the mat and are in the NBA Finals just over a year later. It’s only the eighth time in the last 45 years that a team missed the playoffs and made the finals a year later.

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“It’s definitely crazy,” veteran Dallas forward Maxi Kleber said. “Last year was really disappointing. I think everyone took it home over the summer and did some reflecting, and we came back strong as a team.”

And it’s equally difficult to fathom that two of the key opponents who launched that episode, Washington and Mykhailiuk, are on opposing sides in the finals.

Washington, in particular, plays an outsized role in this Dallas story. His exploits were the biggest reason Dallas lost both games that March weekend; less than a year later, he would be a Maverick himself after a deadline trade that sent Charlotte Grant Williams, Seth Curry and a top-two protected 2027 first-round pick.

Clearly, Washington’s play in that home-and-home left an impression; in fact, he was working on a streak of four straight 20-point games against the Mavs when he was traded to Dallas. He also guarded Dončić for big chunks of both games, hinting at the switchability that made him so useful once he joined the Mavs.

After arriving in February and taking part in this playoff run, Washington said he hasn’t had time to reflect on how his play in those games indirectly ended up getting him to the finals with the Mavs.

“Everything’s been happening so fast,” he said. “I definitely had some fun doing that last year, but it’s a lot more fun being here on this stage.”

As for the former Hornet teammates, they each said they won’t catch up on their role in this Mavs story until after the series.

“He’s my enemy right now,” Washington said of Mykhailiuk.


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(Photo of Svi Mykhailiuk: Eric Canha / USA Today; photo of P.J. Washington: David Jensen / Getty Images)

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