Dallas did his best with the hand he was dealt
When I saw that the Mavericks selected Derrick Lively with the 12th pick of the 2023 NBA Draft on Thursday night, I was worried. I’m always a bit uneasy about a traditional center in the lottery, at least one who doesn’t profile as having star potential. Cam Whitmore, top five on my board, was still available, although it was not yet known to the general public how damaging his medical and interview process was (I’ll still live with my ranking, as many draft experts didn’t realize, how red flags his knees and posture were). I definitely subscribe to the modern NBA stance that creators and wings are the most valuable pieces. The thing is, every draft is different, every team is different, and the limitations of each draft call for a different set of goals. You can’t steal value where it isn’t, or create prospects out of thin air to fit your philosophy or the draft order. All you can really do is draw blood from the stone, which is the imprecise science of drafting.
This draft had a clear top nine-or-so made up of the most valuable archetypes – creators and two-way swings or attackers. It was a strong top of the draft, but after that it got tricky. The squads in the teenage years consisted of lower scoring guards, creators more flawed than those in the top tier, and pure shooters. This is where the Mavericks’ rationale for Lively comes into play. For a guard-heavy team already developing Jaden Hardy and Josh Green, Lively becomes more attractive within the same tier as a Jalen Hood-Schifino or Keyonte George.
The idea that you always have to take “the best player available” comes up, and it might have seemed like the Mavericks drafted too much for the need. I think it’s usually a strong guideline to follow at the top of the draft where differences between players are exponentially more meaningful, but I don’t think the concept should be a hard and fast rule if you genuinely believe in neither player within a row has star upwards. You could call fit and need a tiebreaker. The draft is ultimately more tier-based than most people realize. Teams know that the draft is so imprecise and difficult that the idea of ”ranking” prospects within tiers is basically ignorant and that there is a drop in talent throughout the draft. Where the Mavericks chose, it’s hard to feel like they got there (and for what it’s worth, a consensus Big Board at RookieScale.com had Lively on…12.)
Think of it like signing free agents; you’ll likely sign the player you need if given the pick, even if someone else is slightly better. The argument you’ll hear is “draft talent, signal need,” but that probably overstates prospects past the upper echelons. Yes, every draft stars are taken late, but many are like Desmond Bane; expected to be a role player. That role projection is key—that’s why a player like Jamie Jaquez went before Whitmore—NBA teams want certainty when they have a good idea that upside bets aren’t worth it. For all we know (or don’t know), Lively herself has the upside, though I doubt it.
I agreed with the idea that the draft fell off after the top nine, then took off in the back of the first round, where upside swings and role players made up a huge twenty or so player lineup. These somewhat consensus levels are also why the draft wasn’t nearly as trade-heavy as expected. Many teams wanted to trade into the top ten, but we can assume the price was too high since no one did. Many teams in the Mavericks’ reach wanted to trade back, but other than moving back two spots, none were, presumably because the offers were low. It is therefore obvious that the Mavericks could not trade back to get much value. My first reaction to seeing the pick was “why didn’t they continue to trade back?” but it was unrealistic.
This is probably easier for me to justify since I also agreed that none of the creators in the 10-20 range were meaningfully superior. I liked Cason Wallace and Kobe Bufkin more than Lively, but see them as good players more than star bets. I may be mad at the Mavericks for not taking Brice Sensabaugh or Leonard Miller, two guys I liked more than the consensus, but I’ll admit that almost every NBA team felt differently and it’s easier for armchair evaluators to make those bets without any real risk (same case for Whitmore). Jordan Hawkins and Gradey Dick are shooters and I don’t feel they have any more inherent value than centers. I just felt George, Hood-Schifino and Jett Howard were worse prospects. By trading back within the same range to get the 24th pick, the Mavericks were able to take a wing in Olivier Maxence-Prosper that could have received even higher consideration. For some it started 20-45 days earlier. Many called the entire draft “flat” after the peak, and its reputation as a generational draft was mostly dependent on the stars and was especially softened in the middle.
Drafts rarely have more than twenty players that stick even as low-end rotation players, and if the Mavericks get two but Cam Whitmore turns out to be Anthony Edwards, it will be hard to complain. If we had spent all our draft capital chasing that Anthony Edwards, we would have missed out on cost-controlled defensemen in an era of new spending limits. You don’t have to love Derrick Lively to love what the Mavericks did, because at the end of the day, you’re probably just as wrong as the teams, and while it’s true that it’s a “one wing league,” they found a way and get one of those too.