NBA playoffs 2024: Two under-the-radar trades turned the Mavericks into a real West threat

Daniel Gafford's poster of Rudy Gobert closes door on Game 3 (0:29)

Daniel Gafford gets way up for the incredible slam over Rudy Gobert late, and the Mavericks go up 3-0 in the Western Conference finals. (0:29)

Editor's note: This story was originally published on April 27. On Sunday, the Mavericks won Game 3 against the Timberwolves to go up 3-0 in the Western Conference finals.

JUST SECONDS INTO Daniel Gafford and P.J. Washington's debut as Dallas Mavericks on Feb. 10, roughly 48 hours after being moved at the trade deadline, Gafford sensed an opportunity.

Luka Doncic had the ball on the left wing and the full attention of the Oklahoma City Thunder, drawing two help defenders. OKC guard Isaiah Joe was left as the low man, giving Gafford a size advantage of seven inches and about 70 pounds -- if he acted quickly.

Gafford established position on Joe and made eye contact with Doncic, who took one dribble toward the middle of the floor and delivered a leaping lob over the top of the defense. Gafford grabbed the pass with two hands and threw it down.

Twenty-four seconds later, he dunked again off a Doncic assist, drop-stepping and finishing over Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander after catching a 75-foot outlet pass.

"Right spot at the right time," Gafford told ESPN, referring more to his fit with a new franchise rather than his positioning during the highlight plays. "I was like, 'It's going to be a good time being here with this team.'"

And on Dallas' next possession, Washington scored his first bucket as a Maverick in spectacular fashion, catching an alley-oop that Doncic delivered from near half court.

Gafford and Washington's instant collaboration with the franchise's superstar guard was a sign of things to come for a revamped Dallas roster. The Mavs, in stark contrast to last season's lottery team, suddenly feature a high-flying supporting cast to complement Doncic and co-star Kyrie Irving.

Dallas general manager Nico Harrison was adamant after last season's disappointing finish that the team's issue wasn't the fit between Doncic and Irving -- the injury-riddled duo recorded a 5-11 record when in the lineup together -- but the "surrounding pieces."

Over the course of the offseason and the trade deadline, Harrison has executed his vision of turbo-boosting the rest of the rotation by adding several dynamic players via the draft, free agency and trades: All-Rookie candidate center Dereck Lively II, guard Dante Exum, forward Derrick Jones Jr., Washington and Gafford.

The group's impact was evident in Dallas' win over the LA Clippers on Friday to take a 2-1 series lead heading into Sunday's Game 4 (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC). The Mavs threw down 13 dunks in Game 3, the second most in a playoff game in the past 25 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Eight of those were alley-oop finishes, more than any team had in a game this season or in the past 20 postseasons.

"Last year we could only do the layup line," Mavs coach Jason Kidd told ESPN. "This year we could participate in a dunk contest."

THE COST OF Dallas' wheeling and dealing, beginning with the blockbuster February 2023 trade to acquire Irving from the Brooklyn Nets, has been significant.

The Mavs, who will finally pay off the failed Kristaps Porzingis trade by sending the New York Knicks their first-round pick in the upcoming 2024 draft, have given up control of their first-rounders from 2027 through 2030, either outright or via swap rights.

After this season's trade deadline, one Western Conference executive told ESPN the Mavs' future felt "very precarious." After all, if the moves weren't impactful enough to push the Mavs into elite status, fears of Doncic becoming frustrated enough to leave the franchise could come to fruition.

But the moves paid immediate dividends. Due in part to early injuries, Dallas was in eighth place in the West at the trade deadline. Harrison joked that Kidd had to use "tape and bubble gum" to piece together lineups for much of the season's first few months.

The Mavs went 21-9 after the deadline, the third-best record in the NBA in that span.

Harrison, who readily acknowledges "there's always going to be a sense of urgency" with an MVP candidate as the face of the franchise, said the Mavs made the trades with the long-term view in mind, adding a pair of 25-year-olds under reasonable contracts in Gafford and Washington.

"It wasn't really about winning right now," Harrison told ESPN. "It was just about continuing to build it. It's like every step is, how do we continue to get better? And we're not built for just right now; we're built for the next three playoff runs."

Doncic, who had his best season with a league-leading 33.9 points, 9.2 rebounds and 9.8 assists per game, has enthusiastically provided input to the front office over the past two seasons and has gushed about the team's chemistry, which he cited as a problem a year ago.

"We're just having fun out there," Doncic said after a March 29 win over the Sacramento Kings. "[Kyrie and I are] both happy. We're both doing some good things on the floor, and we have great teammates. I think this team is special."

HARRISON SMILED WHEN he heard Washington discussing defense during the midseason trade acquisitions' introductory news conference, a few hours before they made their Dallas debuts in the win over the Thunder.

"We're going to be holding him accountable, but he can actually do a lot of things that he doesn't show all the time because the game comes easy to him," Harrison said then. "We'll make sure to push him to get the best out of him, but he really does have it on both sides of the ball."

Washington did not have a reputation as an above-average NBA defender at that point. His former team, the Charlotte Hornets, had a bottom-three defense and allowed more points per 100 possessions with Washington on the court than off it this season.

But Harrison, a former Nike executive, had known Washington since he was on the AAU circuit as a teenager. Harrison saw Washington use his 6-foot-7 frame and 7-2 wingspan to smother elite scorers. He wanted it known that Dallas would demand that from him.

"It was a confidence-booster for me," Washington told ESPN. "I feel like Nico knows who I am. He's been around me since high school, so for him to just say those things, it just felt great. I just wanted to piggyback on that and just be aggressive on the defensive end."

Gafford was also part of a bottom-three defense with the Washington Wizards, who were also worse statistically on that end of the floor with him in the lineup. But the Mavs believed that Gafford would thrive in a more competitive environment, giving them a tag-team partner for Lively and allowing Kidd the option of always having a lob threat and rim protector at center.

"No disrespect to any other team that we were on, but it's just we went from playing for nothing to playing for something," Gafford said. "It's like we had to lock in a whole different way."

It took some time and lineup tweaks for Dallas to morph into a dominant team, however.

The Mavs lost five of their first six games after the All-Star break while ranking last in the league in defensive efficiency during that stretch, which Harrison refers to as "a very uncomfortable period." Speculation swirled among rival executives about the job security of Kidd, who has one season remaining on his contract.

"Rome wasn't built in a day; 2011 wasn't built in a day," Kidd said, referring to the Mavs' lone title season after a 137-120 home loss to the Indiana Pacers on March 5.

Kidd changed the lineup two nights later, plugging in Jones and Gafford and moving Josh Green and Lively to the bench, and the Mavs took off. Dallas won 10 of its next 11 games -- the lone loss came when Doncic stayed home due to hamstring soreness on the second night of a back-to-back -- and 16 of 18. Kidd is now well-positioned to sign a contract extension this summer.

"J's done a great job," Harrison said of Kidd. "I honestly think he's the best coach to lead this team. I think having the two stars that we have, close your eyes and pick whoever you want, you're not going to find a better fit."

Dallas ranked first in the league in defensive efficiency for the final six weeks of the season. That trend has carried over into the first round of the playoffs, with the Mavs holding the Clippers to 93 and 90 points in their two wins.

"It first starts with asking them, 'Can you do this?'" Kidd said. "And they said they could. So sometimes things are simple -- ask and they said they could. Then just keep showing them [on] film how to get better. They have been sponges and absorbing that information and have been doing it at a high level."

The Mavs are optimistic they have found a formula that can work for the foreseeable future. Jones, a former dunk contest champion who is thriving in the most significant role of his career, is the only rotation player whose contract expires at the end of the season and there is mutual interest in his return.

"I think what we did this year, regardless of what happens in the playoffs, we start next year at a high level," Harrison said. "We're not starting at, 'Hey, can Luka and Kyrie play together?' We know that. ...

"You're not answering a bunch of questions. You're like, 'How good can this team be?'