NBA Finals 2024: Why Luka Doncic, Kyrie Irving and the Mavs have a future as title contenders

Jason Kidd proud of Mavs' run to the Finals (0:58)

Jason Kidd reflects on the Mavericks' ability to reach the NBA Finals and what Dallas will look at going forward to improve. (0:58)

It was the day before Game 4 of the NBA Finals, but the Dallas Mavericks' media availability had the feel of early exit interviews.

One prominent line of questioning was about 25-year-old superstar Luka Doncic's bumpy experience in his first NBA Finals and how he might benefit from it later in his career.

The implication of the questions, as well as the answers, was that this would be the first of multiple appearances for Doncic on the basketball world's biggest stage. And that he'll be better prepared when he returns -- probably, preferably in a Mavericks uniform.

"I've got a lot of things to learn," Doncic said. "This is my first NBA Finals, so I'm going to learn from it, for sure."

Then Doncic caught himself, realizing that his comments might be interpreted as a concession before the series was over, no matter how long the odds were of the Mavs becoming the first team in NBA history to overcome a 3-0 series deficit.

"But we're not in the offseason yet," Doncic said. "They've still got to win one more game."

Doncic and the Mavs put up a fight -- Dallas blew out the Boston Celtics on Friday to avoid the sweep -- but that one more game has been won for the Celtics, who claimed the franchise's NBA-record 18th title in the second Finals appearance for their twentysomething star duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

It won't be easy for Doncic, Kyrie Irving and the Mavs to make it back to the Finals -- not in a Western Conference loaded with fierce competition, headlined by Nikola Jokic's Denver Nuggets, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's Oklahoma City Thunder and Anthony Edwards' Minnesota Timberwolves -- but that's the expectation for a franchise that features a perennial MVP candidate who is still approaching his prime.

"When you have one of the best players in the world," Mavs coach Jason Kidd said on Monday night, "you should always be fighting for a championship."

That's the sort of pressure that Mavs general manager Nico Harrison assumed when he left Nike to come to Dallas alongside Kidd in 2021. It's the intense sense of urgency that Harrison operated under while reconstructing the supporting cast around Doncic and Irving over the past year, giving the stars a chance to bounce back from last season's embarrassing lottery finish to lead the Mavs to the franchise's third Finals.

Dallas didn't sustain the success after its previous two trips. After losing in 2006, the Mavs made it back five years and one head coach later, but Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry were the only players on both rosters. The Mavs broke through for the franchise's lone championship in 2011, but then-team owner Mark Cuban made the decision to strip down the aging roster around Nowitzki, creating salary cap flexibility to swing and miss at several star free agents.

The Mavs endured a drought of more than a decade (six playoff appearances without a series victory) before Doncic led them to the 2022 Western Conference finals. It took 13 years for them to win the West again and get back to the Finals.

However, this edition of the Mavs is positioned for sustained success.

"I feel great," Doncic said when asked about the present and future state of the Mavs after their Game 5 elimination loss. "We did some great [personnel] moves. I would say we've been together for five months. I'm proud of every guy that stepped on the floor, all the coaches, all the people behind [the scenes].

"Obviously, we didn't win Finals, but we did have a hell of a season."

There is a clarity in the organizational flow chart that was murky in the past. Cuban, despite his claims after selling the majority share of the franchise midseason to the Adelson and Dumont families, no longer has control of basketball operations. Harrison reports to new governor Patrick Dumont, who is kept informed but has shown trust in Harrison to handle roster personnel matters. Dumont rewarded both Harrison and Kidd with multi-year contract extensions during this playoff run.

The fears within the organization a year ago of Doncic feeling the need to look elsewhere to have a chance to contend have largely been extinguished. Doncic, starting well before the playoffs began, has frequently expressed that he's ecstatic with the circumstances in Dallas and appreciative of the roster moves made that expedited the Mavs' emergence as a contender.

The Doncic-Irving duo proved to be a phenomenal fit in their first full season together. The stars formed a brotherly bond off the floor and were the league's highest-scoring tandem on it. They thrived sharing both the ball and leadership responsibilities.

And all indications are that Doncic will sign a supermax extension in the summer of 2025, waiting for the salary bump that comes after a seventh season to agree to what will likely be the largest contract in NBA history.

Every player in the Dallas rotation except for starting small forward Derrick Jones Jr. is under contract through at least next season. The Mavs and Jones, a massive bargain on a veteran's minimum deal this season, have mutual interest in his return. Dallas can't offer more than the taxpayer midlevel exception, a deal that would have a projected $5.2 million salary in the first season, but could open up the full midlevel ($12.8 million) with some roster tinkering.

"He's a part of our core going forward, so hopefully we can figure that out," Harrison told ESPN during the playoffs.

Harrison has added young core pieces who will have a chance to grow with Doncic.

Rookie center Dereck Lively II, the prize from the Mavs' humiliating late-season tank job a year ago, is an athletic, 7-foot-1 bridge to the future. Lively, 20, who made a major impact during the Finals run, is widely considered a rising star and phenomenal fit with Doncic and Irving as a lob-catching pick-and-roll partner and rim protector.

"I always told him this mission is bigger than us," Irving said of Lively. "It's just not solely focused on this year. We have a future together where we're going to continue to grow as teammates."

Forward P.J. Washington and center Daniel Gafford, whose arrivals at the trade deadline allowed the Mavs to morph into contenders, are both 25 and under reasonable contracts for two more seasons.

Dallas has given up control of its draft from 2027 to 2030, trading those picks outright or via swaps in a series of deals beginning with the Irving trade in 2022. But the Mavs have the assets -- and the motivation -- to continue to be aggressive in upgrading the roster. Starting on draft night, Dallas can dangle its 2025 and 2031 first-round picks in trade discussions.

"I think we have a really good core and really good complementary pieces," Harrison told ESPN. "Having said that, I mean, I've been here for two years and so I think my reputation is starting to [form]. If there's an opportunity to make it better, I'm going to do that for sure."

Irving, 32, is the one core player whose age doesn't line up with his hermano Doncic's long-term timeline. But Irving told ESPN last month that he believes he's early in his prime, pointing to his former title teammate LeBron James, among others, that modern stars can keep performing at that level deep into their 30s.

"I just feel like the sky's the limit," Irving said. "I have an opportunity to be on a special team that can be one of the teams that dominates in this era. That's what I've been trying to figure out the past few years, of how to be on a great team, be in an organization where I'm trusted, and also we're able to succeed and fail together, and doing it in a way where we still have each other's backs, and no one is giving up on the dream or the goal.

"Our goal is still to win a championship."