If you believe in the multiverse then there’s a world in which the Dallas Mavericks don’t rest their starters for the final two games of last season, win both, still miss the Play-In Tournament but lose their draft pick to the New York Knicks to complete the last bit of the Kristaps Porzingis trade from 2019. In that world, Dereck Lively II is drafted elsewhere, and the Mavericks are either paying Clint Capela the remaining $42.86 million of his contract after trading for him, digging the bottom of the barrel to find a center in free agency or trotting out Dwight Powell as their starting center once again.
All of those realities are significantly worse than this one where Lively — with only 30 games under his belt — has already become Dallas’ best center since Tyson Chandler in 2011. The bar is incredibly low to claim that title, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that as a rookie Lively is one of the most important players on this Mavs roster every night. He proved that once again Monday afternoon against the Pelicans, where he returned from a five-game absence due to a left ankle sprain and immediately made an impact. It was a modest statline — six points, 12 rebounds — but seven of those boards were on the offensive glass, which led to crucial second-chance opportunities for Dallas to sneak out a win without Luka Doncic.
“His offensive rebounds — they gave us second opportunities — and then his defensive rebounds were huge for us, which we missed in that first game [against New Orleans],” Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd said of Lively following the win. “I thought late in the game, he came up with some great opportunities for us to get second or third opportunities at the basket, which we needed. Just his presence on the floor — the guys trust him. For his first game back for a while, I thought he did great. We missed him and we’re happy that he’s back.”
Lively’s performance gave the perfect side-by-side example of how the Mavericks play with and without him. Two days prior to Monday’s meeting with the Pelicans, the Mavericks faced New Orleans without Lively, and were defenseless against Jonas Valanciunas, who couldn’t be kept off the glass. Five of Valanciunas’ 12 rebounds where on the offensive end, and the Pelicans benefited with 24 second-chance points en route to a win. For a team that is already incredibly porous on defense, giving up multiple opportunities in one possession isn’t what you want. When Lively returned to the lineup on Monday, he made sure not to make Saturday’s game a repeat.
One of the reads on the 7-foot-1 Lively when he was going through the draft process was that his defensive abilities would translate quickly due to his size and athleticism. His long frame makes him an obvious rim protector and his effort and willingness to do the simple things — like boxing out — make him a headache to account for when the shot goes up. There were several times in Monday’s game where Lively was getting to offensive rebounds that most bigs in the league wouldn’t put in the effort to grab, but there he is, fighting for positioning and giving the Mavericks multiple opportunities to get a bucket.
“He rebounds. He rebounds the ball extremely well,” Pelicans guard CJ McCollum said of Lively. “He’s a good roller, so you have to be prepared for him. Those pick-and-rolls with [Kyrie Irving], he just gave them energy, gave them life, second chances, and those things. [He] hurt us tonight.”
Lively’s offensive rebounding against the Pelicans was like that popcorn kernel you can constantly feel but can’t get out of your teeth. There was one possession in the fourth quarter where even the Pelicans announcers couldn’t help but throw their hands up in exasperation at New Orleans’ inability to box out Lively.
The first rebound broke Lively’s way while Valanciunas tried to keep him from getting the ball, but there are very few bigs in the league who would make a legitimate play to contest that rebound. But it was the second offensive board, which led to a Tim Hardaway Jr. 3-pointer to cut New Orleans’ lead to 111-109, that should be used as teaching material on the do’s and don’ts of boxing out and crashing the glass. That’s the one that had Pelicans play-by-play announcer Joel Meyers saying “Lively again, does anybody want to put a body on the guy?” On the next possession, Lively was there…again, grabbing his seventh offensive board of the night, which again led to a Hardaway triple to give Dallas the late lead.
“Whether he gets the ball or not, he’s always hunting the rebound,” New Orleans star Zion Williamson said on Lively’s impact.
It’s not just the rebounding that elevates the way Dallas plays, either. Lively’s presence is so immense on defense that when he’s on the floor the Mavericks have a near top-10 ranked defense, compared to the 26th-ranked defense they have when he sits.
“He means so much to this team and this organization,” Tim Hardaway Jr. said of Lively after Monday’s win. “He does an amazing job of clogging up the paint, talking on defense, blocking shots. He is a really great anchor for us down there on the defensive end. He helps us tremendously, especially working with T.Y. [Tyson Chandler], [Powell], who has been a running mate with Luka during his time here in Dallas. [Lively] has been a sponge, really listening to those two. He is really doing a phenomenal job.”
Surely the Mavericks couldn’t have predicted that Lively would be this important to the team this early on. Even on offense he’s made an instant connection with both Irving and Doncic in pick-and-roll situations. He ranks in the 82nd percentile in pick-and-rolls, generating 1.339 points per possession. His leaping ability makes him a threat every time he’s cutting to the rim, and while he often catches lobs, he’s shown promise in being able to put the ball on the deck, back someone down and get his own basket either with a little baby hook shot over defenders, or through a variety of layups.
Lively making an immediate impact doesn’t just help the Mavericks this season, it also bodes well for their future. Heading into this season there were reports that people within Dallas’ organization feared Doncic could request a trade as early as the summer of 2024. Doncic said recently that he’s happy where he’s at with the Mavs, but that can always change, especially if the Mavericks miss the postseason for a second straight year.
But as of right now, Dallas’ future is looking brighter than it did when they were getting condemned for tanking the final two games of last season to try and keep their draft pick rather than compete for a play-in spot. You know, the draft pick that allowed them to eventually select Lively No. 12 overall after trading the No. 10 pick to the Thunder in an effort to get off Davis Bertans’ albatross contract.
Thanks to that controversial decision, the Mavericks are now sitting fifth in the West, and Lively’s looking like a franchise center. The craziest part is, Lively hasn’t even turned 20 yet. If this is the starting point of his career, just imagine how dominant he’ll be three, four years down the line. Now that’s a scary thought.