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How did Mavericks go from draft lottery to NBA Finals? Blame PJ Washington and Svi Mykhailiuk

It was a strange way to create a monster, a flapping butterfly wing that somehow created a hurricane.

On March 24 and 26, 2023, the Charlotte Hornets played out the series of another losing 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 missing All-Star guards Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving, it looked like an easy sled for Dallas as it tried to claw its way into a busy 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 the players six West teams with exactly 37 losses; they were a game out of the NBA Draft Lottery at the low end, but a game out of sixth place and an automatic playoff berth at the other end. These were must-win matches against an outmatched opponent with one eye on Cancun; the Mavs would certainly be cruising.

Narrator: They didn’t.

Instead, the Hornets essentially ended Dallas’ season with a stunning two-game sweep. Charlotte forward PJ Washington – yes, That PJ Washington – Scored 49 points in the two games. Guard Svi Mykhailiuk scored 13 in the first game 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; When I played against the Mavs, I wanted to end their season too,” Washington said between the first and second games of the NBA Finals against Boston. “It helped in the long run.”

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

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

If you need proof that this actually happened, here’s Washington driving and kicking to set up Mykhailiuk for a grueling 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 door 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 tank their final two games to preserve a top-10 protected draft pick.

The NBA has fined Dallas $750,000 for “conduct prejudicial to the league” for violating the league’s injury policy and excluding healthy players from an elimination game, as well as for the unspoken crime of blatantly admitting that this was what the NBA did.

As it turns out, this was the best $750,000 the Mavericks have ever spent and it raises some questions about what the league can do to prevent a similar situation. By retaining a top-10 protected pick owed to the New York Knicks from the Kristaps Porziņģis trade, Dallas was able to add center Dereck Lively II on draft night, a huge key in its playoff run. (The Mavs had the 10th pick, but traded it up and passed on Dāvis Bertāns for picks No. 12 and No. 24 and since-departed big man Richaun Holmes; they selected Lively 12th.) After a 50-win season in 2023- 2024, Dallas will send New York the 24th pick in a much weaker draft later this month.

Along those lines, I asked Adam Silver this week whether the league’s punishment was enough and whether the league should change the rules for protecting draft picks.

“We sanctioned them,” Silver said. “We did what we felt was appropriate at the time. “I would just say that the success that they saw this season, that they’re seeing now in the playoffs and here they are in the Finals, I don’t attribute it to one draft pick, no matter how important that draft pick has been to their team.”

Silver added that the league is continually evaluating team incentives at various levels, including the draft, but did not suggest any changes were imminent.

One idea the league could consider, based on this episode and others like it, is eliminating pick protections in the 5-to-12 positions. That’s the range in which a late-season playoff team could intentionally lose games to preserve a draft pick. This strategy has not been limited to the Mavs and Lively, however; for example, the Golden State Warriors helped usher in their dynasty by torpedoing their 2011-2012 season to keep the pick that became Harrison Barnes.

Nevertheless, what’s done is done. The tank job in Dallas may have been embarrassing, but the return on the investment in humiliation is hard to deny. It’s hard to believe that from that low point, relegated to the lottery by an injured 27-win team after a conference finals appearance in 2022, the Mavs came off the mat and are in the NBA Finals just over a year later. . It is only the eighth time in the past 45 years that a team missed the play-offs and made the finals a year later.

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“It’s absolutely insane,” veteran Dallas forward Maxi Kleber said. “Last year was really disappointing. “I think everyone took it home this summer and reflected, and we came back strong as a team.”

And it’s just as hard to fathom that two of the main antagonists that launched that episode, Washington and Mykhailiuk, are facing off in the finale.

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

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

After arriving in February and participating in this playoff round, Washington said he hasn’t had time to think about how his play in those games indirectly got him to the Finals with the Mavs.

“Everything happened so quickly,” he said. “I certainly enjoyed that last year, but it is even more fun to be here on this podium.”

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

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

Required reading

(Photo by Svi Mykhailiuk: Eric Canha/USA Today; Photo by PJ Washington: David Jensen/Getty Images)