February 26, 2024

P.J. Washington will need better focus with Mavericks, who hit home run with their other deal

The Dallas Mavericks made a pair of big moves at the deadline to try to shift themselves from the middle of the Western Conference into a contention window, bringing in P.J. Washington from Charlotte and Daniel Gafford from Washington in separate deals.

The Mavericks are undeniably better than they were before deadline day started. Washington coming in for Grant Williams is an upgrade, and Gafford entering the fold for the team’s backup center minutes will be critical. But how much better are they? Was Washington worth the price? What about Gafford? Let’s dive in and scout the two new Mavericks.

Washington will need better attention to detail, consistent shot making

Washington is the higher profile player of the two and cost Dallas more (Williams, Seth Curry and a 2027 top-two protected first-rounder), so let’s focus on him first.

He’s a skilled offensive hybrid forward/big who has posted solid counting stats the last two seasons, but it’s seemed like he’s been asked to do too much in that time. After averaging about 12 points per game in his first three seasons and knocking down open 3s at a solid clip, Washington has been asked to create a bit more offense and averaged about 15 points per game in his last two seasons. However, he’s seen his efficiency nose-dive, as he’s made just 44.5 percent of his shots and 33.9 percent of his 3s. Over the last two years, Washington’s true shooting percentage has been about 7 percent below league average, and he’s been a below-average player in terms of scoring efficiency in four of his five seasons.

Still, the 25-year-old Washington has long been seen as one of those players who would be “better on a good team.” That’s why he’s maintained his trade value. But beyond his scoring, Washington hasn’t necessarily been as impactful on Charlotte’s bottom line in terms of wins and losses in the way you would expect from someone many think will scale down well onto a better team.

Largely, it’s because Washington has been a lot more of a theoretical positive defender than an actual good defender. Standing 6-foot-7 with a 7-2 1/2 wingspan, you’d expect him to be able to fly around and wreak havoc with his length. He doesn’t do that as consistently as you’d like rotationally despite racking up blocks and steals. What he can do is body up against bigger wings and initiators and play in switching schemes. That’s where he was able to find his most success, particularly in his third season. When he’s locked in, Washington is mobile and can move his feet. He has a strong chest that is hard to drive through, and his length gives him a lot of room in recovery.

Charlotte would, at times, have Washington scale down to the five and play in all-switch lineups. In the team’s lone winning season of his five in Charlotte — 2021-22 — Washington played more of his minutes at center than any other spot. Those minutes under James Borrego were successful, but it was largely because of elite offense, not positive defense. In his 950 minutes as the lone big on the court that season, Charlotte outscored opponents 118.7 points to 113.7 points per 100 possessions, per PBPStats. Those 113.7 points were exactly what they averaged for the full season, 24th in the league. The 118.7 mark would have been tops in the league by about two points.

Washington didn’t play much at the five under Steve Clifford last season, but he has played a reasonable amount of minutes as the lone “big” on the court this season. In Washington’s nearly 500 minutes at center this season, Charlotte gave up more than 125 points per 100 possessions. Clifford’s defensive scheme tends to be conservative, and it’s not something that really sets up an undersized, non-rim-protecting big for success. But Borrego was running switch schemes, and it didn’t really work on defense in that sense either.

So, what holds Washington back from actually being able to play the five? It’s a lot of the same stuff that holds him back from being a consistently positive defender. First, his attention to detail and focus tends to wane. He’s never been a good defensive rebounder nor posted a defensive rebounding rate over 19 percent, despite playing about half of his minutes at center in the second and third seasons. This season, he’s played about one-third of his minutes as the long big, and his defensive rebounding rate is below 17 percent. According to Dunks & Threes, in his minutes at the center position, Washington has a 19.3 percent defensive rebounding rate, which would rank in the 34th percentile among centers.

It seems unlikely Washington will play a ton of center in Dallas, given that Luka Dončić loves to have a rim-rolling big who can either catch lobs from him or Gortat screen — essentially acting as a lead blocker on a drive from a ballhandler — for him. The team already has Dereck Lively II and acquired another perfect fit in that role in Gafford. Maybe the Mavs will use it as a counter in the playoffs if necessary, but I’m not sure those lineups, especially with Dončić and Kyrie Irving at the point of attack, will have much success on defense, given Washington’s track record on that end.

Again, a lot of Washington’s issues tend to be about focusing and things that don’t show up on the box score. Take this clip for example from his last game in Charlotte. He nearly turns the ball over on a drive then misses a layup, jogs the length of the court in transition, doesn’t get a body on anyone or impact the play, waits for the ball to come to him off the glass and gets beaten to the ball by Thad Young for a put-back. On the next possession down the court, he threw a lazy left-handed pass that got intercepted and went the other way for an easy bucket by Bruce Brown. The Hornets were up nine before that sequence. They ended up losing the game by six. On a contending team, these kinds of habits are unacceptable.

Here’s one from earlier in the season against Minnesota. Washington runs down the court and ball-watches as Nickeil Alexander-Walker brings it up the court. Washington is responsible for the trailer, Naz Reid, who is one pass away. Alexander-Walker makes the pass, and Washington is still standing straight up and down, looking at Alexander-Walker. He jumps to the ball with a hop against Reid to try to get into position at the last second, but it’s an easy layup.

Here’s another from November, where Washington is all the way back at the 3-point line before his man is even at half court. He loses focus and lets Franz Wagner get behind him to create an easy angle and force him into an unnecessary recovery situation. Wagner scores.

“Get Back” is not just a song by The Beatles. It’s what you need to do in transition defense. Washington routinely failed this test and other detail-oriented ones in Charlotte, and it was happening before the season went off the rails. Watching Clifford’s exasperated postgame news conferences as he deals with having the worst defense in the NBA has become a favorite pastime of mine. I thought he summed up a lot of Charlotte’s issues well after the team’s loss to the Lakers earlier this week.

“I will just say this: Do you know how many guys there are in our league that can average 15 or 16 (points) in our league, and they’re no good? Their team never wins when they’re out there. And because they score 15 or 16, they stick around for five or six years, and then people say, ‘Wow, look, he must screw everything up because everywhere he goes, when he’s on the floor, they lose.’ It happens all the time. That’s why them learning at a young age that the coverage is the coverage, the set is the set, the after-timeout play is the after-timeout play, knowing what a great shot is, is everything in this league. Being able to play with both intensity and technique for 48 minutes is everything. That’s what I want this group to get out of this.”

Clifford wasn’t talking about Washington specifically in that answer, and I don’t think Clifford would say Washington is “no good.” But it’s easy to apply a lot of what was said to his play.

To me, Washington’s fit in Dallas will come down to two things. First, can he clean up the defensive issues related to his focus and attention to detail? These are fixable if he’s willing to lock in and be engaged on that end every possession. Second, what will his offensive game look like? Can he consistently knock down the open 3s Dončić creates for him? Washington tends to make his open 3s at a reasonable but not elite clip. This season, he’s hit 38 percent of his open 3s, per the NBA site. Last season, he made 36 percent of them. On wide-open shots, the average is a little over 39 percent from 3. Any sort of contest on Washington’s shot results in the number dropping pretty substantially.

No matter what, he’s going to be an upgrade over what Williams was giving the Mavericks after his first 10 games. He can do a little bit more with the ball than Williams, and Williams’ jumper fell off a cliff for some reason. He’s also more mobile and flexible on defense than Williams, who had been a bit of a traffic cone this season in Dallas’ scheme.

Was this move worth Dallas’ last tradeable first-round pick until the summer? It could be, and it’s not a deal I necessarily hate. But I don’t think I would have made this deal if I were the Mavericks; even accounting for the reality that getting off Williams’ four-year deal is a value-add, it feels like a risk. The Mavericks only have limited moves available moving forward. They’ll have two first-rounders and four second rounders available to trade this summer, but those assets aren’t going to get them into the mix for NBA stars given some of the asset chests league-wide. They’re going to have to hope their Dončić/Irving duo can make it work surrounded by starter-quality players.

This one is a bet. We’ll see if it works out.

Gafford acquisition is a home run

The Gafford addition is a lot more straight-forward for the Mavericks. They get him and get off Richaun Holmes’ contract for next season essentially for a pick swap in 2028 with Oklahoma City. That could end up being bad if Dončić doesn’t like the team’s direction in the next couple of years (he can opt out of his deal in 2026), but given the team’s limited assets, this one feels like more of a risk worth taking.

Gafford has been an effective starting center for the Wizards this season. He’s averaging 11 points and eight rebounds while racking up 2.2 blocks and a steal per game. He tries to contest everything around the rim, something that does end up having a bit of an impact on his defensive rebounding numbers (I’d be a bit worried about playing him with Washington as the four). But Gafford contests 9.3 shots at the rim per game, per the NBA site, which is fourth in the league despite playing just 26.5 minutes per game. Opponents shoot about 58 percent at the rim against him, which is an above-average number for a center. More than anything, Gafford is extremely active.

Beyond that though, the offensive fit is perfect. Gafford is about as good a rim runner as you’ll find in the league. He averages 4.5 screen assists per game, constantly going up to set screens and flying toward the basket. He has made over 71 percent of his shots over the last two seasons, doing a great job of timing his rolls to the rim. He and Lively are seventh and eighth in the NBA in dunks this season, and both suck in the defense on their rolls. You have to tag them. If you don’t, they’re going to sky for open opportunities. If you do, it creates potential for open corner kickouts, which Dončić hits in his sleep. Here’s an easy example from February, where Jordan Poole catches a drag screen from Gafford in transition. With Corey Kispert in the weakside corner, Bennedict Mathurin doesn’t tag Gafford on the roll, so it’s an easy lob. Dallas should be able to replicate things like this with Irving or Tim Hardaway Jr. in the weakside corner on early screens for Dončić.

But it’s also worth noting Gafford has added a little bit of technique to his game too. He knows what the situation calls for in terms of screens. He’ll stay and make contact or slip early and try to get to the rim, and he’s a lot more capable in short-roll situations now. He can catch and take a dribble or two to finish. He’s still not a passer or playmaker, but he’s added a little mini-push shot if the defender stays sagged off him. I also think his hands have gotten a lot better, something that is really important with Dončić throwing creative looks from crazy angles that you have to be prepared for. Gafford can catch balls out of his area and find creative angles to finish around the rim, as he shows here in this clip against Detroit where he has to adjust to the pass, catch and finish while contorting his body on the fly.

The one area where Gafford might struggle a bit early with Dončić is in the Gortat-screening aspect mentioned above. Gafford has a lot more of a tendency at this point to open his body up into space and try to find some room to get downhill as opposed to hitting bodies. But that is more about scheme and working with his lead ballhandler than it is about his willingness. Gafford has displaying every willingness to play physically. He’s also elite in the dunker spot, if Dallas wants to get creative with some one-four or one-three screening actions for its shooters too.

What this deal does is give Dallas 48 minutes of tough rim protection and elite rim running, something the Mavericks have certainly lacked in the minutes when Lively hasn’t been on the floor. With Lively on the court this season, Dallas wins its minutes by 5.5 points per 100 possessions, per PBPStats. Without Lively, the Mavs lose their minutes by 3.4 points per 100 possessions. And, if you’re wondering if those numbers are inflated by Dončić, well, they certainly are. However, Lively’s impact on Dončić’s play has been equally as good. With Lively and Dončić on the court this season, Dallas outscores its opponents by 7.3 points per 100 possessions. When Dončić is on the court and Lively is off the court, Dallas is losing its minutes by 5.2 points per 100.

Dallas doesn’t have to worry about that now. For the next two and a half seasons, the Mavericks will have 48 minutes of the exact kind of players who tend to thrive in their system at center, and they’ll get that production and depth for the paltry cost of under $20 million even in 2025-26, the most expensive season in which they’ll have Gafford and Lively on the books. It’s an easy win across the board.

(Top photo of P.J. Washington and Daniel Gafford: Geoff Burke / USA Today)