The Christian Wood trade has raised the floor of the Dallas Mavericks. Despite the applause from the Mavericks community surrounding the move, the fanbase’s malign behavior towards Dwight Powell remains and is not new: it is cyclical.
Fans have started the last two seasons looking at his three-year, $33.2 million contract (which expires at the end of the upcoming season) wondering, “How did a player of his caliber get such a contract?” Powell, almost out of spite for his detractors, outlasts the clamoring of the fanbase and the noise of the trade rumors to make the final roster. Fans often begrudgingly resign themselves to his presence on the team, and the season begins.
Throughout the last two seasons, Dwight has had some good moments. Who could forget his career-high 26-point, 12-rebound outburst against Houston, or his 22-point, 13-rebound performance against Milwaukee?
Powell defenders, however, know how this story goes: the praise he has garnered disappears once the playoffs begin.
Against the Utah Jazz this postseason, Powell was unplayable. His offense was nullified by Rudy Gobert. His short wingspan made him a defensive turnstile and an ineffective rebounder. He mustered averages of 4.1 points and 3.7 rebounds. Unfortunately for Dwight, this was his best series.
As the Mavs’ improbable playoff run continued, partially due to matchups and due to Maxi Kleber’s hot hand, Powell’s minutes shrunk. The detractors, who had stayed predominantly silent through Powell’s strong regular season, returned with vitriol.
“Only Dwight Powell can make Kevon Looney look like Wilt Chamberlain,” they clammer. “This is his fault, and he has got to go.”
And thus, the cycle repeats itself.
What if, however, this isn’t Dwight Powell’s fault? What if the Mavericks front office, the second regime Powell has played under, recognizes something about his value that most of the fanbase does not?
Maybe this is what the front office sees: a player who showcases his value through on-court production and culture-building machismo.
On the court, Powell is very great at one thing: catching lobs. Before and after his gruesome ACL tear, Powell has proven himself to be an elite rim-runner. “Elite” isn’t hyperbolic. Powell’s 1.43 points-per-pick-and-roll was fifth in the league among qualified players this season. The 6’ 10” big man was the only player on the team to play every game. There is something to be said for someone who can make the easy baskets.
Powell’s true value, however, is his intangibles.
Recall that Powell was a throw-in piece of the infamous Rajon Rondo trade. A throw-in. An afterthought. He was added to make salaries work; to recoup a little size that was departing in Jae Crowder.
Powell exemplified every value that Jason Kidd sought to instill within the team’s culture this season: self-awareness, communication, and hard work. Powell was aware of what he was good at and worked to become great at it. He never played beyond his capabilities. He never caused any locker room fuss. He hustled for every rebound like it was his last. He became the model for other Mavericks to emulate; Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber faced similar uphill battles. He then tore his ACL and did it all over again. In the period between Dirk Nowitzki’s decline and Luka Dončić’s ascension, Powell became the culture.
Dwight Powell did not ask to be the starting center this year or the past few seasons. Most people know he isn’t a starting center on a championship-caliber team. Powell probably knows this himself. But, in the exemplification of his culture-building machismo, he seized the opportunity and did what he does best: work. He took the brunt of the criticism – critique that should have fallen on the previous front office for failing to acquire front-court talent — and played through the noise. None of that is Dwight Powell’s fault. He should not be criticized for his limitations; he should be praised for giving his best effort despite them.
Dwight Powell is overpaid. His role is limited, and his contract can be an asset in acquiring a more talented player. What Dwight Powell also is, however, a cultural foundation of this team. You just can’t put a price tag on something like that.