2024 NBA Finals: How Mavs center Daniel Gafford went from trade market to integral starter

BOSTON — Daniel Gafford waded across the parquet floor Wednesday afternoon following Dallas’ practice at TD Garden with a grin stretching across his face and royal blue tights clinging to his tree-trunk legs. The last time Gafford, the Mavericks’ starting center throughout this run to the NBA Finals, walked this court, he played less than six minutes for the Mavs in a March 1 matchup with the Celtics.

Gafford was also previously scheduled to play in Boston on Feb. 9, but the day before served as the annual trade deadline — which uprooted Gafford from Washington and the Wizards’ impending date with the Celtics. “What’s crazy … we were actually headed here to play Boston,” Gafford said.

The 6-foot-10 center out of Arkansas had driven to Washington’s practice facility in southeast D.C. that Thursday afternoon, having heard his name on the trade block since mid-December. The Rockets were trying to upgrade their center position before acquiring Steven Adams from Memphis. New York, for a time, made calls to rival teams, according to league sources, in the early aftermath of Mitchell Robinson needing ankle surgery. Dallas, though, seemed to prioritize Gafford throughout the lead-up to the deadline’s 3 p.m. ET buzzer. “I think this was the only one that was the main target for me,” Gafford said.

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - MAY 22: Daniel Gafford #21 of the Dallas Mavericks dunks the ball during the third quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game One of the Western Conference Finals at Target Center on May 22, 2024 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
Daniel Gafford of the Dallas Mavericks throws it down during the third quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals at Target Center in Minneapolis. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Yet there was skepticism around NBA front offices that the Wizards would ultimately move Gafford, not to mention other Washington starters like point guard Tyus Jones and scoring wing Kyle Kuzma. The Wizards’ respective asking prices for each of their veterans stood much higher, sources said, than what most rival teams were prepared to offer. Dallas was also involved in dialogue, according to league personnel, about potentially landing Kuzma.

So there Gafford was idling in the Wizards’ parking lot, when he received a call from Washington general manager Will Dawkins.

“There’s a possibility you’ll be going to Dallas,” Gafford recalled the Wizards executive saying.

Gafford understood this nature of the business. In 2021, he was part of a three-team, trade-deadline deal that shipped Gafford from Chicago to Washington after the Bulls team that selected him in the second round of the 2019 NBA Draft wanted to part ways ahead of Gafford’s second contract. Gafford told Dawkins to let him know what the outcome of this latest deadline brought, and in the interim, he waited in his car. Thirty minutes later, Dawkins dialed back. The deal to the Mavericks was indeed going down after Dallas found a way to send a 2024 first-round pick from OKC to the Wizards.

“When it comes to the emotions, when it comes to getting traded, you could be mad, you could be happy,” Gafford said. “I didn’t really have a crazy reaction to it, because I’ve been in this situation before. So I just took this as a point of one door closed, another door opened for me.”

His very first game with the Mavericks, a 35-point rout of the Thunder team that facilitated his trade — and that Dallas would upend in the second round of this postseason — Gafford realized, quite loudly, just how open the door could swing for him when setting screens for Luka Dončić. Gafford leaps like a pogo stick, his long arms providing an enormous catch radius to finish tosses around the rim. “When he threw the first lob to me, the crowd went crazy,” Gafford said. American Airlines Center quickly reminded him of Bud Walton Arena, where Gafford played home games for the Razorbacks. “Being in an atmosphere like that, with just love and energy throughout the arena,” said Gafford, who claimed the starting spot March 7 and hasn't looked back, “I feel like that’s something I’ve missed throughout my career, for sure.”

This TD Garden crowd will present a far more hostile environment. But there’s another familiar facet within this Finals matchup for Gafford that should further help him feel right at home anchoring Dallas’ newfound defensive identity. Kristaps Porziņģis, Boston’s interminable center, overlapped with Gafford for a season and a half with the Wizards after Dallas traded the former All-Star to the nation’s capital and before Porziņģis departed for the Celtics last summer.

They battled in practice every day. They started together in Washington’s frontcourt. “He used to always give me pointers,” Gafford said. “He was one of the guys who used to always motivate me when it came to things I did on the floor.” For all the discussion of the greater spacing Boston’s five-out lineup will present for the Mavericks’ defense, particularly with Porziņģis back from a calf injury, Gafford is more than prepared for that particular assignment. He knows Porzingis’ tendencies.

“When you crawl into his airspace, he still shoots over you,” Gafford said. And there’s one trick in Porziņģis’ bag Gafford knows not to fall for. “Just make sure you don’t be too aggressive when he does his sweep through move.”