Kristaps Porzingis has been back to his shot-blocking best in the preseason. Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball

The Mavericks’ Preseason Is Almost Over. Here’s What It Showed Us.

KP looks healthy, the starting five looks good, and how does the bench hierarchy shake out?

The Dallas Mavericks are undefeated in the preseason, and there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Wednesday’s historic dismantling of the Hornets was the obvious standout, but it’s bigger than that. The Mavericks have a plus-23.1 point differential, trailing only the Chicago Bulls leaguewide.

Now, this is still preseason. Preseason wins don’t count, as the 0-5 Los Angeles Lakers surely would tell you. Dallas’ opponents rarely played their starters, either. But for the Mavericks fans so eager to see the new Jason Kidd-run team, these games have given us some glimpses of what we can expect when the real games start next week (and are unlikely to change much based on tonight’s finale after the team has said most key players will rest).

Here are the important takeaways:

The team looks healthy — and prepared — for what’s ahead

The Mavericks began last season behind the eight-ball. Surprised by an unexpectedly early start of the pandemic-shortened season, Luka Doncic came to training camp in less than impressive shape. Kristaps Porzingis, meanwhile, missed the start of the season recovering from an operation on his torn meniscus. Dwight Powell was recovering from a ruptured Achilles. 

Things couldn’t be more different this season. Doncic was in action during the whole summer and is ready to go. Porzingis looks spry, flying all over the court. Powell is back where he left off at the end of last season — being a pest on defense and throwing down dunks on alley-oops — while Maxi Kleber also looks slimmer and is making the athletic plays at the rim we missed last season (our Zac Crain has more on those two here).

Dallas simply never had a chance at playing its best ball even before the early-season COVID outbreak or the grind of the condensed schedule set in. Now they do. 

Kristaps Porzingis looks much more like the 2020 edition

Kidd went out of his way to build up Porzingis in the offseason, and we can see the early payoff. His preseason block rate of 3.9 blocks per 100 possessions is a huge improvement from last season’s 2.3 mark and a promising sign that the Unicorn is moving better. 

I’m still skeptical about the starting five with Porzingis at power forward slot because lineups with a non-shooting big man — like Powell or Cauley-Stein — mean less Luka and KP two-man action. But Kidd found other ways to keep Porzingis engaged and get him early touches on offense. One nice wrinkle we saw is Kidd replicating what his former employer, the Lakers, did with big lineups that featured Anthony Davis next to a center. Davis would often leak out early, run the floor, and establish a deep-paint position against a mismatch. Doncic and LeBron James are both good rebounders and passers, so it makes sense to replicate what worked for LeBron and AD with Kidd’s new star duo in Dallas. It’s also a nice way of utilizing Porzingis’ best attribute — speed — to get an early seal in transition instead of having him fight for it in the half-court.

The jury is still out on the starting five, but the early signs are promising

Let’s start with defense because here is where most of my concerns with the starting group were. The improvement in effort and intensity is certainly visible. Dallas mostly played a conservative defensive scheme with two bigs on the floor. But we could see some elements of the scheme that new defensive coordinator Sean Sweeney is putting in. Sweeney likes to shrink the floor — have defenders close in as a unit to protect the paint — and then be aggressive on close-outs when the ball is reversed. This is where a more spry Porzingis lurking on the weak side really helps. 

However, the defense hasn’t faced a true challenge yet. Last season, the Mavericks struggled mightily defending good pick-and-roll teams — think the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns — and sweet-shooting guards like Damien Lillard and Steph Curry. We’ll see how the big starting five defend when they face a team that will put them in rotation and force Porzingis to defend the screens at the three-point line. The first true test will come soon enough, on the opening night in Atlanta against Trae Young. The good news is that Kidd has a lot of options to adjust on the bench (more on that shortly).

On offense, Powell looks like he’s all the way back to being the elite rim-rolling force he was before the injury. I still believe that the most potent offensive lineups will be the ones with Porzingis at the center. But as long as KP is happy, it probably makes sense to reduce the wear and tear of him playing center for the majority of the regular-season minutes. Igor Kokoshkov, who is in charge of the offensive sets, implemented some nice wrinkles to maximize the two big-man units. Early in the preseason the Mavericks played a lot of elbow sets and 77 actions — 77 stands for two consecutive ball-screens — with two bigs setting the screen. The Hawks were very successful running these actions last season with John Collins and Clint Capela. Powell and Porzingis work similarly as a duo, with the former rolling hard to the rim and the latter able to do that or step out for a shot. These sets give ball-handling wizards like Trae Young or Luka Dončić a lot of options based on how the defense reacts. The NBA is a copycat league, and 77 sets were in Rick Carlisle’s playbook as well, but I like the creativity we’ve seen so far.

Finally, the Mavericks are killing teams on the offensive glass with their big lineup in preseason, which makes sense since Hardaway Jr. is the shortest player at 6-foot-6. More of that, please.

The bench mob is feisty

Apart from everybody being healthy and in shape, this might be the biggest preseason development: the Mavericks are deep, and the bench mob defends like hell. 

The upside of having an offensive-minded starting lineup is that there is a lot of defensive firepower waiting on the bench. Kleber, Willie Cauley-Stein, Reggie Bullock, Sterling Brown, and Frank Ntilikina are all good defensive players. Even Jalen Brunson is a good positional defender. This is where I think we’ll see Kidd implement the aggressive defense, on-ball pressure, and uptempo basketball that he covets. The ability to change the tone of the game with defense is something we haven’t seen over the last couple of seasons. 

Having many capable wing defenders also allows Kidd to throw different looks at opponents. He can go big or play small with Doncic and mobile wing defenders. Against the Hornets, Kidd played a lineup of Doncic, three wing players, and Powell using a switching defense that maximizes Doncic’s ability on defense to switch on bigs rather than chase guards around screens. The Mavericks run 12 deep, and I’m excited to see more of the second unit harassing opponents defensively.

The rotation picture is coming into focus

The starting five was set before the preseason — another stark contrast to Carlisle’s tenure — so the key thing to watch was how the hierarchy in the rotation would shake out. Here is how it looks for now, starting from the sixth all the way down to the 17th spot, and what each man brings to the table.

Jalen Brunson — The only other on-ball creator; looks great and confident. Kidd even got him some post-ups on the block.

Maxi Kleber — The shot was off, but he looks slimmer and more mobile. His denial at the rim of P.J. Washington reminded us of the old Maxi.

Reggie Bullock Only played in one game, but he’s a 3-and-D pro who will be a big addition.

Sterling Brown — Competes on defense, and his 3-point shot came around as the games progressed. Finishing at the rim is something to watch for.

Josh Green — Great at on-ball defense and fighting over screens. Unfortunately, there is still no sign of progress on offense. Green is an unreliable shooter who gets in the air too early on drives without a plan.

Willie Cauley-Stein — Showed nothing spectacular, but his mobility on defense keeps him ahead of Moses Brown and Boban Marjanovic.

Frank Ntilikina — It’s been a long time since the Mavericks have had the luxury of a ballhawk defender to throw against elite guards.

Moses Brown — Some fans expected him in the starting lineup because of his athleticism and work on the offensive glass. Lack of defense makes him the third-string center.

Eugene Omoruyi A pleasant surprise. Has the clearest NBA-ready things going for him among the training camp additions: a pro-ready body with hustle to match.

Boban Marjanovic Carlisle liked to use him to “junk up” some games and make the opponent’s coaches adjust. It doesn’t seem sure Kidd will use him as often.

Trey Burke — Mark Cuban’s new stance on unvaccinated employees probably means Burke will be the odd man out when final cuts are made.

Tyrell Terry — Missed the entire preseason because of personal reasons. His future with the team is unclear.

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