Kristaps Porzingis and Jalen Brunson have played a big role in making Dallas more diverse on offense. Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball

How Keanu Reeves and The Matrix Explain the Dallas Mavericks

Perplexed by what you're seeing this season? That's because the Mavericks are tired of traveling down the same old road.

Keanu Reeves changed my life.

Ask people who most changed their lives, and I bet they would mention a teacher, mentor, parent, or significant other. Meh. For me, it’s Keanu Reeves as Neo in The Matrix.

My favorite scene is toward the beginning, well before Neo is faced with his red pill/blue pill dilemma. It is when he gets into a car with Trinity, still hesitant about the journey before him. At one point, the car stops, and he opens the door to get out. He stares at a road off into the distance. But before he exits into the pouring rain, Trinity stops him. “You know that road, you know exactly where it ends, and I know that’s not where you want to be,” she tells him.

Many times in my life, I have sat back and taken stock of who I am and what I can do to be a better person. I would strive to break bad habits (whiskey drinking at the Loon at 1 a.m. every weekend) and strive to create new ones (I don’t know, something crazy like, say, reading a book) in what I would call the launch of “Dameris 2.0.” I knew the road I had traveled many times before had not fulfilled me, yet I found myself continuously bounding down it at high speed, hoping for a different result. The intent was real; it was the execution that was lacking. I needed not only a plan to avoid making the same mistakes, but a way to achieve it. Now I know the key to success in the journey of improvement can be broken down to one word: process.

This is where the Dallas Mavericks find themselves. Two straight first-round exits to the Clippers have left the team looking to find ways to avoid barreling down the same road again to encounter a similar fate, as our Zac Crain recently has worried they might.

The early results of Jason Kidd’s schematic changes are mixed at best. The defense is indeed improved on the margins, and this new, aggressive approach will get better with time. The hand-wringing is mostly on the offensive side. The team that posted the most efficient offense in NBA history in 2019 ranks 19th in points per possession as of Tuesday. Did we take a Lamborghini and put a Kia engine in it?

For now, the relevant answer lies less in the short-term results than why Kidd feels the need to makes these adjustments.

Rick Carlisle played a space-and-spread, pick-and-roll flow offense with Luka Doncic controlling the ball and four shooters around him. During the regular season, this system worked well. It bogged down in the playoffs, when opponents can scheme against it and trap Luka to get the ball out of his hands. Without a proper secondary playmaker, the offense sputters, Luka tires, and the Mavericks lose.

Once the postseason hits, the Mavs have to diversify their attack. Fans rightly were livid when they saw Kristaps Porzingis used as a decoy in the corner during the Clippers series. There had to be a better way. What we are seeing now from Kidd and the Mavs are the first steps toward finding that way, toward identifying multiple weapons and approaches for their playoff battles ahead. Mark Cuban confirmed as much during a media availability in Los Angeles on Sunday.

Last year’s Milwaukee Bucks faced a similar situation. In 2019 and 2020, Milwaukee posted the best defense in the NBA during the regular season, only to see it falter come playoff time. Fans and pundits called for head coach Mike Budenholzer’s head after he refused to adjust and play a switching defense. He and the Bucks responded by using the 2021 regular season as a lab to try out new defensive schemes so that, once the postseason arrived, they wouldn’t be running full speed down the same road.

The results were sometimes ugly, but it was a constant battle of the short-term versus the bigger picture. Sure enough, after one February loss in which these new schemes failed to work, Budenholzer appealed to his doubters by preaching — wait for it — process.

“We talk a lot about process … hopefully we’ve developed a mindset and a culture where process matters and process means something,” he told the media. “While being very competitive, we continue to grow because of process.”

The opponent in that game? The Phoenix Suns. Five months later, they would meet in the Finals, and we know how that ended.

How does this translate to the Mavs? There is a ton of angst over the starting lineup and the continued usage of Dwight Powell alongside Porzingis. Kidd sees similarities in how Anthony Davis was used as a Laker when Kidd was an assistant coach there: Davis started alongside a big like Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee to save wear and tear but would often close games at the five. We are seeing a similar approach here. In fact, Porzingis is playing half of his minutes as the sole big on the floor and is closing games at the five.

The main change has come not in who Porzingis starts games with but how he’s being used. He is the key to exponential improvement for this team, and keeping him engaged is vital. The most obvious changes in his game come from diversity. Kidd is not using him solely as a pick-and-pop, spacing presence. As I outlined in my preseason Mavs Vibe Check, Dirk Nowitzki went through a similar maturity in his game, from a face-the-basket long-range gunner under Don Nelson to a traditional back-to-the-basket power forward under Avery Johnson. Carlisle took the best of both worlds and molded Dirk into the 2011 NBA champion we know and still love.

For KP, it is melding who he was in New York with the Carlisle-style into a Kidd-style. The end result, ideally, is a player who continues to be a spacer and hit open threes while providing the offense a presence inside as a runner, cutter, post-up threat, and willing passer out of the post. Are the Mavs accommodating how Porzingis wants to play at the expense of their overall efficiency? Probably. But they will find the right mix. KP has shown that playing inside can benefit the team when Luka gets trapped in late-game situations, during which he can score or find open teammates when Luka passes out of the double team. This is essential in clutch games and, later, in the playoffs.

There are kinks to work out. As I feared, playing him with Powell brings a clogged lane — for Porzingis but also for Luka, since all of those bodies in the paint block his driving lanes (leading to the lowest attempts at the rim of his career so far).

The good news is that we are starting to see results. The Spurs and Nuggets games, when Porzingis scored 32 and 29, respectively, showcase exactly what Kidd and the Mavs are trying to do: a diverse inside-outside game that is harder to defend and a true two-man game between the two stars. Not the “your turn, my turn” approach we have seen so often. Luka’s recent injury, to be sure, inserts a speed bump into this development, but thankfully the injury isn’t structural, and I have no doubt he will bounce back into form quickly and restart his burgeoning on-court KP relationship. We aren’t counting fist bumps between the two of them to determine if they like each other anymore.

They’re also trying changes to preserve Luka’s legs, from other players bringing the ball up to post-ups to possessions off as Jalen runs the offense (think the first road Spurs win) to Luka developing a trust with Brunson. I’d like to see Luka coming off screens and going downhill in those so-called possessions off. But Kidd is letting his players play. Not everything he tries will work, as evidenced by early attempts to post up Dorian Finney-Smith. But they are in the lab. The end result, of course, isn’t guaranteed, but last year’s Bucks team did show us a template for success.

Will the Mavs be relegated to the dustbin of failed Dameris 2.0 beta launches and going down the same ol’ road, knowing full well how it ends? Or will they follow in the footsteps of Keanu Reeves and the Milwaukee Bucks?

I’ll let Brunson give you an indication of how he feels about it from his comments after the Mavs win over the Pelicans on November 8: “We’re a work in progress,” he said, “but we’re on the right path.”

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