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Basketball

Mavs Vibe Check: Brian Dameris Talks Porzingis, Kidd, Defense, and Whether It’s Time to Trade

Plus: how nervous is he after the team's recent spate of losses?
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The vibes, they are not immaculate. That’s the obvious current state of affairs for the Dallas Mavericks, but there’s more to it than that. So we brought back StrongSide’s own Brian Dameris, who once served as the team’s director of basketball development and whom you can hear on The Ticket and with Mavs play-by-play man Mark Followill on the Take Dat Wit You pod, as well as watch on Bally Sports Southwest. He talks us through his worry level, the floundering defense, the possible need for a trade, his assessments of Jason Kidd and Kristaps Porzingis, and more. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

We are a quarter of the way of the season. The Mavericks are .500. They are not better on defense. Their two best players are nursing injuries. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “Everybody relax, Luka’s got it all handled” and 10 being “Plunge for Paolo or Blow Chunks for Chet [I’m still workshopping those jokes],” how nervous are you right now?

I’m a 6.5.

That’s a little higher than I thought it’d be, actually.

Maybe it’s 6. But I think that the last week is concerning to me. I think that when you look at the consistency — a word JKidd has used often — I think, when you look at last week, the Cleveland loss, and then bouncing back with a historically great offensive performance against New Orleans. You were hoping that would be a stair-step kind of a plateau that they’re going to grow from and learn from and keep going. And instead, they went backward again. So it’s kind of one step forward, one step back.

And then you have the game Saturday night. And it’s no Luka and KP. So you can say well, readymade excuse, but in my mind, I’m like, OK, that’s the time for the others to step up and show that they are ready to take on larger responsibility. And for the first three quarters, they just came out with no energy and no effort. So that game really opened my eyes to, OK, do we have roster issues? We’ve changed the front office. We’ve changed the coaches. We’ve changed the scheme. We’re 11-11 after 22 games. The only other option is the roster. And I thought a telling quote from J-Kidd after the game on Friday was, “We’re built for offense. We’re not built for defense.” Well, that’s not a schematic question. That’s a personnel thing that he’s pointing out. And Nico Harrison said that after 20 games, we’re going to start looking at things and where this team is and who this team is. The trade deadline is February 10, which is two months away. December 15 is when everybody signed in the summer can be traded. So that’s kind of the launch of trade season. So that’s the first kind of public comment you have that there may be roster changes afoot.

So, yeah, let’s talk more about that. Because on the one hand, it’s a valid point, but on the other hand, it’s not like they have a lot of guys who generate offense. So I guess the two-parter is do you believe Jason when he says this? And, if so, are you convinced that they need to do something—maybe not drastic but at least significant by the trade deadline?

I think that this team, when he says built for offense, it’s built for an offense built around Luka. It’s built around catch-and-shoot guys around Luka, kind of the Carlisle system. They did change that up a little bit by moving Porzingis toward the middle, using that as an added option. They want to get more playmaking, and an interview with Goran Dragic just Monday showed that he desperately wants to be in Dallas. Now, that’s probably not going to happen until the deadline, but that’s going to help you some. He’d be able to provide some playmaking.

On the defensive side, they’ve tried some things. They tried Josh Richardson, and that didn’t work. Now they basically flipped Josh Richardson for space to use on Reggie Bullock—you know, TBD on that. We do need more wing defenders. You know, Dorian Finney-Smith is really the only guy that’s giving us a lot there. So the way this team is built, I think the scheme, what they’re trying to do—which Iztok showed really well—is that they don’t have the personnel to ideally fit what they’re trying to do defensively, so they’re treading water defensively. It’s about the same. If you look at efficiency numbers, the NBA has them at 21, I think. Cleaning The Glass at 17. Last year, they were 19. So they’re about the same.

I think they do need to find the type of personnel that’ll fit the kind of scheme they want to play better defensively. That’s a lot easier said than done. You know, is this something that can be done at the deadline? Do they have to wait till the offseason? Those are the questions Nico and J-Kidd are gonna have to huddle about because you’re working with whatever you have in your asset base to make that kind of move. But they also have issues in the center position. They want to play with a traditional center, but I don’t think Dwight Powell and Willie Cauley-Stein are really ideal for that, and both you can only use so much. And they still need that playmaking, which hopefully, Dragic will help some of that. If you look at this team, the three-year anniversary of the Porzingis trade is January. Outside of that move, there aren’t significant moves in the last three years that are really showing up for the roster. It’s still Luka, Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, Powell, Jalen Brunson, Tim Hardaway, KP. You’ve worked around the edges, but it’s still the same core. And we’re still seeing inconsistency and kind of this question of whether this team was going to be enough. So I think there are changes that need to be made.

Normally, with a first-year head coach, I’d ask you straightaway to evaluate his performance and what he’s done thus far. I’m still going to ask you that, but the elephant in the room is to what degree can we even evaluate Jason Kidd when so many parts of this lineup have been in and out and so many key contributors have missed time? So, what do you make of the job he’s done? And how much of that assessment even feel like it’s a fair assessment, given that there isn’t much stability even to work with right now?

Yeah, I think it’s definitely an incomplete, but I’m liking it. I’m definitely not negative on Jason at all. I think that I like the schemes that he’s put in on both sides of the ball. I like what he’s tried to do with rotations. I like the approach of the culture that he’s setting in what he’s talking about, that they’re emphasizing. So, you know, I really am not having much issue with Jason at all. We can quibble about how much Porzingis at the power forward you want to play. I think that will continue to kind of trend down, and we’ll see more of him at the five. We’re obviously seeing him close games in that role anyway. So the way it starts, how many minutes there, we can quibble with that, but that’s an argument on the edges. I think he’s done a great job.

A couple of weeks ago, you wrote a really good piece for us and the gist of it was, hey, they’re going to use this season almost like a laboratory, and they’re going to try concepts and see what works and the hope is that, by the playoffs, they have more things they can go to than what they’ve done the last two years. We’ve seen over the last week-plus and the downside of that approach and where the record is right now. What becomes the threshold for trying to do that in the bigger picture versus kind of shelving it and saying, “OK, we need to get a top-six seed, and if that means going back to Luka and four shooters, that’s what we have to do”?

Well, that’s the kind of razor’s edge you’re always balancing because you saw the Bullock-for-Hardaway swap in the starting lineup last week, and I think that is “Both guys are struggling. Maybe this works. Let’s throw it out there for a few games and see.” Obviously, Hardaway had a great fourth quarter against Memphis. We’ve seen him play that sixth-man role a ton. I don’t see it as a slight to him. And so that kind of tinkering, I think, will continue, whether it’s that position, the center position, other things that they’re trying to do. But you’re right: if you look at six through 10 in the West, right now, there’s a two-game difference. And if you look at fourth, you know, four through 11, there’s four games’ difference. So it’s really, really tight. And with a tough schedule coming up here, you go on a prolonged losing streak, you’re going to end up 13. And who knows when these other teams will catch fire, like the Lakers or Denver or things like that? So I agree with the approach, but there’s going to be a time [when you might have to change]. You’re probably still a little early to worry about it. But come, you know, January, you’ve got to at least be solidifying your approach.

We’ll close by asking about the two guys that people always talk about first. Like always, Kristaps Porzingis’ season has been anything but boring. Give me one word to describe his season to date.

I’m gonna cheat and say “unsurprisingly surprising,” in that it’s the best he’s ever played in his career, I think even better than New York.

I think the bubble is really the only kind of comparison point to this.

I think so, but because of his inside game, it’s better than the bubble because he’s playing a more diverse game. The unsurprising part is just the inconsistency, just the injuries that continue to take him out for a game here, a few games there. He just came off the stretch of 12 straight games, which is as long as he’s ever played as a Maverick. And that’s just frustrating. And it’s just part of getting Porzingis. I don’t know how sustainable that is if you’re a Mavericks fan because you feel good about him, and then you know, is it just going to happen in the playoffs again? That’s kind of worrying. His play’s been great. It’s been better than I expected, frankly, because of how he’s playing both inside and outside and how he’s really mobile defensively and seems completely healthy on that end. He’s back to really controlling the rim. But it’s just frustrating to see him continuously in and out of the lineup.

Last one: let’s talk about Luka. He’s not going to the rim the way he has before. Maybe that’s spacing. Maybe that’s something else. By anybody else’s standards, he’s been great. By his standards, I’d say he’s been good. What have you made of his first quarter so far? Is there any bigger thought that you have here? Or is it really just, hey, when we’re done after 82 games, we’re going to look back and see that Luka did just fine?

I’m not worried about Luka. I think he will be just fine. I think he’s backing people in, he’s posting up more than he has in the past, which is a different element to his game, and I think he wants the added bulk to be able to do that. So I don’t have an issue with that. He is playing differently. They’re asking different things of him: to play off the ball some with other guys bringing the ball up just to take the pressure off him, although his usage is still sky high and I want it to be really high.

So, Luka’s going to be great. He didn’t have much of a summer off. And, like you see LeBron do now, he’s going to round in the form when it’s crunch time. Now they’re around the .500 mark, and as you mentioned, we are kind of standings watching already a little bit. So you can’t afford to have him working into how he wants to play, but of course, you saw Friday night, he was pretty beat up. And they were concerned to the level of needing to get an MRI on it, which was concerning to me. Because, “Oh, we’re going to give you a night or two off for rest. We got you back a little early.” That’s one thing. The fact that they felt they needed an MRI to look at it because he was hurting that much? Thankfully, there’s nothing structurally wrong. So I’m of the opinion to get him right and then give him the rest he wants. On this team, Luka’s the least of my worries.

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