The Mavericks wanted to get back to basics in their March 11 game in Houston, and who could blame them? After all, they were down two starters and fresh off one of their worst losses of the season, a 30-point blowout against the Knicks that snapped a five-game winning streak.
So it wasn’t surprising to see Jason Kidd open the game against the Rockets by calling the play he starts with almost every night: a designed look that gets Luka Doncic the ball on a handoff after a screen at the elbow. It’s a play designed to give him options, and on this night, Doncic chooses to drive and find Dwight Powell, who gets fouled after catching the ball under the basket. Powell goes to the line and sinks both free throws. Next possession, same play. Doncic drives again, Powell rolls to the rim, catches the lob, and throws down a two-handed dunk. Third possession? Same procedure, same play, same results. Another Doncic drive after the handoff and another thunderous jam off a lob pass.
Powell would go on to tie his career-high with 26 points, but his main job was done less than two minutes into the game. The Rockets had to change their defensive game plan on Doncic and started putting two defenders on him after every screening action for the remainder of the game because the big man, perhaps the most maligned player on Dallas’ roster over the last few years, made them pay. It was a timely reminder of Powell’s value as he reasserts himself as a Mavericks lynchpin.
The Houston game against the Rockets might be the high point but the season didn’t start well for the eight-year veteran. The Mavericks struggled early on, especially on offense, where two-big lineups with Powell and Kristaps Porzingis sharing the frontcourt cramped the floor spacing and generally looked awkward. Kidd and the coaching staff’s first priority at that point was to build the chemistry between Doncic and Porzingis, and Powell was collateral damage. He was often deprived of the role he does best—being a tireless pick-and-roll partner for Doncic—and his performance suffered. His ongoing recovery from an Achilles tear in January 2020 didn’t help, either. As has so often been the case since he returned, he became the fans’ punching bag when things went poorly, and I had trouble defending my take that he remained a better option than Willie Cauley-Stein, Tyler Bey, Moses Brown, and Marquese Chriss, depending on who among them was trending in Mavs Twitter at a particular moment. Meanwhile, the team looked lifeless heading into December. Some change had to be made, particularly among the big men, and Powell seemed like the most obvious choice after being a known commodity for so many years.
Well, the Mavericks made a change, and surprisingly, it was Porzingis who got shipped out. The Mavericks are 12-5 since the trade and finally have a clear identity and style of play: space the floor, let Doncic or secondary ball handlers Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie cook, and surround them with a bunch of role players to do the dirty work.
Powell, the longest-tenured Maverick, has done the latter in Dallas since 2014. Now he’s being leaned on to provide more of it than ever. With Porzingis out of the picture, Powell and Maxi Kleber are the only two big men Kidd plays regularly, and rarely at the same time (Powell and Kleber have played only 63 minutes together since the trade). Powell is flourishing in his new role as a sole big man, averaging 10.8 points and 5.6 rebounds in 25 minutes per game—a significant increase over the 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds he had before the trade. Last night’s win over Minnesota marked Powell’s third time scoring more than 20 points since the deal, something he’d only done once this year prior to it. Defensively, Powell was always a player who was bad at the most visible—protecting the rim and defending in the post—while quietly good at the subtleties. He is mobile, has good hands, and always plays hard. Now Powell is finally in a system that maximizes his skills and is a big part of the new aggressive Mavericks defensive scheme.
Dirty work and hustle aside, there is one other thing that Powell brings to the table that I want to key in on. It’s something you don’t typically think about, but it could change your mind the next time you see him score four points, like he did in a recent win against the Boston Celtics. Even when Powell isn’t rolling to the basket and dunking, he is altering the opposing team’s defensive gameplans. His being a vertical threat provides Doncic many options to manipulate the defense in the pick-and-roll. And if the opposing team prioritizes taking that away, it means they’re giving ground somewhere else. It’s NBA rock-paper-scissors: there’s always a way for Doncic to win, and he usually finds the way to do it.
If they play it conservative, Doncic will drive and either score or lob it to a rolling Powell for an alley-oop dunk. If they try to stop the roll and tag Powell with a help defender—called a “low man” in NBA terminology—Doncic will find an open three-point shooter in the corner. Another option to neutralize the roll is to switch, but that puts the big men at Doncic’s mercy, as Boston’s Al Horford and Robert Williams learned the hard way. Finally, you can use two defenders to blitz Doncic to get the ball out of his hands, but he is such a good passer and decision-maker that he’ll stretch the floor, find an opening, and make you defend 4-on-3 in a spread court.
Your homework the next time you watch the Mavericks play is to pay attention to how teams defend Doncic-Powell screening actions out of the gate. Typically, they’ll start with the conservative approach, but the Doncic-Powell pairing has been so lethal lately that most change their strategy by the end of the first quarter. Since the trade, Doncic’s average of 12 points in the first quarter tops the NBA. It’s been a key to Doncic’s recent scoring tear, and Powell is one of the early release valves that gets the Luka Magic started. Since the trade deadline, the duo is top-five in the league in the number of screening and handoff actions, and the very best in both if we look at first quarters only.
It’s both hilarious and amazing that teams still don’t know what to do with the Mavericks’ handoff action sets they ran out of timeouts: Dallas ranks second in the NBA in after-the-time-out (ATO) play efficiency at 1.001 points per possession this season. This number balloons to 1.175 points per possession with Doncic and Powell on the floor in the post-trade period. I wrote about different player archetypes recently, and Powell is a textbook specialist who excels in one thing: rim-rolling. But regaining most of the athleticism he had prior to the Achilles tear has again made him elite in that one thing—Powell ranks in the 96th percentile as a finisher per Cleaning the Glass and in the 89th percentile as a roll-man per Synergy data—and that makes a world of difference for the Mavericks and Doncic.
Powell and Kleber being the only functional big men on the roster is Dallas’ biggest trouble spot heading into the postseason. Any chance of getting past the first round for the first time since 2011 will depend a lot on those two staying healthy and playing their roles. For Powell, this means playing active defense, providing energy, and making the opponents adjust on defense.
As it stands now, the Utah Jazz seem like the Mavericks’ most likely first-round opponent, and their defense, anchored by three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, is built on having their rim protector in drop coverage and protecting the paint. That’s what Utah wants to do. Dallas, meanwhile, will want to disrupt that plan, and Powell will play a key role in making that happen. So the next time you see Gobert or some other big man switch on Doncic, and the next time you see Luka pick defenses apart after a blitz, just know that Dwight Powell did his job. Even if he is sitting on the bench with only four points next to his name in the box score.