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Basketball

The Mavericks’ Offense Has a Big Problem: Balance

Two players can only carry a team so far in the modern NBA.
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Luka Doncic and Spencer Dinwiddie have carried the Mavericks' offense. But they can only do so much. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

We need to have a conversation about the Mavericks’ offense.

And before somebody reminds me, yes, I know the numbers. Per Cleaning the Glass, Dallas ranks 10th in the NBA on offense, two spots above where it finished last season. Luka Doncic is leading the NBA in scoring at 34.3 points per game. Spencer Dinwiddie is a higher scoring and more efficient second option than Jalen Brunson was last season.

Yet something doesn’t feel right.

The coaching staff sees it too. Only a dozen games into the season, the Mavericks are so concerned about Doncic’s usage rate that they believe if they don’t get it under control, he may wear down by Christmas. The 23-year-old three-time All-NBA first-team selection has started the new season on a tear, scoring 30 points or more in 10 of the first 12 games. But it was the two games—frustrating defeats to the undermanned Magic and Wizards—when Doncic failed to look like he was from another planet, that were the reason for concern and why less than a month after the training camp, Mavericks coach Jason Kidd is feeling the need to look at something different.

The two recent losses, along with some fourth-quarter collapses, exposed a gap in the offense that was not difficult to foresee in the summer. It took opponents the first five games to identify it, and it took a few more for players like Kevin Durant and Kyle Kuzma to talk about it. The Mavericks, as KD put it bluntly, lack players who can dribble. I don’t know why the NBA needed two weeks to figure out Brunson is now wearing a Knicks uniform, but we’ve seen a shift in scouting reports on the Mavericks over the last five games.

If the strategy initially was to let Doncic get his 30 and stay on the other shooters, we’ve seen the opposite happen lately. In an attempt to force other Mavericks to make a play, teams have been double-teaming, trapping, playing zone and box-and-one, and showing all kinds of other help defense on Doncic. The Wizards went even further with this approach, playing a box-and-one against Dinwiddie when he was the only ball handler on the floor while Doncic took a breather in the second quarter. The strategy of making Dallas role players do things they are not comfortable with is working, as every key rotation player not named Doncic or Dinwiddie has his highest individual turnover rate of the last three seasons.

We’ve been watching “Luka ball” ever since Doncic was drafted. So why this increased concern over high usage rate now?

Doncic is the NBA usage leader for a third consecutive season, but his 39.1 percent rate is off the charts, on pace for the third highest of all time behind only James Harden in 2018-19 and Russell Westbrook in 2016-17. As crazy as that might sound, that doesn’t even tell the full story. Usage rate is an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player. It accounts for field-goal and free-throw attempts and turnovers, but it does not reflect how much a player has the ball in his hands.

Second Spectrum, on the other hand, tracks touches and average touch length, and crunching this data shows how heliocentric the Dallas offense is. Doncic has the ball 45 percent of the time (sum of all touch time this season), which is well ahead of the Pacers’ Tyrese Haliburton (39 percent) and the Grizzlies’ Ja Morant (36 percent) for the largest mark in the NBA. We haven’t seen this level of ball dominance since—you guessed it—Harden and Westbrook in 2016-17.

But heliocentric might not be the right description for the offense. Because if Doncic is the sun around whom everybody orbits, Dinwiddie is the moon. Dinwiddie is 20th in the NBA in touch time at 25 percent, so the two guards have the ball in their hands for more than 70 percent of the time each game. It’s unprecedented for two players to control the offense so much. Even other heliocentric teams such as Atlanta and Memphis have three players within the 70 percent mark, while most teams spread that load around among four or five players.

The most obvious stylistic comparison for this team is the 2018-19 Rockets, with Harden and Chris Paul as the key cogs of isolation-heavy offense. But even the Houston duo controlled the ball less than the two Mavericks’ ball handlers have this season. And as great as Dinwiddie has been, he is nowhere near the playmaker CP3 was in his prime. 

This is where losing Brunson hurts the most. Dallas basically redistributed his on-ball time between Doncic and Dinwiddie. But while they could compensate for some of the scoring with Christian Wood and Tim Hardaway Jr., the Mavericks couldn’t replicate the lost playmaking. In 2021-22 the Mavericks averaged 23.4 assists per game; this season, they are at 19.8. Last season, three players had an assist rate of 22 percent or higher. This season there is a huge gap from Doncic (44.1 percent) and Dwinwiddie (23.8) to Hardaway, who is third at 12.2 percent.

After the Porzingis trade went down last February, Kidd mostly played lineups with at least one other ball handler next to Doncic. When I analyzed more than three years of past lineups data, numbers showed the offense went to another level (119 offensive rating and a plus-5.0 net rating) when Doncic was paired with another playmaker. Without a suitable replacement for Brunson, this flexibility is gone, and lineups where Dinwiddie is the lone ball handler have struggled, averaging only 104.8 points per 100 possessions.

Without Brunson, the Mavericks lost an important decision-maker. Dinwiddie is primarily a scorer, at his best when driving to the basket and attacking mismatches in isolation. He is good as a secondary playmaker who thrives at making simple decisions, like attacking a close-out or swinging a quick skip pass to an open shooter when the defense is already in rotation. But he is not great as the primary creator or when asked to do more complex decision-making out of pick-and-roll situations.

The result is that Doncic has to carry an even bigger load. And not just physically. There is also an increased cognitive load that comes with having to make almost every decision when he is on the floor. After the game in Washington, Doncic talked about the fatigue, but he looked more mentally exhausted after trying to solve every possible scheme that Wes Unseld Jr. and the Wizards’ coaching staff threw at him. Maybe the mental fatigue is what Kidd was talking about when he worried about his floor general making it past Christmas.

Centralized decision-making has one other downside, one that might be hurting the Mavericks in the fourth quarter. The efficiency of Doncic and the Mavericks drops significantly in the second half of games.

A lot has been written about Doncic wearing down late because of excessive load early in the games. Another factor could be the level of confidence that comes with increased familiarity and the 50 repetitions opponents get at defending variations of the same pick-and-roll action in the first three periods.

All that is to say it’s easy to see why Kidd wants to have a conversation with his young superstar about trying a somewhat different approach. The puzzling part is why it has taken so long. 

This predicament was not hard to predict back in the summer after Brunson left for New York, and the front office’s moves made it obvious that adding playmaking help was not the main priority. If the coaching staff wanted to tweak the offense to reduce Doncic’s load, the most suitable time to do that—and implement fewer iso-heavy concepts—would have been during the offseason and in training camp, especially once the roster was set and it was clear no additional ball handling was coming.

Instead, the Mavericks doubled down on last season’s approach. Dallas is the most isolation-heavy offense in the NBA, and it’s not even close. Per Second Spectrum, Doncic is at 23.3 isolations per 100 possessions, which is the highest rate since this data became available in 2013. Dinwiddie, at 10th, is not far behind.

There is a good reason why the Mavericks run arguably the NBA’s most simplistic offense—set a screen and hunt the matchup you like. Like peak Harden, Doncic is a guarantee to deliver a slow but surgically efficient offense by himself. The Mavericks have had the best or second-best half-court offense in three of the last four seasons.

One reason why the Mavs’ isolations ballooned was the way teams defended Doncic early in the season. As Mike D’Antoni recently explained, the same thing happened to the Rockets with Harden: “The defense dictated us to do that [isolation] more. We were so efficient at the pick-and-roll, either with [Clint] Capela rolling or whoever the five was, even the one-two [guard-guard] pick-and-roll, or whoever. We would always get the weakest defender on him [Harden], because they had to switch. If they didn’t switch, we would’ve gone into a lot less one-on-one.”

But the NBA has evolved, and teams are getting more creative with zone-like help defense concepts, which requires the offense to be able to change sides and attack quickly. To do that, you need more decision-makers on the floor, which the Mavericks lack. When Doncic is at the top of his game, he is good enough to punish even the most complex defenses. But when he has an off game or if he runs out of gas down the stretch, things can get ugly because the Mavericks don’t have a Plan B.

Given the roster, it’s difficult to imagine the coaching staff can figure out an alternative plan on the fly. Rather, I expect minor tweaks. A big part of that is simply making spot-up shots, which will make defending Doncic more difficult. Every key rotation player from last season’s playoff run not named Dinwiddie is below 33 percent from three-point range. As it did last season—remember Mark Cuban’s complaints about the new Wilson ball early in the season?—this will regress to the mean. 

The only other viable alternative for more unpredictability in the offense is to involve Wood and Josh Green more. Wood is fourth on the team in field-goal attempts per game, and he has to move above at least Hardaway in the pecking order. Running more actions with Wood as the trail big out of delay sets and calling plays for him to get the ball on the block earlier than the fourth quarter is worth a try. Green is a good fit next to Doncic because he doesn’t need the ball in his hands to create. He does that off of cuts, turnovers, offensive rebounds, and drives against close-outs. And the defensive numbers have been so good when Green has been on the floor, he should get more minutes.

Any significant change, however, will require Doncic loosening his reins on the offense. But after watching the Slovenian national team play the exact same style over the summer, that will be easier said than done. Doncic is smart enough to assess this roster and realize this is a transition year, one in which he shoots for the MVP or the scoring title. It probably will take Luka and the Mavs finding a suitable sidekick to test how far this heliocentric offense can go before they scrap the existing model. Don’t forget the Rockets were one Paul hamstring injury away from beating one of the best teams in the history of the NBA.

But the Mavericks don’t have their version of CP3; the closest they’ve come to finding that guy is playing in Madison Square Garden now. They are still a good team, but the first 12 games showed this team is a work in progress. And it won’t take the next step until it figures out how to lighten Luka’s load. 

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Iztok Franko

Iztok Franko

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Iztok Franko covers the Mavericks for StrongSide. He is an analyst that uncovers stories hidden in NBA data and basketball…

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