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The Mavericks’ Early Growing Pains Are No Reason to Panic

The defense isn't where it should be. Neither is the offensive balance. None of that is beyond fixing, but it won't happen overnight, either.
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JaVale McGee has struggled in his first six games in Dallas. Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

The Mavericks closed October with a 3-3 record, running hot and cold—or, rather, cold and hot by alternating frustrating defeats with redemptive victories. The vibes are certainly not as immaculate as expected.

How could they be when you consider not only who they lost to, but also how? The Mavs dropped the season opener in Phoenix after leading by 22 in the first half and 15 in the fourth quarter against the team they demoralized in the second round of last season’s playoffs. Then they fell to a New Orleans Pelicans team missing its best two players. Finally, they pulled off the impossible against the Oklahoma City Thunder, blowing a 16-point lead in the final four minutes before losing in overtime.

That’s not the early-season drama anyone expected following an appearance in the Western Conference Finals and relatively little roster turnover. Even more surprising has been the struggle to find an identity around Luka Doncic with players we presumed had clear roles and style of play. At the moment the Mavericks look like the old Rick Carlisle-ish offensive juggernaut—Dallas ranks third in overall offense and second in half-court offense—that takes defense as an afterthought rather than the defense-first group Jason Kidd coached last year. Dallas ranks 17th on defense, which is not as much of a surprise as you might think. The regression began in the second half of last season; Dallas was just 15th leaguewide after the Kristaps Porzingis trade in early February. 

But it is one thing to experience regression while acclimating to life after a midseason trade. It’s quite another to look even worse after making interior defense the offseason priority. Dallas is the worst team in the league at opponents shooting percentage in the paint by a wide margin, and a big part of the problem has been its marquee offseason signing, JaVale McGee. When the Mavericks signed him to a three-year, $17.2 million deal, it was with the expectation the 34-year-old would bring size and rim protection to a group that had too little of either. 

My own expectations were tempered—those who covered him in Phoenix last season told me his defense was suspect at best—but the early results are worse than anyone reasonably could have expected. McGee looks way too passive and lost on rotations. Throughout his career, he has been almost exclusively a “drop” defender in pick-and-roll, which is not the best fit for most of the guards on the roster. Other than Reggie Bullock, none of them are great at fighting over screens and through rear-view contests. It’s also a pivot from the more aggressive screen-defense schemes we saw last season. McGee opened the season like his promised starting spot came with a no-exchange policy, but we’ll see how long that lasts after Dwight Powell played much better basketball in relief of him in two games over the weekend. 

Defense is also the story with Christian Wood, Dallas’ most intriguing new player. Wood came out of the gate hot, averaging 24 points in his first three games. He’s an exciting player whose strengths are obvious, while the things he struggles with are less visible. Naturally, that leads to plenty of calls for more playing time: he has yet to crack 30 minutes in a game. But those shortcomings are more obvious in lineups built around Doncic, and those must get ironed out for the coaching staff to trust him more. There is a workaround: as I predicted in my offseason preview, most of Wood’s playing time—203 out of 288 possessions, marked in blue in the chart below—came at the 4-spot next to Maxi Kleber to cover for his deficiencies on the defensive end.

But the Mavericks’ go-to closing lineups—and their most effective playoff looks last season—involved playing small with a lone stretch big man. They expect a lot defensively out of their big in that setup, and it’s obvious Wood has not been not up for that task just yet. Kidd went out of his way to prove this point in the New Orleans game, the only occasion when the Mavericks have closed with Wood as the lone big. The coaching staff is playing the long game by making Wood earn his playing time, no matter how a player who sees himself as a future All-Star may feel about it. 

The frontcourt and the defense aren’t the only question marks. Doncic has been on a tear to start the season, leading the league in scoring at 36.7 points per game on a whopping 25.5 field goal attempts. That places a lot of pressure both on opposing defenses as well as the Mavs’ other high-usage players to figure out the hierarchy behind their superstar. Spencer Dinwiddie, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Wood are averaging 12, 11, and 10 field-goal attempts per game, respectively, and for the Mavericks to reach their full potential, they’ll have to find a way for Wood to climb up the shot-attempts ladder. At the moment, the offense is mostly everybody taking turns hunting for shots. The numbers reflect that: Dallas leads the NBA in isolations per 100 possessions, while all of the assist and passing numbers are down from last season. 

For better or worse, then, the offense looks very much as it did last May, mostly because Doncic started the season in peak playoff form. In addition to his scoring, he also ranks first in usage at an eye-popping 40 percent and second in free-throw attempts, behind only Giannis Antetokounmpo. The most impressive stat? Doncic is taking 41 percent of his shots at the rim, which is more than double where he was last season. 

Can Luka do this over the course of a full season? The rational answer is no. It’s unfathomable for a player to carry this much of the load for an extended period. If you recall my scientific attempt to predict Doncic’s ceiling, however, two things popped out. First, most players reach their peak offensive performance from ages 24 to 25, and Doncic is approaching that in his age-23 season. Second, my predicted peak BPM (Box Plus/Minus) value for Doncic based on his last three seasons was 11.4. His BPM at the moment? 11.9. What I’m trying to say is that there is a high chance Doncic has a historic MVP-worthy season in him. Maybe this is the start of that. Even if it’s not, these first six games provide a glimpse of how that day will look like whenever it comes.

In any event, these fourth-quarter failures are proof that Doncic can’t do it on his own. The Mavericks must diversify their offense, especially late in games. Teams have been switching way more on Doncic pick-and-roll actions, staying home on Dallas’ spot-up shooters to choke off his passing lanes. The counter to that is getting Dinwiddie, Wood, and Hardaway Jr. more comfortable as secondary attackers. Until the Mavericks figure out how, the end-game execution will be hit and miss. 

None of this is to suggest there aren’t positives. For instance, after being in the bottom three leaguewide in percentage of shots at the rim over the past three seasons, the Mavericks now feast there. Dallas is fourth in shots within 4 feet of the basket, and it’s not only Doncic. Dinwiddie is back to his peak Nets level at attacking the basket, while 53 percent of Wood’s shots have been at the rim, a fresh air after years of Porzingis’ mid-range-heavy shot diet.

But there’s plenty to correct, and we know that Kidd’s philosophy is to treat the regular season as a laboratory for the playoffs. Last year, he didn’t settle on his best lineup until December. This season, Wood’s addition and Hardaway Jr.’s reintegration mean more lineup flexibility and different ways to play when it matters. Kidd closed with four shooters around Doncic in Brooklyn. Against the Thunder, it was a lineup emphasizing shot creation with Dinwiddie and Wood. Josh Green showed that mostly good things happen when he is on the floor, so I’m curious to see if Kidd tries an all-wing defensive lineup in crunch time.

The answers will come with time. The reality of the NBA season is things move slowly, game by game. Kidd mentioned 10-game samples when it comes to evaluating lineups. As much fun as it would be to do a House of Dragons-style time jump to a point in the future where Wood’s role is settled and the Mavs play like a well-oiled regular-season machine, I’m afraid this will take a bit longer.

But that would also take the fun out of watching this group grow. The vibes don’t have to be immaculate just yet. As long as the team keeps progressing and the main characters don’t stab each other in the back, everything will be fine. Sit back and enjoy the show.


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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