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Basketball

How Tim Hardaway Jr. Explains the Mavericks

He isn't this team's best player or its most important. But he is the most emblematic of how it operates.
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Here's Tim Hardaway Jr. doing what he does best: shooting. Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Be honest: you knew this was how this was going to go. As frustrating as it is to watch the Mavericks bob along at .500, this was the chalk. They made a valiant, unexpected run to the Western Conference finals last season, but they did so with a dearth of true scoring ability, instead over-relying on three-point shooting. They lost one of the only players on the roster capable of creating his own offense in Jalen Brunson, and they did next to nothing to address that loss. 

The result was never going to be to ask the remaining players to suddenly become proficient in areas in which they had never proven capable. Rather, it was going to be a case of asking them just to do more of what they had done before and hope they could do it a little bit better. Except, offensively, almost all of those players get their offense exclusively from beyond the arc. It’s not the solution I would have landed on when Brunson bolted, but that’s what Dallas settled for. 

It’s a situation as unenviable as it is peculiar for a team with title aspirations: the Dallas Mavericks will be as successful as Tim Hardaway Jr. is from deep.

He’s truly (as a player, in this league) a microcosm of the team, distilled into one person. The majority of his shots are from three, he’s a subpar defender but can get by if team principles remain sound, and he’s streaky as hell. Maybe his shots will fall, maybe they won’t! What we know is that if they aren’t falling, he’s going to have to keep shooting, because that’s the only way he’s going to score. Hardaway has made 110 field goals this season; 75 have been threes. 

The Mavericks went from being a team where you would think “Going to be tough tonight if they don’t shoot it decently from three” to “They have almost no shot unless they hit at a clip that would lead the league.” Of course, this is in no way Hardaway’s fault. He’s doing the job he was asked to do. He is just representative of this front office asking far too much from players who had already played the best basketball of their careers next to Luka Doncic. 

Dallas attempted 37.4 three-pointers per game last year, eighth most in the league. This season they’re hoisting 41 a game, third most in the NBA. Their efficiency is almost identical—roughly league average. But we’ve seen how this plays out. There will be stretches when this team, largely fueled by Hardaway, can’t miss, and they will win those games. Conversely, there will be streaks where this team can’t buy one from distance, largely fueled by Hardaway, and they will lose. This sort of analysis can feel lazy, so we’ll dig deeper. But for now, these are the surface-level stats. When THJ converts on more than 34 percent of his threes, the Mavs are 8-3. When he doesn’t, they’re 6-10. (He was inactive for one game.) 

I lean on a metric called “quantified shot quality” for a clean aggregation of the types of looks a shooter is getting. It takes into account shot location and distance, closest defender, as well as basically anything else that results in you saying “NO!” or “good look!” when you watch a shot go up. According to Second Spectrum, Hardaway has had his best shot quality of any of his five seasons as a Maverick. In fact, every player on the team is getting better looks than they did last year. So in one sense, the front office was correct. Doncic will get his teammates great shots. In another, it erred. If all of those great shots are threes, there will be some wild swings in games and ultimately playoff series. 

From shot quality, we can get “quantified shot impact,” which is essentially just how much above or below average a shooter is performing on any given shot, given the quality of the attempt. In the Mavs’ 14 wins, Hardaway has exceeded league-average expectations nine times. In the 13 losses in which he has appeared, he did so just twice. To be sure, winning percentages are higher for any team when it shoots the ball better. But Dallas is far too leveraged not only on three-point shooting but also on the three-point shooting of a role player who toggles between a starting and sixth-man role. 

The Mavs don’t have another pitch. But the thing is, their offense is good! They’re sixth in overall offensive rating, per CleaningTheGlass.com. They take the sixth-most uncontested or lightly contested threes per 100 possessions. Of course, this is because of Doncic. Attempts created by Doncic passes have the highest shot quality of any distributor in the league by a wide margin. In a vacuum, perhaps it is a defensible strategy: you have the player most capable of creating open threes, so simply surround him with players who can capably knock them down. 

The issue is that the ability of those players to perform at an elite level offensively comes and goes for too fleetingly, just like Hardaway. He’s a good shooter, not a great one. This is a good shooting team, not a great one. StrongSide’s Brian Dameris recently put forth the idea that the Mavs should embrace this identity—because they have no other choice—and become the James Harden Rockets. I believe they’re already there.

Hardaway is a microcosm of the roster in other ways, too. Starting and closing with him on the floor to get more offense inevitably creates a problem on the defensive end. The three-man unit of Doncic, Hardaway, and Spencer Dinwiddie has an offensive rating of 127.8, which is in the 100th percentile. They are the most effective three-man offensive combo in the league. On the other end, they have a defensive rating of 120, good (or bad) for the sixth percentile. There is no better offensive combination. There are only a handful of worse defensive combinations. 

(As an aside, this thing would be cooked had Dinwiddie not revitalized his career since arriving in Dallas last February. We’re up to 51 regular-season games with Dinwiddie as a Maverick, and he’s hitting more than 40 percent of his threes. He’s as consistent as Hardaway is inconsistent. More on that as the season unfolds.)

Barring a swing-for-the-fences trade, this season will go as the club’s three-point shooting goes. Because of this dynamic, the Mavericks are the most “can beat anyone on any night/can lose to anyone on any night” team in the NBA. Hardaway has started 10 games. In the first six, he shot a ridiculous 54.5 percent on 11 attempts per game. Dallas went 4-2, with impressive wins over Golden State, Phoenix, and Denver. In the last four, he has cooled to just 31.4 percent, and the record is 1-3. This 10-game stretch perfectly illustrates who the Mavs are, and who he is.

It was not hard to see this season unfolding the way it has given this roster. Then again, the front office either didn’t think this was an issue, or decided it was too handcuffed to do anything about it. But was it? Remember, the mid-level exception was spent on Javale McGee, who is unplayable

Nico Harrison, Mark Cuban, and Jason Kidd essentially decided they were comfortable with their team’s success hinging on one of the league’s streakiest shooters. That’s quite the bet to make when the clock is ticking on building a more consistent, reliable roster around a generational talent. If it hits, maybe they buy themselves enough time through postseason success that the noise quiets a bit. If it doesn’t, there will be more pressure on Cuban than at any point in his tenure as governor of the franchise.

The 2022-23 Mavericks: cross your fingers.

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Jake Kemp

Jake Kemp

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Jake Kemp covers the Cowboys and Mavericks for StrongSide. He is a lifelong Dallas sports fan who previously worked for…
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