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Basketball

It’s Time for the Mavs to Embrace Their Destiny: Become James Harden’s Rockets

Yes, Luka Doncic touches the ball a lot. No, the Mavs don't have other options. Time to lean into who they are: North Texas' version of one of the most polarizing NBA teams ever.
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Is a photo of Luka Doncic literally embracing James Harden too on the nose? Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Stand-up comedy has always been a creative outlet for me. I enjoy it for the challenge, the platform, the attention. I’ve gotten better at it over the years, too. I’ve cut back on generic topics like airline travel and ill-fated attempts at crude jokes in a misguided desire to appear cool (something I am not). These days, it’s more about my failed relationships, which I relate via personal anecdotes. The laughs followed. I learned to embrace who I am and to be myself on stage, and it has worked.

I bring that up because there has been a great deal of warranted hand-wringing over the Mavericks and their Luka Doncic-fueled heliocentric offense. Doncic is on pace for one of the highest usage rates in NBA history. Can a team make it to the promised land with one player doing so much of the heavy lifting? 

But Doncic’s high usage rate isn’t a new thing: he posted the 11th-highest number in NBA history just last season. The angst stems from the fact that the Mavs have stumbled out of the gate. While they’re currently riding a three-game winning streak, they also recently lost four straight games, the longest such streak of coach Jason Kidd’s tenure in Dallas. It’s the way they have lost, too: blown leads and losses to teams playing without their stars. As Spencer Dinwiddie put it, “It’s the losses where you had a 20-point lead, and you drop to the Rockets or Denver without their best players. Those are the ones you’ve got to have.” 

Our Iztok Franko recently outlined what he called a “balance problem” in the Mavericks’ offense. The Athletic’s Tim Cato posited that Dallas needs to find a way to generate more two-point shots, with a roster ill-equipped to do so. But what if the Mavericks look at their “problem” in a different way? As Doncic told the TNT guys last week prior to the Warriors game, “We just have to figure out who we are.” What if the Mavericks really are the James Harden Rockets? It might be the only way this team can play winning basketball without Jalen Brunson here to diversify the offense.

As a refresher, Harden was traded to the Rockets from Oklahoma City in 2012, but after a go-it-alone approach (sounds familiar), the car didn’t start humming until 2017. That’s when Houston acquired Chris Paul and its analytically driven approach of eschewing mid-range shots for threes and layups went to the next level as Harden and Paul hogged an enormous number of the possessions. Harden, in particular, became a vortex: he recorded the 18th-highest usage mark in NBA history in 2017-18 and the second-highest usage mark in 2018-19 before Paul, in an ironic twist, was shipped from Houston to Oklahoma City for Harden’s old running buddy Russell Westbrook. And the Rockets very nearly made it work: they had a 3-2 lead on an all-time great Warriors team in the 2018 Western Conference Finals before a Paul hamstring injury and 27 straight missed threes did them in.

Perfect? No. But it was pretty effective, and Kidd must use what he’s got on a roster featuring just a handful of players—Doncic, Dinwiddie, Christian Wood, and the newly signed Kemba Walker (if he can play)—who can create for themselves. And this team can be strikingly similar to those Rockets. Stylistically, the Mavericks already embrace an analytically friendly scheme. They shoot the most corner threes and the fewest mid-range shots in the league. Assistant coach Sean Sweeeney’s defensive scheme is aimed at running opponents off the three-point line and forcing them into inefficient shots, effectively trading threes on the offensive end for twos on the other.

The rosters are constructed similarly as well. Doncic is a supercharged version of Harden: a dominant ball handler playing at the top of his game in an isolation-heavy scheme, who can step back, drive to the hoop, find teammates, and be a wizard in the pick-and-roll. Dorian Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock fill the three-and-D Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker roles. Dwight Powell provides the pick-and-roll poison that Clint Capela did. Dinwiddie and Eric Gordon are comps, as both can catch and shoot, drive to the basket, and run offensive sets when needed. 

But it’s not a perfect fit. What about Paul? The Mavericks have yet to fill the important co-star role. Finding the right complementary player to pair with Luka, while difficult, is the key to unlocking the full Mavs version of Moreyball. They’re further from that than ever after opting against breaking the bank to retain Brunson, believing his ceiling was not worth max money and his payday would hamstring future efforts to construct a championship-level roster.

In the meantime, the Mavs have options the Rockets didn’t. Josh Green has emerged as an “Energizer Bunny”-like force on both ends and a shooter who has to be respected. He has solidified a rotation role and should arguably be playing more than 30 minutes a game, if not starting, thanks to a combination of aggressive defense, cutting, offensive rebounding, secondary playmaking, and driving not seen from others on the roster. This will make teams think twice before trapping Doncic repeatedly. Green is becoming the Swiss Army knife the Mavs have needed him to be—and one Houston could have used four years ago.

Then there’s Wood, who can make the Mavs even more diverse and effective while serving as insurance on nights when the shots aren’t falling. Although Wood might compromise the team defensively, he boasts the skill set of a modern big who, if he settles in, can add dimensions to this offense and buy Doncic valuable rest. Wood showcased as much last week when Doncic rested to start the fourth quarter against Detroit. Wood got the ball in the high post over and over and was able to create for himself, step back and hit a three, or find an open teammate when doubled, leading the Mavs back into that game.

There are obvious drawbacks to embracing what the neighbors down south tried. The Rockets never won a championship and eventually tore it all down. They lived and died by the three, which this year’s Mavs know a thing or two about. You also run the risk of wearing down your superstar, which already has been a repeated point of emphasis with Doncic. 

But what other option is there? When I worked for the Mavs, we had two sets of analytics—one with Dirk Nowitzki on the floor, another with him off it. The goal was to break even on the non-Dirk minutes and maximize the already-positive numbers when he was on the court. These Mavs have yet to show they can win when Luka isn’t superhuman, so given all of the inherent limitations without an All-Star caliber sidekick, let’s go all in with the Luka version of Moreyball. If Wood doesn’t settle in before the trade deadline, flip him for another shooter or ball handler who might. We know how free agency plays out around here, and the Mavs are not getting lottery picks in the Luka era. So make a blockbuster deal for someone with the skill set of Dejounte Murray, Tyrese Haliburton, or Malcolm Brogdon, all of whom were moved in the last nine months.

We’ve talked about the threes, but what about the layups? The Mavs are in the bottom five in restricted-area attempts. Driving and cutting when facing contested shots generates opportunities at the basket as well as the potential to draw more fouls and get opponents into the bonus earlier in a quarter. (I won’t even start with the state of the Mavs’ free throw shooting.) This also gives Luka possessions off while on the court, stealing some much needed rest. Lastly, the Mavs are the slowest-paced team in the league—not only after made buckets, but after rebounds and steals as well. Taking advantage of transition opportunities on a team devoid of playmaking while a defense is in confusion can lead to easy points and lessen the need to generate everything in an iso or pick-and-roll slugfest. Luka knows this, even if he believes he’s slow.  

The Mavericks started 16-18 last season, so it’s way too early to panic. But the losses have been ugly. They need answers, and a solution has been staring them in the face. For everyone’s sake, let’s hope the Mavs have better sources of inspiration than my stand-up comedy career. That said, they can take one lesson from what I learned on stage: success comes when you be yourself and lean in to who you are.

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Brian Dameris

Brian Dameris

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Brian Dameris writes about the Mavericks for StrongSide. He is the former Director of Basketball Development for the Dallas Mavericks…

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