Friday, September 29, 2023 Sep 29, 2023
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The Mavericks Have Stalled Out at the Quarter Mark. Are Changes Coming?

We know how Dallas wants to play. We also know that it hasn't worked out too well so far this season. Now it's on Jason Kidd to decide whether to stay the course or try something more drastic.
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Jason Kidd has tried to keep this season's roster tweaks in line with last season's philosophy. David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve reached the quarter mark of the NBA season, which is typically a good checkpoint for evaluating a team. We’ve seen enough games, and the sample size is large enough for the data to mean something. But sometimes the analysis can be pretty straightforward. In the Mavericks’ case, the stat that tells the story is the simplest, most obvious one. Their record.

I could tell you that the Mavericks are better than their place in the standings, that they rank eighth in the NBA in point differential and are above average (11th) both on offense and defense. But if there is a team that fits the “you are what your record says you are” trope, it’s the 10-10 Dallas Mavericks. 

This is a team that was given plenty of opportunities to prove they are better than this, with 10 or so games coming against opponents missing key chunks of their rotations. Yet here they are fighting hard to stay afloat while trying to reinvent their identity on the fly. A .500 record is also a good representation of the apparent tug-of-war pitting fans and some media members eager to see new players in lead roles against a coach desperately trying to replicate the winning formula he found last spring. The frustrating common ground? A team that finally found a clear identity and style after swapping Kristaps Porzingis for Spencer Dinwiddie (and Davis Bertans) is staring at the same crossroad sign they faced before the trade. 

It’s easy to understand why the coaching staff is reluctant to stray from what’s gotten them here. This path took them to the Western Conference Finals just six months ago. The Mavericks had a clear identity then: a scrappy team on which defensive participation was non-negotiable and one that surrounded Luka Doncic with competent three-point shooting that gave him space to work his magic.

But as straightforward as it is, that model works only if everything clicks. The defense needs to be good enough, and the shooters need to convert on open looks to keep the offense in balance. And at the moment, that balance is broken because none of the core wing players at the backbone of last year’s success—Dorian Finney-Smith, Reggie Bullock, Maxi Kleber, and, to a lesser extent, Tim Hardaway Jr.—are shooting above 33 percent from beyond the arc. Once shooters start missing—or, even worse, start hesitating—the dam is broken, leaving the opposing defenses free to start flooding Doncic with double teams. There are nights when it doesn’t matter how many defenders are thrown at him because the 23-year-old MVP front-runner is playing the best basketball of his career. But the workload has gotten absurd. Doncic is currently leading the NBA in points, minutes, and field goal attempts per game, as well as in total free-throw attempts. For the Mavericks to win, Doncic needs to go nuclear; he’s averaging 37 points, 9 assists, and 9 rebounds in wins, and Dallas has failed to win a game in which he scored less than 32 points. 

Wing shooting isn’t the only problem. The ball-handling deficiencies have been well-documented, and that’s another way in which last season’s balance has been broken. With Jalen Brunson gone, the margin for error when Doncic isn’t playing like the best player in the world—or, even more problematic, when he takes a breather—has been reduced to a minimum. The Mavericks outscore opponents by 5.4 points per 100 possessions with Doncic on the floor and are outscored by 6.9 points when he sits, a whopping total of 12.3 in on/off differential. Spencer Dinwiddie has stepped up in a larger role, but despite his quality individual scoring numbers, the Mavericks’ efficiency on offense plummets to 102.6 points per 100 possessions when he’s the only playmaker on the floor. (For reference, the Charlotte Hornets, who are currently the worst offensive team in the NBA, score 106.4 per 100 possessions.) Signing Kemba Walker was a move that reeks of desperation, or as our Mike Piellucci perfectly described it, a backup plan to a backup plan to a backup plan. But things are so dire that any playmaking relief Walker provides will be worth it if it frees Dinwiddie to do more of what he does best, which is drive and score.

However that plays out, we can expect Jason Kidd to keep searching and juggling with different lineups that fit his established philosophy of finding equilibrium between offense and defense. Ironically, his latest attempt—reinstating Hardaway as a starter—is the opposite of how he found that balance last season. Remember, the Mavericks’ defense was unlocked last December when Hardaway Jr. was relegated to the bench. Hardaway finally made some shots as a starter against the Warriors, but it’s hard to imagine a competent defense with him, Doncic, and Dinwiddie defending at the point of attack.

Whatever direction Kidd takes, it must include more Josh Green. The third-year 6-foot-6 wing has a similar effect on the Mavericks’ defense to the one Donic has on offense. Dallas allows 10.3 fewer points per 100 possessions with Green on the court. Green’s athleticism pops in a way no other Dallas perimeter defender has over the last three seasons, and his -10.3 on/off difference for defense is the best for any Mavs rotation player during that span, per Cleaning the Glass. Green’s improved shooting and finishing have all but forced Kidd to push Green up in the rotation. Over the course of the last five games, Green played more minutes than Bullock and Hardaway, and, more importantly, is finally logging extended fourth quarter and crunch-time minutes. 

While the question of playing Green more shouldn’t be a real dilemma, the enigma of Christian Wood is a more difficult nut to crack. The early Doncic-Wood lineup numbers look very similar to the Doncic-Porzingis pairing from the 2019-2020 season, when the Mavericks had the best offense in the NBA. Wood started the season red-hot, shooting 56 percent from three-point range in October. However, his shooting regressed to 34 percent in 12 November games. Wood’s offensive talent is easy to recognize because he’s such a gifted three-level scorer. Less obvious are the missed defensive rotations or other mental mistakes that were magnified during a recent stretch when the Mavericks played against elite NBA competition—Boston, Milwaukee, Golden State—that required much faster decision-making. There’s a reason those cost him minutes. For all his brilliance, Doncic is a big part of the reason why the Mavericks regressed from the third-best team in transition defense last year to the third-worst this season, and pairing him with another poor transition defender in Wood only makes matters worse. This team can’t survive without Doncic off the floor, so when push comes to shove, Wood’s minutes take a hit. 

Here’s the rub: as problematic as the two are defensively, pairing them might be Dallas’ best hope offensively. The Mavericks are +9.2 points per 100 possessions when Doncic and Wood share the floor. When they play together, Wood has an effective field goal (eFG%) percentage of 64 percent, and 48 percent of his shots come at the rim. When Doncic is not on the floor with Wood, Dallas gets outscored by -5 points per 100 possessions, and Wood’s eFG% and rim frequency plummet to 55 and 35 percent respectively. Kidd needs to find ways for Donic and Wood to play together more to boost an offense that desperately needs one, balance be damned. The Mavericks failed to score more than 100 points in five of their last 12 games, and it’s not a coincidence that Doncic and Wood each missed one of those games, while Wood averaged only 22 minutes in others.

How realistic is that kind of change? Based on the moves that the coaching staff made so far, we can expect them to look for paths that lead in a similar direction rather than ones that drastically veer off course. And placing Wood in the starting lineup—the move the public has been calling for—would amount to a very drastic detour. There’s a way to do it. Dallas tries to pair Wood with Maxi Kleber as often as possible so that the German big man can cover for Wood’s defensive limitations. Doing so in the starting lineup would mean moving two players to the second unit and likely strain Kleber’s workload. (His minutes are managed very delicately, with a hard cap at an average of 25 minutes per game.) 

I don’t think Kidd is ready to try something that drastic at the 20-game mark, even if it would also mean a jolt to Dallas’ rebounding. (The Mavericks regularly get beat on the glass with Finney-Smith playing as an undersized power forward.) And I definitely don’t believe he’s ready to take the defensive hit of using Wood as a lone big in the starting lineup. Even though it worked out last season, midyear identity changes can be dicey, and one depending heavily on Wood would be extra dicey.

For the time being, then, I expect more fine-tuning on the margins, hoping that shots eventually start to fall, and seeing whether Walker can provide some of the much-needed shot creation. The search for balance will continue. But if the Mavericks are still stuck in neutral at Christmas, it will be time to start wondering how much equilibrium is really worth for its own sake.


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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