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Basketball

The Mavericks Have a Big Problem: They’re Too Small

What was once a large team has gotten dramatically smaller, and Dallas' defense is taking the brunt of it.
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What's wrong with this picture? Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

At 24 years old, Luka Doncic already has a long track record of bullying smaller NBA players. The combination of a 6-foot-7 burly frame matched with the ability to manipulate his way to get smaller players switched on him can make life miserable for even the best defenders. Just ask Patrick Beverley: Doncic yelling “Too f*** small” in Game 1 of the 2021 playoffs after clearing the 6-foot-1 overzealous Beverley out of his way—and out of the Clippers’ rotation for the rest of the series—was one of his iconic early career trash-talking moments.

But as Doncic’s fifth NBA season winds down, the struggling Mavericks are the ones getting bullied. They are just too small.

Ironically, going small was the turning point for the Mavericks’ success last year. Jason Kidd opened the 2021-22 season playing gigantic lineups featuring Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, Dwight Powell, and Dorian Finney-Smith. Playing big was the foundation for their defensive resurgence, as Dallas ranked fifth on defense and third in defensive rebounding on January 29. That also happened to be the last day Porzingis, the 7-foot-3 Latvian, put on a Mavericks uniform.

The problem was that things got clogged on the other end of the floor. The offense struggled to find the right balance between the post-up opportunities that Porzingis needed and the five-out style that Doncic prefers. We all know what happened next; Porzingis was sent to Washington and the Mavericks gunned their way to the Western Conference finals playing small and picking on giants including Rudy Gobert and Deandre Ayton along the way. However, “small ball” ran its course against the Warriors, as the Mavericks got killed on the glass by Kevon Looney (which cost them at least two games, according to general manager Nico Harrison). Dallas had the worst rebound percentage among the 16 playoff teams and was the worst defensive team among all conference finalists.

The plan, then, was to get bigger. Rim protection and rebounding were priorities on Harrison’s offseason checklist. But after injuries to several key rotation players, one failed JaVale McGee experiment, and a Christian Wood roller coaster ride, the Mavericks are again among the smallest teams in the NBA.

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Mavericks who are 6-foot-7 or shorter have been on the floor for more than three-quarters (75 percent) of available playing time this season. Only six other teams have played smaller on average, and four of them—Philadelphia, Indiana, Miami, and Golden State—have a defensive anchor at center to compensate for the lack of size elsewhere. Furthermore, only four teams deploy players 6-foot-11 or taller less often than the Mavericks do, but even at 6-foot-10 and under, all of the bigs on those teams possess above-average athleticism and wingspan (Bam Adebayo, Anthony Davis, Clint Capela, Draymond Green, Looney). 

While size alone is not a guarantee for a good defense—Orlando, Utah, and Washington are among the biggest teams, and none of them are exactly lockdown on that end of the floor—elite defensive teams such as Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Memphis all have plenty of length in the frontcourt. And size definitely matters when it comes to rebounding: there is a strong correlation between playing tall players (6-foot-11 and above) and rebounding percentage. Dallas ranks second-worst in the NBA in that category.

Injuries and failed retooling last summer put the Mavericks’ front office in an uncomfortable spot going into the trade deadline. The team was treading water and playing .500 basketball, even as Doncic was playing some of the best basketball of his career. Doncic wanted help, and that prompted the Mavericks to pull the trigger on the Kyrie Irving trade. They got the second superstar they wanted so badly, making what was already a top-10 offense look unstoppable. Since the trade Dallas has scored 123 points per 100 possessions in games when both Doncic and Irving have played, which easily ranks as the best in the league. But as is the case with most star pairings, Doncic and Irving have needed time to get acclimated with one another and build chemistry, which is evidenced by some of the painful breakdowns they’ve had in clutch situations in their short time together. How they mesh will define the rest of the regular season and what matters most going into another uncertain summer.

The challenge is that the Mavericks have plenty of short-term problems on their hands. They are fighting for their lives in a cluttered Western Conference, where the fifth and 12th spots are separated by only three games in the loss column. Every loss matters, and with nine defeats in the 15 games since the acquisition of Irving, the Mavs have had too many of them. Health hasn’t done them many favors; Doncic has missed four games since the trade, while Irving has been out three. But the bigger problem, both literally and figuratively, is the Irving deal only amplified the existing roster imbalance. The Mavericks have gotten even smaller.

The defense has fallen apart; Dallas is 24th leaguewide and looks even worse than that some nights. What started as a joke is now no laughing matter: the Mavericks might need to score 130 points to win. They have averaged 125 points in their six post-trade wins, and lost four games in which they scored more than 120 points. It’s even worse at the rim, where “open-door policy: might be an understatement. Since the trade, the Mavs have the worst opponent field goal percentage in the paint and are second-worst in paint points allowed per 100 possessions. 

It all comes back to size. Or lack thereof. Finney-Smith was replaced by a smaller and less experienced Josh Green, while Irving is three inches shorter than the departed Spencer Dinwiddie. Justin Holiday, whom the Mavericks signed in the buyout market, has some length at 6-foot-6, but at 180 pounds, he lacks the bulk to compete against bigger wings. Since the trade Dallas has dropped from 24th to 28th in share of minutes played by players 6-foot-8 or taller.

The late-February return of Maxi Kleber from a hamstring injury that sidelined him for 35 games added some much-needed length, but he has played in only five games, and the team has been cautious with his minutes, limiting him to less than 25 per game. In addition, some of Kleber’s minutes have come at the expense of the 6-foot-9 Wood, who has played less than 20 minutes per game since the All-Star break. All this means that the Mavericks are undersized and overmatched on almost any given night.

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Doncic is now the second-tallest player in most of the Mavericks’ post-trade lineups, and none of the 13 lineups that played more than 10 minutes since February 6 include two players bigger than him. At 6-foot-7, he’s not small and not a bad rebounder. But he’s also not the prototype of a modern athletic forward equipped to consistently box out players with a 7-foot-1 wingspan like Jarred Vanderbilt, who had eight offensive boards in a late February matchup and was a catalyst in Los Angeles rallying from 27 points down despite shooting only 18 percent from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, Anthony Davis and LeBron James bullied Dwight Powell, Reggie Bullock, and Tim Hardaway Jr. in the paint. Yes, Tim Hardaway Jr., which is a prime example of an overmatched defender being asked to do too much. Since the deadline, Hardaway defended Lauri Markkanen, Xavier Tilman, Brandon Ingram, James, and Kevin Durant, who took advantage of that favorable matchup on the game’s final possession in a recent loss against Phoenix to seal the Mavs’ fate. Even when Dallas forces a miss in clutch situations, it often fails to close the possession with a rebound. Prior to Durant’s game-winner, Ayton had two offensive rebounds to keep the possession alive. Breakdowns on the glass also happened in losses against the Kings, Lakers, and Grizzlies.

Perhaps this would be surmountable if the Mavericks played an aggressive style of defense that forces plenty of turnovers to compensate for it. But they don’t; they rank 20th in opponent turnover rate. So it isn’t too surprising that Dallas commits the second-most fouls in the NBA. Desperate teams do desperate things to get stops.  

Playing small takes a toll. As Harrison highlighted after the Western Conference finals defeat, “Our best lineup was small. But when you’re playing every other day (in the playoffs), at some point you do wear down.” And if that style of play was too demanding for a month-and-a-half playoff run, it makes you wonder why the Mavericks decided to repeat it for a full NBA season. With 13 games left, the Mavericks and especially Doncic look banged up and appear to be running on fumes. The high minutes and load that Doncic carried in the first half of the season haven’t helped.

Unfortunately, I don’t see many solutions. If adding size is the answer, playing Wood and McGee more is an obvious choice. It would certainly help on the boards, but both big men have been disappointing on the defensive end. Playing Wood more and pairing him with Kleber—these lineups were good on both ends earlier in the season—is worth a try. I’m just not sure how realistic that is given that Wood has lost trust with the coaching staff for an expanded role.

In any event, it appears the Mavs will continue to play small, just like they did this time a year ago. Since Kleber’s return, they have closed games with smaller lineups featuring the 6-foot-10 German as the lone big, to mixed results (they’re 2-2, but one of the losses came without Doncic and Irving). The Mavericks are what they are at this point: they are there to outscore opponents, sometimes playing various combinations of tiny four-guard units that would make Rick Carlisle proud.

On nights when both of their superstars are on (and healthy), the Mavericks can outscore anyone. I can’t imagine an opposing coach who would not be terrified at the prospect of facing Doncic and Irving in a win-or-go-home play-in elimination game. If the Mavericks get there and catch a hot streak, they’ll be a nightmare first-round matchup. I could even see them surprising a higher seed if everything goes right. Anything beyond that, they’ll probably come up short. 

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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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