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Checking In on the Mavericks at the 20-Game Mark: the Good, the Bad, and the Defense

Nico Harrison has said that he'll know what kind of team he has by this point of the season. Now that we're there, what is the Mavericks general manager working with, and how might that inform his next moves?
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Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving have looked far more comfortable in their second season together. Jerome Miron, USA Today Sports.

What can you learn about a basketball team after six weeks? Plenty. The trade deadline may not be until February 8, but an NBA general manager is constantly evaluating his team, looking for ways to improve and weighing moves in relation to what team goals were coming into the season, the franchise’s timeline, and the roadmap forward. The answers come sooner than you think: when asked last month about what kinds of players he is looking for to add to this roster, Nico Harrison stated that he wanted to “wait until 20 games into the season” so he could see what he had on hand.

That time has come, which means it’s time for us to take stock of who the 12-8 Mavs are and where they need to go. To do that, let’s look back at the season preview column I wrote in October and five key areas I laid out that will determine the course of Dallas’ season. Some are going better than imagined, while others still need significant improvement. 

The Center Position

Back in October, I wrote that a high-level Mavs source told me, “We may have found our center.” 

That same source recently amended his statement: “We have our center.” 

He was speaking, of course, about 12th-overall pick Dereck Lively II, who began the preseason as a surprise starter but quickly made the role his own through his summer development, immediate chemistry with Luka Doncic, and high basketball IQ. In his very first NBA game, he outdueled Spurs phenom Victor Wembanyama by posting 16 points and 10 rebounds. Last week, he outplayed the other Rookie of the Year favorite, Oklahoma City’s Chet Holmgren, with 20 points and 16 rebounds. This, from a player who never had a double-double in his one year at Duke and scored in double figures all of five times for the Blue Devils, with a season-high of 13 points. 

Those are the high points, but the 19-year-old has already become essential in the Mavericks’ success on both ends of the floor on a game-in, game-out basis. Defensively, the Mavs give up the fifth-most points in the paint, and while they’ve improved on the boards after being outrebounded by more than five per game last year, it’s still an issue. But those issues have been even more pronounced during the two games Lively has missed. Against the Toronto Raptors, the Mavs gave up 72 points in the paint and were outrebounded by 12, including 15 offensive rebounds. (They were especially helpless against Pascal Siakam, who scored 30 of his 31 points in the paint.) And in their second meeting with the Los Angeles Clippers, the Mavs were outrebounded by 20, including 17 offensive rebounds that accounted for 25 second-chance points.  

That’s the difference between having a hyper-athletic 7-foot-1 big on the floor and not. But plenty of teenagers with physical tools don’t make an impact like this in their first NBA seasons, and sources tell me that Lively’s high basketball IQ limits the mental errors common for rookies. He has picked up the system rapidly, and his defensive instincts are ahead of schedule. Working with Tyson Chandler—they’ve developed a tight relationship—helps here, too. The Mavs haven’t had the nightly, reliable rim protection Lively provides since Chandler himself. 

Offensively, he is the athletic, rim-running big man Doncic has craved on this roster. This team’s halfcourt offense now revolves around the Doncic/Lively pick and roll, which stresses opposing defenses by allowing Doncic to toggle between driving to the basket, lobbing to Lively, taking a step-back three, launching a one-legged Dirk fadeaway in the mid-range, or finding a shooter from deep. 

The Thunder game was a testament to what Lively provides offensively. With Kyrie Irving out, Doncic was trapped constantly. Lively’s job is to long roll or short roll, and know exactly when to do them. A long roll gets him lobs and bullet passes for layups and dunks. The short roll puts him at the nail where he is the “quarterback” for the outlet pass coming from Doncic’s double team, leaving him to decide which of his shooters gets the ball for the open look before the defense has time to recover from 4-on-3 situations. All the while, he must remain a threat to take it to the basket to keep the defense honest and not leak out to a shooter. The common thread is staying aggressive, and sure enough, Lively attacked repeatedly in the second half against Oklahoma City, something he was “encouraged” to do by Jason Kidd at halftime and which played a key role in Dallas’ ridiculous 30-0 fourth-quarter run

Overall, the Mavs are plus-6 with Lively on the floor. No player in NBA history has a higher field goal percentage to start their career. And those well-documented foul concerns? He’s only fouled out of a game once so far. 

The future looks very, very bright.

Run, Run, Run

The Mavs halfcourt offense has been and continues to be elite. Dallas currently is fourth-best in the league at 104.1 points per halfcourt play after leading the league early in the season. A major goal of the halfcourt offense is to generate corner threes, the most efficient shot on the court, and the Mavs lead the league in the percentage of corner threes taken at 13.1 percent. 

But Dallas had to pick up the pace to take this offense to the next level. A constant in training camp practices and during games this year is hearing Kidd yelling “Run!, Go!, Push!” after rebounds and turnovers. It is one thing to stress it; it is another to see if the players buy in and do it. 

They have. One year after playing at the NBA’s 28th-fastest pace, the Mavericks are up to eighth. How effective are they in transition? Dallas is 10th in added points in transition. Last year, it was dead last. Most importantly, the Mavs are running after live rebounds, adding the fourth-most points in the league in these situations. And they are doing it often, running after rebounds 30 percent of the time, good for 10th in the league. Running can lead to turnovers, but the Mavs take care of the ball better than anyone in the league. 

They’re scoring fast, too, ranking fifth in threes taken before 18 seconds on the shot clock. That’s supercharged an already potent offense: the added possessions led to Dallas scoring at least 110 points in their first 15 games, something that hadn’t been done since the Showtime Lakers almost 40 years ago. Players love it, too. Tim Hardaway Jr., an early Sixth Man of the Year favorite, spoke recently about how this style brings joy and rewards players for hard work on the defensive end by letting them be involved. Meanwhile, Doncic banging less on pick and rolls allows him to stay fresh longer into games and hopefully longer into the season and postseason, too. 

Ladies and gentlemen, your “Seven Seconds or Less” Mavs. Who would have thunk it? 

Defense

The Mavs needed to supercharge that offense because defense continues to be a concern. I wrote in October that “they don’t have to be elite, they just can’t be 25th.” 

Well, after 20 games, they’re exactly 23rd. The worst defensive rating in the league is 120.9. When the Mavs hold opponents to below that number, they are 11-0. Above that number? A rough 1-8. At full strength, the offense compensates for a ton, but as we saw over the weekend, when players are out and 50 points of offense is in street clothes, there isn’t enough defense to win.

There are some bright spots. The zone defense was effective against the Thunder to help get them back in that game. The big offseason acquisition, Grant Williams, is guarding the toughest opposing big each night while bringing much-needed toughness and communication (which is, especially important in light of Maxi Kleber’s early injury troubles). Derrick Jones Jr., meanwhile, has been a revelation. The last player signed to the roster, he is tasked with guarding the other team’s best perimeter player. 

But as we look at what Harrison might be looking for when he is doing his 20-game evaluation, it’s pretty obvious that defense is the area he will be circling. He said as much, stating the desire is “someone that gives us physicality and rebounding is always a plus.” That probably coincides with length, which as our Iztok Franko dove into last week, is still very lacking on this roster.

The New Guy(s)

Williams was brought in not just for his defense, but also for his offense and leadership. While his offense has slipped of late, he’s still shooting 40.6 percent from 3, and his spacing on that end is essential. (Let’s not forget the energy he expends defensively and how he still is expected to contribute on the other end. There was always going to be an adjustment going from a supporting player in the Celtics’ forward group behind Jayson Tatum and Jaylon Brown to the focal point of Dallas’ defense.) His leadership continues to be needed and appreciated, both on the court and off; he is constantly seen imploring teammates to dig deeper in huddles and points the finger at himself as well, as evidenced by his comments after the ugly Memphis loss. 

But it’s not just Williams who has been a valuable new addition. The 26-year-old Jones was an NBA journeyman joining his fifth team in eight years, and while there were encouraging signs under the hood, he was nevertheless a surprise starter on opening night. Jones has provided the defensive length and athleticism he delivered in his previous NBA stops, but in Dallas, he has also provided offensive spark, knocking down 41.7 percent of his 3s, good for nearly 10 full percentage points higher than his career average of 32 percent.  Prior to joining Dallas, Jones scored 20 points or more just twice in his NBA career. In his first 18 games as a Maverick, he did it three times.

Each one needs offense created for him, but they’re both finds, and at least Williams is contracted here for a long time. 

The Dynamic Duo 

Kidd had heard enough about the Doncic-Irving chemistry concerns that he went on a profanity-laden tirade (after a win!), but his point is well taken. The team’s two stars have jelled this season, and that merits a shout-out. It’s not just that they are one of the top league’s top scoring duos but how well they are playing off of each other this year. A full training camp, some hard-earned lessons last season, and a more diverse offensive system (that’s led to Doncic’s lowest usage rate since his rookie year) have all added to the chemistry displayed by Lukai, as my podcast partner Mark Followill calls them. 

It is most evident in the clutch, where the Mavs were one of the worst teams in the league last year, posting a 5-13 record post-All-Star break. This season, the Mavs are 8-2 with a fourth-best 21.2 net rating. 

The All-Star duo has lived up to expectations and hushed much of the metaphorical hand-wringing from late last season. That was most evident when they carried the Mavs over the finish line against the Lakers as the only two players to score in the fourth quarter. For good measure, no other Maverick scored a basket until over halfway through the second quarter of their next game against the Clippers. When Doncic and Irving are playing like this, Dallas can match up with anyone’s star duo.  

The good news is that while Dallas remains a work in progress, the Mavericks have exceeded expectations and have executed most of the preseason priorities. Chemistry has been built. Players know their roles. The Mavericks have a locked-in star duo, and the group around them is better. But rim protection, rebounding, and physicality on the defensive end continue to stick out as areas for improvement at the quarterpole. Harrison marked this date on his calendar for a reason. The decisions he will make in the next couple of weeks will guide whatever transactions he might make in the next couple of months. 

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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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