Thursday, February 29, 2024 Feb 29, 2024
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The Mavericks Have the Same Old Problems But a New Blueprint For Fixing Them

Dallas is still small, and still gives up too many points and rebounds. But a trio of young, long athletes offer hope for a better way forward alongside Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving.
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Dereck Lively and Derrick Jones are the type of athletes who can help Luka Doncic flourish. Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Quo vadis, Dallas Mavericks?

Whither goest thou?

It’s tricky to think clearly about the long-term direction of a team amid the everyday grind of an NBA season, especially one as injury-riddled as these Mavericks. However, after a week in which Luka Doncic continued to push the boundaries of the impossible with a 73-point game against the Atlanta Hawks and his coach Jason Kidd proclaimed him as the best player in franchise history, and with the NBA trade deadline less than a week away, it’s only natural to question their direction—in English, not just Latin.

So: where are the Mavericks going? 

Because, despite overhauling 60 percent of their roster over the past year, the Mavericks bear a striking resemblance to the teams we’ve watched in past years. And for a franchise with a soon-to-be 25-year-old superstar entering his prime and in the sixth year of his tenure in Dallas, “same old” is not the best place to be. Yet here they are again, leaning on Doncic to shoulder the load for a depleted, injury-riddled roster going into the All-Star break. In December and January, Doncic averaged an astounding 37 points, 11 assists, 9 rebounds, and 39 minutes per game.

Here’s a snapshot of each of the last five seasons since Doncic’s rookie year at the 48-game mark. The Mavericks have consistently hovered around the same 55 percent win territory. If anything, there’s a trend of a slight decline in the last two seasons compared to the previous three. (Note: the 48-game mark for the 2020-21 season occurred in April due to the pandemic.)

Context—particularly regarding injuries—is key. Both Doncic and Kyrie Irving missed the recent loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, along with the other three members of Dallas’ preferred starting five. For Doncic, this was his eighth missed game of the season. It was Irving’s 21st, totaling 44 percent of the season’s games. And as the team continues to battle a persistent injury bug, it’s not hard to see why getting healthy is the top priority, and how better health might persuade the front office to believe this team could go on a run similar to the one in the second half of the 2021-22 season, when Dallas finished with 52 wins.

It’s tempting to believe that this team, when fully healthy, could be different, considering Irving is the best superstar partner Doncic has ever had. But there’s plenty signaling this team is closer to last year’s iteration than the one from the year before. Dallas’ neutral point differential differential—it really is 0.0 —portrays an average team rather than a serious playoff contender, their lowest since Donic’s rookie year. By comparison, four Western Conference teams—Minnesota, Denver, Oklahoma City, and the L.A. Clippers— have a differential of more than plus-4.0, and all allow at least four points less on defense per 100 possessions. It’s hard to feel confident the Mavericks could beat any of them in the first round of the playoffs. 

Yes, the offense is expected to improve with Irving clocking in more minutes, yet the Mavericks have only managed a 12-10 record in games where both superstars participated. Most of all, the 6-foot-2 Irving does not address the team’s three most glaring issues: a lack of defense, rebounding, and size. So it’s unsurprising to see the Mavericks rank 22rd on defense, a spot above where they finished last year. They also remain one of the worst rebounding teams: 27th on defensive rebounding (much worse than last season’s 18th-placed finish), 25th on opponents putbacks (same as last season), and 27th on the offensive glass (a slight improvement over last year’s 30th place). That is liable to happen for a team that became one of the league’s smallest following the Irving trade. Despite offseason reshuffling and prioritizing size in the NBA Draft—Dereck Lively II has been a revelation—the team’s composition hasn’t changed: players who are 6-foot-7 or shorter have accounted for nearly 80 percent of the Mavericks’ playing time, an increase from last year. Only the sub-.500 Chicago Bulls have a higher share.

Improving defense and rebounding has been a top priority for the front office over the last two offseasons, so a lack of progress, at least statistically, is a bad look. Same goes for the inability to sign a quality starting-level role player. Grant Williams is another in a line of many offseason acquisitions—recall Delon Wright, Josh Richardson, Reggie Bullock, JaVale McGee, Christian Wood—who were touted as complementary solutions next to Doncic. Only Bullock delivered what was asked for. 

To be fair, not everything has been bleak when it comes to roster transformation. Lively is a franchise cornerstone, and bargain signings of Derrick Jones Jr. and Dante Exum are big hits. That’s what adds to the conundrum of figuring this team out. It’s also challenging to discern meaningful patterns and extract lessons from the Mavericks’ data and video, given the numerous injuries and frequent lineup changes. 

However, the best place to start—the one thing that makes it clear how to build a team around Doncic—is with that trio of a 19-year-old rookie and two minimum signings. Namely, good things happen when you surround Doncic with long athletic players who can defend, do a little off the dribble, and attack the rim. That’s why it wasn’t too difficult to foresee Jones and Lively thriving alongside Doncic, and vice versa.

Throughout a considerable 994 possessions in which Doncic, Lively, and Jones have played together, the Mavericks have outscored opponents by 6.2 points per 100 possessions. More impressively, they have allowed only 109.8 points, ranking in the 91st percentile of all NBA lineups. When you add Exum to the mix, the numbers jump to a crazy stratosphere, albeit in a much smaller 229-possession sample. Lineups with all four players have a plus-36.2 differential and allow only 92.2 points, a figure that ranks as the best in the NBA for any lineup with at least 200 possessions. Similarly, lineups featuring Doncic, Lively, and Exum—Luka with arguably the three most athletic teammates he’s ever had— post elite numbers in a 380-possession sample. The problem is that Exum has missed 16 games himself.

Some caution is warranted when interpreting these numbers due to the small sample size and varying opponents. But they do present a template, one obviously recognized by the coaching staff—Kidd proclaimed these four and Irving his preferred starting five—and one in line with reigning champion Denver, which secured its first NBA title by surrounding Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray with athletic players boasting length and size, including Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr., and Peyton Watson, along with defensive-minded contributors Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown, and Christian Braun. 

However, this shouldn’t make the front office complacent heading into the Feb. 8 trade deadline. As effective as Lively, Jones, and Exum have been, they all possess limitations that opponents have started to exploit. Most teams have adjusted their defense against Lively, deploying a wing player to counter his strengths, particularly his ability to attack the rim as the roller in pick-and-roll situations with Doncic. Until the rookie big man gets stronger and develops a post game to exploit smaller defenders in the paint, opponents will continue to scheme against him.

Similarly, opponents have targeted Jones more. The athletic wingman is shooting a career-best 35 percent from beyond the arc, but his three-point shooting drops to 32 percent from the corners, leading teams to defend him as a non-shooter in recent games. This has resulted in spacing issues (highlighted here and here) in two recent competitive losses that resembled playoff matchups, against the Celtics and the Suns, with Lively and Jones on the floor. 

Opponents also will probably challenge Exum to make open shots. After shooting woes helped run him out of the NBA, the Aussie is shooting 48 percent from three in his first year back from Europe, but teams won’t respect his shot and give him the full sniper treatment until he proves it over a larger sample.

Still, these three are not the problem. A team aiming to compete in the playoffs shouldn’t be relying on a teenage center and stretching two minimum players beyond their capabilities. The issue for the Mavericks lies with Williams and Josh Green, who were expected to play extended roles and were compensated accordingly in the summer but have ultimately disappointed.

So the Mavericks are once again at a crossroads as they approach another trade deadline: looking toward a roster reshuffling and corrections, trying to find answers for old questions. When the Mavericks traded for Irving, it was a win-now, all-in type of move aimed at building a competitive team around their superstar—who, as we’ve been reminded recently, gets increasingly frustrated with losing. A big part of the gamble was Irving’s availability and injury history. Now, a year later, with the Mavericks sitting in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the pressure to win remains. It’s hard to imagine them heading into the penultimate year of Doncic’s contract after another disappointing season. The media scrutiny after the recent third-quarter collapse against the Suns, when Doncic faced some of the harshest criticism of his career after an incident with a fan, was just a glimpse into the scrutiny that awaits next season, with everyday questions about his future in Dallas.

Excluding Irving, who’ll turn 32 in March, the only clear long-term piece on the roster next to Doncic is Lively. If the 7-foot-1 center continues with his expedited growth and takes a second-year leap in the mold of Jaylen Williams in Oklahoma City, that will be the best way for the Mavericks to take a step toward becoming a contender next season. Doncic and Lively have spent 790 minutes on the floor together and in every moment you can see their chemistry growing. It’s not difficult to envision them developing a similar kind of connection to what Jokic and Gordon have in Denver, where the two-time MVP can find his partner blindfolded at any moment. But to do that, the Mavericks will need to find other pieces and continuity, another key element from the Nuggets’ blueprint. 

To identify a five-man lineup with the most minutes during Doncic’s six seasons in the NBA, you have to journey all the way back to his rookie year when Doncic, Dennis Smith Jr., Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes, and DeAndre Jordan logged 412 minutes together. For comparison, in just half of this season, seven lineups around the league have already exceeded that 412-minute mark. The Nuggets’ starting five is at the top of the list with an impressive 613 minutes spent together; the Mavericks’ most-used group this year—Doncic, Irving, Jones, Williams, and Lively—clocks in at 99. The second-most tenured Doncic five-man lineup hails from the 2021-22 season, featuring Bullock, Jalen Brunson, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Dwight Powell, with 367 minutes in the regular season. It’s no surprise that the Mavericks reached the conference finals during this period of stability.

That lack of continuity doesn’t help the defense, either. Modern NBA offenses demand that all five opposing players work in unison, knowing the schemes and teammates’ tendencies while rotating seamlessly. At the moment, the Mavericks often looked disorganized, with regular breakdowns on rotations.

With all the changes and moving pieces over the last two years, it’s time for the Mavericks to prioritize adding rather than shuffling. Finding the next piece to add to their core trio at the deadline won’t be easy. Not with limited draft capital and with young assets, Green and Jaden Hardy, not having taken the expected leaps. However, if the Mavs do make a move, they need to find a long-term fit. That’s why a hidden gem like Tari Eason, a defensive-minded glue-guy like Deni Avdija, or taking a risk on Andrew Wiggins makes more sense than acquiring offensive-minded power forwards like Kyle Kuzma and P.J. Washington, who won’t solve Dallas’ ongoing defensive and rebounding woes.

More than anything, however, the Mavericks need to understand and follow the blueprint that has brought them success. Self-awareness is the first step in solving any problem.

Without that, any move they make will return them to where they’ve been: circling in the same, tired roundabout, and missing the exit.


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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