Let’s just get right out and say it — the Mavericks’ defense stinks.
There are some variables at play that might stop the bleeding of points over the next few weeks, but it has been a ghoulish start. Almost nothing is working and teams are pretty much getting whatever shot they want, as open as they want.
Some of this was to be expected, given the new additions to the roster and the Mavericks’ general reliance on two very young players. Even then, it’s been difficult to watch and the biggest problem might be the Mavs are going to need some (hopeful) regression to the mean for any of it to get better. Let’s take a look at what’s going on.
DeAndre Jordan is a problem
Jordan was expected to give the Mavericks some legitimate stability at the center position, where Dallas was trotting out Dirk Nowtizki, Dwight Powell and others a season ago. The Mavericks played OK defense last year, hovering around the middle of the league in defensive rating. Replace a lot of those Dirk-starting-center minutes with Jordan, who is supposed to be a solid defender, and the thought was Dallas could maybe exceed their defensive numbers a year ago, despite the increase in pace that was to be expected with Luka Doncic and a new offense.
Well, about that.
Dallas’ defensive rating is currently 111.8, 24th in the league. They allow the highest percentage of made three-pointers (42.1 percent) and are one of the worst teams in the league, giving up 1.31 points per possession on the break, the third-worst mark in the league. The Mavericks defense actually gets significantly better when Jordan is off the floor, as the Mavs defensive rating drops from 110.5 to 106.4. Of course, Jordan plays a lot of minutes, so small sample size applies to those 166 minutes the Mavs play without him. Still, it’s a bad trend and when you watch the games it’s not even all that surprising.
Jordan’s defense slipped last year in LA (where the Clippers also played better defense when he wasn’t on the floor) but the thought process was that Jordan would be rejuvenated with a new team, a team that very much knows how to get good defensive play out of his skill-set and the fact that Jordan will be a free agent next season, so he has something to play for, even if the Mavs wouldn’t be playoff competitive.
None of that has happened so far. Jordan is still great around the rim, as players shoot just a hair under 48 percent on shots from six feet or less against Jordan according to NBA.com’s stats page. The problem isn’t what happens when teams go at Jordan at the rim — it’s all the times that they don’t.
Jordan just doesn’t move outside the paint this season. The Mavs defensive scheme has always been somewhat conservative, even when Tyson Chandler was around. The general philosophy has been to have the center drop back on pick and rolls, walling off the rim and trying to entice inefficient mid-range jumpers. Congratulations! The Mavericks are allowing the second-most mid-range jumpers in the NBA. They’re also allowing the highest percentage of mid-range shot makes.
The reason? Jordan literally never moves during pick and rolls, maybe taking a step or two around the paint, but never toward the defender.
While that was a miss, not a ton of players are missing there on the season. In a vacuum, allowing more mid-range shots is good — I just don’t know if how open the Mavs are allowing these looks is truly sustainable. Maybe teams start bricking these shots and things get better.
However if that starts happening, expect teams to just scoot those shots a few feet back and take comfortable pull-up threes instead:
Jordan doesn’t even take one step toward Donovan Mitchell here and he gets a clean and easy look from deep. This is becoming a bread-and-butter shot not just for the best guards in the league, but all guards. It’s become almost a requirement for guards in today’s NBA to hit this shot and if Jordan is going to look like a statue defending the pick and roll, the Mavs defense has no chance. Wes Matthews is basically playing 1-on-2 in this scenario.
These lapses in the pick and roll haven’t just extended to ball handlers getting open jumpers, but roll men getting easy buckets as well. It almost feels like part of the reason Jordan’s at the rim defensive numbers look so good is because he very much chooses not to defend certain shots. In the play below, Jordan has ample time to step back into the lane to contest this dunk, but doesn’t.
There have been way too many of these plays this season involving Jordan. If you want to see even more, check out this horrific thread from Utah Jazz writer Andy Larsen. Jordan’s effort level is abysmal on defense and if Rick Carlisle couldn’t put up with Nerlens Noel’s freelancing, how can he watch the film and be OK with this? Jordan might be playing the scheme, technically, but he might as well be a ghost. Somehow the Mavericks replaced the 40-year-old Nowitzki with Jordan on defense and have gotten worse. If that fact alone doesn’t stir Jordan, then I don’t know what will.
The Mavs don’t have many reliable perimeter defenders
While Jordan’s lack of defense might be a little surprising, what hasn’t been has been how short-changed the Mavs are on perimeter defense, thanks to a roster that employs mostly small guards and centers.
When you look at the Mavericks stock of perimeter players, you can only really pick out three quality defenders on paper — Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes and Dorian Finney-Smith. Devin Harris is hurt (and declining), J.J. Barea and Jalen Brunson are too small and Dennis Smith Jr. and Luka Doncic too young. Even if that trio of Barnes, Matthews and Finney-Smith were playing up to their own standards, the Mavs would still desperately need some wing defense.
So what happens when some of that trio falters? Chaos.
While Finney-Smith has lived up to his off-season hype from the Mavericks coaches, Matthews and Barnes just haven’t been good enough, period. Barnes missed all of training camp and a couple of regular season games due to a bum hamstring and that can maybe explain why he’s out of sorts. It still doesn’t really explain mental gaffes like this one on Wednesday:
Keep an eye on Harrison Barnes. pic.twitter.com/uzWtaUU1ZV— Big Doncic Energy (@KirkSeriousFace) November 8, 2018
Matthews has been lit up by just about every top scorer he’s faced and he just doesn’t make scorers as uncomfortable as he used to. Despite that, he’s still one of the better Mavs defenders because he at the very least knows where to be at the right time.
Which can’t be said for Barea on this possession, after a make no less!
The Mavs simply do not force any friction on opposing offenses. Players dribble to their spots and make comfortable shots, even if they’re the shots the Mavs want to give up. Smith and Doncic are still too young to be reliable defenders yet, which is a tough situation considering they are the two cornerstones the team is building around right now. Doncic looks gassed on defense by the fourth quarter and Smith gets demolished on screens, leaving his bigs and help out to dry. For someone as quick and athletic as Smith, it’d be nice if he could squirt around picks a bit more.
Communication is lacking, perhaps due to that youth and perhaps due to the fact that the Mavs barely practiced as a full team due to injuries and the China preseason trip. It really shows in the poor transition defense, where the Mavericks can’t seem to find their man even after made baskets. Look at that Lakers .gif above again. How can a defense look that disjointed after a made shot? It’s mind-boggling.
Gelling on defense and some regression on opponents three-point shooting seem to be the main steps to fixing the problems. Maybe more minutes for Maxi Kleber, who is by far the Mavs most impactful defender in terms of on/off net-rating and rim protection, but Kleber’s three-point shot has deserted him (3 for his last 21 attempts) which makes him harder to play in Carlisle’s offense.
Until Smith and Doncic get a handle on NBA defense (which might not happen this season) the Mavericks defense might be too bad to fix.