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Breaking news: Dwight Powell is good

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Much maligned for his weighty contract, Powell has produced extremely well in a specific role.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

DALLAS — As Dwight Powell answered questions in the locker room following a 109-103 win against the Indiana Pacers on Monday night, he bristled at the notion that he’s “thriving” in his role as an elite rim-rolling big.

“I think ‘thrive’ is a strong word,” he said. “Right now I’m trying to get better every game. Trying to do what I can to help this team, obviously we haven’t been winning the way this franchise is used to and that’s hard to deal with.”

Pressed on about his recent play — averaging just under 14 points and eight rebounds per game on over 60 percent shooting in the month of February — Powell reiterated that he doesn’t want to hear the word thrive.

“I would still say that’s a strong word when we’re like, what, 19 and a hundred?” Powell said cheekily referencing the Mavericks’ no-good 19-42 record.

Regardless of what Powell thinks, there’s no doubt about the leap he’s continued to make since signing what was, at the time, a fairly extravagant four-year, $37 million deal in the summer of 2016. This isn’t a fluke either. We’re going on two seasons now of Powell becoming not just a good, but an elite pick-and-roll big.

Powell has found himself in a perfect situation and molded his game accordingly. The Mavericks have surrounded him with good pick-and-roll guards, and he’s worked himself into an incredible finisher. He’s shooting 74 percent in the restricted area after shooting 73.1 percent last season. That’s an elite number, topped only by the likes of LeBron James. Only five players with at least 100 attempts are finishing better than Powell in the restricted area.

While he doesn’t have elite length, Powell’s hops and speed are undeniable. He gets to the rim faster than most bigs in the league, and if the defense naps for a second, Powell is skying for a jam. In the play above, Powell probably doesn’t get the second-effort finish two years ago. It goes to show the improvement he’s made around the basket. While Powell scored just 10 points against the Pacers, his rim-rolling damage opened up the floor for his teammates.

That’s been a trend for Powell dating back to last year, as the Mavs have consistently played better on offense when Powell is on the floor. That’s no different this year, and it makes sense. The Mavericks’ offense is designed to get the most out of a five that can roll hard, quick and finish. Think Tyson Chandler and Brandan Wright, who were also elite in that area when in Dallas. Hell, the Mavs even cobbled together productive seasons out of Samuel Dalembert and Zaza Pachulia. Fives thrive in Rick Carlisle’s flow offense, so long as there are guards that can open up the floor and know how to pick out lobbers and shooters. It makes mediocre pick-and-roll bigs into good ones and great ones like Powell into truly elite ones.

In the fourth quarter, Powell basically dominated the game without really touching the ball on offense.

It helps that Powell is flanked by three over-40 percent three-point shooters and one of the craftier pick-and-roll point guards in the league, but still, this type of spacing and ball movement doesn’t happen unless Powell is as good as he is at his job. Replace Powell with a more lumbering five or one who doesn’t understand when to screen and when to dart toward the rim, and everything falls apart. These super bench units that Powell plays with are like a house of cards. Everyone has to do their job just right or it collapses. If defenses don’t respect the five man charging down the lane, then it really doesn’t matter how good those three-point shooters surrounding him are.

Powell has earned that respect by becoming an elite finisher and rim roller. According to NBA.com, he’s scoring 1.38 points per possession as the roll man in the pick and roll, which is leaps and bounds ahead of anyone who has finished at least 100 possessions as the roller. It’s a better number than Clint Capela, Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns. Even when you account for bigs like David and Towns popping for threes instead of rolling, Powell’s numbers are still nuts. His effective field goal percentage, which gives more weight to threes in calculating field goal percentage, is 70.3 percent. Sheesh! That’s still better than David, Towns, Marc Gasol and any other bigs that mix in threes with their rim runs.

When the Mavericks are able to spread the floor with shooters and use Powell as the hammer to the nail, they’re able to really fluster their opponents, even if the Mavs’ record is dirt poor.

“That’s really rewarding for me because obviously if I’m rolling hard, it’s always fun to get a dunk or get a layup,” Powell said. “To know if they take that away we’re getting threes, we’re still getting rewarded for the action. It’s still a positive play. It definitely gets me going, juices me up when we hit those single-man high threes.”

One of those plays is the one Dallas ran to close the game out, and it is absolutely devilish. Harrison Barnes and Dennis Smith Jr. are both sliding toward the strong side, where Barea is dribbling as Powell sets the screen. That means the side of the floor where Powell is releasing his screen is the weak side, and that leaves just one other player in that area, Wesley Matthews. That means one player, Bojan Bogdanovic here for the Pacers, has to basically guard two players at once with no help until Myles Turner recovers. Turner actually does an OK job getting back to Powell, but the threat of Powell is so strong, Bogdanovic just has to help, which gives Wes enough room for the dagger.

“Our guard play has a lot to do with it. Smith is learning the nuances of screen-and-roll basketball, the timing of the lobs and stuff like that, but Barea’s a big part of this,” Carlisle said. “His threat to score coming off screens creates a problem, and Dwight’s the recipient at times.

“The key play of the game was the screen roll and Wes Matthews came up as they covered Dwight and Wes hit the three. These are split-second reads that the point guard has to make and then your shooters got to put the ball in the basket. That was a great execution of the play, we decided to go without a timeout, we had to get the shot within 12 seconds to get a 2-for-1 and end the game. And our guys executed it with perfect precision.”

Again, because it bears repeating: while having a point guard like Barea and shooters like Wes, Doug McDermott and Yogi Ferrell help, none of this happens without Powell being so good as a rim runner. Barea has been great and is having a career season, but it probably doesn’t happen without Powell developing as well as he has.

For a Mavericks team that has struggled with homegrown talent, Powell is about as good a success story they’ve had in some time. Maybe a rim-rolling five who mostly comes off the bench isn’t worth what Powell takes up on the cap, but he certainly isn’t a punchline anymore. Dwight Powell is good.