In the midst of all the darkness last season, there was one surprising and bizarre bright light — a dominant bench unit. It’s rare on a 24-win team to see any sort of depth or success in this regard, but Rick Carlisle found a recipe that worked, and at times was the sole reason the Mavs were competitive in games.
A combination of young(ish) athleticism, with veteran savvy and chemistry, exploited other (sometimes all-around better) teams’ weaknesses. It was the kind of bench unit that playoff teams should have. Carlisle utilized a motion-heavy three guard lineup of J.J. Barea, Yogi Ferrell and Devin Harris (later Doug McDermott), then layered Dwight Powell’s vertical spacing with Dirk Nowitzki’s perimeter spacing. And more shocking than anything else, a unit that had no business getting any stops defensively was...actually pretty solid on that end.
This group’s 19.4 net-rating was the best of any Mavericks lineup that played 50 or more minutes together last season (113.3 OFFRating, 93.9 DEFRating). And just behind that unit was this same rotation with Doug McDermott in place of Devin Harris (119.5 OFFRating, 101 DEFRating, 18.5 net). There’s no question: the bench can be the Mavericks’ secret weapon.
As training camp has kicked off, both Rick Carlisle and Dirk Nowitzki said that it’s likely the Mavericks legend will become a permanent member of the bench crew — the first time since his rookie season in 1998. And with the return of Devin Harris, four of the five members of last season’s bench will be at the AAC. But with Yogi Ferrell’s abrupt and slightly bizarre exit this summer, the Mavericks have a hole to fill, and could be looking at a few unknowns to take his place.
Finding answers with versatility and length
The first place Carlisle might look is in third-year wing Dorian Finney-Smith, a player who surprised everyone in his rookie season. Since then, DFS has shown little growth. His second season in the league was hampered by injury, but in his last two summer league stints he hasn’t improved in the area he was weakest — his shooting.
Still, if he can somehow find a better outside stroke in training camp and preseason, DFS could be the answer. He’s shown an ability to guard multiple positions, and could make up for some of the length and athleticism concerns the Mavs have with Barea and Harris on the perimeter. But if his shot continues to stagnate, Finney-Smith would only slow this group down, putting too much pressure on Barea and Nowitzki to be the two reliable outside shooters (Harris is a career 33 percent from deep).
Turning to Yogi 2.0
In terms of physical comparison and youthful poise and leadership, rookie Jalen Brunson may get the chance to prove himself with this group. In college, Brunson often carried himself like an NBA-ready vet. He is able to play on and off the ball, has a surprising ability to exploit mismatches in the paint, and plays with a high basketball IQ on both ends.
Brunson isn’t a lockdown defender, but he’s smart. It is easy to envision him playing off of Barea’s pick and rolls, spacing the floor and attacking the weak side. Last season he shot 40 percent from three, and was actually more deadly from the wing than at the top of the key. And his 37 percent from NBA range (and 80 percent from the line) leaves the Mavs confident that he’ll be versatile along the perimeter.
The biggest question for Brunson will be how he can adjust to the length of NBA perimeter players. His versatility (and his fit in this lineup) will lean heavily on his ability to adjust to the size and speed of the next level. Carlisle’s bench crew last season proved that you can find success with three players 6’3 and under playing alongside each other, but will they be able to catch lightning in a bottle two seasons in a row?
Turning to McDermott 2.0
It’s possible the Mavericks have found another diamond in the rough. Ryan Broekhoff, who most recently spent time playing in Russia, is a smooth shooting wing from Australia who shows flashes of Doug McDermott (in terms of fit in the Mavs system). There’s a lot of unknowns for Broekhoff and his transition to Dallas — he worked out for six or seven NBA teams this summer, the Mavs not being one of them. But Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban knew enough to know he could be a solid (and affordable) replacement for a much needed shooting wing off the bench.
Having the Aussie in this bench unit would allow Devin Harris to play closer to his rightful position, and would add plenty of wing spacing for Barea to operate in the pick and roll. The questions that remain have to do with Broekhoff’s contributions outside of shooting. Can he provide the same sound defense that Brunson or Finney-Smith can on the perimeter? Will he minimize mistakes and crash the glass? If so, Broekhoff might be the darkhorse pick to take over the Yogi opening in this very effective bench unit.
Carlisle has time to discover how all the puzzle pieces fit. He uncovered quite a lineup last season, and rebuilding that chemistry with an added face is no small task. Lucky for him, each player brings a unique skill set that will allow the Mavs to be flexible, and perhaps wildly successful, while the starters catch their breath.