[Editor’s note: The Morning After is a feature for in-depth follow-ups on games that are interesting, intriguing or exciting — win or lose. It won’t be a regular thing (who cares about blowouts to the Warriors, etc.) but for certain moments we deem worthy, we’ll drop in.]
There was nothing exceedingly remarkable from the Mavericks 107-70 preseason win against the Thunder on Monday night. For a Mavs team that hasn’t had more than 33 wins in a season in the last three years, that’s a relief. That’s what star power does.
The Mavericks had a ton of questions to answer after this summer and the preseason hasn’t necessarily helped in that regard. We still aren’t sure who the fifth starter is, we haven’t gotten a sneak preview of what bonafide starter Dwight Powell looks like and the Seth Curry-Luka Doncic potential has yet to be tapped. We have learned one really important thing though: Stars matter! Having two of them is ideal!
Oklahoma City will be a middling team at full strength, but down two starters like they were on Wednesday, they’re basically lottery flotsam. The Mavericks weren’t crisp or smooth, but due to the sheer talent of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, they cruised. That’s how it works in the NBA. It’s a haves and have-nots league, and the Mavericks have two while other teams are trying to just get one.
Doncic and Porzingis didn’t even shoot all that well (4-of-10 for Doncic, 7-of-21 for Porzingis) but their fingerprints were all over the win. Doncic ran the offense well, probing into the paint at will. Porzingis guarded the rim and won the battle at the boards, along with spacing the floor and setting screens. Even though it was preseason, it was fun to see a Mavericks team win a game just by sheer talent.
It validates the excitement and hype. The Mavericks might still be over-matched at times, and they shouldn’t expect to sleepwalk their way to a win against every lottery team. But Doncic and Porzingis are damn good and them being that damn good puts them at an advantage against a lot of teams in this league. If the Mavericks want to take a playoff leap, this is crucial — they cannot lose a lot of games teams scrounging around at the bottom of the league. Having All-Star players around again is fun, isn’t it?
- After Porzingis and Doncic, the thing I was most fired up about watching was Delon Wright come alive for the first time in the preseason. The Mavericks desperately need Wright’s off the bounce game to help give Doncic some plays off along with getting him and his teammates easier shots — having him stand in the corner and spot up isn’t doing anyone any good. He was more involved in the pick and roll and looked way more decisive when he had the ball. There was a really sweet play where Wright got into the paint off a pick and roll and found Porzingis in the corner for a three that made made me smile. Wright is a very capable pick and roll guard and having Doncic spread the floor with Porzingis on some possessions is going to help a lot. Also, the seven rebounds help too, especially if the Mavericks are weak on the boards. This is the type of performance the Mavs need from Wright consistently.
- I appreciated the fact that just about every non-Luka/Kristaps starter did something. The three starters outside of those two combined for 28 points in the last two games and that’s simply not good enough. Aside from Wright, Maxi Kleber had by far his best preseason game with 14 points on nine shots. He had a really great pump-fake-side-dribble three sequence that made me arch an eyebrow. He also had a nice dunk in the pick and roll, too. No one will confuse Kleber for Dwight Powell streaking to the basket, but Kleber having that be part of his game is nice. Especially if Powell is out for regular season games with his hamstring, Kleber will have to percolate a bit on the perimeter and not just being a standstill spot up guy.
- Speaking of Powell, his absence continues to weigh down the starting lineup. Powell brings so much manic yet controlled movement to the Mavericks offense that makes them so much harder to guard. Against the Thunder and the previous two games, the starters would occasionally stand around and ball watch. Powell is an antidote to that, moving and screening with efficient frenzy. Dallas needs that badly next to Doncic and Porzingis and there’s no one else on the roster that can really replace what Powell does — even with Kleber expanding his game.
- Rick Carlisle is basically auditioning the fifth starter spot right now, with Justin Jackson, Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith and Courtney Lee all getting chances in the starting lineup so far. I’m glad Carlisle isn’t locked in and willing to experiment. The chatter around Jackson is huge and while he keeps scoring fairly efficiently, he hasn’t done much besides that. Finney-Smith appears to do all of those things that Jackson doesn’t, but he doesn’t put the ball through the hoop as much. Hardaway has by far been the most impressive out of that bunch, but his game feels so much better suited to the bench, where his gunning is more needed and his defense can be hidden much better. It was fun to see Carlisle dust off Lee, because as our former colleague noted that it wasn’t that long ago when Lee was a very useful player. Lee looked OK in his 19 minutes, scoring six points on six shots and three assists but he missed both his three-point attempts. I think this spot could be fluid come the regular season, as Carlisle mashes together lineups to see what sticks. There seems to be one more obvious candidate left for the fifth spot except...
- Seth Curry hurt his knee and left the game early. Bummer. It doesn’t sound serious, but either way it hasn’t been a notable preseason for Curry. He’s played 54 minutes in four games, scored 14 points and only hit four of eight from deep. It’s odd that a player as important as Curry is to this Dallas team hasn’t gotten a lot of burn, especially with Doncic and Porzingis. Curry is the Mavericks’ best three point shooter on the team and I figured they would want him to play as much as possible next to one of the NBA’s best at creating open three point looks. That hasn’t happened and the few glimpses we have gotten at Curry indicate that Carlisle might prefer to bring him and Jalen Brunson off the bench to just dominate opposing teams in the second quarters of games. It’s not a bad strategy and the Mavericks have been known for wiping the floor with other teams’ benches even during their rebuild, but it feels sort of like a waste. Dallas doesn’t have any proven shooters next to the Doncic/Porzingis duo, except for Curry. He’s the only one with a reliable track record of making threes and I figure that will eventually force Carlisle’s hand in the starting lineup. Just a shame the injury puts a damper on that, for now.
- The Thunder shot 5-of-34 from three. Just needed to be noted for history.
- This has been an interesting preseason since when the Mavericks were rebuilding, they tried out all sorts of guys to see who would make the end of the roster. Now that the Mavs have that part figured out, the meaningful players have gotten a surprising amount of burn through four games. It’s left little room for any of the fringe players to pop or make a difference. Not a bad thing at all, just a different feel from preseasons past where the Mavs needed to find guys to fill out the roster.
- Our fellow editor Kirk mentioned this on our post-game pod, but it’s strange how little else Jackson is doing besides scoring. He has six rebounds in 85 minutes, which just isn’t cutting it for a starting wing in this league anymore. Kirk brought up a salient point — perhaps the Mavericks coaching staff instructed Jackson to focus on his scoring, as the Mavs desperately need him to hit shots if he’s going to start. If so, Jackson has responded beautifully on that end, shooting 17-of-27 from the field (63 percent) and 6-of-15 from three (40 percent). It would just be nice to see him do some other stuff, too. If you combined Jackson and Finney-Smith you’d get a helluva NBA wing.
- Something else that I mentioned on the podcast that I’ve been thinking about for a couple weeks now — just how many threes do the Mavs’ role players need to hit to make the spacing hit worth it? Outside of Doncic, Porzingis and Curry, Dallas doesn’t have a lot of players who scare defenses from deep. Kleber, Finney-Smith, Hardaway, Wright, Powell and Jackson are all below-average three point shooters for their careers. My hunch is that defenses continue to treat them like that, abandoning them to focus their attention on Doncic and Porzingis. So let’s say that most of the players from that group pop and have career years from deep, hitting anywhere from 35 to 37 percent from three. That’s great! But is it enough? Is Finney-Smith hitting 36 percent of his threes enough to compensate for the fact that defenses will likely still treat him the same way as they do now, gumming up things for Doncic in the paint? Is that a high enough number for defenses to pay attention and change how they guard him? Will a defense ever be scared of Kleber shooting from the top of the key or Jackson gunning from the wing? I don’t have the answers to any of those questions but it’s something to think about as the season progresses.