It was very early in the first quarter, with the Mavericks sporting a quick 5-0 lead. Jalen Brunson scored off a short jumper after attacking a closeout and then Luka Doncic pulled up and splashed in a three. On the Clippers ensuing possession they missed a three pointer short and Brunson, auditioning for the fifth starter spot after guys like Dorian Finney-Smith and Justin Jackson got chances earlier, grabbed the rebound, took one dribble and threaded a bounce pass to a streaking Maxi Kleber for a jam.
It was beautiful. It was also something that never could have happened if the Mavericks had rolled out their more traditional lineup with Jackson, Finney-Smith or Tim Hardaway Jr. in Brunson’s spot. The play made me think back to a piece I wrote before free agency, where I made my case for the Mavericks to focus on offense for their summer shopping, not defense. My point was that, after looking at what top 10 offenses and top 10 defenses lead to in regards to the playoffs, it made more sense for the Mavericks to supercharge their offense around their two studs in Doncic and Kristaps in the short-term, juice the offense to make the playoffs and worry about defense after the Mavericks have made the playoffs and won a series.
So that being said — Jalen Brunson or Seth Curry needs to start when the Mavericks open their season Wednesday night against the Washington Wizards.
Here’s what I wrote back in that piece, making a case for the Mavericks to think offense first:
When you step back and look at it, it makes sense — elite shot-making typically always trumps elite defending. Never more has that been personified than Kawhi Leonard’s wild, bouncy game winner in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers. In a roundabout way, defenses have become so scouting and analytically oriented, that playing bad offensive players is a death sentence. Teams are more willing than ever to flat out ignore non-scoring threats, abandoning players to shade their defense toward more potent play makers. Just look at what’s happening to the Golden State Warriors, who boast two of the greatest shooters of all time and are struggling for points as the other three players on the floor with them can’t make a shot. The Raptors have been practically ignoring any Warrior not named Steph or Klay.
I have never believed in that more than I do today, after watching the Mavericks in the preseason and thinking about it even more. Jackson and Finney-Smith are fine players that do valuable things in their own right and hell, Jackson had a nice preseason scoring the ball. But their games are predicated on another player leading them to offense — and outside of an occasional cut, both of these forwards are mostly stand-still, spot up guys who shoot jumpers. Jackson and Finney-Smith aren’t going to run off screens like Klay Thompson nor can they attack a closeout and create like Brunson or Seth Curry. Defenses are going to be hyper-focused on Doncic and Porzingis and for good reason. Those guys are good! They could be All-Stars! Watching the Mavericks in the preseason, it was clear the offense can stagnate when Doncic or Porzingis don’t have a good look. There was a lot of standing and watching while Doncic created or set a screen. With Brunson or Curry, the Mavericks have another capable playmaker to always keep the ball zipping along.
Take this other play from Brunson during that same Clippers game. Earlier in the possession, Doncic ran a pick and roll that went nowhere. With the shot clock running down, Brunson runs off a screen, catches the ball right into a pick and roll of his own and scores near the free throw line:
Now, I don’t necessarily hope the Mavericks get a falling-away 10 footer from their starting offense all the time, but it’s clearly a shot Brunson is comfortable with. Imagine this same scenario, but with one of Jackson or Finney-Smith on the floor. It probably leads to a pass back to Doncic, who has to make magic happen out of nothing with five seconds left on the shot clock. This is otherwise known as “The Dallas Mavericks Offense Post 2019 Trade Deadline,” for those of you scoring at home.
With Brunson in the lineup, all three of Dallas perimeter players can score and pass well out of a pick and roll, with Porzingis and Kleber (and eventually Dwight Powell) feeding off that dynamism. Dallas will be harder to guard, with less predictability compared to if they go a more traditional way.
There are some major caveats, of course. First, with Brunson starting, that means Doncic has to guard the other team’s best wing on a consistent basis. Delon Wright is a fantastic and rangy defender, but even though he’s 6’5, he doesn’t have the bulk to go up against the likes of Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James. Against the Clippers last week, Doncic checked Leonard and the Mavericks were very conscious of it, funneling Leonard toward Kleber and Porzingis as much as possible. It was definitely easier for the Mavericks to shade their defense that way since the Clippers rested Patrick Beverley and George, two of their better shooters. I’m not sure if Doncic being your only wing defender on the floor is a good thing, long term. Obviously Jackson and Finney-Smith help you there.
Even so, I think going with Brunson or Curry is the way to go. The lineup the Mavericks rolled out against the Clippers was so fresh and so fun. As I said that night on Twitter, it’s surprising that when you don’t play your players that aren’t that good at putting the ball through the hoop consistently, your team scores more points and looks better at playing basketball. Basketball can be simpler than we make it sometimes. Start offense, Mavericks and embrace your destiny of running and gunning your way to a surprise playoff appearance.