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The Mavericks are starting to figure out their rotation

After some weird lineups to start the season, Dallas is on the right path to optimizing their roster.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Dallas Mavericks Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

After the Mavericks season-opening win against the Wizards last week, I made sure to make my way to Seth Curry in the locker room. Curry had a modest stat line of nine points on six shots in 20 minutes, but he was crucial during those 20 minutes, sparking the Mavericks offense after a listless start to the game.

Curry just had a strange preseason, one where he barely played (13.3 minutes per game) and didn’t seem to do much when he played (13 shot attempts in four games). He suffered a knee injury during the second to last preseason game, which held him out of the finale. For such a crucial player for the Mavericks, Curry’s start was just odd — the Mavericks are starving for shooting and Curry has to play to alleviate those concerns.

Most interesting about the preseason was that Curry didn’t seem to get much run with Luka Doncic. It makes sense, pairing a top five three point shooter in the league with what is one of the league’s best in creating open threes in Doncic, but it didn’t happen. When I got to Curry, I asked him about what is was like to finally get some time with Doncic against the Wizards.

“I still didn’t play that much with him tonight,” Curry said with a grin. “So one of these days, I’ll get out there with him.”

Curry was right — he played only five minutes with Doncic against the Wizards. Funny enough, in those five minutes the Mavericks scored 13 points and hit three 3-pointers. It highlighted a strange start to the season for the Mavericks lineups, one that seems to be stabilizing after the game against Portland on Sunday. Curry played a season-high 25 minutes against the Trail Blazers and the Mavericks started the game with a lineup that maximizes their potent offense.

That’s not how the season started, despite the 2-0 start. After a summer of speculation for who would be the fifth starter in the Mavs lineup, Rick Carlisle of course Rick Carlisle’d and went with the one player nobody mentioned: Courtney Lee. Lee played 34 games last season and averaged just under 13 minutes a game, the first season of his career where he played fewer than 20 minutes per game.

It was and still is a strange choice. Carlisle mentioned after the Wizards game that the coaching staff all watched tape of the Mavs perimeter players guarding Bradley Beal and that Lee stood out the most, hence the start. After the Mavs started the game flat, Lee got one more chance, this time next to Dorian Finney-Smith. Once again, the Mavs looked bad in the first quarter. With Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis hogging the attention, the thinking is that you’d want to surround that duo with as much shooting as possible and maybe some playmaking to take some pressure off of Doncic. With Lee starting, that left one player defenses could ignore whenever they want, making things harder for the Mavericks offense.

This is no knock on Lee, who has had a lengthy career being a dynamite role player. He’s just a different player now at 34 years old. Lee is a stand still spot-up guy and if the Mavericks are going to roll with a player like that in the starting lineup, that player has to truly be a knockdown shooter and/or defender. Lee didn’t do much of that in the first two games, 0-for-3 on threes in his two starts.

The missed shots hurt, but it’s more what Lee’s presence did to the lineup that strangled Dallas’ starters. Defenses were not concerned with Lee and were able to shade their attention toward Doncic. Even when Lee did make a move with the ball, consider that a win for the defense. Think about it, what would you rather have: Doncic or Porzingis making a move or Lee dribbling toward the rim?

When Lee didn’t have the ball, the defense was more than fine with leaving him to clog the paint on Luka drives.

It just didn’t make any sense, and the Mavericks suffered for it. In each of those wins, the Mavericks’ bench had to bring the team back into game, behind Brunson and Curry. In Curry’s 62 minutes, the Mavericks have outscored teams by 21 points. In Brunson’s 80 minutes, the Mavericks have won those minutes by 12. It’s a small sample for sure, but it’s obvious Lee wasn’t going to work. Dallas doesn’t have enough shooting and Curry was top five in the league last season.

Brunson is a second-year guard, but he showed some heady scoring and playmaking last season, something every NBA team needs as much as it can get. While the Mavericks want Doncic to have the ball in his hands a lot, they can’t repeat the playbook from last season after the trade deadline, where Doncic slowed down after having to do everything with a roster that was limited in what it could do offensively. Brunson and Curry help there and the Mavericks started to wake up about it Sunday against the Trail Blazers.

Although the Mavericks lost, it was the 71-point first half that felt like a blueprint to what the Mavericks can do to be a successful team for the rest of the season. Out was Lee and in was Brunson, alongside Delon Wright, Maxi Kleber, Porzingis and Doncic. Dallas started the game with a 17-7 run, led 17-15 when Curry checked into the game with 6:33 left in the quarter and finished the quarter up 40-25.

It was a night and day difference compared to the openings of the first two games. With Brunson in the game to start, Doncic could play off ball a little and get downhill while Brunson initiates. This isn’t something that could happen with Lee in that spot.

Curry gives the Mavs more threats, which makes them less predictable to guard. Dallas has a lot of stand still, spot up guys on their roster — Kleber, Finney-Smith, Lee, and Justin Jackson. Outside of Doncic, Porzingis and Wright, the defense isn’t too concerned about any of the other Mavericks with the ball in their hands, aside from Curry and Brunson. That’s what makes them so important, as Curry showed with this nice drive in transition, despite the miss.

“We have a lot of versatility, lot of guys who can shoot the ball — can create off the dribble and play a lot of different positions,” Curry said of the bench lineups after the game against the Wizards. “We got a lot of weapons off the bench a lot of guys who can score the ball we just got to figure out how we play throughout the season.”

Even with Curry’s season-high 25 minutes against Portland, he’s still only played 28 minutes with Doncic on the season, a criminally low number considering the Mavericks haven’t been good from three outside of Doncic and Porzingis. It might be best to switch Brunson and Curry, with Curry starting and Brunson leading bench units with a bit more freedom to have the ball in his hands.

The Mavericks closed the game on Sunday with both Curry and Brunson, trying to juice an offense that had hit rock bottom in the second half. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum took advantage, scoring at will to close out the game. Perhaps Wright, who didn’t see much time in the fourth quarter, could have helped. For what it’s worth, Curry is a solid defender in his own right. He was second on the Mavericks in deflections in 2016-2017 and had a key defensive play in the fourth quarter on Sunday, deflecting the ball and causing a turnover.

So there are still things to work on but at the very least, the Mavericks are trending the right way with their rotations. Basketball isn’t that complicated — sometimes you just have to play your best shooter with your best passer. The rest will figure itself out.