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After one month, the Mavericks are impressive and still have room to grow

Dallas is in the thick of the playoff hunt even with areas to improve.

Golden State Warriors v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

About one month ago, the Mavericks started their season with a win against the Wizards. It was great, because Luka Doncic is awesome and also weird, because, well, remember Courtney Lee?

It’s really hard to pick up on trends at this point of the NBA season because of small sample sizes, but it feels like the Mavericks have already gone through so much in a short amount of time. We’ve seen the ascension of Luka, Rick Carlisle going through lineups like cigarettes and the team having an emotional roller coaster with the two Knicks’ losses and an impressive five-game winning streak.

After a tough but decently competitive loss against the bulldozing Clippers, now feels like as good a time for me to spew out my thoughts on what I’ve seen in the first month and change of the Mavericks first season in the Post-Dirk era.

Kristaps Porzingis is, probably, right where he should be

Before the five-game winning streak, the Mavericks’ numbers with Porzingis on the floor were dreadful — getting outscored badly per 100 possessions. Thanks to some healthy blowout wins, that number has turned around. Now with Porzingis on the court, the Mavericks have a net rating of 6.2 and have outscored teams by 64 points in his 469 minutes.

It has felt that way on the court, as the Mavericks have been integrating Porzingis into their scheme while simultaneously getting him comfortable on the floor after a 20-month absence from NBA basketball. Watching Porzingis, it felt like you could see the wheels turning in his brain whenever he caught the ball, which is understandable for a guy who is: 1. trying to wean himself off bad habits from his time with the dysfunctional Knicks, 2. learning a brand new offense with a new role no longer being the alpha and 3. oh yeah, regaining confidence after 20 months off due to ACL surgery. That’s a lot! It makes sense Porzingis would have his ups and downs when you consider all that he’s been trying to do in his first month as a Maverick.

Still, even with the recent push, the Mavericks have been playing better with him off the floor. The key to smoothing out Porzingis’ game right now appears to be this: cut out his isolation and post-ups and just feed him off other actions like in the pick and roll or off the ball. Take a look at how Porzingis does in these various play types.

Kristaps Porzingis Play Types

Isolation 12 12.5 0.33 2.8
Post-Up 42 30.6 0.57 5.2
Spot-Up 68 52.3 1.04 58.8
Roll Man 45 48.6 1.02 31.4
Off-Screen 30 38.5 0.77 25.5
Cut 22 78.9 1.50 82.4

Porzingis has been about as bad as you can be in creating his own offense. He’s never been a great post-up player, but his numbers have fallen off a cliff this season. In theory, it makes sense to run pick and rolls and get Porzingis the same mismatches that Dirk Nowitzki used to feed on. There’s just one problem — there’s only one Dirk.

Every Porzingis post-up feels like a root canal. Porzingis is a great athlete, but coming off the long lay off he looks very stiff in these situations. When he has a small on him, he’ll simply turn and fire in the mid-range instead of trying to create separation. On a lot of his post-ups, the smaller defender will be right in his jersey as Porzingis awkwardly fires up a 15-footer with a hand in his face. Same goes for isolations, where it’s clear Porzingis just doesn’t have the oomph that he used to before the surgery. On shots after one dribble, Porzingis is shooting 41.7 percent from the floor. On two dribbles, it’s 21.2 percent. Don’t leave yet, it gets worse — on 3-6 dribbles he’s shooting 15.8 percent. Every possession the Mavericks use to let Porzingis create on his own shot is a thrown away possession.

The good news is that Porzingis has perked up off the ball, especially during the Mavs’ recent winning streak. He’s hitting 35.2 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes on the season, and that number creeps up to 38.7 percent during the recent five-game winning streak. In that streak, Porzingis did a lot of damage off the ball, just catching and scoring without having to think. Against the Rockets on Sunday, Porzingis had what I thought was his best game of the season, doing all his offensive damage by working off of Luka’s gravity in pick and rolls and isolation drives.

It’s so hard for defenses to stick with someone like Porzingis if he’s moving and not just a stand-still spot-up guy. You have to play him close for his jumper but then it’s hard to keep him from easy rim looks since, you know, he’s 7’3.

Earlier in the season, a lot of Porzingis’ spot-ups were bad shots off no movement. The Mavs would walk the ball up the floor, pass to Porzingis and he’d launch one. Lately though, he’s been more patient, waiting to fire after the Mavericks run some action.

The key is to keep Porzingis moving as he works his way back to feeling 100 percent comfortable in his role and his body. Porzingis hasn’t taken a ton of corner threes, but him being in different spots around the floor and moving creates opportunities like this.

This wasn’t just against a somewhat lackadaisical Rockets defense on Sunday. Against the Raptors last week, Porzingis went 6-of-6 in the third quarter, with all six of his shots assisted. More of this, less grinding down the game with bad post-ups. The Mavericks will eventually need Porzingis to be better on those looks if they want to unlock their full potential, but right now, a month into his return from injury? Ease him back in and take more advantage of him playing next to one of the best playmakers in the NBA.

Seth Curry’s season has been as confusing as it is sad

Dallas’ quiet off-season had one bright spot — bringing in Seth Curry back on a very reasonable four-year deal. It showed commitment that the Mavericks haven’t had in the Plan Powder era and Curry had by far his best NBA season during his first stint in Dallas. The Mavericks desperately needed shooting to surround their star duo and Curry, who was the fifth best in percentage a season ago, fit the bill.

Somehow, it’s been bad. It’s almost inexplicable. The Mavericks are 11-6 and have gotten almost nothing from Curry, who’s averaging 7.5 points in 21.1 minutes per game. He’s shooting 35.3 percent from three and 42.2 percent from the field, which would easily be career lows for him since he became a rotation player back in the 2015-2016 season with the Kings.

At first it felt like some Rick Carlisle chicanery, with Curry not playing a lot of minutes next to Luka, culminating in an odd seven-minute night against the Magic earlier this month. Since then Curry has gotten more burn and had better games — 16 points against Memphis, 15 points against Toronto — but it’s been few and far between. Somehow Curry is performing worse with a better roster compared to the team he played on his first go-around with the Mavericks. You’d think pairing one of the best in the league at creating three point looks in Luka with one of the league’s best at shooting said threes would be a no-brainer pairing, but it just hasn’t worked. Curry hasn’t looked right, regardless of his minutes. He even lost his starting job to Tim Hardaway Jr., which isn’t something anyone expected during the summer.

It’s hard to diagnose exactly what it is. Curry isn’t getting a lot of shots and he hasn’t gotten a ton of opportunities to run pick and roll — an area he’s been really good at in his career. Perhaps he’s adjusting to fewer chances with Luka or maybe he’s still recovering from an awkward preseason. Seth tweaked his knee during one preseason game, scrapped up his hand when a tornado swept through Dallas proper back in September and missed two games due to illness during the five-game win streak.

When he’s right though, he’s so valuable to what the Mavericks want to do. Dallas is starved for as much shooting and spacing as possible and the combo of Curry’s shooting, handles and passing opens up a lot for the Mavericks offense. He’s had a couple of nifty assists to Porzingis this season as teams are scared of letting Curry get free.

Hopefully this becomes a more regular occurrence as the season continues. It would be stunning if the Mavericks made the playoffs without Curry doing much.

Dallas is getting just enough from their role players

By far the biggest question mark entering the season was: what were the Mavericks going to get from players not named Luka or Kristaps? It was amplified even more after a ho-hum off-season where Dallas doubled-down on its own guys while conveniently leaving room open for a big 2021 free agency push.

Through 17 games, so far, so good. It hasn’t been smooth sailing, but the Mavericks are getting about as much as they can expect from their role players. Dorian Finney-Smith is creeping closer to 35 percent from three while providing invaluable wing defense, Delon Wright is curiously a bench player once more but a nice change-of-pace guard. Maxi Kleber isn’t the shot-blocking terror he was a season ago but he’s improved mightily as a shooter and roll man, while still providing switchy defense. Jalen Brunson hasn’t been consistent but he’s bailed the Mavs out a couple times with his ability to push the pace and attack the rim against overwhelmed, opposing bench lineups. Boban Marjanovic has done his job as the third big, getting into the game when the Mavs are short-handed in the front court or need a good five-minute spurt to help on the boards.

Outside of Curry, by far the most interesting bench players to me have been Justin Jackson and Tim Hardaway Jr., for completely different reasons. Jackson has been mostly invisible, averaging 13.8 minutes per game while somehow shooting 44.7 percent from three. All off-season most Mavericks analysts pegged Jackson to be the fifth starter, citing his strong push to end last season and the affinity he earned from the Mavericks coaching staff. I was always a little reluctant due to Jackson’s so-so history before coming to Dallas.

In the glass half full theory, Jackson would give you a little bit of Finney-Smith’s wing defense while being a major upgrade on offense, hitting spot-up looks and floating cutters in the lane. In practice, Jackson has sorta done that, but just hasn’t gotten consistent burn. He’s on a short leash too — Jackson is shooting a putrid 45 percent from the restricted area and has been yanked out of games after missing some bunnies. For a Mavs team that could use all the shooting it can get, it’s strange that they haven’t tried Jackson out a bit more.

At a certain point, it’s a logistics thing — while the Mavericks don’t have a clear-cut third-best player, they have an abundance of fifth to eighth best players. Who does Jackson replace in the rotation? It’s hard to take Finney-Smith off the court right now. Wright is the backup point guard. Kleber and Dwight Powell have to soak up center minutes next to Porzingis. They have to figure Curry out and Hardaway has been lights out in the last week (more on that later). The only way for Jackson to get more time is if the Mavericks go small more often, playing Porzingis at the five — and that hasn’t been something they’ve fully committed to. In the short doses Porzingis has played the five, the Mavs have been great. And against the Rockets on Sunday, Jackson played the four next to three guards and Porzingis and the Mavs ran the Rockets’ woebegone bench off the floor. Dallas played Porzingis at the five some more in the second half against the Clippers so maybe there’s a chance for Jackson to sneak back in.

Hardaway on the other hand has been a revelation — in the five game win streak he averaged 15 points per game on 54.3/51.9/84.6 shooting splits. On the season he’s 17-of-34 (50 percent) from the corners, he’s hitting 40.8 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes and on shots after two dribbles — aka mid-range closeouts — he’s hitting a sparkling 48 percent. All the things that have plagued Hardaway his entire career have been swung in his favor so far this season. He’s always had the tools, now he’s putting them to good use.

Of course, before the recent surge, while his plus/minus numbers looked good, his shooting was atrocious. Carlisle even yanked him from a game before the win streak after he took two bad shots in a row. So there’s obviously a threshold for Hardaway’s potential but right now, the Mavericks just have to ride this as long as they can.

It’s amazing how Hardaway is doing everything the Mavericks needed from a theoretical free agent signing — he’s hitting shots next to Luka, playing well off the created space and even showing off some decent passing chops (4.71 assists to turnovers). Here’s the most mind-numbing Hardaway stat: He’s currently in the 97.1 percentile on spot-up possessions. He’s scoring 1.47 points per possession and has a 74.5 effective field goal percentage. Of all the players in the NBA to have at least 40 spot-up possessions, Hardaway is second in points per possession and third in effective field goal percentage, behind Tyler Herro of Miami and Karl Anthony-Towns of Minnesota. Just an unreal surge from someone the Mavericks likely considered a Kristaps tax and not part of their long-term core.

The defense is about where it’s supposed to be, but there are improvements to be made

Dallas typically plays a conservative defense, dropping the big back in the pick and roll and enticing teams to take inefficient twos. The Mavericks roster has a few standout defenders but not littered with consistent ones and it makes sense that after a month Dallas is middle of the road in defense — ranked 16th and giving up 108.5 points per 100 possessions.

Porzingis and Kleber have done well at the rim for the most part — Porzingis allows opponents to shoot 60.7 percent in the restricted area and Kleber 61.4 percent. Dallas has had success funneling drives to those two and Porzingis has been especially great at the rim during the five-game win streak. In those five games, opponents have only shot 55.7 percent in the restricted area against Porzingis.

Where Dallas struggles is when skilled teams are able to string out the Mavericks somewhat laid back defense. The Mavericks give teams lots of space, sometimes by design and sometimes by accident. They’re playing the numbers game by allowing teams to walk into mid-range twos, knowing over the long haul the math will be in their favor. Unfortunately it bites them against teams with skilled shooters in those areas — Dallas lost a close game to Portland as Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum dinked and dunked the Mavs to death from the mid-range and allowed San Antonio, a team that thrives in the mid-range, to get back into the game in the fourth quarter last week.

The scheme especially hurts Dwight Powell, who is basically a broomstick with arms guarding the rim. It’s been like that his whole career and despite Powell’s nimble feet and quick hands, he can’t translate that to protecting the paint effectively. Sometimes it feels like the Mavericks aren’t making the most of their springy bigs in Powell and Kleber, allowing guards to gain a head of steam when barreling toward the basket. When the Mavericks trap with Powell and Kleber, good things tend to happen. Against the Rockets on Sunday, Dallas trapped as aggressively as it had at any other point in the Rick Carlisle era and they forced early turnovers to take a 7-0 lead and never looked back.

Powell might not be able to guard the rim worth a damn but he can absolutely blitz pick and roll ball handlers with his good hands and quick feet. Obviously, that’s not a defense that can be employed all the time — the Milwaukee Bucks got roasted during the Jason Kidd years because they would not back off from that relentless trapping style that teams eventually picked apart. The NBA is too good to play this defense all the time, but if the Mavericks could bust it out just a little more, it might help them on that end of the floor.

There’s nothing else to say about Luka Doncic except “hot damn”

I’m truly at a loss for words at how big a leap Doncic has taken this season. He’s been an absolute monster at the rim, hitting an absurd 71.6 percent in the restricted area. As a ball handler in the pick and roll, he’s shooting 53.8 percent. That’s by far the best in the league for anyone with at least 100 pick and roll ball handler possessions. His 1.18 points per possession mark in those plays also tops that same list.

The thing I’m impressed with the most is how Doncic takes control of games and closes out teams without needing wild step-back theatrics. During the worst game of his career on the road against the Nuggets earlier this season, he sealed the game with a driving make at the rim. When the Rockets cut the lead down to five in the fourth quarter on Sunday and the Mavericks were teetering on the edge, he got to the basket and converted an and-one. In clutch time this season, Luka is 7-of-12 on two pointers. That’s very hard to do! Doncic has the swag and poise of a prime Dirk Nowitzki, except he’s only in his second season and can’t legally drink yet.

Oh and he’s still a maestro at passing to shooters in the corners.

If there’s one slight critique, and this is minor, it might be that he’s a little too step-back happy at times. He’s often admitted in the locker room after games that he falls in love with it during clutch moments more than he should, knowing how good he is at getting to the basket and converting. Part of me wants him to trade in some of his step-backs for more traditional pull-ups but honestly I wonder if the fear of his step-back is part of the reason he’s so good in the paint. Defenses are so petrified of ending up on a Doncic highlight reel that they guard him tight 30-feet from the basket, which allows Doncic to gain a step going toward the rim. Doncic has only taken 26 catch-and-shoot threes and it’d be nice if Dallas could get him some more of those off of action from Wright, Curry or Brunson. Eventually the Mavericks have to give Luka a break on offense, right?

Hell, maybe not. Luka is one of the most dominant offensive players in the league and he’s 20 years old. What does 24-year-old Luka look like? That’s four years from now. Good grief.