During the first half of the Mavericks wildly impressive win against the Bucks, I made this proclamation:
if the Mavericks win this game, I'll write a column titled "all the ways I was very wrong about the Mavericks" tonight.— Josh Bowe (@Boweman55) December 17, 2019
I'll probably still write it anyway, but I'll do it tonight if they win.
Well, I’m here to pay the piper. Forgive me father, for I have sinned. Here’s how:
I underestimated the math
When I looked at the Mavericks roster, I feared for their shooting around Luka Doncic. Outside of Kristaps Porzingis and Seth Curry, I didn’t see anyone that could hit at least 37 percent of their threes. I saw the career marks of Dorian Finney-Smith, Delon Wright, Tim Hardaway Jr. and a shiver went down my spine. How the hell are the Mavericks going to hit enough shots?
It turns out they do that by taking a shit ton! I consider my self fairly analytically savvy yet I kind of forgot the most basic thing about the advanced analytic boom in the NBA — three pointers are worth more than two pointers. Duh, right? Yet I still didn’t consider the fact that someone going 35 percent on 20 threes (7-of-20) is worth more than someone else going 50 percent on twos (10-of-20). That 35 percent number is usually what league average ends up being, give or take.
Now look at the Mavericks, who are shooting 36.4 percent from three this season. That’s not an elite number, but they take 40.8 threes per game, which is second in the league. Then consider that a lot of those threes are open looks — 36.3 per game are classified as at the very least open, by NBA.com’s standards (that’s the nearest defender four feet or more from the attempt). Defender distance from shot data can be a little wonky and unreliable, but watching the Mavs, it’s clear they get a lot of good looks, if nothing else because Doncic is one of the best in the NBA at creating them. Double that down with quality passers and role players that don’t let the ball stick and the Mavericks have what they need to outscore teams, despite not having many elite shooters.
In today’s NBA, it matters more if you have six to eight guys who can hit anywhere from 33 to 38 percent from three than it is to have two or three guys that are at 40 or above. Again, because three is greater than two. This isn’t rocket science and I’m not revealing any hidden secrets. I just didn’t adjust my basketball brain accordingly. The Mavericks are smart — I am not.
I forgot how much continuity matters
I lambasted the Mavericks off-season as they squandered about $14 or so million in cap space, electing to mainly just bring back their guys and round out the rotation with a few more solid pieces.
Dallas had a chance for so much more, but didn’t seem interested. And I don’t even mean so much more as in bring in a third star, but just adding some more starter level talent. Instead, the Mavericks mostly stood pat. At the time it was infuriating.
And to be honest, it still is a little. But there’s no doubt the fact that the Mavericks finally had a summer where most of their guys came back has had a huge boost to their early season success. Dwight Powell, Maxi Kleber, Dorian Finney-Smith, Jalen Brunson and Doncic all have at least one season under their belt playing together entering this season. With Powell, Kleber and Finney-Smith, it was even more. As teams early on are trying to figure out who they are or what they want to be, the Mavericks, for the most part, already knew.
There were some bumps in the road to be sure, as Rick Carlisle threw some stuff at the wall to see what would stick. After that rough patch that included two losses to the Knicks, the Mavericks have mostly settled on a set rotation and lineup. It helps a lot when there are only a few guys needing to learn the playbook in September and the chemistry Dallas plays with is off the charts at times, because guys trust each other. It’s sappy, but it’s true!
I overestimated how much Dallas needed a clear third best player
Tying back into my point about the shooting, I was deeply concerned with who the Mavericks best player after Doncic and Porzingis was going to be. The fall off from other Western Conference contenders third best player was sharp — was it Delon Wright? Seth Curry? Hell, Dwight Powell? Dallas didn’t have an answer there.
Turns out, maybe they didn’t need one. Instead of the Mavericks being too top heavy and reliant on Doncic and Porzingis, the Mavericks have perhaps the deepest team in the NBA, with the best bench. Carlisle gets about as much out of high basketball IQ role players more so than any other coach in the league and by rolling out waves of quality, if not spectacular players throughout the game, the Mavericks never truly lose their edge.
Dallas has eight players that average 20 minutes per game, 10 that get at least the 14.4 Justin Jackson gets. They have J.J. Barea, who barely plays yet is shooting the lights out whenever Carlisle needs to break glass in case of emergency. They have three solid and fleet of foot bigs, with the fourth one a bruiser if needed. They have four quality point guards, when most teams struggle to field two. A top-5 three point shooter in the league from a season ago comes off their bench. It’s not necessarily an embarrassment of riches, but it’s just a gaggle of solid dudes that Carlisle can trust.
Perhaps the only weak point is a lack of 3-and-D wings, as the Mavericks currently employ zero players between the height of 6’6 and 6’10 that can hit 36 percent of their threes, play great defense and average 20 minutes per game. Finney-Smith is oh-so-close at 34.7 percent from three, but outside of that it’s Justin Jackson, who is mainly just a nice guy in spurts, not someone you can consistently rely on for 25 to 30 minutes.
That’s OK, really. Every team in the league could use more two-way wings. They could also use a backup point guard or a solid third big. The Mavericks are solid up and down the roster, which matters more than I figured.
Somehow, I didn’t think Luka would be this good
OK, don’t throw tomatoes at me. When I wrote about my bold predictions in the preseason, I predicted Doncic would average 25 points or more per game. So it’s not like I was way off.
But yeah, I was way off. I figured Doncic’s second-year leap would be rounding out his efficiency from the three point and free throw line, clean up some of his passing and that’d be about it. Instead, while Doncic is doing most of those things, he’s also shooting 74.6 percent in the restricted area and 49.5 percent in the paint, outside of the restricted area.
Let’s put those into perspective: Of players that have attempted at least 130 shots from the restricted area, Doncic is third in the league in percentage. The names above him are Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis. The names below him are Jarrett Allen, Karl Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert. Doncic and Devin Booker are the only non-bigs to be shooting that many shots in that area and be at least 70 percent on them. Bonkers. For shots in the paint but not in the restricted area, Doncic is fourth in percentage among players that have attempted at least 90 of those shots. He’s the only player shooting in the top five in both areas on a large volume of attempts. This is historic!
Of course, there is much more to Doncic’s brilliant season — the incredible passes to the corner, the heroics in crunch time and the general swag that seems to trickle down to the rest of the team (trickle down Luka-nomics?). He is completely deserving of the MVP consideration and while the Mavs might have beaten the league's best team without him, the heights they want to go rest on him being healthy. We all knew Luka was good, I just didn’t know I’d see what I think we’d get from year four Luka in year two.