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4 big questions for the Mavericks and their roster

Dallas is set for one of its most anticipated seasons in years. Here’s how it can (and can’t) possibly work.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

With the Mavericks’ off-season mostly in the rear-view mirror, I thought it was a good opportunity to do with this team as I did a few years ago for the 2016-2017 roster. This year’s Mavericks don’t have as much turnover as that team did, but this figures to be just as pivotal a turning point as that season ended up being — in a bad way. Hopefully this time is the good way!

Here’s how I think the Mavericks can and will get the most of their roster this season, broken down into a few big topics that might decide how good the Mavericks are.

How good is Kristaps Porzingis?

If there’s one main theme to take away from this upcoming season for the Mavericks, it’s this: forget everything else, Porzingis is what matters.

That means forgetting what moves the Mavs did or didn’t make. Any significant progress Dallas hopes to make this season is attached to the hip of their 7’3 jump shooting shot blocker. Regardless of if the Mavericks had gotten any number of higher profile free agents (Kemba Walker, Danny Green), none of those moves matter in the context of seeing what Porzingis looks like after over 20 months have passed between the time he was injured and when he will play again. If Porzingis isn’t right, the Mavericks are toast. If he’s an All-Star again? They’ll be very good, very soon.

That’s the key. Since so much time has passed since Porzingis last played, it’s very easy to forget the uniquely amazing path he was on before tearing his ACL. Even with position-less basketball and the three point revolution taking over the league, there is a dearth of centers who can shoot and play defense.

Most do one or the other better than Porzingis, but not both. Joel Embiid is a top-5 defensive player in the league, but Porzingis dwarfs him as a reliable shooter. Karl-Anthony Towns has a more well-rounded offensive game, but Porzingis can guard the rim better. Anthony Davis is basically a do-it-all big, but he’s also not a great shooter from deep. That’s not to say Porzingis is better than all of these players, far from it — it just goes to show how truly unique his game is. There isn’t another big in the league who can shoot as well as Porzingis can, at the volume he has and also be an elite rim protector. Players like that just don’t exist and the ones who are starting to emerge (like Dewayne Dedmon and Brook Lopez) don’t feature as versatile of an offensive game.

There have been only 18 seasons in NBA history where a player averaged at least 3.5 three point attempts and 1.5 blocks per game. Porzingis has two of them. Bump those numbers up to four three attempts and two blocks? That’s only happened twice — Porzingis is one. Maybe Davis and Embiid jack up their three-point shooting this season, but until then, Porzingis is truly the Unicorn King.

If he’s healthy — again, we must keep reiterating this — Porzingis could be in for a bananas season in Dallas. Luka Doncic will easily be the best facilitator he has ever played with, as the Knicks ran through a bunch of veteran journeymen and raw younger players at that spot in his two and a half healthy seasons in New York. The beauty of Porzingis is that he’s not just a defensive stretch big, he’s someone that can legitimately be the fulcrum of an entire offense. In his last season before he was injured, Porzingis showcased a somewhat versatile game and looked comfortable doing a little bit of everything in regards to scoring, whether it was coming off screens or posting up.

Kristaps Porzingis 2017-2018 Playtypes

Play Type Frequency Points Per Possession Effective Field Goal Percentage Percentile
Play Type Frequency Points Per Possession Effective Field Goal Percentage Percentile
Spot Up 13.1% 1.03 52.4 62.3
Off Screen 11.9% 1.11 53.5 76.3
Post Up 24.8% 0.96 43.4 73.5
Roll Man in Pick and Roll 16.9% 1.01 52.1 34.8
Isolation 8.3% 0.70 38 21
Transition 7.5% 1.13 52.9 56.1
Cut 5.5% 1.34 65.4 69.9
Putbacks 3.7% 0.68 33.3 5.1

While not elite at any of the playtypes just yet, being able come off screens just as well as posting up for a third-year, 7’3 big is remarkable. It’s a skill set matched with a body type that doesn't exist across the league and with Doncic running the show, the looks only project to be easier. Doncic and Porzingis will be Dallas’ next great two-man game and when you consider the damage Porzingis did without great pick and roll guards next to him, the sky is the limit with the Mavericks.

In New York, Porzingis mostly parked himself in the paint for post ups. The offense wasn’t very imaginative to say the least, but the times where they tried to spread the floor for a Porzingis screen and roll, good things tended to happen.

Both of these plays are with Jarrett Jack — imagine them with Doncic and that’s where Dallas drools over the potential. Here’s the neat part: Porzingis picked up some bad habits and the Knicks did him some disservice in their ability to maximize his skill set. Basically, there's still so much room for growth, and Porzingis is already a good scorer.

In the season he last played in before getting hurt, Porzingis played at power forward 88 percent of the time. That means Porzingis shared the floor with another center for an overwhelming majority of the time he was on the court. Most of those being with Enes Kanter, a solid big in his own right, but a plodder who takes up space. Because of this, 26.4 percent of Porzingis’ shots that season were from 10-16 feet from the basket — a higher percentage of his total shots than three pointers (25.6 percent)! There is no reality in this universe where someone like Porzingis should be taking more mid-range shots than threes.

The Knicks at times treated Porzingis like a power forward from 1995 instead of the modern Unicorn he is. Does some of that fall on poor shot selection on Porzingis’ part? Sure. He took a lot of bad shots as the only reliable shot-maker on some bad Knicks teams. That part will have to be stamped out, but it’s clear the Knicks didn’t help. Even though the Mavericks project to start Dwight Powell at center next to Porzingis, expect Powell to be diving toward the basket while Porzingis spreads the floor outside the arc. I’d also expect a lot of the Mavericks closing lineups to feature Porzingis at the five. Even if he’s playing with another big, both Powell and Maxi Kleber aren’t the stationary types — they’ll either be rolling into space or spreading the floor at the three point line, allowing Porzingis to have the room needed to get off the better shots he has to shoot.

That’s not to say the Mavericks should cut off Porzingis’ mid-range diet entirely; those shots are still very valuable on possessions where the offense is stuck or the Mavericks need a crucial bucket in crunch-time. Let Porzingis have his post-ups, just balance it with consistent looks out of the pick and roll and Doncic’s playmaking. Porzingis is a sneaky good cutter as well, so I’d expect Doncic’s passing to get a lot of mileage out of that.

Again, the disclaimer: Porzingis has to be healthy. It’s hard to predict how good Porzingis will look after such a long lay off and it would be normal for him to start slow. Mark Cuban has already said they plan to load manage Porzingis, so if he plays 70 games, that’d be a wild success. It’s hard to keep expectations in check with a player like Porzingis — he’s such a tantalizing talent. But that ACL injury was no joke and the Mavs and Porzingis know he has to work on his body to prevent further damage in the future. I trust Dallas in this area more than most teams.

How are the other new pieces going to work?

Aside from Porzingis, the three new pieces are Delon Wright, Seth Curry and Boban Marjanovic. We’ll talk about Wright and Curry now, since Boban is basically going to be a spot player like Salah Mejri was.

Wright is definitely the most intriguing of the trio. He’s been an analytics darling in his first four seasons, playing most of them as Kyle Lowry’s backup in Toronto. Whenever Wright was on the floor, Toronto generally played well as he helped lead their bench mobs before being traded to Memphis at the deadline last season.

The thing about Wright is that he isn’t an overly impressive guy if you glance at a game every now and then. He’s big and long for a point guard, for sure, but he doesn’t have eye-popping athleticism. There’s an old-man game to Wright’s style, as he slithers around screens in the pick and roll and uses a variety of hesitation dribbles, spins and pump fakes to get where he needs to go. You’ll rarely see Wright blow past his defender for a clean finish at the basket — there’s almost always a defender he has to glide off of when he gets into the paint.

Despite not being able to separate from the defense consistently, Wright is a career 49.5 percent shooter on twos, which isn’t bad for someone with a shaky jumper. Unfortunately that lack of separation doesn’t lead to free throw attempts, as Wright’s per-36 averages for his career is 3.4 per game — that’s Harrison Barnes level! There are definitely moments where Wright’s lack of explosion or burst lands him in no man’s land during some pick and rolls.

The jumper will be the key with Wright in the starting lineup. If Dallas does indeed bring Curry off the bench in favor of one of Justin Jackson or Dorian Finney-Smith, the Mavericks will only offer Doncic one credible three point threat when he has the ball in his hands. Wright is a career 33.2 percent three point shooter and shot an abysmal 29.8 percent last season. A lot of that was due to Wright taking worse shots on a bad Grizzlies team, but he’s only had one above average season from three, and that was the 2017-2018 season. He shot 36.6 percent, but more importantly he shot 41.2 percent on catch and shoot threes. You figure those will be the primary types of threes Wright will feast on in Dallas, playing off the Doncic-Porzingis two-man game. Wright is also a career 39.2 percent shooter from the corners so there’s a chance playing off of two offensive cornerstones will allow Wright to cut the bad threes from his shot selection and focus on easy spot-up attempts.

He’s a somewhat willing shooter, for what it’s worth, which is sometimes half the battle. Still, don’t expect defenses to ever shift toward Wright as a spot up threat. They’ll dare him to punish the Doncic and Porzingis double-teams. Thankfully, that’s where Wright’s smooth off the bounce game helps. No one will mistake Wright for an elite playmaker, but he knows how to run a pick and roll. He can let Doncic take some possessions off, more so than Dennis Smith Jr. did before he was traded.

Defensively, Wright is a giant upgrade. Before he was brought in, there was no one on the Dallas roster that could credibly guard ones or twos. Finney-Smith is great, but asking him to chase point guards is not an ideal use of his skills. Wright solves this and then some, with an ability to guard three positions using his lanky 6’5 frame. Wright is smart and also opportunistic, with one of his favorite moves poking the ball while trailing pick and roll ball handlers around a screen. Toronto always guarded well when Wright was on the floor. The Raptors had some good defenders around him, but Wright was definitely a big part of that. I’d imagine his defensive versatility will make it hard for Rick Carlisle to keep him off the floor, especially as his backups don’t figure to be defensive difference makers.

It can sometimes be easy for a bench role guy like Wright to stand out analytically — by coming off the bench he mostly goes against other teams’ benches and it also allowed the Raptors to better hide his weakness and accentuate his strengths. That’s not to say Wright isn’t good (he is!), it’s just that he’s started 18 out of the 198 games he’s played in his NBA career. We’ll just need to see how Wright adjusts playing more prominent minutes as teams key in on Doncic and Porzingis. In Wright’s favor, he’s already played 28 playoff games. In the 2018 playoffs he played in 10 games, averaged 21.5 minutes and 8.6 points per game on 45.6/42.9/93.8 shooting. Wright is young, NBA experience wise, but he knows how to win and knows what winning feels like in high-leverage situations. Don’t discount that for a Mavericks team that features a good number of rotation guys that have never had a winning NBA season, let alone been in the playoffs.

Seth Curry is the other meaningful acquisition and his shooting is a sight for sore eyes on this Mavericks roster. He shot 42.5 percent from deep in his one healthy season with the Mavericks and 45.5 percent last season with Portland. He’s a career 50 (!) percent shooter from the corners, so you can only imagine the looks he could get playing off of Doncic.

It makes the most sense to start Curry next to Wright, as the two balance each other out pretty well. Wright can take on the tougher defensive assignment in the backcourt and Curry helps cancel out Wright’s poor shooting. Playing Curry as much as possible next to Doncic is going to be critical this season, as the roster’s shooting after Doncic and Porzingis falls off a cliff.

I have a hunch Rick Carlisle will like Curry’s shooting off the bench, however. That’s not a bad spot for him, especially as J.J. Barea recovers from his Achilles injury. Curry isn’t great as a lead ball handler, so Jalen Brunson would help share the load if Curry does come off the bench. I think the poor shooting from whatever fifth starter is in there instead of Curry (likely either Justin Jackson or Dorian Finney-Smith) will force Carlisle’s hand. Curry is a great shooter. He’s comfortable spotting up or launching in the pick and roll. He developed some good chemistry with Powell during his lone season of playing with the Mavs and Powell’s ability as a rim runner has gotten better since.

I also like Curry in the starting lineup because he’s OK defensively. While he struggled a bit more in Portland, Curry was a solid defender in Dallas. He wasn’t the type of defender you’d put on a scorer to shut him down, but he was the type you also didn’t have to worry about too much. Curry has solid fundamentals and good hands, as evidenced by being second on the Mavericks in deflections back in the 2016-2017 season.

What does Year 2 Luka Look like?

Sometimes I think I took for granted just how ridiculous Luka’s rookie season was. He acted like an old pro so early and so often, it was easy to forget that yes, he was a rookie — both in a good way and a bad one.

The good one? Well, a base stat line of 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game on 42.7/32.7/72.3 shooting splits is just remarkable. Imagine what he’ll do when he’s in shape! Doncic’s conditioning is probably the biggest determining factor on how big a leap he can make in the next two to three years. The Mavericks basically gave Doncic the summer off last year after a hectic international schedule. With the Mavericks not making the playofffs and Doncic’s Slovenia team not participating in any international tournaments this summer, the opportunity is there for Doncic to work on his body. We’ve all seen the boat photos, so we’ll just have to see for sure what Doncic looks like in September.

Having a 6’7 point guard is such a luxury in this league, in terms of roster building and ceiling. Dallas can go target so many types of players knowing they don’t have to compensate for their star player being too short or too big. With this team, Doncic finally has an elite pick and pop partner in Porzingis, which is something he never had last season. Powell was elite diving to the rim, but in terms of flaring out to the arc, Doncic hasn’t had a big like that in the NBA, since Dirk Nowitzki was so banged up in his last season. The possibilities feel endless with Porzingis screening for Doncic.

Dallas will do their best to spread the floor around that duo and expect the Mavericks to lean on it just as hard as they did the Dirk Nowitzki/Jason Terry version. Doncic had a 50.6 effective field goal percentage and was in the 68.7 percentile of pick and roll ball handlers last season. With Doncic always having a quality pick and roll partner with either Porzingis or Powell, expect those number to jump up a bit.

Unfortunately, there could be some issues. Teams blitzed Doncic hard after the trade deadline last season and while Doncic absolutely roasted some teams for over committing, he coughed up his fair share of turnovers on bad passes. Doncic had a 19.3 percent turnover rate on his pick and roll possessions last season, second-highest among players that had at least 600 pick and roll possessions. The Mavericks also bricked so many shots when teams went hard at Doncic, compounding the issue even further.

Here’s the thing that worries me — all the players in the GIF above figure to be prominent rotation players this season. If Luka didn’t throw the ball away there still a good outcome? Finney-Smith and Tim Hardaway Jr. aren’t scaring defenses as shooters and Maxi Kleber needs one more prove it season before we can call him a true stretch big. Brunson is the second best playmaker in this possession and while he had a great rookie season, you can bet defenses will gladly take Brunson doing something over Doncic.

Porzingis will help, but it’ll be as a shooter and scorer, not a playmaker. In his last healthy season, Porzingis had a 6.3 assist percentage. To put that into comparison, Harrison Barnes had a 6.7 assist percentage last season. For his career, Porzingis averages 1.3 assists per game. If defenses trap Luka behind the arc, Porzingis will have opportunities to make plays a la Draymond Green 4-on-3. There just happens to be the Grand Canyon between Green’s playmaking skills and Porzingis’. Hopefully Porzingis’ prolific shooting will scare defenses from going to this tactic too often. If a team traps Doncic, and has a help defender on Porzingis, who is the player on the Mavs roster that will bust that defense open? That’s why I’m so keen to having Curry start, as his shooting on the weak side and ability as a secondary playmaker will be a good antidote there. Hopefully Wright and second-year Brunson are up to the challenge as well.

Aside from that big worry, Luka should have a big season. Hell, if he just shapes up his free throw shooting, that alone can vault his scoring close to the 24 to 25 points per game threshold. With Wright and Curry, hopefully he can take some more spot-up threes and ease the burden of having to do everything. Luka had a 33.5 usage percentage after the All-Star break last season, which is simply unsustainable for a full season. The Mavericks have to get Luka easier looks, whether that’s playing off of Wright and Curry or letting Porzingis feed on some post ups.

I’m giddy about the possibilities of non-rookie Doncic. He has the ability to make his teammates better, but he can’t put the ball in the hole for them. If the Mavericks role players can be an accumulative average shooting bunch, Doncic’s play will start winning this team games sooner rather than later. Doncic is absolutely a franchise player. A better body, better understanding of NBA defenses and a (should-be) better roster will showcase that this season.

Is now the time for the Mavericks’ long-time role players?

Dwight Powell has played four and a half seasons in Dallas. Dorian Finney-Smith has played three. Maxi Kleber just finished up his second. All three were given multi-year contracts this summer. All three have never averaged at least 15 minutes per game on a team that’s won more 33 games. Simply put — it’s time.

That’s not to say it’s time for these three to lead the Mavericks to some extravagant win total or become players they aren’t. But the Mavericks had a quiet off-season and doubled down on their own. For a team that hasn’t won more than 33 games in three seasons and only has one player they drafted from the first round on their roster, that’s kind of alarming!

All three of these guys do something really well — Powell is an elite rim-runner, Finney-Smith a great perimeter defender and offensive rebounder and Kleber a great rim protector. It’s time for these skills to start translating into wins, as all three figure to still be big rotation players. In Powell’s case, he’ll be a starter! If the Mavericks are going to start showing signs of life this season, all three need to continue doing these things while helping the Mavericks win games. For the first time, there isn’t a stable of veterans blocking their progress. Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Dirk Nowitzki and DeAndre Jordan are all gone. Powell will start, Kleber will be the first big off the bench and Finney-Smith will either start or be the backup wing. Good things have happened over the course of the last three seasons with this trio on the floor, but the sample sizes have been small enough that it’s hard to really tell how much it carries over with increased minutes and roles.

Dwight Powell is good! There’s no debating that. But he’s also a March and April Hall of Famer, a time of the year when NBA teams stop caring about basketball. Let’s see what these three can do in November, December and January. If they can keep it up, the Mavericks will be fine. If not? It’ll be tough for Luka and Porzingis to do it all.

In a similar vein, although he hasn’t been with the Mavericks for long, Justin Jackson has to show something too. He was great after the Mavericks acquired him, shooting 48.4 percent from the field, 37.2 percent from three in 18.3 minutes per game. Jackson is a career 33.5 percent shooter from deep, so the Mavericks will need to find out if last season was a mirage or a sign of something more.

Jackson will likely get first crack at the fifth starter and if he isn’t hitting shots, the lineup will suffer greatly. I like the idea of Jackson more than the actual results — Dallas is starved for a stable 3-and-D wing and Jackson turning into one would be a huge win for what was originally just a throw-in in the Barnes trade.

The Mavericks will be better — enjoy it!

Here’s the thing: I have no idea just how good this Mavericks team will be. If everything goes according to plan, they can definitely be a playoff team. But there are a lot of potholes en route to that favorable outcome.

So long as Luka and Porzingis are healthy, the Mavericks are OK. There will likely be some bumps, bruises and difficult moments, but so long as those two are alright, the Mavericks will be too.

This figures to be the most interesting Mavericks season in years. Have fun with it! Don’t ever forget that. Dallas has two under-25 superstars for the first time in a long time, if ever. That’s not something a lot of NBA teams can counter with. Even if the Mavericks don’t make the playoffs, there are tons of reasons why this season could still be wildly successful. It’s a good time to be a Mavericks fan.