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Josh Richardson might make or break Mavericks season

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Can this year’s key off-season acquisition be the long-term piece in the starting lineup Dallas is looking for?

Dallas Mavericks v Milwaukee Bucks

Josh Richardson might be the most important Maverick on the roster for the upcoming season. More precisely, the success of the Mavericks’ biggest off-season acquisition will be judged by how he fits with Luka Dončić.

In the next 10 years, all of the Mavericks’ front-office moves will be evaluated through the “fit with Luka” lenses.

In Year 1 of AL (After Luka), the Mavericks found a perfect second star in Kristaps Porzingis. Porzingis is the ideal complimentary star next to Luka — a big who can stretch the floor, a threat even without the ball, and someone who can defend the rim.

The Mavericks aced the hard part of building an NBA championship contender. They found an MVP caliber cornerstone player and a second star that compliments his game. The most difficult part of roster building, which most franchises try to figure out for years, was done in one year. The logical next step was to find quality NBA starting level players to put around the two stars — preferably two-way guys who defend and are not a liability on offense.

Now, Year 2 of AL was a disappointment as Delon Wright, and to a lesser extent Seth Curry, were not the right compliments in the Mavericks’ starting lineup. Wright never proved he could be a starting level guard, and while Curry is one of the best shooters in the NBA, because of his size he’ll never be an above average defender.

Enter Year 3 of AL and key off-season acquisition Josh Richardson. If you don’t believe me that finding the next great fit with Luka was the key goal for the Mavericks, here is what Rick Carlisle said on media day:

“We’ve been looking for a guy who can defend point guards and can score off the ball or take the ball and make Luka work off the ball. He is a guy I always felt would be a good fit along Luka Dončić.”

While Dončić made strides on defense in the playoffs, him and Tim Hardaway Jr. are not plus NBA defenders. This is why finding a guy who can defend the point of attack and chase elite guards like Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Jamal Murray or Devin Booker is crucial if Dallas wants to take the next step towards the top of Western Conference.

Biggest Question

Based on the above, the biggest question about Josh Richardson is pretty obvious: Is Josh Richardson that two-way player, long-term fit and compliment next to Dončić in the Mavericks starting lineup?

Richardson is a good defensive player, even elite in some aspects. However, his offense was not completely smooth last season in Philadelphia. His scoring average dropped to 13.7 points per game from 16.6 the year before in Miami. Was his last year in Philly a fluke because of their strange lineups and roster composition, or should fans in Dallas be concerned that the Delon Wright scenario could happen again?

Best Case Scenario

I’m a big believer in Josh Richardson and like Carlisle, I always thought he would be a good fit next to Luka:

To justify my affection for Richardson, I’ll present you four exhibits to support my case for why Richardson can succeed in Dallas.

Exhibit 1 – He will have way more space in Dallas offense

A big reason why Richardson struggled on offense last year in Philadelphia was due to the lack of shooting and spacing in their starting lineup. With Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Al Horford and Tobias Harris on the floor, there were just too many guys who wanted to be in the paint and not enough shooting.

Here is quote from Richardson from an article by Zach Lowe:

It’s tough to get to the rim when so many people are in the paint.

If you think Richardson was searching for excuses, look at this situation that happened on the court during their disappointing playoff series against Boston in the bubble:

Source: stats.nba.com

You can see ALL five Boston Celtics in the paint cutting off Richardson drive because of the poor spacing.

Because of Luka’s (and Porzingis’s) gravity, and Hardaway’s shooting, Richardson will have way more room to operate in Dallas offense. He’ll have space and time to drive to the rim, take a few dribbles for a pull-up jumper, or shoot an uncontested three-ball.

Exhibit 2 – He will take more efficient shots

One of the staples Richardson has on offense is taking mid-range pullup jump shots off-screens or off the dribble. Here is an example of a shot Richardson likes to take:

Source: stats.nba.com

Per stats.nba.com, he was very efficient in isolation plays (in top 90% percentile of all NBA players) and coming off screens (85% percentile). Having a guy who can create shots for himself will be a welcome addition to Mavericks offense that lacked alternative options for Luka’s shot creation. It will definitely add a level of unpredictability and could help with some of the clutch problems Dallas had last year.

However, these are not the most efficient shots modern NBA offenses, like the one in Dallas, want to rely on.

Last season, because of the poor fit in Philadelphia, Richardson increased the number of mid-range shots at the expense of his three-point shots:

Source: Cleaning the Glass data

You can be sure that this is something that will change in Dallas. Last season, the Mavericks were at the bottom of the league in frequency of mid-range shots, and at the top of the league (second behind Houston) in three-point shot frequency.

The key thing to look for is if Richardson can change his “mid-range heavy” game for a more analytics-friendly shot diet.

Tim Hardaway Jr.’s evolution is a good blueprint of how Dallas’s system transforms players and puts them in the position to take more efficient shots:

Source: Cleaning the Glass data

Hardaway Jr.’s shot distribution in his last full season in New York was basically the same as Richardson’s last season. However, in two years in Dallas he significantly replaced mid-range shots with threes.

Now, Richardson shot only 34.7% from behind the three-point line last season, which was below average for a guard.

I can see you asking yourself now, do we actually want him to take more threes if he is not good at making them?

Exhibit 3 – He will make more shots because he will be more open than ever

Simple NBA stats will not always tell you the whole story. If you would just look at thee point percentage, you could say that Richardson is much a worse shooter than Tim Hardaway Jr. or even Dorian Finney-Smith. Richardson shot 34.7% from behind the three-point line last season, while Dorian shot 37.7% and Hardaway Jr. shot 40.2%.

However, to understand the context behind the numbers we need to look at some of the advanced stats. Here is the data from stats.nba.com that will show you how open were all three players on three-point shots last year:

Source: stats.nba.com

You can see that 48.4% of Finney-Smith’s three-point shots were wide open (Maxi Kleber for example took 38.4% of wide open 3s). Even Tim Hardaway Jr., who teams treat as a great shooter and guard closely, got more open looks than Josh Richardson in Philadelphia.

Richardson made a season-high six threes against Portland in the bubble. I watched the film from that game and all six were contested, tough shots.

Because of Luka, teams that played against Dallas last year needed to pick their poison on defense. That meant that defenses collapsed around Luka, defended Porzingis, Hardaway and Curry closely on the three point line, while Finney-Smith and Kleber were usually left open.

I expect Richardson to be somewhere between Hardaway and Finney-Smith when it comes to share of open shots this season, which would double the amount of wide open looks he got last year. Richardson shot above 80% on free throws last three seasons, so that is another reason to believe he is a better shooter than his last year’s three point percentage shows.

Last year he was really effective in the rare minutes he played in lineups that had good shooting and spacing. Richardson was really efficient scorer in a lineup with Simmons in a Luka playmaking role, and other competent shooters in Korkmaz, Harris and Horford on the floor.

Source: Cleaning the Glass data

If we put Exhibits 1, 2 and 3 together we can say with confidence that Richardson will have more space to operate, will take more efficient shots, and will make them at a higher rate.

This will make him a way more effective player on offense than he was last year in Philadelphia. Our expectations for Richardson should not be to be an offensive star, but rather an effective third or fourth option, which he certainly can be.

There is more reasons for optimism as the offense is not even the best part of his game, defense is.

Exhibit 4 – He will make an impact on defense

At the recent media day, Carlisle put it clearly that the key off-season goal was to improve toughness and defense. Richardson provides both, and especially on defense he should make the life for opposing guards much more difficult. Last year, Finney-Smith was the only reliable wing defender. However, his primary role on defense should not be chasing point guards.

Tim Hardaway Jr. tried on defense, but he is an average defender at best. This was problematic against teams that have more than one good perimeter option. For example, in the playoffs this meant Hardaway was guarding Paul George, because Finney-Smith had to defend Kawhi Leonard.

Richardson will take that assignment now. He is an active defender, who can defend both point guards or wing players. He defended Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown in playoff series against Boston.

Richardson is an elite shot-blocker for a guard. Here is a play from a game against the Clippers last season that Mavericks’ fans will love:

Source: stats.nba.com

Even when beaten off the dribble by a shorter guard, his wingspan allows him to recover and block shots from behind. Here is one such play against another Western Conference foe, CJ McCollum:

Source: stats.nba.com

Another area where Richardson will help is in transition defense. Teams ran a lot against Dallas last year (fifth most in the league) and having athletic players with long arms like Richardson will definitely help.

Source: stats.nba.com

With Richardson in the lineup, Hardaway and Luka’s life on the defensive end will be easier, and especially in Hardaway’s case that could mean more energy and even better efficiency on offense. Dallas could even go all-defense with a lineup of Luka, Richardson, Finney-Smith, Kleber and Porzingis.

Worst Case Scenario

The main concern with Josh Richardson is his shooting and overall fit on offense. Mavericks’ fans remember well last year’s experiment with Delon Wright, where the fit just wasn’t there.

Wright was a tentative three-point shooter, often passing up open shots, which is a problem in a Dallas offense the emphasizes spacing and stretching the floor. If you are a role player playing with Luka, you need to be ready to fire away from the three-point line at any time.

Richardson is most comfortable shooting off the dribble, so he sometimes hesitates shooting right away:

Source: stats.nba.com

He made this shot, but it was much more difficult shot than it was supposed to be. The second area that Richardson is working on to improve, according to Zach Lowe’s reporting, is his shot release. His release is still a bit slow, so even when he is open, defenders can recover to contest his shot. He was wide-open here, yet Duncan Robinson still managed to recover and contest:

Source: stats.nba.com

The good news is that Richardson is aware of this and is working on a faster shot release.

The last area that he’ll need to improve to fit into the Dallas offense is increasing his willingness to take more corner threes. Only 5% of his shots last year (and 7% in 2018-2019 season) were corner threes, which is very low. Compare this to Finney-Smith at 28%, Hardaway Jr. at 15% or Seth Curry at 11% and you’ll see why this is a shot Richardson will need to be willing to take more often in Dallas.

The key challenge for the Mavericks coaching staff will be integrating Richardson more into the offense, while still making the most out of the things he is comfortable with like dribble pull-ups and off-screen action.

Final Verdict

We will need to wait and see how the things play out during the season to make the final verdict if Richardson is the missing long-term piece in the Mavericks starting lineup.

Based on the past evidence, there is a high chance he will be. He is a great defender and a good athlete that should complement Luka well. Carlisle’s offensive system and playing along Luka should make him much more efficient player on offense, something we’ve seen happen with Hardaway Jr.

First preseason game - a glimpse of the future

The Mavericks beat Milwaukee Bucks 112 - 102 in their first preseason game on Saturday. Richardson only played 16 minutes, but already showed examples of all exhibits we presented in this deep-dive:

Richardson took six shots in total, four of them were from beyond the three-point line, one layup, and one mid-range shot, and had one steal in transition. His shot distribution and shot quality were already Mavericks-like: three of his four three-point shots were wide open, like this one after Luka assist:

source: stats.nba.com

Even more important than Richardson hitting three-of-four three-point shots was that he didn’t hesitate. The man was ready to shoot from downtown when open.

Even if Richardson is not a star, he can be a great starter

Remember Richardson does not need to be a star, he needs to be the best possible compliment to Luka in the backcourt.

“I’m excited to play next to him [Luka] because he is one of the best playmakers in the NBA. He has a really high gravity on the court, so he is going to need guys taking pressure off him. I think I can take some of the defensive pressure off of him, the other teams best guards, I’ll be usually picking up. So, he can just get in where he fits on defense and handle what he has to on offense.”

Based on what we heard on media day, Richardson is a very level-headed guy that understands his role well. He is a guy who works hard and cherished the no-nonsense, tough “Heat culture” when he was in Miami, an attitude Rick Carlisle will definitely like.

This means that if things go well Mavericks fans will not only get a two-way role player in their starting lineup, but another fan favorite for years to come.