Dwight Powell is playing his first basketball after rupturing his Achilles over 11 months ago. It hasn’t been pretty.
Over his previous six seasons in Dallas, Powell made a living as a vertical spacing threat. His athleticism and bounce were big question marks coming off a severe lower-body injury. Through two games, he looks to be doing okay in that regard. He’s shooting 5-of-7 from the field on the season, all but one of those attempts coming around the rim.
There has been plenty of frustration from fans concerning Powell’s start to the season. With Kristaps Porzingis out for at least a few more weeks, the Mavericks are playing a relatively small lineup.
Dorian Finney-Smith is the starting power forward. It’s a role he’s comfortable in, but isn’t ideal when playing a team with a scoring-minded front-court.
Powell is the starting center, at least for the time being. The issues this creates are well-documented and so far this season they go way beyond health and recovery concerns, albeit in a small sample size.
The most painfully obvious issue is his liability on defense. First of all, Powell is just a tiny bit undersized for a traditional NBA center at 6-foot-10. This makes matchups like Anthony Davis and Deandre Ayton, his first two assignments of the season, really difficult to contain.
In addition to his lack of size, Kirk, our site’s fearless leader, routinely points out Powell’s high hips. This makes it difficult for him to create favorable positioning on defense, and often leaves him completely helpless when getting backed down off a post-up.
Powell also doesn’t offer you very much rim protection — Dallas the lowest number of blocks among teams that have played two games. The lack of a shot-blocking threat often forces Powell to sag off his man and stay in front of the point of attack. This creates a problem when you’re defending a shooter and is a weakness that seems likely to plague the Mavericks until Porzingis’s return.
Offensively, Porzingis’ absence presents a hurdle for spacing. He made more three-point attempts than any other seven-footer last season. As such, Dallas replaced their offensive anomaly of a center with someone who made 10 total three-point attempts all of last season. The results have not been great.
The effects have been particularly profound on Luka Doncic. According to NBA.com/Stats, Doncic is shooting just 7-of-22 (31.8%) when Powell is on the floor this season. His numbers skyrocket up when Powell leaves the court, shooting 13-of-23 (56.5%). He also sees a significant jump in his scoring around the basket.
Powell isn’t a shooter. That inability restricts the space the Mavericks’ offense can create. Look at Marc Gasol in this picture below. That’s the defender tasked defending Powell, and he is more than 15 feet away from him. He is staring at Powell, daring him to shoot. There’s no other read for Powell on this play other than to shoot it, which is exactly what the Lakers want. Instead, Powell throws a pass into traffic and turns the ball over.
The lack of spacing is affecting the Mavericks offensive production drastically. Only two players are shooting above 40% from three when Powell is on the court: Trey Burke (3-of-4) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (3-of-7). Dorian Finney-Smith and Josh Richardson — who should be two of the best stationary shooters on the team — are a combined 4-of-15 from three when Powell is on the court.
I normally don’t prefer using team efficiencies to analyze a player’s impact — there’s too much context in these numbers that gets overlooked. However, the Mavericks have looked significantly improved in the minutes Powell is on the bench. The numbers still aren’t good, but they are better.
So, is it time to replace Powell in the starting lineup? Coach Rick Carlisle as a few options to choose from if he decides to make a switch. Maxi Kleber as an option. Kleber plays disciplined, strong defense and can space the floor out of pick-and-pops. There’s also Willie Cauley-Stein, who the Mavericks are now paying $4 million a year. If you want to get really crazy, 7-foot-4 Boban Marjanovic is also at your disposal.
Where do the Mavericks go from here? How much of a difference would it make having Powell come off the bench instead of starting? Truthfully, how healthy is Powell? Is this a problem the Mavericks just have to live with until Porzingis returns? Is it overly-critical to analyze these first two games of the season?
These are all questions only time can answer. In the meantime, Carlisle will have to do his best to try and answer them. It may get worse before it gets better, though. The Mavericks have a handful of difficult games coming up. Porzingis’ return can’t come quick enough.