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The Mavericks know they have a rebounding problem, but can they fix it?

The blame doesn’t fall on one person.

Dallas Mavericks v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

Rebounding and boxing out are two of basketball’s most fundamental skills and some of the first things players learn when they take up the sport. They should therefore come naturally to players at the highest professional level of the game. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case with the Dallas Mavericks. They seem to have forgotten how to rebound and box out.

Through two games, the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers embarrassed the Mavericks on the glass. They out-rebounded Dallas by a combined 36 rebounds, 101-65. If the Mavericks are going to right their ship early, they must be better in this area in particular.

“Block out. Block out and pursue,” Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle said Saturday afternoon. “We’ve got to do a better job.”

Carlisle was responding to a question about how his team can improve its rebounding going forward. It’s become a mantra for the team over the past few days. It sounds straight forward and simple enough, but so far, the Mavericks haven’t shown an interest in going to get the ball.

Christmas night, the Los Angeles Lakers blitz the Mavericks on the boards on national television. The marquee matchup was great for the Lakers faithful watching in at home. The Lakers cleaned the glass all night, bullying almost every Mavericks player on their way to 17 offensive rebounds and an astounding 35 second chance points. The Mavericks simply couldn’t hang with the size of the Lakers.

“I think part of that comes from a lot of us just turning and running to the rim when the shot goes up and not looking for bodies,” Josh Richardson said after the game. “They took a lot of threes, they took a lot of jump shots, those rebounds are normally coming long. Instead of checking, hitting bodies first, we were just kind of running in and the balls were bouncing off our hands a lot.”

After two games, Dallas is second to last in rebounding in the league with 33 per game. Only the Charlotte Hornets are worse. They’re fourth worst when it comes to defensive rebounding, grabbing only 28.5 per game. Meanwhile, they allow the sixth most offensive rebounds. Opponents grab 11.5 offensive boards against the Mavericks.

While there are likely many reasons for the team’s lack of effort on the boards, especially the defensive glass, one is clearly personnel. Dallas is without its leading rebounder from a season ago, Kristaps Porzingis. He averaged a team-best 9.5 rebounds per game. It’s hard to make up for that loss.

With Porzingis still “weeks, not months” away, according to Carlisle, the team must call on the players it has to pick up the slack. Unfortunately, that means relying on a number of perimeter players trying to scrape for free balls with the opposing bigs. The results aren’t pretty.

Luka Doncic is an elite rebounder for being the team’s primary ball handler. He averaged 9.4 rebounds last season, second only to Porzingis. This season, he’s leading the team with six per game. Dorian Finney-Smith, another good rebounder for his position, is second with five boards per game.

Both of those numbers would be great if they weren’t the leaders in the category. While the league leans more heavily toward positionless basketball than ever now, there are still some skills in which certain positions need to excel. Point guards should pass and centers should rebound. The Mavericks centers aren’t rebounding.

The top four rebounders on the Mavericks are wing players. Doncic, Finney-Smith, Josh Richardson, and Tim Hardaway Jr. lead the team. Maxi Kleber, who alternates between center and power forward is fifth on the team. He averages four per game.

Dwight Powell, Dallas’ starting center, is a subpar rebounder for a big man. Powell is averaging 2.5 rebounds so far this season. While he has the spring and bounce of a player looks like he should be good at rebounding, it’s something that’s never translated for him. He’s manhandled by opposing players in the middle. This was on full display against the Lakers.

The drubbing could insight a spark within the Mavericks, though. It’s not often a team has such a glaring issue to address and it rarely one that’s so fundamental to the game. So, the Mavericks know what they need to do, but what does that actually look like? How do professionals relearn or refocus on such a basic aspect of the game? Well, the Mavericks aren’t saying. At least not directly.

“There are guys in this league that are extremely elite at a lot of things—some of the best in the world,” Powell said. “So, it takes a high level of focus and concentration to take them out of the things that they do great. The Lakers are a very good team on the offensive glass. They have size, they have length, and the desire. So, for us, it’s a wakeup call for our guys to step up—all of us, one through 17—to raise our level of awareness on that front.”

Right, professional athletes are good at sports. Check. Sarcasm aside, at least the Mavericks are awake now, or so Powell says. They certainly looked like a team sluggishly going through the motions this past week. How they play against the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday will be telling.

The opening two games of the season laid bare the Mavericks’ shortcomings. While the team has its talking points down in terms of improvement, they haven’t executed them on the court. If there was ever a good time for Dallas to look weak, it’s now. However, the season goes by quick. If rebounding and boxing out are still issues in two weeks, the Mavericks could be in for a very long season.