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The biggest questions the Mavericks need to answer this season

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Dallas had a quietly great offseason, upgrading their below-average defense from a season ago. Here’s how the roster can (and can’t) possibly work.

Dallas Mavericks v LA Clippers - Game One Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Outside of the playoffs and marquee matchups, this is one of my favorite parts of the season — the excited anticipation of what’s to come while thinking about the possibilities of what a new roster can do (or can’t do).

I’ve done this a couple times now, one for the first year of the Harrison Barnes era (welp), the other before last season (hooray!). Maybe I can make this a yearly column, because I really do enjoy trying to put the puzzle pieces together from my view of things. It always helps when the Mavericks have a good offseason, which thankfully they did.

So having said all that, here are four of the biggest questions for the Mavericks this season.

What type of team do the Mavericks want to be?

This is a pretty large philosophical question to ask right off the bat, but considering the moves the Mavericks made this offseason, it’s the most important. After a season in which they were the greatest offense in league history, what type of team are the Mavericks going to be this season?

Historically in order to be a legitimate NBA title contender, a team must be both a top-10 offense and a top-10 defense, going by points scored and allowed per 100 possessions. There are a few outliers to this, such as the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers, but generally it needs to be both to make it to the NBA Finals and doubly so to win it. Obviously Dallas has the offense down, but their defensive gave up 111.1 points per 100 possessions last season according to NBA.com/stats, good for 18th in the league. That’s below average and just not good enough.

It’s a good thing then that the Mavericks brought in a bunch of defenders this offseason. There’s the three veterans in Josh Richardson, James Johnson and Wes Iwundu and the two rookies Josh Green and Tyler Bey. Out goes Seth Curry to bring in Richardson, an offense-for-defense swap the Mavericks hope won’t really sting the offense all that much. The Mavericks were a team starved for versatile wing players and now they’re sort of overflowing with them, although Green and Bey are rookies that will take time to develop. Clearly the Mavericks knew their weakness and attacked it aggressively this offseason. So now — what team do the Mavericks want to be?

With Richardson expected to start, that means the Mavericks now have three starting-level perimeter players next to Luka Doncic in Richardson, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dorian Finney-Smith. If the Mavericks start all three of them, that means with Luka at the other spot, that leaves just one spot open for a big. That might not seem like a big deal when you consider where the NBA is now in regards to more fluid lineups with traditional big men taking a back seat, but consider this — from the start of last season until Jan. 21, when Dwight Powell went down with his season-ending injury, the Mavericks six most played lineups all featured two big men, using the combination of the trio of Powell, Maxi Kleber and Kristaps Porzingis. From Jan. 21 to the end of the season, the Mavericks most used lineup featured Porizngis at the five as the lone big man, but even then, the next four most played lineups all featured Porzingis and Kleber. Porzingis’ production exploded playing most of his minutes at the five after Powell went down, but clearly Rick Carlisle still likes having two of his big men on the floor at the same time, especially when Kleber and Porzingis can both space the floor.

So what happens to the starting lineup? Does Carlisle embrace the future that appeared so apparent by the end of last season, starting a lone big at the five with Finney-Smith at the four? Does Carlisle go back to two bigs, which would in turn mean one of Richardson/Hardaway/Finney-Smith hits the bench? It’s a difficult question to answer because there are clear pros and cons to each side. Obviously the Mavericks should try to get the most out of Porzingis and that happens when he’s the lone big, setting the screens and getting more non-shot touches to feel comfortable in the offense. However, Porzingis is entering his second straight Mavericks season coming off an offseason of rehab for knee surgery. Do the Mavericks want to subject Porzingis to the five full time when he returns, or do they play him next to Powell, Kleber or Willie Cauley-Stein to prevent him from banging down low for 30 minutes a night in this condensed season? I truly don’t know the answer to that and whatever it is, it’s going to define the Mavericks season.

In the end, Carlisle and the Mavericks coaching staff knows that the money lineup this season will be Luka, Hardaway, Richardson, Finney-Smith and Porzingis. It’s easily the most playoff-ready lineup the Mavericks have had since 2011, with an MVP-talent in Luka, a capable scoring second star in Porzingis and enough shooting, playmaking and defense next to those two stars in Hardaway, Richardson and Finney-Smith. If the Mavericks want to take the next step, embracing that lineup and the identity it encompasses will be crucial. Obviously there will be nights where Dallas needs two bigs on the floor and with how crazy this season is expected to get with injuries/COVID, the Mavericks might not even have a choice some nights — it could be who are the best guys healthy and available to play, regardless of position.

It’s just exciting that the Mavericks have options. A season ago they struggled to match up with the teams that had length and beef on the perimeter, forcing the Mavericks big men to perhaps guard spots they weren’t comfortable with. Now they have Richardson, Johnson, Iwundu, Green and maybe Bey to throw out there and make some truly fun, versatile lineups. A lot of this depends on how much they can get out of Johnson and whether Green will be ready to play. Carlisle used a ton of different lineups last season and with more toys at his disposable, I bet he does it again. At least this time it won’t feel as much like smoke and mirrors — Dallas has legitimate wing depth for the first time in years.

How good is Josh Richardson?

Richardson is the crown jewel of the offseason, a major pickup for the Mavericks to shore up the talent for their third-best player slot after Luka and Porzingis. Now we just have to see how good he truly is, after a solid run in Miami ended with a sputtering season in Philadelphia.

In Miami Richardson was a promising young talent on the wing with lots of two-way potential. His last season with the Heat in 2018-2019 saw Richardson as one of the better guard defenders in the league and flash some intriguing playmaking chops — in addition to shooting just above league average from three on a little over six attempts per game, Richardson averaged 4.1 assists to 1.5 turnovers per game, great numbers for a potential secondary playmaker behind Luka.

The season in Philadelphia didn’t go quite so well, with the 76ers dysfunctional and disappointing season also extending to Richardson. He shot 34.1 percent from three, his second lowest mark of his career and at times looked out of sorts on the court. Now the Mavericks need to hope they can get the Miami version of Richardson back.

Even in his low season with the 76ers, Richardson showed a major element the Mavericks offense definitely needs — midrange scoring. Now, I get it. Midrange shots are generally bad and frowned upon in the modern NBA. In almost all cases, unless you’re Dirk Nowitzki, a midrange shot is less valuable than a three pointer. The Mavericks should not turn into a team from the mid-2000s. However, just because the midrange game isn’t that valuable anymore doesn’t mean that it’s useless. The Mavericks can utilize Richardson’s talent in this area to great degree and it could be the missing piece their offense needs to solve the crunch time issues.

Taking a look at the Mavericks roster last season, offensively, a big thing stood out — Luka Doncic was the only guy that could dribble into a decent shot. Just about every other player that played big minutes, outside of Jalen Brunson, Seth Curry and eventually Trey Burke, were mostly stand still, spot up guys or dunkers like Kleber, Finney-Smith, Hardaway and Powell. In late game situations, the Mavericks offense would implode into four guys standing around watching Luka try to do something and end up taking an extremely difficult shot. Dallas desperately needed someone else on the floor in those situations to take the pressure off the defense but they rarely had it. Brunson and Curry were used to some degree, but both had their limitations due to their size that would hurt the Mavericks on the other end of the floor. When Trey Burke comes off the street and instantly transforms himself into your second best shotmaker in terms of creating their own shot, you know the roster needs work in this regard, all respect to Burke. Enter Richardson.

Last season Richardson shot an astonishing 48 percent on 150 midrange attempts. Those aren’t outlier numbers either, as Richardson has been solid from that area for his whole career. Richardson’s ability to score from midrange off a closeout attack or pick and roll can be huge to diversify the Mavericks “threes, rim, free throws” offense.

If we’ve learned nothing from the NBA playoffs this past decade it's that despite the prevalence of the three point shot in today’s NBA, being able to score effectively at all three levels in high-leverage scenarios is incredibly important. Playoff defenses are getting too good for your offense to only rely on a diet of shots at the rim and from three. Those defenses are going to do everything they can to take those shots away. Having Richardson able to score in these scenarios will be a huge boon to a Mavericks offense that was rudderless during clutch situations last season.

The key will be weaning Richardson off from so many midrange shots. Much like Porzingis before he came to Dallas, Richardson’s diet of shots is just a little out of whack, despite his effectiveness from midrange. Richardson shot 174 pull up jumpers last season — only 36 of those were three pointers. Richardson shot 33 percent on those pull up three pointers, which is honestly not too shabby. I expect the Mavericks to milk Richardson’s midrange game for all it’s worth while also encouraging him to increase his volume from deep. Philadelphia writers from last season, one who talked to The Athletic’s Tim Cato, said Richardson just wasn’t confident enough in hoisting threes in the 76ers cramped offense. Richardson should have more room to fire in the wide open spacing with the Mavericks, so I expect his percentage and share of three pointers to bump up a bit next to one of the greatest three point shot creators in the league in Luka.

In regards to the confidence, I have noticed Richardson’s form is slightly funky — his left elbow sticks way out on release and sometimes the windup from gather to release takes too long. Carlisle has worked wonders with smoothing out players jumpers in the past, so maybe this is something that also improves in Dallas as well.

Defensively, Richardson should give the Mavericks what they wanted out of Delon Wright last season, except Richarson is bigger and longer. Don’t take my word for it, here’s Carlisle himself:

“He’s a high-level defensive player, which is something that we really need,” Carlisle said during the first day of Mavericks training camp last week. “We’ve been looking for a guy that can guard point guards and be able to score off the ball, or he’ll take the ball and let Luka (Doncic) work off the ball. I think he gives us that kind of flexibility.”

Wright’s defense was a disaster at times last season, so Richardson should be a major upgrade. He’s quick and long at 6’5 with a 6’10 wingspan — expect him to defend ones, twos and threes while he’s on the court. Guarding point guards will be huge, as the Mavericks didn’t have any sort of answer against the West’s elite at that position. The Mavericks best lineup last season after the Powell injury — Luka, Seth, Hardaway, Finney-Smith, Porzingis — just didn’t have enough reliable perimeter defenders, especially against faster and smaller guards. Swapping Curry for Richardson should be huge for the Mavericks defense.

Can Kristaps Porzingis deliver All-Star production while staying on the court?

It’s probably not good that for the second straight year, we’re in the leadup to a Mavericks season and there are questions about how healthy is Kristaps Porzingis. Last season it was returning from an ACL injury. This season, it’s coming back from a meniscus injury.

Much like last season, this statement remains are true as ever — nothing else the Mavericks do or will do in the offseason matters unless Porzingis is able to stay on the court and produce. We can talk about Richardson’s impact, what James Johnson has left in the tank or how the good the rookies could be, but none of that matters if Porzingis can’t give the Mavericks consistent production without missing significant time. He’s still the Mavericks second best and highest paid player on the roster. Everything the Mavericks want to do and the heights they want to reach still depend on Porzingis being great.

Thankfully, last season, the question about how great Porzingis could be in Dallas was partially answered — after a slow start working his way back into the league and learning a new role, in a new offense, on a new team, Porzingis exploded once the Mavericks shifted to him being the sole big on the floor after Powell’s injury.

In the 25 regular season games Porzingis played after Powell injured his Achilles, Porzingis averaged 24.8 points per game on 46/31.7/85.2 shooting splits.

The Mavericks got that production out of Porzingis by giving him more touches that weren’t just shots, having him set more screens for Luka and generally be more involved in the offense as opposed to the spot-up bystander he sort of was while playing with Powell. So at least we know Porzingis still has it in him. In his three playoff games against the Clippers, Porzingis averaged 23.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per game on 52.5 percent shooting overall and 52.9 percent from three. On a bad knee, the last playoff game before he was sidelined, he put up 34 points on 18 shots. Porzingis is really good.

Now the question is how many times can they get that out of him? Porzingis is expected to be out until January, which means he’s at least missing a handful of games. From there, how the Mavericks manage his minutes and keep him healthy will be a huge thing to watch. He only played 57 games last season. With 74 games in less than 150 days coming up, the Mavericks need to do what they can to maximize his time on the floor while also making sure he’s still on the floor when the playoffs start.

What in the world does Year 3 Luka Doncic look like?

I feel like I’m just going to ask this type of question before every season, because at this point trying to nail down any sort of expectation for Luka feels foolish.

Last year in this same piece, I humbly predicted Year 2 Luka would increase his efficiency a bit with his shooting and increase his scoring to around 25 points per game.

Heh.

We all know what happened instead — Luka exploded, averaging almost 30 points per game, made the comparison between him and LeBron even closer by becoming an absolute monster near the basket and finished fourth in MVP voting and making All-NBA First Team and starting in the All-Star game.

So I don’t even know what Year 3 Luka is. You could tell me he averages 32 points per game and wins MVP. You could tell me he becomes an actual great shooter from deep. You could tell me he’s grown five inches and can now guard centers. I’ll believe it all.

Knowing that, my best guess is that the biggest difference between Year 2 Luka and Year 3 Luka is the shooting. It was actually sort of shocking that Luka somehow shot worse from three in Year 2 compared to Year 1, going from 32.7 percent to 31.6. That ties into the clutch woes, where Luka shot a ghastly 7-for-41 from three in the clutch (17.1 percent). Even if Luka isn’t a dynamo shooter this season, I refuse to believe he’ll be that bad. A lot of awful, end-of-the-shot-clock bailout heaves composed the majority of those clutch three attempts and if Richardson is as good as the Mavericks hope he can be, then Luka shouldn’t be comprised as much in crunch time.

Of course, not all of those shots were because the Mavericks had no better choice — Luka likes to shoot them. Hopefully Luka learned in the offseason that he can do better than those low percentage shots and for what it’s worth, it’s something he’s constantly talked about in training camp and even dating back to last season after the Mavericks lost close games.

The other big thing for Luka in Year 3 is his durability. Don’t look now, but while Luka seems impervious to catastrophic injuries due to his unique athleticism and strength (knocks on a piece of wood the size of Texas), there is a trend developing in the two years he’s been in Dallas where he misses some time. He played 72 games his rookie season and only 61 games last season, most notably suffering two separate ankle sprains. Even when he wasn’t out for those injuries, he seemingly always had assorted bumps and bruises that clearly bothered him, whether it was a sore wrist or an aching hip. Obviously NBA seasons are long and arduous — just about every major minute getter in the league is battling some form of soreness and pain — with Luka it’s causing him to miss time. Hopefully we can get through a relatively clean and healthy Luka season in Year 3. If he does that and improves the shooting from deep, nothing is unattainable for the Mavericks young superstar.

BONUS: Can the Mavericks role players do it again?

My biggest concern before last season was how were all of the Mavericks role players going to do and would they do enough to make the Mavericks a playoff team. I was doubtful. I was also very, very wrong.

Now those role players have to do it again. Finney-Smith, Kleber and Hardaway all had huge career seasons shooting from three and they’ll have to at least replicate 70 to 80 percent of that for the Mavericks offense to keep humming. I think they’ll be OK, knowing Luka is as good as he is at creating open three point shots. I will admit to thinking about it more than I should though, because nothing in the NBA is guaranteed. Those three guys proved the Mavericks belief in them. Now there’s an expectation set that all three of those players will need to match.

My annual reminder to enjoy the season

This is going to be a very weird season. The condensed schedule, COVID-19, empty arenas — all of it is going to be strange and at times, maybe depressing.

Despite that, we’re not that far away from Luka-led Mavericks basketball. Try not to worry about any of the moves the Mavericks did and didn’t make for now and realize we’re about to have another fun season of competitive basketball to watch. Championship teams don’t always develop on a linear curve, but I still expect Luka and the Mavericks to take another step forward toward that goal.

Dallas was great last season and that team got better. Let’s go.