Dwight Powell might be the most polarizing Mavs player on the roster.
You are either an analytics nerd and you love him, or you remember Anthony Davis scoring on him at will and he drives you crazy.
But if the Mavericks want to make the next step in the Western conference power struggle, every Mavs fan should root for Dwight to return as close as possible to his prior form.
Powell’s injury meant Kristaps Porzingis moved to the center spot, the lineup change many fans wanted to happen. Porzingis flourished in that role, averaging 24.2 points per game after Dwight’s injury, compared to 17.3 before that.
However, as much as Porzingis thrived, the lineup with both Powell and Porzingis in the frontcourt was still the best Mavs lineup during the 2019-2020 season.
These were the two most used Mavs lineups last season:
The first lineup featured Porzingis at the power forward spot and Powell at the center, the second one was a smaller lineup, Curry replacing Powell and with Porzingis at center. While both lineups were really efficient on offense (above 80 percentile compared to the whole league), the one with both Powell and KP produced 2.2 better point differential per 100 possessions.
Especially when paired with Luka, Dwight Powell was one of the most efficient offensive players in the league. Dallas was an elite pick and roll team last year, the produced NBA leading 10.0 points per game from the roll man out of a pick and roll. Dwight Powell was a key player in that role, powering Mavs modern NBA offense that emphasized analytically most efficient shots: drives to the basket, shots at the rim and a lot of threes.
This is why Powell was an analytics darling. 75% of Powell’s field goal attempts last year were at the rim. He also made 79% of those shots, which is top-notch NBA finishing (93% percentile when compared to other bigs in the league):
Although the Dallas offense was very good after Powell’s injury, Rick Carlisle lost and incredibly effective option in his offensive arsenal.
And especially in the playoffs, for the Mavericks to compete with the best teams, Rick will need every offensive wrinkle he can throw at the best NBA defenses.
The key question with Dwight Powell is not if he will come back, but what kind of player he will be and when he will fully recover (if ever).
Powell’s game is dependent on his elite athleticism, his ability to jump fast, jump high and catch lob passes.
The history of Achilles injuries shows us that most players recover, however players who rely on athleticism and explosiveness are the ones that are affected the most.
So, what can we expect from Powell when the season starts?
Let’s look at two examples from two plays that happened during the same game Mavs played last season.
Dwight Powell Powell is a worker. Not only that, he is also one of the smartest and most responsible players in the league. It’s almost a given he will do everything possible to fully recover. In fact, during recent media day interview, he said he’ll be ready to go when training camp starts.
Additionally, playing in the pick and roll and rolling hard to the rim is a specific and valuable skill. It’s not only about athleticism, it also requires great timing, basketball IQ, commitment and a lot of effort to do it consistently. That’s why Powell excelled at it, and Willie Cauley-Stein on the other hand didn’t (we still hope that can change).
This play shows how Powell can be effective out of a pick and roll, even with limited athleticism. It’s clear hard Powell runs towards the rim:
In a best-case scenario, Powell will fully recover, and although even if he is not the athlete he used to be, he could still give Mavs 80% of last year’s production.
Recovery from Achilles injuries takes time. When doing research on Achilles injuries for this article I ran across this interesting insight about NBA players who were recovering from this though injury:
Players on average took 1.8 seasons to reach their post-injury peak performance, with only 1 player returning to his pre-injury.
This means two things. First, it will take a while for Dwight to really recover. We might not see him play best basketball until the 2021-22 season. This could hurt the Mavs early on in the upcoming season, with Porzingis out and recovering from his own injury.
Second, athletic plays like this and elite finishing above the rim might be more difficult for Dwight Powell in the future:
Players like ex-Mav Wes Matthews or Rudy Gay, both recovered from this injury, but while they remained effective players, they never returned to the pre-injury level.
The only player, who was really athletic and returned to the pre-injury production was Dominique Wilkins.
Dwight Powell was a part of an all-time great NBA offense last season. In a league where it’s better to have one elite skill, then be average in many, he was an elite rim running center.
While he might never be the athlete he used to be, Mavs fans should cheer for him to return as an effective rotation NBA player. Coach Carlisle will need every possible tool in his tool-belt, especially in the playoffs.
Dwight is also an outstanding person, who is doing great things in the Dallas community, and one of the leading Mavs voices on support for racial justice.
Sounds just like a guy every Mavs fan should cheer for.