The Dallas Mavericks have been without starting center Dwight Powell since January 21, when he ruptured his right Achilles tendon against the Los Angeles Clippers. Days later the Mavericks reacted quickly, trading for Golden State Warriors center Willie Cauley-Stein. This week it was announced that Cauley-Stein will be opting out of playing in Orlando, when the league returns in July.
While it’s understandable for any player in the league to not participate in Orlando with so much up in the air and everyone’s health on the line, it’s especially true for Cauley-Stein who will soon be welcoming a newborn with his partner. That excitement aside, the Mavericks will have a new task on their hands, once again ironing out their center rotation.
Throughout the first half of the season Rick Carlisle played an elaborate game of musical chairs, where lineups and rotations could be rearranged or replaced in a blink. It was at an all-time high the first month of the season, before Tim Hardaway Jr. had solidified a starting role in late November.
But even as rotations settled some, the constant evolution remained. It begs mentioning that the Dallas Mavericks most used lineup this season (Luka Doncic, Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith, Kristaps Porzingis and Dwight Powell) has played just 205 minutes together — that ranks as the 33rd most used lineup in the entire league.
When Powell sustained his devastating injury and Carlisle had to recalibrate, it forced the Mavericks to make a key adjustment: moving Kristaps Porzingis to his rightful spot as starting center. That is not to say that Powell’s rim-running verticality wasn’t valuable and greatly missed, but it opened the floor for Porzingis and Doncic to operate and exposed matchups that weren’t there weeks earlier.
We saw this development through Porzingis’ averages. In his 31 games before Powell’s injury, KP averaged 17 points, nine rebounds and two blocks per game, while shooting 34 percent from three. In the 20 games after the injury he posted 22 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks per game, and knocking down 36 percent from deep. And this is with virtually no change in minutes (31 minutes per game in both stretches).
A New Rotation
It may be nothing new that the Mavericks will be plugging plenty of holes in the rotation while in Orlando. But flexibility aside the fact remains that four rotations players will be absent in their return. The biggest blow will be in the post.
Behind Kristaps Porzingis the Mavericks will deploy Maxi Kleber, who is in the midst of his most impactful season in Dallas. In 25 minutes per game Kleber — who according to basketball-reference.com has played an estimated 87-percent of his minutes at center — is averaging nine points, five rebounds and a block per game, while shooting a career best 37 percent from three.
It works to the Mavericks advantage that Porzingis and Kleber haven’t been an especially dominant pair on the floor together. Even though they can both hit threes and protect the rim, the tandem has the 19th (of 26) best net rating among Mavericks pairs that have played at least 500 minutes together this season. Their 104.3 defensive rating falls to 24th out of those 26 pairs. So while Kleber might be one of the five most important Mavericks standing this season, his impact and value will be felt even more so off the bench.
The larger question rests on one of the, ahem, largest players in the league. The intrigue of having a player like Boban Marjanovic was evident the moment the Mavericks signed him in the offseason. His personality and locker room presence is a consistent plus, even if his production on the floor has been mostly fine.
Yes, the 7’4 290-pound Marjanovic had a poetically brilliant game against the Denver Nuggets in mid-March as the NBA world, and the world at large, was screeching to a halt. His career-high 31 points, with 17 rebounds, two blocks and two steals made it seem like the Mavericks had tapped into a new Bobi-level; some sort of “In Case of Emergency Break Glass” cheat code.
The reality, though, is that Boban cannot be utilized in most matchups. Against the Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers of the world, perhaps. But with the athleticism and mobility of so many teams becoming the foundation of offense, Boban will likely see his nine minutes per game shrink.
Needing a third option becomes less important as play moves to the postseason, when rotations shrink and stars are relied on more. To be sure, Porzingis and Kleber will become more vital than ever before.
But who can be the night in, night out third wave for the Mavericks when those two need a breather? My hunch is that Carlisle may look to Mavericks newcomer Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to play minutes here and there at an ultra small five.
Coming in at a listed 6’6 and 232 pounds, MKG may not be one of the tallest, but he might have the mass to fill in. Kidd-Gilchrist hasn’t made much of an impact, appearing in nine games and going just 1-of-7 from the floor. His shooting motion notorious, and his defense known, MKG might be able to display some versatility and bang down low. This could also relieve him of taking any outside shots.
He has shown athleticism in the lane in the past, with an ability to finish through contact. Though most of this is displaying traits of a slasher and not a pick and roll finisher (he’s been used very little as the roll man), could he do enough to fill gaps for five to ten minutes per game when Boban can’t be used?
The Mavericks have some questions to answer in regards to their big man rotation, and how much they can rely on Porzingis and Kleber. Lucky for them, they have a rotation tinkering mastermind at the helm. For all the annoyance it can cause fans throughout a season, Carlisle’s value becomes apparent in these moments.