As I’ve readjusted my brain to brace myself for the NBA’s return, I’ve been doing some prep work, familiarizing myself with the Mavericks season — what they’re good at, what they’re bad at, etc. It’s been a fun stroll down memory lane, if you can even call watching games from four months ago that.
There was one thing in particular that I noticed as I was watching some Luka Doncic clips. Well, one play in particular: the dribble handoff.
This has been a staple of the Mavericks diet for a long time. It reached nirvhana back in the 2014-2015 season, during the pre-Rondo days where the Mavericks clubbed some teams to death behind a whirling, twirling, dynamic offense. The Monta Ellis-Dirk Nowitzki dribble handoff was like a cheat code.
With Luka Doncic and the Mavericks stable of talented bigs, this play has been reborn. Where with Ellis the play was mostly a way to give Ellis a takeoff ramp to the rim, with Doncic it’s a way to leverage his size and skill to catch defenses napping and give the bigs an easier target to screen. The principles of the play are still there, now with Doncic it’s less about blinding speed and more about leveraging space and creating easier separation.
Doncic takes advantage of space perhaps better than any other player in the league. The major twist with this version of the handoff is that Doncic mostly uses it to find players at the rim.
The beauty of the handoff is how it’s a change of pace from a standard pick and roll. It’s harder for defenses to react to it, as there’s more variance. The big could hold the ball and keep it, Doncic could zip back the other way. Instead of Doncic holding a dribble and going into a pick and roll, he can move much faster without the ball in his hands. That combo allows the big to lay some big screens on the Doncic’s defender, forcing the big to switch and the rest of the defense to react faster than they want to. In the play above, look how solid Maxi Kleber’s screen is on Doncic’s defender. It’s much harder to get a screen that clean in a standard pick and roll, as defenses can predict the action easier.
My favorite variance of this play has been the handoff between Doncic and another guard or wing. I always love it when the Mavericks switch the norms of the pick and roll, forcing defenders into uncomfortable situations (*bangs the drum for Doncic to set more screens in the pick and roll*). NBA guards and wings are used to guarding the pick and roll ball handler, but not the screener. How often does a perimeter player have to hedge or show on a pick and roll? That confusion has caused the Mavericks to end up with many highlight real plays.
Even when a defense is ready for it, just using a non-big to initiate a dribble handoff can cause enough movement to scramble a defense so the next action is successful. When people point out the similarities between James Harden and Doncic, you can’t really argue their isolation tendencies. But these plays the Mavericks use are what I would point out. Look at the movement. Even though the Pistons guard the initial play well, by using the initial dribble handoff, it forces Pistons players to other parts of the court that make it harder to help. There’s nothing harder to do in basketball than score against a defense that doesn’t have to move.
In terms of scoring out of these handoffs, Doncic is no Monta. That isn’t to say Doncic doesn’t score well out of a dribble handoff, it just isn’t his strong suite. He’s scoring 1.01 points per possession out of dribble handoffs, according to NBA.com/stats and with a 58.3 effective field goal percentage, thanks to how many threes he’s canned in these plays. He’s only in the 70th percentile, mostly because of his astronomical 18.6 turnover percentage in handoff plays. Doncic definitely can be a little sloppy in these situations.
Still, just as useful as it is to get separation for Doncic to find someone open at the rim, these plays can create solid screens to force a switch and Doncic is just brutal when a team switches a big onto him.
You’ll notice none of these clips have Kristaps Porzingis initiating the dribble handoff. It was hard to find any as I scrubbed footage, a result of the Mavericks using Porzingis as more of a spot-up guy around Dwight Powell screen and rolls before Powell’s season ending injury. Porzingis’ move to center full time opens up more room for him to play with Doncic in this two-man action and we’ve already seen the results of a more involved Porzingis. Porzingis getting more touches in non-shot situations boosts his confidence, compared to his time standing outside the three point line waiting for a spot up look. Porzingis has shown enough passing chops and driving ability to milk this play well with Doncic, whether he gives it up in the handoff or keeps it himself to catch a defender flat-footed.
When the NBA restart happens and the Mavericks make their playoff push, look and see how the Mavericks utilize this play. It’ll be key to them keeping their world-beating offense humming against playoff defenses.