Before the season even began many Mavericks analysts and reporters circled January as a monumental test for the Mavericks. Of the 15 games they play this month, 10 are on the road, with seven of those games facing current playoff teams (and this doesn’t include teams like the Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat).
The task grew a bit taller after their January 7 win against the Denver Nuggets, when players began testing positive for Covid-19, and others were held out due to contact tracing. The Mavericks kicked off the densest part of their January schedule last week with a reduced roster. Even with the return of Kristaps Porzingis, that’s a tough draw no matter how you look at it. Here’s what jumped out this week, both the good and the bad:
GOOD: The Mavericks remembering Porzingis is a five
It took five games from his season debut, and facing a team without their second big man, for Rick Carlisle to “go small” and finally start Kristaps Porzingis at center. In light of the roster shuffling with players absent, nothing is set in stone. And even in games where he started at power forward alongside Willie Cauley-Stein, Porzingis spent time as the lone big man on the floor.
But there is something to be said for the flow of offense and the sort of space both Porzingis and Luka Doncic have to operate when there isn’t another big man clogging the lane. In the two games starting at center, both wins, Porzingis averaged 24 points, 10.5 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, while shooting 50-percent from three. Conversely in the four he started at power forward (1-3 record) he posted averages of 18.5 points, eight rebounds, two blocks, while connecting on just 28.6-percent from three.
Now, did Porzingis’ minutes increase over this span of time and were his power forward starts right after his return from injury? Yes. These are just raw counting stats that won’t tell the full story, but the reality is the same uptick in Porzingis’ play happened last season too when the Mavericks shifted him after Dwight Powell’s injury. I’d expect whenever Maxi Kleber makes his return, or even Powell for that matter, that Carlisle will toy around with two big men lineups. But there’s no doubt there is something to a five-out lineup that features the pick-and-pop play of Doncic and Porzingis.
BAD: Willie can’t dunk
Folks, we have a problem and it’s that 7-foot semi-starting center Willie Cauley-Stein can’t dunk.
The big man, who re-signed with the Mavericks in the offseason, to his credit has had moments of defensive brilliance holding down a position that has been particularly thin of late. He’s started half of the Mavericks games this season, and provides length and athleticism. But this is, ahem, a fairly important offensive weapon that a man his size should possess. Especially when playing alongside the league’s most gifted young passer.
According to basketball-reference.com Cauley-Stein is fourth in the league in percentage of field goal attempts as dunks at 43.5-percent — behind other “dunk specialists” DeAndre Jordan, Mitchell Robinson, and Ivica Zubac. Yet the Mavericks center is 22nd in the league in total dunks with just 21, and is the only player in the league with at least 25 attempted dunks that is making under 70-percent of those attempts. Willie isn’t the only Mavericks big man with some blundered dunk attempts early this season, but this needs to be cleaned up.
GOOD: The defensive belt
The front office made it clear before the season began that the Mavericks needed to find their identity in defense. It informed nearly all of their offseason decisions and for stretches has paid dividends on the floor.
This week the Mavericks added an incentive to this focus, awarding a Defensive Player of the Game championship belt to a single player after a win. Since it’s inception two players have been given the belt: the aforementioned Cauley-Stein, and wing Wes Iwundu who has had to take on a much larger role this month.
Does it feel like something a college football team is doing? Yes absolutely. But it’s fun, provides a little extra incentive for role players to stay engaged, have some bragging rights, and snag what is actually a pretty clean belt. Predictions on who grabs the most belts by season’s end?
BAD: Mavericks travel agency
This week the Mavericks played in four different cities over six days. They’ve played in 11 different cities over 16 games. Whoever the travel agency is for the Mavericks sucks. The combination of a demanding condensed schedule, safety protocol setbacks, and just five home games to start a challenging season is quite the opening hurdle.
There is light at the end of this tunnel, with the Mavericks playing 10 of 14 games at home in February. It doesn’t really matter if they technically play a little better on the road. Having a stretch where everyone can be home and not travel every other day will make a difference, and it can’t get here soon enough.
GOOD: Jalen Brunson, shooting guard
A bright spot in the midst of roster turmoil has been the play of Jalen Brunson as a starter. In his five starts he’s averaging 17.6 points, 3.4 rebounds, 4.4 assists while shooting 50-percent from three. One of those games was without Luka Doncic, but there’s no doubt the chemistry between those two is strong. And more than that, playing alongside Doncic means Brunson doesn’t have to worry about running an offense or playing off the dribble.
It confirms what many have said, that Brunson really might be a shooting guard in a point guards body. As a starter his usage is down (and honestly so is his defense), but everything else is up including assists. He’s likely not meant to be a long term starter, but hopefully Carlisle will continue to find ways to play Brunson off the ball next to Luka.