This was a frustrating loss for Dallas, to say the least.
Though Luka Dončić leads the NBA in point scored in pick and roll as a ball-handler with 14.3 points per game, yesterday Mavericks got a test of their own medicine.
Utah Jazz picked Dallas apart and rolled them to bed.
What happened (Dallas defense)?
The Jazz is currently the best shooting team in the NBA. Here is 2020-21 Average Shooter Quality data Seth Partnow shared on Twitter:
Not only are they the best, but they also lead by a large margin. Unfortunately, Dallas is at the bottom of this list (more on that in the next section). Bogdan Bogdanović at 37% 3FG is currently the worst shooter in their starting lineup excluding Rudy Gobert. Everybody else is shooting above 40% from beyond the arc.
Utah Jazz missed Donovan Mitchell on Wednesday, yet this might hurt the Mavericks more than it helped them. Why?
Because it meant Joe Ingles started instead of him and he is a pick and roll maestro. He’s a better passer than Mitchell is and, together with Mike Conley and Rudy Gobert, they put on a pick and roll clinic.
Dallas mostly plays a conservative drop coverage with Kristaps Porzinigs in pick and roll.
The Jazz might currently be the worst team to employ that coverage against. Utah has great shooters and this puts immense pressure on guards defending the ball-handler in pick and roll. Elite shooting ball-handlers like Damian Lillard thrive against the drop coverage. Remember Lillard scored 61 points against Dallas in the bubble.
Here you can see Mike Conley draining three-point shots against Dallas drop coverage:
Gobert sets wide screens and he is always changing angles of the screen at the last moment. This makes the job of fighting over the screen and contesting the shot almost impossible.
Not only does Gobert set great screens but he is also an elite roll man. This season he is in the 90th percentile as a roll-man, scoring an absurd 1.43 points per possession when he rolls. Ingles is a great passer and decision-maker in a pick and roll and knows how to use Gobert perfectly. Because Dallas had their bigs in a drop coverage, Ingles made sure that both he and Gobert were playing downhill.
Dallas didn’t try hedging on the pick and rolls until the third quarter. They tried some switches but mostly failed. We’ll look at alternative defensive coverages later on when we look at the possible adjustments.
Yesterday, primary pick and roll defense wasn’t the only problem. On instances where Dallas managed to stop the primary action, Utah would repeat it again until the defense would make a mistake, or swing the ball to the other side of the floor. Dončić especially was late on several rotations and Ingles, Conley, and Clarkson made Dallas pay by hitting open shots.
What happened (Dallas offense)?
Utah used the tactic they used last year against Dallas in crunch time situations from the get-go in this game. In all situations where Porzingis was in the lineup, the Jazz had a smaller defender defend Porzingis, and Gobert defended the worst Mavericks’ shooter (Finney-Smith or James Johnson).
This allowed Gobert to stay in the paint and prevent Dončić from attacking the rim. The easiest answer to this tactic is that player who Gobert is (not) guarding makes open shots. Yesterday, Finney-Smith and Johnson didn’t, they shot a combined 1 of 9 from the three-point line.
Watch Gobert in these two possessions during the first three minutes of the game. When Finney-Smith missed both open shots, it meant Dallas is in for a long night.
Lack of outside shooting allowed Gobert to continue roaming in the paint. He did a great job: Dallas took only 22 shots at the rim, shooting only 54% on them, both below average. When Porzingis was not in the game, and Dallas played a non-shooting big like Powell or Finney-Smith, Gobert guarded them but in a deep drop coverage, as neither is much of a roll or shooting threat.
Dončić is not the long-range shooter that Damian Lillard or Ingles are, so he can not punish deep drop coverage consistently by making the outside shot. Dončić would rather drive and make the mid-range shot, something he is very good at this season. Even with Gobert parked in the paint, Dončić still scored 20 points in the paint in this game.
How can Dallas adjust (offense)?
Dallas made some adjustments and was much better in the second half. Dallas had a 100.0 offensive rating in the first, and 119.1 in the second half.
The obvious one - make outside shots
The obvious adjustment is to punish Gobert for not guarding wing players, through them making the open shots. Easier said than done though, as both Finney-Smith and Richardson returned from a long Covid absence. They both struggled with shooting to start the season prior to getting sick. Kleber, who was shooting the three-ball well is still out, and Burke is too much of a defensive liability to play more minutes against the Jazz.
Have the player Gobert is defending set screens
Carlisle had Dallas do this more and more as the game wore on Wednesday. Because Gobert was lagging off his player on defense, having this player set a screen created an open shot for a shooter. Similar to what we’ve seen Conley do when Dallas bigs would be in a drop coverage in the pick and roll.
By involving Gobert’s man in screening actions, Dallas either created open shots or created opportunities for a guard to attack Gobert on the move.
Porzinigis cuts and punishing smaller defenders
Porzinigs’s shooting mid-range jump shoots is always a controversial topic here at Mavs Moneyball. Porzingis was shooting 6 of 11 on two-point field goals, and 2 of 7 on his threes on Wednesday. He needs to punish the Jazz wing defenders to prevent Gobert not defending him. He did that early in the 4th quarter on two consecutive possessions.
Porzinigis must also cut to the basket more after Luka attacks the paint. Per Synergy data, he is very good on cuts this season, scoring 1.429 points per possession. He had three good cuts against the Jazz:
How can Dallas adjust (defense)?
Dallas figured out some of the issues on offense on Wednesday, but defense seemed a much bigger problem. Mavericks’ drop coverage against the Jazz pick and roll obviously didn’t work, so what can Carlisle change tomorrow?
Think about mixing pick and roll coverages
The simple answer would be to mix up pick and roll defensive coverages. Don’t drop on all possessions, rather make Jazz think by alternating hedges, traps, or up to touch pick and roll coverages.
I don’t think the solution is so simple, especially not against Utah. Hedge coverages work against an offense that has one good ball-handler or scorer. Dallas used this tactic against Houston several times, to get the ball out of Harden’s hands.
Utah has several good ball-handlers and passers (like Conley and Ingles), surrounded by great shooters, so they can swing the ball around to expose the defense. Another problem is that aggressive hedges or traps require a mobile and athletic big man. Porzingis has limited mobility and it doesn’t seem like Dallas wants to expose him. Dallas tried hedging with Powell at the end of the third quarter, but his mobility is limited as well after his Achilles injury.
The other problem is that Dallas lineups were in such disarray because of Covid, that it seems the team is not ready for more complex coverages. The starting line up last night may be the ideal for what Dallas envisioned in the off-season, but it was game 17 and that was the first time they all started together.
Dallas tried with James Johnson on Ingles to have two bigs defending pick and roll so they could try switching it. Here are two possessions where Dallas tried to switch. You can see Johnson give a sign to Porzinigs to switch, but Utah was too fast. On the next possessions, you can see Porzinigs asking the bench if to switch, and Ingles missed the three. Trying to figure out how to defend on the fly is not a sign of well-versed defense.
Learn from the Jazz and use their tactics against them
One thing Carlisle could try is to use Porzingis the same way the Jazz use Gobert. Johnson or Finney-Smith could defend Gobert and be much more aggressive in pick and roll and have Porzingis defend Royce O’Neale. Porzingis could provide help on Gobert rolls and dare O’Neale to make open shots. The problem is that O’Neal is a much better shooter than Finney-Smith, he is shooting 45% on tree point threes this year. Dallas tried this approach with some success when Georges Niang was on the floor for Utah.
Execute drop coverage much better
Based on the current status of the roster, lack of lineup consistency, and Porzingis's mobility, drop coverage might still be the best approach. This doesn’t mean Dallas can not execute it better. Dallas could be more aggressive in ball-handler defense, especially at rearview contests when Ingles and Conley shoot floaters in the paint. Help defense and tagging Gobert on his rolls with more aggression is another area for Dallas to improve. Again, Utah has so much shooting and passing that this is easier said than done.
Be better at transition defense and rebounding
This is an area that Dallas can improve for sure (discrete Dončić pun). Dallas had several miscommunications in transition that led to transition threes and alley-oop dunks. It showed that this was Richardson’s and Finney-Smith’s first game back in the lineup. Rebounding is another area where Dallas can improve, Gobert grabbed 6 offensive rebounds or 17% of all potential offensive rebounds when he was on the floor.
Dallas is finally getting their key rotation players back and things will improve. Yet, some of the Mavericks’ problems are not easily fixable, they will require time. Carlisle is a master of adjustments, so let’s see if he can fix some of the issues until the next matchup with Utah on Friday.