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The Mavericks have a dangerous hole in their defense

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How Dallas plays until Porzingis’s return could prove to be critical.

Dallas Mavericks v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

In the absence of Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavericks have an alarming issue in one of the most important areas of the game: rim protection.

Last season, Dallas had positioned themselves as a decent defensive team with Porzingis lurking down-low. Through the first 31 games of last season — the stretch where Porzingis was healthy and not yet haunted by “right knee soreness” — the Mavericks defense was by no means elite, but looked reliable enough to make them a playoff team.

During that stretch, Dallas had the ninth-best opponent field-goal percentage inside the restricted area, allowed 107.7 points per 100 possessions, and had allowed only the 19th most points in the paint (NBA.com/Stats). The Mavericks were 21-11 over that time.

Early into this season with no Porzingis available, the Mavericks' defense looks catastrophically worse. This year, the Dallas defense is allowing opponents to shoot 73.5% in the restricted area, the league’s worst efficiency according to NBA.com/Stats.

The Mavericks have embraced a small starting five, with Dorian Finney-Smith and Dwight Powell as the starting frontcourt. These two now have the highest individual opponent field goal percentages in the restricted area among all NBA players who have defended at least 50 of those shots.

Finney-Smith leads the way with an opponent field goal percentage of 81.3% and Powell is right behind him at 79.3% (NBA.com/Stats). The rest of the Mavericks’ starting five is also the league’s top-10 of worst efficiencies allowed in these shot types — more evidence of the gushing wound.

The NBA’s worst opponent field goal percentages in the restricted area. Filters include >= 50 restricted area shots defended.
Data is from NBA.com/Stats

The return of a healthy Porzingis will likely solve some issues, but the extent of that is unforeseen and unpredictable. At the very least it should help the Mavericks block some shots, as they are rank 28th in total blocks so far this season, according to NBA.com/Stats.

Until Porzingis returns, the Mavericks should tinker with lineups in hopes of finding a temporary solution. This season, three different big-men have played alongside the core four starters of Luka Doncic, Tim Hardaway Jr., Josh Richardson, and Dorian Finney-Smith. The results are kind of a mixed bag due to small sample sizes, but this is the data nonetheless:

Lineup data taken from NBA.com/Stat’s Impact tool

Where the Mavericks go from here is unknown. Blowing things up and making a trade less than 10 games into a season feels reactionary; dangerous even. A solution could be experimenting with more lineups. Mixing up groups feels not only like the right thing to do, but borderline necessary.

Dwight Powell has played 38 minutes alongside Maxi Kleber, according to NBA.com/Stats. The pair shows some promise of being a potential front-court option, owning a NETRTG of plus-3.1. James Johnson and Powell have played 25 minutes together. The offense has plummeted in that time, averaging just 79.7 points per 100 possessions, but the defensive efficiency is an impressive 89.7 points per 100 possessions (NBA.com/Stats). These are just two options of where Dallas can go from here.

The choice now lays in the hands of the Mavericks: remain changeless until Kristaps Porzinigs returns, or begin tinkering in hopes of finding some kind of solution. A mediocre defense was overshadowed last season by the most efficient offense in history. But this season, as the Mavericks own only the 19th highest offensive efficiency and are last in three-point percentage, these issues are going to tough to hide.