There was definitely a sense of trying to pound a square peg into a round hole watching the Mavericks play their first six games of the season. In all four losses, the same trends continued — poor shotmaking, bad defense, lousy rebounding.
With a recovering Dwight Powell in the starting lineup and Dorian Finney-Smith at the four, the Mavericks tried to sneak by with one of their most successful lineups from a season ago, with one big change — Powell in for a rehabbing Kristaps Porzingis — and win games by having a small but versatile group.
That didn’t happen, obviously, for multiple reasons. Powell was bad (very bad) to be sure, but it didn’t help that Luka Doncic wasn’t ready for the season to start and Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dorian Finney-Smith, two of their most reliable three point shooters last season, were lost at sea from deep. If nothing else, the lineup change Monday against the Rockets should have at least provided a swift kick in the ass to a team that desperately needed something to change, after some embarrassing losses to start the season. No, removing Powell from the lineup doesn’t solve all their problems, but it almost felt like the Mavericks needed change for changes sake. That much was obvious after the first six games, small sample size be damned.
So it’s fitting that after one game, the lineup change wasn’t just a good move, but a hugely successful one. It’s no surprise that giving a poorly playing player less minutes will help, but Carlisle didn’t just swap Powell for Willie Cauley-Stein — in a somewhat surprising turn, he moved Maxi Kleber into the lineup and Hardaway to the bench. Hardaway’s season had been just as much as a roller coaster as the team, shooting 40 percent from three in the first four games before slumping hard against the Heat and Bulls. Unlike fellow slumping shooter Finney-Smith, Hardaway doesn’t bring much else to the table. If he’s not making shots, he massively hurts the Mavericks when he’s on the floor, since he isn’t so much a defender or playmaker. He’s a shotmaker; he has to make shots.
Both of those moves immediately paid off. Cauley-Stein and Hardaway each had their best games of the season against the Rockets. Cauley-Stein filled the box score with 15 points, seven rebounds, two assists, one steal and one block. Hardaway exploded for 30 points on only 14 shots, going 8-of-10 from three and having some fun with small sample size data. Maxi Kleber didn’t have an eye-popping game stats-wise, missing his only shot and scoring zero points, but he did have nine rebounds, three assists and provided good help defense in combination with Cauley-Stein.
That duo was probably the most impressive thing from the win. The Mavericks shift to small ball makes sense when you look at where the league is trending, but Finney-Smith might just be miscast as a small ball four, despite his tall and lanky frame. Bumping him down a peg, putting Kleber in the starting lineup with another mobile center, meant the Mavericks could handle assignments in a much cleaner way. This was never more evident than this play in the third quarter, where Kleber played up on James Harden in the pick and roll. That left Christian Wood open for a split-second, before Cauley-Stein made a great rotation and forced Wood into a contested miss.
If this happened with the Mavericks lineup from the first six games, that would be Finney-Smith or another guard rushing out to Wood, leaving the Mavericks vulnerable to a mismatch. The Mavericks ask Kleber to switch and move out to the perimeter a lot and having another center that can move his feet to back him up when he does makes more sense. This is a defensive play that just couldn’t happen with the Mavericks small ball lineup.
The lineup also allowed the Mavericks to not worry about a player getting picked on. Without Powell and Hardaway on the floor at the same time, the Mavericks eliminated the two weakest links defensively in the starting lineup. Cauley-Stein can be a space cadet on defense at times (and he still had a few moments against the Rockets) but you can’t teach being a large human with long arms. Even his mistakes don’t seem as catastrophic as Powell’s, who is often at the right place at the right time but guards the rim like a broom stick with short arms.
Offensively, things mostly stayed the same, except the Mavericks just hit shots. It’s hard to point to the lineup switch for Hardaway’s explosion, since he got mostly the same shots he did before the change. He just made them. Sometimes basketball is really that simple, although if this lineup stays, it’ll be interesting to watch how much Hardaway plays with Doncic. His move into the starting lineup last season propelled Hardaway’s huge season, getting lots of open looks playing next to one of the greatest three point shot creators in the league. Hell, if a lineup switch is what caused Hardaway to succeed last season, maybe another switch, although in the opposite direction, will do the same. Maybe Hardaway thrives off drama, who knows.
There was one noticeable wrinkle on offense with the switch and that was Cauley-Stein finally giving the Mavericks a rim runner for Doncic. The combination of Powell’s Achilles injury zapping his verticality and Doncic’s slow start meant defenses could easily pack the paint without repercussion in the first six games. As our own Ryan Mainville pointed out, Doncic has shot miserably with Powell on the floor, especially at the rim. Those crisp pick and rolls with that duo from a season ago just evaporated due to Powell’s unfortunate injury.
Here’s Doncic’s shot chart with Powell on the floor.
Cauley-Stein doesn’t roll as hard as he should consistently, but he can at least get off the floor quickly and catch high passes, something Powell just cannot do right now.
The Mavericks also tried some Kleber as the lone big in the fourth quarter, with great results. Dallas’ five-man lineup of Doncic, Jalen Brunson, Hardaway, Finney-Smith and Kleber played three minutes in the fourth quarter on Monday, scoring 12 points in those three minutes on 5-of-6 shooting and outscoring the Rockets by seven. Having Kleber as the lone big allowed the Mavericks to get back to five-out basketball that they can’t have with Powell and that gave Doncic so much room to work with on his drives. It’s not surprising that Doncic dropped his first 30-point triple double of the season — but it also helps that guys made shots they just didn’t in the first six games.
Who knows how long this lineup will last. It wouldn’t be shocking if Carlisle rewarded Hardaway for being a good solider and swapped him back in. Or maybe he rides with it a bit longer. Hopefully what Monday night signified is that the Mavericks can at least be more flexible with that group, swapping in the players to make the matchups worked. Dallas isn’t out of the woods of a slow start yet at 3-4, but flexibility could be key in getting back to winning ways.