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The 4 biggest questions: What does a Jason Kidd coached Mavericks team look like?

Dallas hasn’t tinkered too much in the past three years with its roster, but big questions still remain.

Milwaukee Bucks v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

It’s that time of year when we once again take stock of the Mavericks’ new-ish roster and see how the pieces all fit together. This is becoming something of an annual tradition for me. I love getting past the news, rumors and speculation and diving into the actual basketball. You can read my previous installments on the 2021, 2020 and 2017 rosters... boy, I really liked Josh Richardson and Delon Wright, huh?

Time to forget all that and focus on the current Mavericks, who thankfully will be playing a normal basketball schedule after last season’s cramped, pandemic outing zapped them harder than almost any other team in the league.

How will these Dallas Mavericks fit together? We’re asking and trying to answer the four biggest questions in a series of posts through training camp and preseason, starting with:

What does a Jason Kidd coached Mavericks team look like?

The biggest wild card for the Mavericks season is by far their new coach, Jason Kidd. Dallas’ roster remained mostly static — the players the Mavericks are relying on to take them to greater heights are mostly the same ones they’ve had for the last three years. Kidd represents the biggest change to the Mavericks in literally over a decade. Say what you will about the Rick Carlisle coached Mavericks, but after so many years with him at the helm, you could rely on the Mavericks meeting a certain set of expectations every season.

The team would generally play well offensively, with a top 10 finish on offense in eight of Carlisle’s 13 seasons. Carlisle’s Mavericks would be a low turnover team, utilizing their half court execution and relying on the three point shot. Dallas had one of the more progressive offenses in the NBA during this era. You could maybe even say the 2011 title team was the beginning of the NBA’s three point revolution, although the Mavericks analytics staff definitely had to push Carlisle there. A lot of that success can, of course, also be contributed to Dirk Nowitzki.

Jason Kidd hasn’t been a head coach since 2018 (he’s been a Lakers assistant coach for the past couple of seasons), and the results weren’t great. So what should we expect from a Kidd-coached team in 2021? The answer to that question likely determines the Mavericks’ fate this season, but it’s a hard one to answer definitively. Here’s what we do know about Kidd’s teams before he was fired by the Bucks halfway through the 2018 season.

Jason Kidd coached teams’ rank in key categories

Season Team Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Pace Three Point Attempts Per Game Shots at the Rim Per Game Three Point Attempts Allowed Per Game Shots at the Rim Allowed Per Game Assist Percentage Turnover Percentage
Season Team Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Pace Three Point Attempts Per Game Shots at the Rim Per Game Three Point Attempts Allowed Per Game Shots at the Rim Allowed Per Game Assist Percentage Turnover Percentage
2013-2014 Brooklyn Nets 15 19 25 10 7 17 14 14 16
2014-2015 Milwaukee Bucks 25 4 14 26 4 26 25 6 29
2015-2016 Milwaukee Bucks 26 23 23 30 1 27 28 8 24
2016-2017 Milwaukee Bucks 13 19 26 24 3 22 26 5 19
2017-2018 (45 games) Milwaukee Bucks 10 25 22 26 9 5 27 17 7

This is an incredibly broad sample, but the gist is that his teams were slower paced, didn’t shoot threes, tried to bulldoze teams at the rim and couldn’t play defense. That doesn’t sound promising.

The lack of three point attempts is probably the biggest eye-raiser. Dallas has ranked fourth, second and sixth in three point attempts per game in Doncic’s first three seasons in the NBA. Dallas has constructed a roster that has to take three pointers — most of the Mavericks rotation is chock full of players whose offensive games are best described as “stand still spot up shooters.” Tim Hardaway Jr., Reggie Bullock, Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber — all players that need to take as many quality three point shots as possible. This was the key to the team’s success in Doncic’s second season, when the Mavericks leapt from the lottery to the playoffs. The Mavericks succeeded not just because of their three point accuracy (10th in the league) but because Doncic created a large quantity of quality three point shots that Dallas’ rotation were willing to shoot (that team had the second highest volume in the league). The math won out for Dallas over the last three seasons, despite the roster having questions marks at various points about their shooting. It doesn’t matter that Dallas didn’t have a crop of 40-plus percent sharp shooters, it mattered that they had a bunch of guys that were pretty good and were willing to shoot a lot. That’s been the key to the Mavericks’ offensive success since Doncic’s arrival.

Kidd potentially dragging that number down could have catastrophic consequences. Those role players thrive on a diet of steady three point shots fed to them by Doncic. There isn’t really another alternative for guys like Finney-Smith, Kleber and Bullock. If those guys aren’t taking threes, what do those possessions turn into? It’s hard to imagine players with such limited ball-handling skills exchanging three point attempts for shots at the rim. If those shots are funneled into Porzingis to give him more post ups and mid-range looks, that won’t end well for the Mavericks either. Simply put: the Mavericks built a roster specifically designed around Doncic’s sublime three point shot creation. Limiting those attempts would be self-sabotage.

Now here’s the part where we look at the rosters Kidd coached with the Bucks — they were pretty bad! Yes, he had Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Malcom Brogdon and a dash of Eric Bledsoe, but the rest of the roster was sorely lacking with almost zero shooting outside of Middleton and Brogdon. Brook Lopez didn’t join the Bucks until after Kidd was fired, which helped revolutionize their spacing. When Kidd did have a roster full of ready to win now veterans in Brooklyn, the numbers are a bit easier to stomach.

But here’s the thing about those Bucks teams — just because the team had no shooting doesn’t mean they didn’t need to shoot. From 2017 to 2019, during the three rebuilding seasons Carlisle coached in Dallas, the Mavericks ranked sixth, fourth and fourth respectively in three point attempts per game. Even before you have the shooters, you can start to implement the style and culture necessary for your team to thrive once you do have the players that can execute your vision. The same thing happened with Brett Brown in Philadelphia during The Process. Those 76er teams were horrible, but they had pretty decent shot charts in terms of shot selection. Brown was honing a system that would win, he just needed the talent. The talent came and the Sixers took off, same for the Mavericks once Doncic arrived.

Kidd bucking the trend and slogging it out on offense didn’t work, because a bad roster is no excuse for failing to embrace a modern offense. The Bucks went from 26th in three point attempts in Kidd’s final season to second the very next. They also went from 44 wins to 60. Yes, the pieces acquired that offseason helped, but that stylistic change was massive.

Having said that, offense was never the true problem for Kidd in Milwaukee. Despite the somewhat retro approach to scoring, the Bucks ranked 13th and 10th in Kidd’s final two seasons, better than league average. Instead, it was defense that sunk Kidd. The Bucks had a bad defense in three out of Kidd’s four seasons. It started well enough in his first season, with a blitzing defensive scheme designed to trap ball handlers in the pick and roll, but once the league got enough tape, it fell apart. The NBA’s talent boom in the last 10 years made that style of defense impossible to sustain for a full regular season. There are too many good dribblers and passers up and down an NBA roster these days, and the trapping and blitzing only led to easy buckets. The Bucks ranked near the bottom of the league in the number of three point attempts and shots at the rim — the most efficient shots in basketball — they allowed per game. As Kidd sent doubles and traps at opposing ball handlers, the backline waned and gave up easy layups, dunks and corner threes. Using this scheme as a change-of-pace tactic mid-game or in a playoff series is one thing, but using it for a full season is another.

Kidd never backed down from this scheme, and it cost the Bucks a lot of wins and Kidd his job. In Dallas, the Mavericks don’t have a stable of quality defenders, so you wonder whether Kidd has learned to back off and maybe try a different approach. Dallas’ defense has stunk lately thanks to an extreme dedication to the other end of the defensive spectrum — conservative drop coverage, inviting players to basically dribble and pass freely, so long as they were doing it from spots on the floor the Mavericks were okay with. Dallas routinely allowed good players to step into open looks and while the roster might not support a more aggressive scheme, anything will look better than what has happened the last three seasons.

Has Kidd matured enough? Who knows. The Lakers won a title during Kidd’s time in LA, but we don’t truly know how much input he had (although all the Lakers staffers and players genuinely had kind words for him). Maybe the time away from the head gig has allowed Kidd to learn a bit more, adopt some new tactics and styles. Also, there’s only so much sway a coach has on a team as established as the Mavericks, with Doncic running the show. He won’t be a bystander to Kidd’s changes — the Mavericks can only fall so far on offense with a schematic change when you have a mega star offensive fulcrum like Doncic. Luka should be good enough to propel an offense on his own, and hopefully Kidd won’t get in the way of that.

Considering how little the roster has changed, though, Kidd is definitely the biggest question the Mavericks have to answer.