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A possible explanation for Dwight Powell’s persistence in the starting lineup

The Mavericks are seemingly starting every game in a hole and the numbers with Powell and the starters are horrible.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Chicago Bulls Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

The Mavericks have only played 11 games, but it feels clear to make a declarative statement about one aspect of the team: Dwight Powell in the starting lineup does not work.

This is no surprise to anyone with functioning eyeballs, which is why I wrote about it after the Mavericks dispiriting loss to the Denver Nuggets almost two weeks ago. The numbers are technically better than when I wrote about it after that Nuggets loss, but they still aren’t good and that lineup was bad again in the loss Wednesday night to the Chicago Bulls.

For the season, the lineup of Luka Doncic, Tim Hardaway Jr., Dorian Finney-Smith, Kristaps Porzingis and Dwight Powell have been outscored by 28 points in the 75 minutes those five have played together. Against the Bulls? That lineup was only outscored by four points, thanks to Hardaway heating up from three at the beginning of the third quarter. I don’t like using per 100 possession data so early in the season, but when Powell is on the floor the Mavericks get outscored by 10.8 points per 100 possessions. Things are bleak.

So here’s the thing: everything I just wrote was backed up by very accessible public data on the NBA’s stats website. It’s data that even a plebian like me can easily look up and find. If I can find it, you know the Mavericks have it and then some. NBA teams have far more detailed and advanced analytics that we can’t even look at, plus the Mavericks have functioning eyeballs like the rest of us. I have had my qualms with Jason Kidd and the Mavericks coaching staff, but I want to give them the benefit of the doubt here and assume they do not think throwing Powell and Porzingis out there to routinely get smashed is something they want to see.

That leads to why do we keep seeing it then? I have a theory: the Mavericks made an offseason commitment to not play Porzingis at the five full time for an entire season.

Just as it’s no secret that Powell isn’t working, it’s that Porzingis has a troubled health history. Each of his playing seasons in Dallas have been plagued with injury issues, whether it was knee soreness leading to another knee surgery or this season and a pesky back injury. The point is, Porzingis’ health clearly needs to be managed. I have a hunch one way the Mavericks want to manage that is keeping Porzingis from grinding away each night as the full-time five. I believe the Mavericks are taking the long road look at this and rather than panic early in the season and revert on their plan of keeping Porzingis fresh and healthy this season, they’re taking their lumps for the hopeful greater good of the future.

Why do I think it’s this and not the coaching staff being blinded to Porzingis playing the five being the key? Because the Mavericks have played Porzingis at the five a decent amount this season! In fact, Porzingis at the five closed out the recent win against the Boston Celtics, where the small-ball lineup unlocked plenty of good things. According to Basketball Reference, Porzingis has played 49 percent of his minutes at center. That doesn’t look like a figure to me that shows a coaching staff unaware of Porzingis’ best position.

The problem is that with Maxi Kleber hurt, the options to pair another big with Porzingis are limited. We’ve gone over Powell, but Willie Caulie-Stein has been horrendous in his small doses and there are limits to how often you can break the Boban Marjanovic in case of emergency glass, due to the limits of a large human body. That just leaves Moses Brown, who fans are clamoring for, but probably hasn’t earned the trust of the coaching staff just yet.

So it really comes down to Kleber getting healthy. If you remember, Kleber actually started the last game he played in, going seven minutes in the first quarter against the Kings before leaving with his back injury. I have to imagine that if Kleber were healthy today, he would have been starting in place of Powell a few games ago.

That’s my theory at least. It could be wrong! Kleber should be returning soon from his back injury and if he isn’t inserted into the starting lineup shortly after that, then it’ll definitely be time to raise the pitchforks. Until then, I’m willing to be patient.

Here’s our lastest episode of Mavs Moneyball After Dark. If you’re unable to see the embed below, click here to be taken to the podcast directly. Or go to your favorite podcast app and search Mavs Moneyball Podcast.