Watching this Dallas Mavericks season is like learning a new dance. Is it two steps forward THEN one step back? Or do we start by going back first? When do I get to slide to the left?
On paper last week wasn’t bad. The Mavericks won three of their four contests, with the final bout lost in the waning moments as Luka Doncic had a chance to send it to overtime. Maybe it’s losing the final game of the week, maybe it’s that nearly every win feels like an all-out battle to the finish, but something unsettling sits near the surface.
Here’s what jumped out from last week:
GOOD: KP from 3
Don’t look now but Kristaps Porzingis is back to shooting his career average from three. It’s been a rocky season for the giant shooting guard, who is either still recovering from offseason surgery or has just plain lost a step. The month of January, where he made his debut back on the thirteenth, was not kind to Porzingis’ shot. In nine games he shot 28.6-percent from deep, a frigid start to this season’s campaign. This was also not a small sample size, as he attempted 56 threes during that stretch.
When the calendar flipped to February, Porzingis began to find a rhythm. While shooting at nearly the same rate—6.5 attempts per game—he’s connecting on 42-percent of those attempts, a remarkable swing in a short period of time. Naysayers could point to the game against the New Orleans Pelicans last week as an outlier because Porzingis went 8-of-13 from deep, inflating his stats. But even taking that game away he’s shooting 36-percent this month, above his career average.
There are a lot of gaps in Porzingis’ game. His effort and consistency are near the top of any list of criticisms. Still, it’s important to point out this trend because his most useful asset is his outside shot.
BAD: Defense is a word and/or concept unknown to the Mavericks
Winning is good. At this point in the season, with this many setbacks, winning is a thing that should be cherished and celebrated. The Mavericks have gone 5-3 this month, with two of those losses being by a combined four points. With a 122.8 Offensive Rating, there have been moments they’ve looked unstoppable, resembling last season’s record-setting offense.
But that pesky, pesky defense, or lack there of, keeps causing problems. The Mavericks simply look incapable or worse, uninterested, of stopping opponents. They are 29th in the league this month with a Defensive Rating of 123.3, just barely better than the lottery-bound Cleveland Cavaliers (who have gone 1-8 this month). Eventually something will have to give. This team is clicking offensively but one can’t assume they’ll continue at this pace.
A lot of this comes down to effort and communication. Too often perimeter defenders look lost on switches or coverages, and the rim protection is virtually non-existent. Even with the offseason emphasis on improving on the other side of the ball, it’s clear this team isn’t going to be a defensive juggernaut. This trend can’t continue, putting too much pressure on the offense.
GOOD: Ball movement
Two plays in the second quarter last Friday against the New Orleans Pelicans—one that included Luka Doncic, and one without—were simply plays that don’t jump off the screen in the scope of a whole game, but are vital for the Mavericks’ continued improvement.
This inbound, designed to get Tim Hardaway Jr. a quick corner three, shows improvement in chemistry among key role players. Each component of this play is simple: Hardaway passes up the look due to an aggressive trap, he dumps it to Josh Richardson who simply stays engaged enough to fill the space from Josh Hart leaving him, he hits Jalen Brunson who found the open space from the opposite corner. Even Dorian Finney-Smith crashing to the block forces JJ Redick (assigned to Brunson) to recover, leaving no one within six feet of Brunson.
More and more teams will push traps out on Luka Doncic further up the floor. With how inconsistent the support players were to start the season, opponents are going to force those guys to beat them. Doncic does the smart thing here and finds Willie Cauley-Stein. Normally, you’d like to see the big man turn and face, leaving the ball high, without putting it on the floor. But in his motion toward the corner, where Maxi Kleber has no one within 20 feet of him, Pelicans guard Kira Lewis Jr. is forced to sellout all the way to corner. Cauley-Stein makes a simple but savvy no-look dump off to Trey Burke, who steps into a rare three.
For the Mavericks to take the next step forward, they need alleviate some of the offensive creation responsibilities from Luka Doncic. That doesn’t always mean making dynamic isolation plays. Sometimes it’s as simple as making the extra pass.