Rick Carlisle is one of the best tacticians in the league. If you scroll Twitter after the Dallas Mavericks lose you might get a different impression, but NBA general managers certainly think so. In the last five years, Carlisle was voted twice as the best head coach at making in-game adjustments in the annual NBA GM survey. He was ranked in the top three in each of those five seasons.
Last year, the Mavericks finished the season as the most efficient offense in NBA history, playing a modern Five-Out offense. Yet, Carlisle’s latest brilliant offense is not about drawing the fanciest plays or having the thickest playbook.
“I don’t want us to be a play calling team,” Carlisle says. “I want us to be a team that can play and create problems for the opponents by playing out of concepts.”
It’s kind of ironic: for the master of in-game adjustments to lead the NBA’s offensive revolution, the toughest change had to come from within. Carlisle needed to let go of the reins.
Instead of calling plays and controlling the game from the sideline, the key to Mavericks’ success is an environment that empowers their unique stars to shine. Carlisle calls it playing out of concepts.
But what exactly are those concepts? How can a casual fan understand what makes the Mavericks’ offense click?
The key concepts of the Mavericks’ offense
To understand some of the concepts, I listened carefully to what Carlisle says in his pre- and post-game interviews. I took notes from assistant coaches Jenny Boucek and Mike Weinar when they spoke about Mavericks’ offense in their coaching clinics and interviews. And I listened to what former Mavericks assistant coach Stephen Silas, now head coach of the Houston Rockets, said about the Five-Out offense he is trying to install with his new team in Houston.
This is what I learned.
Read and react: unpredictable basketball that is built for the playoffs
The coaches each spoke about moving away from set plays, a common theme. Instead, the Mavericks want to run an offense based on concepts that allows players to read the defense and react to it.
“How can we be unpredictable, how can we play playoffs offense?” Weiner said in the Guide to Modern Offense coaching webinar. “Because everyone knows that in the playoffs, when you start to run plays it gets really difficult. In Dallas this is one thing that we really got away from, coach Carlisle loves to draw plays, but he’s gotten away from it, way more than in the past.”
Boucek offered up a similar opinion on the Slappin’ Glass podcast.
“The game has gone so far away from sets, and much more into the flow, into the principles of play,” she said. “Read and react.”
Random play is important because it makes it more difficult for opponents to scout and prepare for. It’s an offense that is built for the playoffs.
“It’s the scenario of random play or diversity, that most of us are seeking, because it’s un-scoutable,” Boucek continued. “It’s playoffs basketball.”
Five-Out Offense and spacing
Modern basketball is about spacing the floor, ball movement, and creating and recognizing advantages. If you space the floor, if you are moving the ball then everybody can catch, shoot the three, or attack the gaps. Along with the Mavericks, the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors are some of the teams at the fore-front of NBA movement to a Five-Out offense. For a team that features a playmaker like Luka Dončić and a big with an unlimited shooting range in Kristaps Porzingis, it seems like a no-brainer.
The concept of the Mavericks’ Five-Out offense is easy to grasp. Position all five players beyond the three-point line, give Dončić room to operate in the pick-and-roll, and clear the paint for his drives. Dallas uses early offense actions to create numbers advantage, then lets Dončić read the defense and create quality shot opportunities for himself or his teammates.
Dončić is difficult to defend in any pick-and-roll or screen situation because he has every possible tool in his defense manipulation toolbelt. Dončić can do snake dribbles, hostage dribbles, change directions, and rejects screens or pull up for his trademark step-back three-pointer.
Defending him one-on-one, or two-on-two in pick and roll becomes almost impossible if he can operate in space. And space is what Kristaps Porzingis provides. The 7’3” Latvian unicorn can make shots from almost anywhere. Most bigs in the NBA are used to defending the three-point line by now, but with Porzinigs that’s not enough. His gravity pulls defenders way out, which creates space and opens driving lanes for Dončić and his teammates.
There has been a lot of talk about Porzingis’s deficiencies this season, especially on the defensive end. However, his effect on the Mavericks’ offense and the spacing he provides is unquestionable. The Mavericks have a 121.9 offensive rating when Dončić and Porzingis are on the floor together. With Porzingis lurking a foot behind the three-point line, 27% of Dončić’s shot come at the rim. This number drops to 21% when Porzingis is off the floor. There’s still a valid argument if Porzingis can be a true second star next to Dončić on a playoff contender, but his effect on spacing is undeniable.
In Dallas’ Five-Out system, the center—especially Porzingis—is usually positioned at the top of the floor, in the trail position. Other teams like Milwaukee play a Five-Out offense with more interchangeable players, where any player can be anywhere on the floor. Silas provided an insightful explanation of player positioning in a Five-Out offense and the benefits of having the center positioned on the top of the floor.
Positioning Porzingis at the top of the floor makes perfect sense because his trailing three-point shots put so much pressure on defenses in early offensive situations.
Early offense actions are two-thirds of the Dallas offense
Another key part of calling fewer plays and playing more random basketball is to get the offense going as fast as possible within the flow of the early offense.
According to Mike Weinar, “Nearly two-thirds of all our possessions this year were some sort of early offense where he [Carlisle] doesn’t make a call, fast-break or random play. “
Early, spread-out offense with many pick and rolls and three-point shots was popularized by Mike D’Antoni and his ‘seven seconds or less’ Phoenix Suns teams. Now, most of the teams in the NBA apply the same concepts and actions.
In his coaching webinar, Weinar notes, “This is where the league is going, space, pace and unpredictability, everybody has a form, that they like playing out of, but this is how you score and this is how you win in the playoffs.“
Typical actions that the Mavericks use in their early offense are: early offense pick and rolls, early offense double (staggered) pick and rolls, wide pin downs, Pistol three-man actions, lifted angle pick and rolls, and stack (or Spain) pick and rolls. These are not complex plays, rather quick actions that can create an advantage.
The main goal of all early offense plays is to get the defense in rotation, read how the defense reacts, and attack based on that. Once Dončić (or any other ball-handler) reads the ball-screen coverage, the game of numbers begins. Defending 4 on 3, 3 on 2, or 2 on 1 situation in a spaced floor against a team with good shooting and passing is difficult to do.
More random play, less predictability
The key element of an open offense is random play and being as unpredictable as possible. So, rather than Carlisle calling a set play, he empowers his players to play off concepts.
Pistol (21) actions are a good example of playing off concepts and random play. It’s a simple three-men early offense, with the different variants and options and a goal to create an early advantage. Instead of the coach calling out the exact variant or play from the sidelines, the players play it out based on how the defense reacts.
Stack (or Spain) pick and roll is another example of simple action, but one that allows Dončić to create on the fly.
According to coach Boucek, Dončić loves stack pick and rolls as they are more random and more unpredictable. “Luka loves what we call the Stack action,” she said, “Because when you bring a third defender in there, for him, with his vision and IQ, it adds confusion for the defense. He’s able to see all in advance, but it ads more confusion.”
Stack action adds a lot of elements of random play. It’s difficult to predict who screens, which way the ball-handler is going, and how the second screener slips out. Adding a guard as the third man in pick and roll adds more confusion.
“Because of the way teams defend (Stack), you’ll hardly ever see the second guard setting screen. It’s the early slip out one direction or the other,” she told Slappin’ Glass. “The randomness of which direction they slip out is the trickiest part of the read. Setting the big screen flat where Luka can come off either way and the guard can slip out, either way, adds a lot of randomnesses.”
Denver Nuggets learned about the randomness of Dončić running “stack” actions the hard way in their recent matchup with the Mavericks. Late in the second quarter, Dallas ran the same “stack” action, with Dončić as the ball-handler and Tim Hardaway Jr. as the second guard screener, on three consecutive plays. Dončić made the Nuggets pay every single time, in a different way, depending on the read. P. J. Dozier hung his head out of frustration, trying to figure out on which side of the action, Dončić will come out.
Guard / Guard pick and roll actions
Having two guards in a pick-and-roll action is something you’ll see the Mavericks do a lot in the end of the game or the end of quarter situations. Again, the idea is to be less predictable as defenses are less used to defend such actions.
“In NBA you’re seeing a trend of many more guard to guard screens, then bigs setting screens on the ball. There’s a different element of confusion with that. Pick and roll has been around so long in the NBA. And traditionally with big setting the screen. Coaches have coached it a long time, players have played it a long time. They’ve gotten pretty good at the drop coverage or, at switching, or whatever their dominant scheme is. While we still use that a lot, the guard to guard seems to be something that hasn’t been as worked on. It’s not as comfortable for guards as it is for the post players. - Jenny Boucek, Slappin’ Glass podcast
This is basically position-less basketball and something teams do down the stretch and in the playoffs. Teams typically switch these actions, so it enables Dallas to hunt for a favorable mismatch. Once they get the mismatch, Dallas tries to make them defend Dončić in space with the floor spread. This is what you see in the clutch, and what a lot of playoffs basketball comes down to.
Challenges and the missing piece to add in the off-season
As long as Dončić and Porzingis are on the floor together, the Mavericks offense will be potent. More than potent, in fact: Dallas lineups that feature both Dončić and Porzingis score at an elite rate of 122.1 per 100 possessions, which ranks in the 97th percentile of all lineups.
Yet, the key measuring stick for this group and the offense will be how it will fare in the post-season when defenses are more focused and the rotations are faster. The key element of Maverick’s offense is to make fast decisions once the defense collapses around Dončić. On the opposite side, the goal of the defense is to make the offense pass, so they can catch up with their rotations. To keep the defense in limbo, there shouldn’t be any hesitation, either with shooting or passing. The trio of Richardson, Finney-Smith, and Kleber are willing passers, but can sometimes be hesitant to shoot. They are also not very good at attacking off the catch. A clear example of how every second matter in close games was a recent game against the Boston Celtics. Mavericks struggled to make fast decisions after Dončić was doubled.
First example: Smart double on Luka, Luka quick short pass to Brunson. Now it's 3-on-2 on the right side.— Iztok Franko (@iztok_franko) April 1, 2021
Brunson hesitates (instead of a 2nd quick pass) and the advantage is gone. He creates another one by attacking the paint and Richardson hesitates instead of shooting. pic.twitter.com/5luILy9u7c
Porzingis is improving but has never been a good passer. The fact that it’s difficult to say who is the second-best passer on this Mavericks team speaks to the deficiency in this area.
A secondary ball-handler, who can handle the ball, make fast decisions, and create shot for himself and others, is a long-term need. The offense is too dependent on Dončić to create shots, but currently, there are not many other alternatives on the roster. Brunson is the best such player on the roster but is probably best suited for a backup role.
The next challenge the Mavericks face is that teams defend Porzingis with wings or even guards, which enables them to switch Dončić - Porzingis pick and roll actions. Although Porzingis is more efficient on post-ups this season, he hasn’t shown yet he can punish smaller defenders on a consistent basis. Mavericks will try to post-up Porzingis after a mismatch, but it takes a while to set it up, and teams can usually erase the advantage with a quick double.
Even Carlisle acknowledged the difficulties switching causes in a postgame interview earlier this season, saying “With switching it adds an added element, switching is something that is designed put hesitation into what you are doing, and to stagnate ball-movement and we can’t allow those things to happen.”
Porzingis has improved on post-ups this season, scoring 1.00 points per possession which is good for this kind of play. But Porzingis is still below average in passing out of the post-ups and not a playmaker that would scare the opposing defenses. Hi repertoire on offense is certainly not something one could describe as random or unpredictable. On the contrary, his moves often look scripted and mechanical. Porzingis' biggest value on offense is his gravity and shot-making, not shot creation.
For Mavericks to seriously contend in the playoffs they will need more unpredictable players. Because in the playoffs, teams take away what you do best. As Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers says, “In the playoffs, your first move is gone. The more dimensions you have to your game, the harder you are to take away.”
Bob Myers still with the realest commentary for why players with regular season success don't always thrive in the postseason. Failures are less confounding when you hear it. I go back to these words when some of best appear at their worst in the playoffs.pic.twitter.com/GhUPrAfdrm— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) September 11, 2020
Current Mavericks role players are good at playing their role, but most are pretty one-dimensional players on offense. Maxi Kleber (9.8 percent) and Dorian Finney-Smith (10.6 percent) are two of the lowest usage players in the league. Once their first move is gone, there is not much left. Porzingis can score from different spots on the court, but he hasn’t developed a counter move to punish teams that defend him with aggressive wing players that get into his body.
The current Dallas offense is great, but in order to work on a championship level there is still much work to be done. How much is dependent on both the development of Doncic and Porzingis, but also from the front office as they must find another unpredictable, multi-dimensional player that can make quick decisions and play random basketball. The upcoming off season is crucial in finding more players that fit what the coaching staff has mapped out as the way forward.