The Dallas Mavericks went into the 2020-2021 season with a clear plan. Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis powering an elite offense flanked by competent shooters who could defend at near all-defensive team levels. They especially loaded up on the long athletic wing archetype. This plan was met with near universal approval during the offseason.
Josh Richardson, James Johnson, Wesley Iwundu, Josh Green and Tyler Bey were brought in to complement Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber and Willie Cauley Stein as long athletic defenders. The Mavericks hoped this collection could potentially slow the apex predator big wings that had decimated them previously. By the end of the 2021 playoffs, Luka Doncic was arguably the Mavericks best big wing defender. The plan failed.
Josh Richardson was the crown jewel of the offseason. Richardson was touted by some as a potential Jrue Holiday-lite. Looking back, that is an incredibly unfair expectation. Richardson has averaged more than 1.1 steals per game once in his career. Holiday has failed to average 1.5 or above steals per game once since his rookie season. Holiday also averaged .8 blocks per game each of the 3 prior seasons coming into this year. Richardson only hit that mark once, in the same outlier 2017-2018 season that he averaged 1.5 steals in.
Steals and blocks are not always indicators of the quality of defense an individual plays. They can be a measure of effort. Another indicator of effort is deflections. Holiday was coming off three consecutive seasons in the top 10 of deflections, cresting in finishing second in deflections in 2019-2020. Richardson has never been anywhere near that high.
Holiday has made 2 all defensive teams. Richardson has never made an all defensive team. Not being Jrue Holiday does not mean Richardson is a defensive liability but it is important to realize that struggling offensively, does not mean someone is a defensive specialist.
James Johnson and Wesley Iwundu were jettisoned in the ill-fated J.J. Redick trade after not playing well. Iwundu was solid defensively during his time, notably being one of the few Mavericks to effectively contest jumpers. However, his offense was so bad as to be hard to believe with him shooting a stunningly bad 32.7% from the floor and 13.0% from three with the Mavericks. His offense simply did not allow his defense to matter.
James Johnson also played relatively well defensively in limited minutes despite his shooting rendering him virtually unplayable in the Mavericks offensive scheme. Johnson averaged 1.7 steals and 1.6 blocks per 36 minutes making him one of the biggest defensive playmakers on the team. Unfortunately those plays came at the cost of 4.2 fouls per 36 minutes which is quite a high rate. That propensity for fouling, coupled with questionable decision making, leading to some ghastly turnovers and his poor shooting led to Johnson falling out of the rotation prior to being traded.
Josh Green played exceptionally hard and injected much needed energy into the Mavericks upon his rare chances to play. He also added a decent amount of playmaking. That is about all he offered though. His activity did not actually lead to good defensive production. Green only collected 1.3 steals and .2 blocks per 36 minutes. He also allowed a defensive field goal percentage 5.5% better than expected per NBA.com defensive stats. Green has a ton of defensive potential but it is not realized yet. If he does not become a better offensive player, it will not matter. He cannot defend from the bench and a 16% 3 point shooter cannot play in this offense.
Tyler Bey did not play any non garbage minutes this year. He has physical attributes which make him an intriguing defensive prospect but he also has offensive limitations which make his future in this offense murky. His long term role may be as the ultra switchable small ball 5 and rim runner that the Mavericks have tried to turn Maxi Kleber into.
Maxi Kleber began his career as a fearless bouncy second unit rim protector. He was decent on switches due to a combination of competitiveness and quick feet, but there was no question he was a big. Kleber averaged between 2.0 and 2.5 blocks per 100 possessions each year until this year. This year his blocks per 100 possessions fell to 1.3. His at rim field goal percentage allowed also rose to 62.6% this year after being 55.9% in 2019-2020 and 52.9% in 2018-2019.
Kleber is not a big wing. He is a big. It may be too late to return him to the effective defender he was, but the Mavericks should simplify his role and return him to being a rim protector. The team is not overflowing with good defenders in any role; therefore, it does not make sense to turn a good big defender into another bad wing defender. Unfortunately, the Mavericks feel the need to be the smartest team in the league and simply using a guy at his natural position does not give any opportunity to be praised for brilliant tactics. A large portion of rim protection is the mental acuity to differentiate between decoys and dangerous actions. Kleber has lost that skill as he has been tasked with more and more wing responsibilities.
Dorian Finney-Smith is an absolute home run of development. He has maximized and even wildly outproduced any realistic expectations. But he is not a wing stopper. He averaged 1.0 steals and .5 blocks per 36 minutes this season. The Mavericks were .7 points better defensively with him off the court this season. That is simply not the production of an elite defensive wing. Finney-Smith does a good job of not beating himself with foolish gambles or being out of position. But in the playoffs, the other team is always going to be good enough to make plays if you cannot pressure them.
Most of the Dallas ideas revolve around recreating the magic of 2011. That team flanked Dirk with Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd and Deshawn Stevenson. Jason Terry took Stevenson’s place in the closing lineup.
Luka and Porzingis certainly have the potential to exceed Dirk and Terry on the defensive end. The problem is Chandler, Marion and Kidd were all legitimately fantastic defenders. Chandler went on to win Defensive Player of the Year the following year. Kidd is at worst the 3rd best defensive point guard of all time. While he had declined physically, he was still incredibly smart, had fantastic hands and averaged 2.7 steals per 100 possessions in 2010-2011.
Marion is likely the best defender in the league who never made an all-defensive team. For his career he averaged 2.3 steals and 1.6 blocks per 100 possessions. Even at an advanced age in 2010-11, he averaged 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks per 100 possessions.
The Mavericks plan to play elite defenders around Doncic and Porzingis makes a ton of sense. Luka and Porzingis is an offense unto itself. With both players on the court the Mavericks scored in excess of 120 points per possession. The problem is they gave up even more than they scored. That is where the plan to start three elite defenders around them makes so much sense.
Luka carries too heavy of an offensive load to consistently defend at an elite level, at least right now. Porzingis is currently lacking the mobility and strength to be the defensive weapon he once was. They need to be protected defensively. Two of the five players acquired to do that have been dealt. Richardson likely will be if he does not opt out of his contract. Bey has yet to play a meaningful minute.
Unfortunately, the Mavericks attempts to protect them have failed as the defensive specialists aren’t actually that good defensively. Either the Mavericks need to acquire better defenders or less limited offensive players in order to lessen the offensive burden on Luka allowing him to exert more effort defensively. In a perfect world, they could do both.