As the final buzzer sounded to end the Dallas Mavericks first-round series against the Clippers, the reaction from some Mavericks fans was one of relief and frustration as opposed to pride. Make no mistake, Rick Carlisle and Luka Doncic worked wonders managing to take a Clippers team who arguably had eight of the top 10 players in the series, to seven games. Carlisle’s coaching was so good, that he managed to swing a game by playing zone defense anchored by Boban Marjanovic. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue eventually caught up with Carlisle and superior talent pushed the Clippers through to the next round.
The post-season diagnosis has been one of the more brutal I’ve witnessed from an NBA fanbase in my nine years covering the League. Missed opportunities, a lack of direction and an utter failure to surround a player with top-ten all-time potential with proper talent have been on the agenda. Tim Cato’s front office piece added more fuel to the fire for the Mavericks fanbase. It was a failure that cost Donnie Nelson his job.
The upcoming off-season is pivotal for the Mavericks. Dallas has limited assets to trade but has cap room. The onus is on the new front office to drastically improve this roster despite not having tradable players while maintaining a baseline of competitiveness. The likes of Nicolo Melli, Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Burke would not get in some lottery team rotations, but they were given playoff minutes against the Western Conference favorites.
Before diving into the key needs from a schematic and roster construction perspective, let’s quickly revisit the key move from last off-season. The Josh Richardson trade was an utter disaster. The logic made sense: slightly reduce the best-recorded offense in history and improve the defense. It was a move designed for the Mavericks efficiencies on both ends to almost meet in the middle.
Richardson does not have a good offensive game compared to Seth Curry, that much is obvious. What made matters worse was how much Richardson stalled the Mavericks offense. In player analysis, short mid-range attempts are used as a way of gauging player burst and downhill ability. Richardson shoots high volume from this area, ranking in the 64th percentile for frequency of attempts per stats site Cleaning the Glass. This ranking pushes up to the 78th percentile in long-mid range attempts. Richardson is a momentum killer who can’t shoot well enough on the absurd number of open looks Doncic creates, and he can’t get to the rim against the fourth or fifth best defenders who end up guarding him. Richardson manages to turn very low responsibility into higher usage than he needs to have, which is a huge problem. This was the biggest move of the last off-season and it was an embarrassing failure.
Rating the Dallas Mavericks offense
Most national writers are focused on the right idea with regards to the Mavericks' offensive structure but are pointing the finger at the wrong people. It is true that the Mavericks need to improve their ceiling by having someone else other than Luka run the offense from time to time.
But the finger shouldn’t be pointed at Luka, it should be pointed at the front office. The harsh reality is that Dallas does not have a three or even two-level scorer to justify giving usage to in place of Luka, which would allow Doncic to play off-ball. The idea he needs to learn to defer is completely wide of the mark; Dallas needs to find a player good enough to defer to as a sidekick.
It’s an oversimplification to say the Dallas Mavericks offense isn’t a problem because the good offensive rating and bad team defense. The defense is a bigger issue, but the offensive formula is slightly flawed and should be addressed by trading for a legitimate second option on offense. The formula of Luka Doncic high usage isn’t really the issue, it’s more that Dallas doesn’t have a second option who can further get the opposition into defensive rotations. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kristaps Porzingis are excellent shooters but if neither of their shots are falling, they don’t bring much else to the table as neither can make plays downhill on a consistent basis. Dallas was fourth in half-court efficiency per Cleaning the Glass, but due to the high Luka load, it was common for Dallas to have high shooting variance, and for the offense to become very stagnant down the stretch.
After Hardaway and Porzingis, the onus falls on Jalen Brunson to be the next offensive option. Brunson was highly efficient this year, ranking in the 97th percentile for points per shot attempt. He was efficient in every area of the court, as you can see in the table below.
As a small guard finisher, Brunson legitimately does seem to have an all-time great trajectory in this particular role. Genuinely, someone as small as him should not have a 71 percent clip at the rim. He is limited by his size in terms of his frequency of getting to the basket but Brunson’s overall ability should be celebrated. Though Brunson is limited to short mid-range by his burst and size, he does have legitimate touch in the area which is what separates him from Josh Richardson.
Jalen Brunson,World best pivot foot work artist. pic.twitter.com/9JF7tw84ba— Skyfall (@polarfall) November 2, 2019
As the Mavericks roster is currently constructed, Brunson is expected to do more than he is capable of. Brunson does not see the floor at a high enough level to be the second option, rather he prays as a mismatch attacker on second units and a larger role would lead to dwindling efficiency. For fourth-year Jalen Brunson, less is more. His overall efficiency makes him a player to keep around, but the Mavericks' lack of secondary playmakers and multi-level scorers does not mean the answer to their problems is giving him a larger role. He struggles against bigger wings and guards which is exactly why his minutes dwindled against the size-ridden Clippers roster. As much as there were calls for more Brunson minutes in that series, his production was not near enough to his regular season levels to justify it.
All this adds up to one thing: the Mavericks have one offensive player worth giving above-average usage to. Luka’s super-human nature can drag them to the playoffs and potentially push a first-round series win. But given the ambition of this team should be to put other great players alongside their Hall-of-Fame level talent, they need to find a second guy. The likes of Hardaway’s value increases with the addition of another ball-handler as well with cleaner looks and less pressure to be a creator. Look at the Atlanta Hawks and their roster construction as a guide. In an NBA with a finite number of secondary creators, they have two in Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter.
Finding a center
On the topic of the Atlanta Hawks, Clint Capela makes things easier for Trae Young with his inside presence. Capela’s lob radius opens up angles for shooters and results in cleaner looks for Trae in the short-mid range area. Atlanta is a threat from every area of the half-court, as opposed to just the perimeter and the mid-range area. Here, Jackson Frank describes a roll-man center as a ‘release valve’ in his article on DeAndre Ayton. A release valve is a perfect counter to aggressive coverage that top-tier guards will see.
Dallas does not have a complete center on the roster. A healthy Dwight Powell fits the bill as a release valve but he is built like a four on the defensive end and allowed a below average 63 percent shooting percent at the rim. Willie Cauley-Stein’s rim protection numbers are slightly better at a 56.8 percent, but his offensive game is non-existent. No one blessed with his athletic ability should be a 53rd percentile finisher at the rim on a team with Luka Doncic running plays designed by Rick Carlisle. Maxi Kleber brings perimeter shooting and relatively solid weak side protection and perimeter movement skills, but he’s not a rim protector.
Dallas has a big-man room littered with specialist players but are in desperate need of a rim-protecting center who can either be a threat on the short roll (think Jusuf Nurkic or Richaun Holmes), or a rim running big (think Jarrett Allen or Robert Williams). It is essential for the evolution of this team that these specialists are phased out and they invest proper capital into an actual center.
Defensively, which center was on the court dictates the coverage that Dallas ran. Iztok Franko outlined this in his piece. The increasingly ineffective drop coverage was common when Porzingis was on the court. Drop is especially tough for the Mavericks to run at a high level because none of the Mavericks guards are difference makers at the point of action. Backwards contests and active hands are an essential support mechanism a drop center needs to optimize the coverage. Outside of J.J. Redick, it wouldn’t be fair to suggest that any of the Mavs rotation guards are awful defenders, but none disrupt at the point of action which isn’t a good combination with the limited mobility of Porzingis.
Towards the end of the year, Dallas experimented at times with more aggressive coverages when Powell or Cauley-Stein played center. On the whole, Dallas lacks the team size to consistently commit to aggressive coverages. The Denver Nuggets run a very aggressive scheme and have done so since Michael Malone has been coach. It works as their roster is stocked with lengthy wings seemingly created on an assembly line over the years: Torrey Craig, P.J. Dozier, Gary Harris, Will Barton and Aaron Gordon. They marry their defensive scheme to their roster construction. The results weren’t there for Denver this season with injuries and roster turnover. Denver has still done a good job finding the right players to allow them to mix up coverages.
Dallas has just Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith as long aggressive players to cover ground while Dallas hedges or attempts to disrupt the ball handler. Outside of those two, it’s easy to see why the coaching staff became pretty committed to running a conservative drop coverage scheme.
Simply put, Dallas needs to overhaul the roster to allow for a clear defensive philosophy and plan. Blitzing seems a good idea when the alternative is playing a bland drop coverage that doesn’t force turnovers. A commitment to making aggressive coverages more realistic and profitable would require the Mavericks to throw money and draft picks at signing lengthy wings. Finding a more versatile center is a necessary first step, but the whole Mavericks roster needs a sizeable overhaul. There are too many one-way players and one-dimensional specialists on the roster. Simply changing personnel won’t be enough. The best way to maximize defense is to mix up coverages. Dallas cannot do this with the current roster construction. It is obvious what type of coverage a team will come up against because of the personnel on the floor. This needs to be addressed and they need to stop drafting and trading for need, it’s not a sound strategy.
I still think part of the secret sauce come playoff time is being able to *mix* your defensive coverages and keep teams out of rhythm.— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) April 14, 2021
Dallas needs a center for both sides of the ball, even if the defensive need is more obvious. Additionally, a center alone will not fix the Mavericks' defense. They need to build a versatile, modern roster that allows them to mix coverages, and they need to do away with some of the one-way players on the roster. Having one-play-type specialists at the back end of the roster is fine for certain matchups, such as Marjanovic. But having them as core parts of the rotation really hampers their ceiling. Dallas has reached to fill needs and has too many players who offer one thing while on the court. This hampers fluidity and versatility on both sides of the ball. This requires a multi-offseason approach and will take a clear medium to long-term plan from the front office to rectify.
This is a make-or-break off-season for the Mavericks, there’s just no way around that. Dallas needs to try and find a secondary ball-handler above all else. As of now, Dallas’ offense can become stale when Luka sits, and they simply don’t have a player worth giving secondary creation usage to. This means the Mavericks rely on three-point variance which explains the insane wins and some mind-numbing losses. The center position needs an upgrade as this position is essential on both sides of the ball.
But it won’t fix everything. Dallas needs to retool the roster and work out what exactly they are trying to do. Their win-now moves, such as the Redick trade, do not mesh with drafting Josh Green, a project defender who needs a lot of developing. This isn’t a knock-on Green; he will be a good player. It’s a knock on a clear lack of direction.
It’s clear those holding the power in Dallas agree to some extent with this sentiment. As of now, the Mavericks are what they are. They’re a team reliant on Hall of Fame level numbers from one player while he plays without a single teammate who can create and sustain offense. The defensive scheme is near enough the only option given the lack of length and point of action disruption. As constructed, they can only mix coverages realistically with certain players on the floor. The young players they have are not ready to contribute, but the veterans at the back end of the roster aren’t good enough to play. This isn’t a pleasant conundrum.
The new front office needs to formulate a plan to remedy these issues, but the challenge is clear. Soon, it will be time for the new front office team to get to work.
Kirk and Joe also talk about this article in even more depth on Mavs Moneyball Podcast feed. Click here to be taken to a direct link, click play on the embed below, or if you can’t see that, go to your feed and search Mavs Moneyball Podcast. Here’s the link again!