The Dallas Mavericks opened their playoff series with the Los Angeles Clippers with a starting lineup of Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Maxi Kleber, and Dorian Finney-Smith. The five never started together during the regular season, and rarely saw the floor as a unit at all. But it worked. The Mavericks cruised to two easy victories with coach Rick Carlisle’s new starting five.
Clippers coach Ty Lue stayed consistent with his starting lineup the first two games as well. Kawhi Leonard, Marcus Morris, Ivic Zubac, Patrick Beverly, and Paul George opened both games. The Clippers used this lineup four times during the regular season, and overall, they logged the fourth highest minutes together for the year.
Down 2-0 in Dallas, Lue changed his starting lineup with the season on the line. Reggie Jackson replaced Beverly in Game 3, and not with token minutes. Beverly, abused by Doncic over the course of the first two games, was banished to the bench and only played eleven minutes total the rest of the series. Jackson played 34 minutes in Game 3, providing a spark the Clippers desperately needed, and the Clippers managed to avoid a 3-0 hole.
In Game 4, Lue fully embraced a small ball lineup, benching Zubac and playing Nicolas Batum at center. Doncic had torched Zubac in every way imaginable, and it was obvious to everyone that any minute Zubac was on the court was a win for Dallas. Carlisle, who had kept his starting lineup and rotation consistent for all four games, tried to force Lue to bring Zubac back onto the floor by playing Boban Marjanovic 15 minutes, but Lue wouldn’t bite, and Marjanovic couldn’t make the Clippers undersized forwards pay. The Clippers evened the series and headed back to Los Angeles certain they’d figured out the Mavericks.
But the Mavericks must have seen something in those Marjanovic minutes that they liked, because the starting lineup shifted for Game 5. Kleber headed to the bench, replaced by Marjanovic at center, while Porzingis moved to forward. Dwight Powell was thrust into the mix, playing 22 minutes off the bench, while Kleber logged 19 off the bench. The Mavericks experimented with a 2-3 zone, and it worked. Lue finally took the bait and Zubac played 20 minutes. Dallas walked away with a 105-100 win and a 3-2 series lead.
The Clippers, though, adjusted in Game 6, abandoning all notions of a big man. Zubac saw only five minutes on the floor. Lue dialed up the minutes on his starters, playing George 46 minutes, while Leonard and Morris each logged 42. Jackson saw his minutes creep from 29 in Game 5 to 38 in Game 6. Lue dusted the cobwebs off of Luke Kennard and got good minutes from another perimeter player. The Clippers solved the Mavericks’ zone and found they could guard Marjanovic by mobbing him in the paint. The Clippers evened the series with a 104-97 win, forcing a Game 7.
Unfortunately for the Mavericks, Carlisle ran out of levers to pull in Game 7. He went with the same starting lineup from the past two games, and just like Lue in Game 6, tried to maximize his starters. Doncic, Porzingis, and Hardaway all played at least 43 minutes, while Marjanovic played an eye-popping 31. Jalen Brunson led the bench with just 10 minutes. And just like Game 6, the Clippers had the Mavericks figured out. Lue gave Mann 26 minutes, and Kennard clocked in at 15 after barely playing in the first five games.
Carlisle, though, had nowhere to turn. There was no one on the bench to bring energy and athleticism, like Mann for the Clippers. (Or rather, no one he trusted—looking at Josh Green over there, wasting away on the bench) Josh Richardson wasn’t able to make an impact. Carlisle, in what can only be called an act of desperation, even inserted Trey Burke into the game, probably hoping for some Bubble magic. But Burke couldn’t replicate his Orlando performance and was yanked quickly. Carlisle had no big who could make the Clippers pay for going so small, either. He and Lue spent six games making adjustments, but by Game 7, Carlisle had reached the end of his bench and had no one left to contribute.
For whatever reason, Carlisle never gained trust in Green. Tyrell Terry was out most of the season, so it was always unlikely he’d find a spot in the playoff rotation. JJ Redick, brought in for shooting and veteran leadership, re-aggravated a heel injury right before the playoffs and never saw the floor. Nicolo Melli, a part of the same trade with Redick, was completely ineffective on both ends of the floor in short stints early in the series.
Essentially, Carlisle only had 10 players with which he could carve out a playoff rotation. Of those 10, Marjanovic was brought in to be a bench presence, not a crucial piece of the playoff puzzle. Powell played well in Game 5, but saw limited minutes going forward. Perhaps expecting big contributions from him 18 months after a devastating Achille’s tendon injury was too much.
The Mavericks had four rookies on the roster, including two-way players Nate Hinton and Tyler Bey. Tyrell Terry missed most of the season for personal reasons and couldn’t realistically be expected to contribute. Hinton and Bey making an impact in a playoff series would be literally historic. That leaves Josh Green, whom Carlisle woefully underplayed during the regular season. It’s possible that with the compressed season, injuries, and Covid-19 issues that Carlisle felt he had no margin for error and couldn’t play a rookie who would surely make mistakes. But that cost him depth once the postseason rolled around, and it left him another roster spot short.
Simply put, the Mavericks went into their series with the Clippers with Doncic, Porzingis, Hardaway, Kleber, Finney-Smith, Brunson, Richardson, and Cauley-Stein as the rotation. It’s not unusual to have a playoff rotation that tight. But when Richardson, Brunson, and Porzingis proved ineffective, Carlisle had nowhere else to turn. Six of his 17 roster spots were virtually unplayable, while another three couldn’t stay on the floor for more than a few spot minutes.
Unlike Lue, Carlisle had to stick with his starting five most of the series. The only surprise addition to the rotation was Marjanovic, and even that only worked for one game. In a seven game series, where the Mavericks pushed the Clippers to the brink, just one more player contributing might have made a difference.
Whoever takes over as general manager has a big job ahead of them. Getting a player like Doncic is the hard part, but now the new front office will have to find a way to build a surrounding cast that goes deeper than the starting five. If they don’t, more playoff failures loom, regardless of who coaches the team.
Here’s our episode of the Mavs Moneyball Podcast discussing the Dallas Mavericks hiring Jason Kidd and Nico Harrison. Here’s the Green Room on the topics as well. Search Mavs Moneyball Podcast on your favorite app to find the episode, click the link, or press play in the player below.