The Dallas Mavericks are likely to start Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, Dorian Finney-Smith and Reggie Bullock. These players offer specific skill sets which compliment each other well. Luka is the offensive engine that makes the Mavericks spread pick and roll offense run. Porzingis(hopefully) offers a secondary scorer, floor spacing and rim protection. Finney-Smith and Bullock provide “3 and D” skill sets which compliment Luka.
Luka is the sun around which the entire Mavericks solar system revolves. How the other Mavericks fit around Luka is paramount. Luka thrives in spacing because it makes it easier for him to finish at the rim with the paint vacated. Playing shooters around Luka also takes advantage of the volume and quality of three point shots that Luka creates.
Porzingis, Bullock and Finney-Smith combined to shoot 379 of 958 (39.6 percent) on 3s last year. The spacing these players provide opens up some options for the fifth starter that would not be available otherwise. These are the options for the Mavericks fifth starter in the order I believe is most likely.
Despite being miscast as a big wing defender, when fully healthy, Kleber is still among the Mavericks best defenders. He is also among the team’s most accurate shooters (41.0 percent 3-point shooting last season) though on lower volume.
Kleber has provided solid rim protection in the past though that skill dropped this season as he allowed an at rim field goal percentage of 62.6 percent which was a career high. If returned to a more traditional big man role, I believe this skill would return.
The issue with Kleber is that he would require a return to form for Porzingis as a true second star offensively. Kleber, Bullock and Finney-Smith are all good “3 and D” players but none of them can create shots for themselves or others. This lineup is incredibly lacking in shot creation outside of Luka. If Porzingis is a “star” who can create some offense for himself and others, this lineup works. If he can’t, it does not.
Tim Hardaway Jr.
Hardaway Jr. is the Mavericks second or third best player depending on how Porzingis plays. His combination of volume and accuracy from distance is unmatched on the Dallas roster. He took 9.6 3-pointers per 36 minutes last season and hit them at a 39.1 percent clip.
Hardaway Jr. would also provide another option who can create his own shot in the starting lineup. Luka creates the vast majority of the offense when he is on the court, but he can’t create literally every shot. Having a release valve who can attack a scrambled defense such as Hardaway Jr. is a huge help. Hardaway Jr. can also take and hit highly contested jumpers which is a skill that some of the other shooters in this lineup do not possess.
The problem with starting Hardaway Jr. as the other guard with Luka is that while he can create his own shot, he is absolutely not a secondary playmaker nor does he provide good defense. Hardaway Jr’s defensive shortcomings are perhaps not quite as bad as some Mavericks fans believe but he is a below average defender.
This would also leave the team with no vertical spacing unless Porzingis is able to return to rim running. Luka carves up teams in pick and rolls but if he does not have a lob threat, it is not fully utilizing his abilities. Because of that and the defensive factors, Hardaway Jr. should likely only be the fifth starter if Porzingis is fully back to his unicorn ways.
The argument for starting Powell comes down to two words. Rim running. Powell returned to being an elite rim runner towards the end of last season. He finished the season in the 91st percentile of rim runners despite a slow start per nba.com. If Porzingis is unable, unwilling or not allowed to rim run, starting a player who can do so at an elite level with all of the spacing this starting lineup would provide makes a lot of sense.
The biggest downside to this move is that it signals more of the same from Porzingis. If the team feels the need to start Powell, it likely means that the healthy offseason has not meant a return to unicorn status for Porzingis and while the team is likely to be successful in the regular season, there will be a hard cap on the team’s playoff ceiling.
Powell provides basic basketball competence as he is generally in the right place, plays hard and knows what to do. He is not a sexy name as the fifth starter but it is possible and perhaps probable that he ends up being the fifth starter.
Cauley-Stein is another very good defensive option though of a different type than Kleber. Cauley-Stein is a pure center though he does have the physical tools to switch. The Mavericks were 6.1 points per 48 minutes better defensively with Cauley-Stein on the court than off the court.
If Cauley-Stein were willing to fully commit to hard rim running after every screen he sets, he would be the clear choice as the final starter. He finished in the 63rd percentile as a roll man last season. Even with his poor hands and finishing ability, his sheer size and athleticism demands some level of defensive attention when he rolls hard. But expecting a 28 year old in his seventh season to become something he hasn’t been for his whole career is inviting disappointment.
No matter how much we might wish for Cauley-Stein to become Tyson Chandler lite, he simply isn’t that guy. He will likely continue to mill about aimlessly after screens a large amount of the time neither rolling, popping nor short rolling. Because of that ambivalence, he likely will not be a starter.
This is admittedly a reach. Burke found a surprising amount of success playing alongside Luka in the bubble. Burke has talent as a scorer but because he is point guard sized, he has often been miscast in that role. Because of Luka’s unique ability to play point guard while being the size of a forward, this limitation is mitigated when playing with Luka.
The Mavericks played Burke with Jalen Brunson a large amount last season in the hope that two lesser playmakers would be able to approximate one actual playmaker. That hope failed as Burke struggled mightily(45 percent true shooting percentage) with only Brunson to help him create shots.
However, even mired in his struggles last season, Burke was incredibly effective when paired with Luka. Burke had a 60.6 percent true shooting percentage when paired with Luka last season. His true shooting percentage fell to 49.5 percent without Luka. Burke was out of the NBA until his bubble run resuscitated his career. The catalyst for that was the simplified role he played looking to attack scrambled defenses and knock down open shots after Luka punctured the defense.
The Mavericks then paid him for that success but removed him from the pairing that was responsible for it. Burke provides a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses as Hardaway Jr. in the starting lineup though he is a much lesser player. Hardaway Jr. has become a good enough shot maker that he still provides value when not paired with Luka. Burke is not.
Last but not least we are left with Josh Green. Green’s lack of shooting can be somewhat mitigated in this lineup because everyone else can shoot. Green would also provide an interesting pick and roll partner for Luka. Green could provide short roll playmaking with his natural feel for passing and if he is defended by opposing point guards, that combination would be virtually unswitchable as Luka destroys opposing point guards.
Green was drafted to be a defensive pest who could knock down shots and his shot should not be given up on after 25 poor attempts last season. His defense is more theoretical than actualized at this point and even in college he was a low volume shooter. He is incredibly unlikely to be a starter but this is the lineup he is most likely to find success in. That does not mean he is the best completion to this lineup and he should not be shoehorned into a role that he has not earned.
Other-Not currently on the team
The offseason is not over and therefore it is still possible that the fifth starter will be a player that the Mavericks have not yet acquired.
The most likely answer is either Kleber or Tim Hardaway Jr. to start the season and either would mean that Luka is working with an absurd amount of spacing. Xavier Santos is the gambling writer, but that starting lineup makes Luka for MVP an incredibly enticing bet as the combination of high usage/stats with expected team success should make him a prime candidate.