Dorian Finney-Smith perhaps best summed up the Mavericks recent winning stretch of basketball games after the Mavericks 104-91 win against the Memphis Grizzlies Saturday night.
“It’s been winning us games, so why change it,” the Mavericks forward bluntly stated.
Indeed, why should the Mavericks change anything? Since a buzzer-beating loss to the Sacramento Kings on Dec. 29, the Mavericks have won 11 out of their last 13 games, including a six-game winning streak. They’ve held opponents under 50 percent shooting in 23 straight games. They are also now fourth in defensive rating, according to stats site Cleaning the Glass. It’s been a dominant run too: eight of the 11 wins have been by double digits, with one of the three single-digit wins being by nine points.
Simply put, the Mavericks are kicking a lot of ass right now and it’s almost entirely on the defensive end. Good thing to, because strangely, the Mavericks still can’t hit their threes. In these past 11 games, the Mavericks are shooting 33.8 percent from three. In the Mavericks last seven games, where they’ve gone 5-2, they’re shooting an anemic 28.8 percent.
For a Mavericks team the last two seasons that won games on hot shooting and Luka Doncic’s offensive brilliance, it’s absolutely bizarre to see. Sometimes it’s hard to even make sense of it.
Almost every major rotation player is going through some sort of shooting slump. In the past seven games, Finney-Smith is at 25.7 percent. Reggie Bullock at 30 percent. Jalen Brunson at 25 percent. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kristaps Porzingis look like flamethrowers at 34 and 35.7 percent, respectively. Don’t even look at Doncic’s number while standing — he’s shooting 18.9 percent from three in the past seven games.
Yet despite all the missed shots, the Mavericks are seemingly better than ever. That defense is the reason why.
There are a multitude of reasons why and talented writers like Iztok Franko and Nekias Duncan have both done a good job summarizing why: the Mavericks’ scheme is improved from the Rick Carlisle era, where the Mavericks are more aggressive against the ball handler and rotating extremely well on kick outs, while their bigs do a great job at the rim and they get a little three point shooting luck. They’re forcing teams into worse shots, yes, but what’s interesting is this isn’t a new Mavericks development. Cleaning the Glass has a stat called “location effective field goal percentage”, which it defines as “if this team allowed the league average field goal percentage from each location, what would their opponents’ effective field goal percentage be?” This gives a decent indication on shot quality, both offensively and defensively. For the Mavericks, they rank eighth in defensive location effective field goal percentage this season, a solid mark. But last season they ranked ninth and the season before? 13th. So yes, a noted improvement, but not drastic enough to explain how the Mavericks went from below average defensively to top-5 in a single offseason with little roster upheaval.
The main difference goes back to that new scheme. Under Rick Carlisle, the Mavericks were deathly conservative on the defensive end. They played extreme drop coverage in the pick and roll with all their bigs and rarely met the ball handler at the three point line with the helper in a pick and roll. Dallas did this for two reasons: 1. the team played a lot of seasons with the older Dirk Nowitzki, who couldn’t really be tasked to move on the defensive end and 2. this approach did coerce opponents into taking more midrange jumpers, which is ideal compared to something at the rim or a three. The problem was the Mavericks ended up allowing guards to walk into open pull up twos (or sometimes pull up threes) or they presented a runway to the rim, which made it difficult for even good rim defenders like Maxi Kleber and Kristaps Porzingis to clean up.
Now the Mavericks big men creep a bit closer to the ball handler on screens, challenging guards earlier. The best way to explain the difference between the two styles is that before the Mavericks allowed teams to shoot from the midrange and now they’re forcing teams to shoot from there. Using Dwight Powell as a dropping rim defender is a waste of Powell’s quickness and the new Mavericks coaching staff is allowing him to use his speed more often than the previous regime. The Mavericks had 12 blocks and 10 steals against the Grizzlies and their deflections on the season are up from last season. What’s great about the Mavericks newfound aggression is that it isn’t killing them on the backend: According to Cleaning the Glass, Dallas is sixth-best in the league in limiting opponent corner threes and 15th in limiting shots at the rim. The shots at the rim number isn’t great, but the corner three number is and it highlights how well the Mavericks are rotating and helping while playing a more aggressive style. Jason Kidd’s Milwaukee teams were notorious for trapping and blitzing ball handlers, only to allow easy corner threes, layups and dunks as teams were smart to pass out of it. It seems now Kidd has toned down that style for something a bit more reasonable and it’s working for the Mavericks.
It’s obvious while in Los Angeles Kidd liked the Lakers two-big approach with Anthony Davis and he’s doing it in Dallas, starting both Kristaps Porzingis and Maxi Kleber in the past week. Memphis shot 43 times at the rim Sunday night, but only converted 51 percent of the attempts, significantly down from the league average mark of 64 percent. Credit also to Reggie Bullock, who gives the Mavericks an additional big defensive wing next to Finney-Smith (or in relief of him) that the Mavericks have desperately needed for the past two seasons. It also helps when your star player has bought in, which it appears Doncic has. “I actually think I got way better defensively,” Doncic said after the Grizzlies win. “But it’s our team defense. Our team defense has helped me get better.”
It’s still just so strange though to see the stark difference between the offense and defense. Dallas is winning now and the improved defense will bulldoze the regular season, but the playoffs are a different beast. The Mavericks are currently 17th in offense according to Cleaning the Glass, and that’s a mark that just won’t cut it when the playoffs start later this year. Defense wins championships, yes, but lately in the NBA offense wins playoff series — in 2019 I looked at the trends of how top 10 offenses and top 10 defenses fared in the playoffs and the top 10 offenses were better in terms of progressing into the playoffs (of course a lot of those top 10 offenses were also a top 10 defense). We’ve seen countless times over the past few seasons how detrimental a bad offense can be. The counter is, with the Mavericks, we’ve also seen how costly a poor defense can be as well.
Things are weird right now when evaluating the Mavericks. You’d expect the team’s shooting to turnaround at some point to keep up the winning run, but it just hasn’t happened. Maybe the Mavericks are just, ahem, built different. We’ll find out in about four months.
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