Last season, the Dallas Mavericks reached the Western Conference Finals for the first time in eleven years. It was a magical run that made everyone feel really good about a squad that looked a bit shaky during the early days of the 2021-2022 season. After Kristaps Porzingis was sent to basketball purgatory, the Mavericks hit their stride, cruising to a 20-7 record (.740 win percentage) to close out the regular season. The previously maligned Spencer Dinwiddie averaged 15.8/3.1/3.9 on .498/.404/.725 splits, endearing himself to Mavs fans everywhere. Since 2019, the Maverick faithful had been clamoring for another high-level ball handler and shot creator to pair with Luka Doncic. The insertion of Jalen Brunson into the starting lineup and his subsequent breakout season finally gave them that guy, and the addition of Dinwiddie meant that at least two impact ball handlers could share the court at all times. This was a recipe for success, as the Mavs were able to advance to the Western Conference Finals despite being heavily outmatched in the frontcourt during every playoff series.
As you may have heard, Jalen Brunson is no longer a Dallas Maverick— he now plays for the Mavericks’ farm system team in New York. Brunson’s departure sent shockwaves through the MFFL community; suddenly, the team’s second-best player and secondary ball handler was gone, leaving a massive hole on the roster. Surely, many of us thought, Mavs Brain Trust has a backup plan for this. If they really knew that Brunson was going to leave, there must be some kind of contingency. Having Dinwiddie as Brunson insurance is nice, but the team really took off once that third ball handler was thrown into the mix. General Manager Nico Harrison has to recognize this and do something!
In the aftermath of the Brunson news, alarm bells started going off when Marc Stein reported that the Mavs were not planning on pursuing another guard, preferring to focus on wing depth instead (they ended up addressing neither). Then the Goran Dragic debacle happened. Before long, the market for backup PG’s had dried up. Mavs fans turned to thirsting after the likes of Dennis Schroder and Kemba Walker. Addiction to the idea of a third ball handler got so collectively bad that many expressed dismay at the news of Dennis Smith Jr agreeing to a deal with the Charlotte Hornets. Despite this, as of right now, the message from Cuban and company is simple: we like the guys we have.
The desire for a third (effective) ball handler is a rational one. Now, more than ever, it is incredibly important for good NBA teams to employ as many sources of self-creation as they possibly can. As it currently stands, the Mavs have two players that can be counted on in this manner: Luka Doncic and Spencer Dinwiddie. No one knows what will happen at the trade deadline but at the moment, the role of third ball handler and backup PG will have to emerge from players already on the roster. On media day, Kidd designated two players specifically that will get first crack at the task; but filling the void that Brunson left will take a village. Here are the players who will attempt to do just that.
As horrifying as this reality is, Frank Ntilikina represents (by default) the best option to masquerade as the Mavericks’ backup PG. Tim Cato reported that the Mavs are confident in Ntilikina’s ability to be just that. If that really is the Mavs plan for the entire season, it is a very bad one. I like Frank just fine and think he can contribute to a winning team; he proved this with some incredibly effective minutes against the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Semifinals. The issue is that Frank is not a point guard or ball handler. He operates best on offense as a wing, spotting up for wide open three pointers and occasionally attacking a closeout. The more he is asked to do with the ball in his hands, the less effective he will be. Ntilikina needs to focus on improving his three point percentage and should not have to worry about running the Mavericks’ offense.
Josh Green has showed flashes of incredible court vision and passing ability. He recently set the internet on fire with the world’s greatest training camp practice. Unfortunately, we have not seen any indication in games that he has the ability to dribble the basketball, finish at the rim, or create anything resembling his own shot. Green is still very young, and improvement in those areas will hopefully come, but for now he’s still best utilized as a spot-up shooter/cutter. Mavs fans can only hope that the year-three leap is coming in a big way.
Tim Hardaway Jr.
Although Hardaway has the ability to put the ball on the floor, attack the basket, and hit mid-range pull ups, he is most effective as a spot-up three point shooter. That skill is what made the Mavericks invest $75 million in him, not his shot creation ability. According to NBA stats, Hardaway shot 37.5% on pull-up jumpers in 2020-2021, good for an eFG% of 46.1%. His eFG% on catch-and-shoot jumpers was 60.7%. For his career, Hardaway has an 11.1 AST%. For context Spencer Dinwiddie’s career AST% is 29.2%. This information tells us that Hardaway is not adept at creating his own shot or creating shots for others. It remains to be seen what a healthy Tim Hardaway Jr. will look like in this version of the Mavericks’ offense, but asking him to take on more ball handling responsibility seems like it would be setting him up for failure.
It’s clear that the Dallas front office believes in Jaden Hardy— after all, they traded into the draft to nab him in the second round and signed him to fully guaranteed rookie deal. Hardy’s talent is undeniable; he’s what the kids call a “real hooper.” Despite a horribly inefficient season with the G-League Ignite a year ago, Hardy’s pedigree and flashes of potential were enough to convince Nico Harrison that he has a future in the NBA. Hardy could very well end up being a very good NBA guard; there’s a wide range of outcomes for him. With that being said, there is almost no chance that he makes any kind of meaningful impact in his rookie season. Hardy is still incredibly raw, and asking him to be the third ball handler in 2022 simply isn’t fair. He’ll get his reps, but counting on him for real production would be foolish in more ways than one.
Apparently he can bring the ball up the court. It is something that could physically happen.
None of these options are good. Luka Doncic and Spencer Dinwiddie are going to be asked to log heavy regular season minutes, which is an issue considering neither player has been the picture of health thus far in their careers. The role of third ball handler will have to be performed by committee, a proposition that doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence. In my opinion, how they address this issue at the trade deadline will determine how far this team can go in the playoffs this year. Because, as currently constructed, they are far too short on shot creation to make any kind of serious run.