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The open looks have disappeared for the Mavericks

Dallas still has the spacing and the shooters for their offense, but teams are defending them differently.

Dallas Mavericks v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

While the Dallas Mavericks were in a dogfight with a short-handed New Orleans Pelicans team last night, I had one major thought running through my head: Are teams paying more attention to Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, and Reggie Bullock on the perimeter?

In the context of the game and the Mavericks short season so far, it was a little bit of an odd thought. The Mavericks lost Tuesday’s night game primarily on the defensive end, where they allowed a 40 point first quarter to a Pelicans team missing Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram. It was an uphill battle from there that the Mavericks couldn’t overcome. In the second half of their loss in the season opener to the Suns, the Mavericks defense similarly couldn’t get enough stops. The Mavericks are averaging 117 points per game so far, shooting almost 50 percent from the floor and nearly 39 percent from three so in the grand scheme of things, inconsistent defense has allowed them to drop two games they should have won.

Yet that’s all I could think about, as I kept looking at the slow offensive starts from the Mavericks role players. Luka Doncic and Christian Wood are popping off, but you’ll notice Finney-Smith, Bullock, and Kleber — three players the Mavericks have counted on to make shots — aren’t doing much of anything offensively. That trio is combining to attempt only 10 three pointers per game so far this season, while last season that trio combined to average 15.5 three point attempts per game. That’s a significant number and makes a difference in how the offense looks and flows around Luka Doncic.

In three games, the Mavericks are averaging 12.3 “wide open” three point attempts per game, according to classifies “wide open” as the closest defender being six feet away from the shooter. As a caveat, analysts around the league have doubted how accurate this tracking data is, but it’s still useful in this exercise, because the difference is stark — last season the Mavericks were second in the league in wide open three point attempts per game at 17.2. That number has consistently been between 15 and 17 since Doncic’s second season when the Mavericks ascended to playoff status, so a drop this significant will be felt.

Dallas Mavericks “Wide Open” Three Point Attempts Per Game

Season "Wide Open" 3PT FGA Per Game League Rank
Season "Wide Open" 3PT FGA Per Game League Rank
2019-2020 16.9 2nd
2020-2021 15.2 10th
2021-2022 17.2 2nd
2022-2023 (three games) 12.3 20th

It’s shown itself in smaller ways, as like I said the Mavericks offense overall is fine. One way is clutch offense, where the Mavericks haven’t made a single three pointer in 10 clutch minutes so far this season and overall shooting 4-of-14 from the field in the clutch. It’s shown in Doncic’s numbers across a game — Doncic is dominating at the rim, with a third of his shots coming near the basket so far this season, but Doncic is struggling in the second halves of games. In the two fourth quarters Doncic has played against Phoenix and New Orleans, he’s shooting 36.4 percent. Overall in second halves, he’s shooting 37.1 percent. Related: Doncic leads the league this season with a 39.3 usage rate.

The strategy from Phoenix and New Orleans looked clear enough: stay home on the Mavericks role players, knowing those players don’t have the offensive talent to offer much of a counter (see Bullock’s missed floater from the baseline late in the fourth quarter on Tuesday), allow Doncic to score as much as he wants, hopefully wearing him down by the time the fourth quarter comes and the Mavericks players unable to pick up the slack. This is where the Jalen Brunson loss has been felt most, as Doncic is playing the entire first and third quarters to make sure the Mavericks keep one of their two trusted playmakers on the floor at all times. It’s those minutes where Doncic is off and Dinwiddie is running the show that you can see the cracks in the Mavericks offense really show, despite Dinwiddie’s strong shooting start.

This strategy worked for the Suns and Pelicans and to be fair, that’s only two games. There are going to be games where this strategy doesn’t work, like against the Grizzlies where Doncic’s scoring barrage created an insurmountable deficit for Memphis. Missing Tim Hardaway Jr. against the Pelicans also makes a difference, because despite Hardaway’s shooting slump, he’s still a player defenses respect and he has more movement shooting ability compared to the other role players. The main issue is that this doesn’t seem to be a rotation or lineup issue that could make a quick fix — Kidd is only playing one non-shooting big so far, JaVale McGee, and McGee is averaging just 13.1 minutes per game. Otherwise Dallas is playing five out basketball with either Kleber, Christian Wood, or both on the floor together. If Kidd were cramping the spacing with McGee and another big, that’d make sense, but for the most part Dallas has had plenty of shooting on the floor, which is evidenced by Doncic’s great start in the paint. There’s clearly room on the floor for the Mavericks to work with.

Going forward, the fix will likely rely on tactics and not lineups. Perhaps more off-ball screening action is needed to free up Finney-Smith and Kleber, perhaps more cutting off the ball if defenders are going to play those players so close. Hardaway’s return should help as well. Either way, it’s still early. The Mavericks have plenty of time to figure it out, but it definitely is something they’ll need to figure out this season.