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Going small worked for the Dallas Mavericks against the Portland Trailblazers

The Mavericks relearned last year’s tactical lessons

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Portland Trail Blazers v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

The Dallas Mavericks had become a modern team. As the Mavericks ecstatically blazed through last season’s second half, a friend from another fan base asked me what was going on down in Dallas, and that’s what I said. Wingier, spacier, more mobile; smaller and sleeker. The big trade that defined the year wasn’t just a player for a player, but a stylistic change.

It’s easy to forget now, but Kristaps Porzingiz and another big were in two of the five most commonly used lineups last year. They posted negative net ratings and were the two worst in both offense and defense out of the five. A less used lineup, featuring Maxi Kleber and Dwight Powell together, was within the top ten in minutes played and a negative as well.

No one was going to confuse the Mavericks for “running and gunning”; we still played at the stately pace that comes natural to Luka, but the offense could breathe. Less fake shooting, less lumbering feet, less clogged lanes. On defense, despite worse rim protection, Kidd’s aggressive scheme was at it’s tightest rotationally with the improved footspeed. Fast forward to the 2022 playoffs and no matter the center we encountered (an all star, and then a budding one), we won despite the lack of an interior presence. As none of last year’s conference finalist gave heavy minutes to a player taller than 6-10, John Hollinger was inspired, in large part by the Mavericks, to coin the term “space-ball”:

“It’s the latest evolution in a postseason tactical game that continues evolving at a dizzying pace: String five players on the perimeter, switch everything on defense, go one-on-one against a defense that can’t easily send help, and either feast on open 3s or get to the rim. Forget pick-and-roll, this is more like pick-and-run. Space-ball teams might set a screen to get a switch, but the endgame is an isolation for the dribbler after the screener gets the hell out of dodge and relocates along the 3-point line.”

The 4th quarter of the Trail Blazers game had been a back and forth affair when Christian Wood fouled out, and I fully expected Kidd to use Kleber or Powell to close the game. Just a game ago, I’d rubbed my eyes to make sure I was actually witnessing a Maxi Kleber-Javale Mcgee lineup as it choked for points. Kidd seemed desperate to fix the defense through sheer size and force of big-man will, and at the low point of the season in losses on the road at Orlando and Washington, it reached its slogging nadir. The fact such a lineup came without Wood, rather than using his absence to shift towards smaller lineups, was disconcerting, a proof of Kidd’s principles being more important than what works. With Wood fouling out, I could hardly expect Kidd to push further against this year’s principles.

There it was, Dorian Finney-Smith at the five. I couldn’t believe it. Then again, we did it last year–in the playoffs often, due to our thinness, and sporadically in the regular season to close games against smaller teams. I had feared the JaVale McGee saga signaled that those ideas, lineups and concepts were something the staff and front office thought was only desperation born from necessity. Adding two big men in an off season, promising one a starting job and demanding the other be protected by Maxi Kleber like he’s a bodyguard, pointed in that direction. Necessity also breeds invention, and for the first time all season Kidd appeared to coach for the roster he had. JaVale McGee didn’t even play in the game!

The Blazers had Drew Eubanks on the floor and he could neither threaten the small ball with his offense, or keep up with a fully spread-out look defensively. Luke either went to the basket, or open shots were created. There were possessions with multiple open shooters, and where the opposing rotations were stretched to their breaking point. The open shots which had felt out of reach all season were finally not so hard to get.

Many shared Hollinger’s vision that these stylistic changes were tactically superior, but Kidd is stubborn. The infamous resistance to a quick timeout–or even a moderately timed one–encapsulates that. If the insistence on JaVale McGee was really his this off-season, it’s possible he found last year’s successes to be a kind of basketball parlor trick that wasn’t repeatable. As a defensive minded coach, perhaps he found that not protecting the rim and getting outrebounded were hard to stomach. Rebounds are ingrained into the basketball consciousness as symbols of a champion’s requisite grit. “No rebounds, no rings,” said Pat Riley. What Hollinger suggested was that in an era defined by shooting and speed, rebounding was a sacrificial lamb at the altar of mobility.

“The Mavs and Celtics also played great individual defense on Sunday and throughout the playoffs, and that was a major factor in their wins. But here’s the thing: Their space-ball lineups have enabled much of that. Playing this way allowed both teams to keep multiple elite 3-and-D wings on the floor, switch everything and not have a vulnerable true five lying around for opponent pick-and-rolls.”

Watching the game against Portland, I was reminded how much this team is suited to this style because, within a small-ball context, they are big. No player on the court to close was smaller than 6’6”, and for a team that isn’t particularly athletic, they feel their rangiest and lengthiest in that form. Many teams want to employ as many wing-sized players as possible, but don’t have two wing-sized ball handlers or enough wing-sized players. To stay big on the perimeter while going small.

The thing is, it’s true that winning titles is hard, and it takes adequacy at every facet. You do need a paint presence, but what the 6’10”-and-under crew of bigs in the playoffs taught was you need mobile ones. There was a confusion that Kevon Looney brutalized us at the basket, but he was always open because Golden State did “space ball” better than even the Mavericks. Looney simply had to dunk the ball, or be in position for a rebound while Kleber chased Steph Curry around.

I had no idea JaVale McGee would be this problematic, but I never supported the move for him because I thought it was learning the wrong lessons from last year’s success. It’s easy to imagine Kidd’s decision in those closing minutes as one he was resigned to, but it’s important to remember that his best quality last year was adjustments as the season and series’ went along. After two inexcusable losses, perhaps the stylistic stubbornness had shifted ever-so-slightly, and the real lessons of last year reasserted themselves as the destiny of this particular roster.