After the signing of Kemba Walker, Mark Cuban spoke to Brad Townsend and mentioned that it was done to add “offensive flexibility”. It’s a phrase that understates the issues of a team who’s creation responsibilities have become painfully narrow (Luka, a dose of Dinwiddie or Wood, then pray) and resulted in a ten-game stretch in which the Mavericks have been a bottom five offense. The tone of the message sounds like the organization throwing a casual, risk-free dart; Kemba Walker is a former all star, so why wouldn’t you want another weapon? “Adding offensive flexibility” suggests the luxury of more options, when in reality it’s papering over self-imposed cracks, and gesturing towards an easy fix for a minor issue. In fact, it’s an issue that would take a whole offseason to overhaul
Mark Cuban to me on addition of Kemba Walker:— Brad Townsend (@townbrad) November 28, 2022
“We wanted to add some flexibility to our offense. Like last year at this point, we have great shot quality, particularly from the 3, but we have struggled to make enough of them. Kemba will give J-Kidd more offensive flexibility.”
Flexibility is doing a lot of work in the sentence, considering what the team has undergone lately. On Saturday afternoon, the collective offensive ingenuity and playmaking of the Mavericks hit its head on the proverbial ceiling and proved the invalid nature of the “Luka needs to get his teammates involved” narrative. The Mavericks had a chance to win or tie, and the Raptors smartly hard-trapped Luka as they had done all game. Who, the opponent asked, on this Mavericks team could make a play in space, even the oceanic space created by Luka’s gravity?
It went about how a Maverick’s fan would expect, with what I’ve dubbed “The 4-on-3 Heard Around DFW”. It seems almost irrelevant which role players were involved; any two or three of them could have been responsible and it would be par for the course. Just a few weeks earlier, at the end of a tight game, Reggie Bullock attempted to dribble, missed a close-quarters pass, and it lucked into Luka’s hands for a heaved three-pointer that went in.
The issue is that this was all easy to see coming; the team lost a true point guard in Jalen Brunson who was able take more responsibility creating for others without Luka. Spencer Dinwiddie was allowed to focus on scoring; he is not advanced at running offense, and leads one too many purposeless possessions. The oft-talked heliocentric style was less Luka-focused than it was initiatior-focused; you needed three players who could drive-and-kick if you were to have wings and bigs whose lack of passing vision and ball handling made them incapable of improvisation. The Maverick’s don’t just need creation skills to succeed, but to function as constructed.
This is what made working backwards from the off-season onward so baffling; that it was treated as “adding flexibility”, and not essential. Goran Dragic is a defensive negative who’s already seeing his minutes in Chicago dwindle, and I never thirsted for him as much as others, but he represented being proactive about a roster problem. He’s a much better player than Facundo Campazzo, but the bigger issue was the process of waiting till Campazzo was the only option. Improved self-awareness doesn’t take the team out from behind the 8-ball.
So what you get when you scramble to fill a hole after rosters are set, is a veteran with a recent history of knee problems, defensive questions as large as Dragic’s, and someone who was playing as much professional basketball as you or I when the season started. There is a small dollop of upside to the move, at least within the context of the limited role. Kemba’s stint in New York last year teased with a forty point game before his shooting tanked (fair to assume that his legs couldn’t hold up). It seems almost extraneous to talk about what skills he has left when so much depends on his durability, and it’s notable that no other team has signed him. We’ve seen other instances of former stars finding a second life; recall Carmelo Anthony’s similar path to becoming a defensively challenged bucket-getter off the bench. Kemba’s consistently hovered around 40% on catch-and-shoots, a must in the team’s scheme, and he will naturally improve the overall guard skills just by existing on a team so short of it. He’s also a famed locker room guy; arguably an underrated one.
All of this is why Kemba Walker doesn’t deserve the burden of expectations, and truthfully neither did Campazzo. Nor did Josh Green when he was forced to play point guard after Spencer Dinwiddie’s ejection Tuesday night. The NBA is fickle; players come and go, and so much of their success is fit and role, but when a team gives itself fewer options, it has to assume those things will go wrong, rather than right. Kemba might surprise, but what new issue might pop up and be papered over in the future? Hopefully the Mavericks address whatever that hole is in the off-season next time.