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The Dallas Mavericks are missing Jalen Brunson on and off the court

The Mavericks could use a dose of what Brunson brought to the team

“Some people say he has wires in his head. If you take off his face, you’ll see wires, because he’s a robot. He’s a machine”.

That’s Eric Paschall, Jalen Brunson’s former Villanova teammate, describing his leadership style. He never got too high, or too low, and it rubbed off on his teammates. He was the last one at the gym. When he became the favorite to win the National Player of the Year, he scaled back his aggression as a scorer so his teammates didn’t feel shrifted. He was every collegiate point guard cliche rolled into one; his father was even a point guard, and thus you could claim Jalen was born into the role without sounding like a cliche yourself.

Marc Stein said a few times in the 2021-2022 season that Brunson was the Mavericks’ locker room leader, specifically that he was its most “forceful” voice. It wasn’t the main thing I worried about from his departure; there was plenty to worry about on the court that I’ll get to, but I’ve thought about it through the team’s recent woes. Mainly because those woes befit an unfocused team. Having less road wins than only one other team. Losing to poor competition. Giving up large leads. Consider too, the mistakes on-court which have stood out in losses; decision making, whether in the short roll, with a 4-on-3 advantage, or when Luka Doncic sits. Brunson’s off-court and on-court absence are of a piece, and I’m reminded of two goofy anecdotes from last year.

Josh Green forgetting the details of Brunson’s salad dressing order:

Brunson chiding Maxi Kleber for forgetting his work out shoes:

I’m joking about these instances being some sort of keyhole into the Mavericks struggles, but it’s a fitting metaphor. It’s easy to imagine Brunson helping to keep this year’s team even-keeled through the raised expectations and self-satisfaction that follows a big playoff run. Outside of Doncic, who played on the most successful European franchise, the team is made up of over-achievers and journeymen. Though the Mavericks often played down to their competition last year, it’s been even more glaring this season, and the team resting on its laurels could play a part. The kind of personality Brunson brought to Villanova helped to demand a more consistent attitude towards the game.

The leadership style also juxtaposes with Doncic’s, who plays with a joy that inspires, and is by all accounts a great person in a way that makes him endearing to his team. But there are traits specific to his nature that Brunson stood in relief to. Doncic is fiery, stubborn, and emotional. Brunson was the exact opposite, and their differences were an appropriate leadership fit. The mercurial mad genius, and the voice of reason. Brunson and Doncic had their flaws together, both as off-ball shooters and defensively, but what’s become apparent to me is how much Brunson fit with the roster and philosophy of the team as a whole.

Doncic is a generational basketball mind that creates good offense on auto-pilot, but the rest of the team lacks at processing the game. It’s no knock on Spencer Dinwiddie to say it’s problematic for him to be the second best decision maker on the team. When he is asked to lead offense as the point guard without Doncic on the floor, there is a stark difference in purpose and organization. The ball moves glacially, the clock becomes like a sixth defender, and the shot quality dips. Shot quality metrics point to Doncic being among the best in the sport at creating good shots, and the Mavericks as a team depend on it from a roster construction standpoint because of the limited nature of the role players.

It’s not hyperbolic to say that gap is as great as any team in the sport, and thus taking out just one of the three creators on last year’s team (Doncic, Brunson, and to a lesser extent Dinwiddie) has catastrophic effects. I never felt Brunson was among the sports’ best playmakers—he is not a great lob thrower, and often when he reached into his old-man post-up bag he got tunnel vision. Still, he averages a little over six assists for a New York Knicks team that often plays through their forwards, and remains a starter-level decision maker who rarely turns it over. Playing with Doncic effectively turned him into a combo guard, but it was still an offense with two lead initiators.

They were not the best overall duo, and Doncic deserved the majority of the credit, but they were among the best creator duos in the league. Steph Curry and Draymond Green would have an argument, but the differences in that pair’s style points to the importance of having a second maestro in Dallas’ heliocentric, drive-and-kick offense. Curry’s off-ball gravity and Draymond’s intuitive sense of the moment fit their system perfectly, but the ways in which Brunson emulated Doncic allowed the Mavericks’ offense to function like the bluntly effective instrument it’s built to be. Get inside, work your man, draw help, kick out.

Now, consider having the potential for that to come from two sides of the court. Consider that by staggering the two players, that style’s effectiveness lasted all 48 minutes. I remember Nekias Duncan and Steve Jones on The Dunker Spot suggesting that Brunson papered over the team’s depth issues last year because of the ability to have a great initiator and organizer of offense at all times, and I’m inclined to agree.

No matter what Christian Wood can do to give the Maverick’s more scoring variety, neither he or Dinwiddie can emulate that consistency of purpose. Kristaps Porzingis couldn’t either. Much is made of the predictability of heliocentrism, but as currently constructed the team is too deeply ingrained—too many spot up shooters, too much specialization. If you had four players around Doncic who could spot up and break down a defense, it would work wonders. Same as if you had elite play finishers (a marksman, a rim runner, etc.). James Harden and Chris Paul ran a similar system with the Houston Rockets, and while the personalities ultimately didn’t fit because of their own neurotic need to orchestrate, they were one cold-shooting half away from defeating the greatest team of all time.

I have a theory that the easiest path to contention is to have outlier creativity and skill (Warriors, Suns, Beautiful Game Spurs), or undeniable physicality and force (Lakers, Bucks, Celtics). The Mavericks are not built to be the latter, but feel just as far from the former, and considering there is a savant on the team, that’s disappointing. Maybe it’s no coincidence the best stretch of basketball in Doncic’s career has come when another player could carry the burden of offensive creativity. It’s been said Doncic is an artist, but what to do when his tools aren’t up to snuff? Perhaps a collaborator has been the best choice all along, and for the wild poetry of his game, who better than a different kind of point guard—one with wires in his head, a robot, a machine.