On his latest podcast with Jeff Van Gundy, Zach Lowe dropped a Mavs-related stat that blew my mind. The Mavericks are one of two teams that have better defensive metrics against the top half of the league’s offenses than the bottom half.
Considering where Dallas started the season, this is one of the wildest stats I’ve come across this year. Let’s take a look at what the Mavs are doing on the defensive end and whether those tactics can work in the playoffs.
The Mavs have been employing a type of matchup zone where they play man on the perimeter and employ zone principles on the back end. When the ball swings to the wing, keep your eyes locked on Dorian Finney-Smith. He practically abandons his man in the corner in order to protect the paint.
Dorian Finney-Smith is not a rim protector. His presence in the lane serves as more of a deterrent. The goal is to make the ball handler think twice about attacking the lane. Brandon Ingram starts to turn the corner and appears poised to drive into the lane. He gets a glance of Finney-Smith camped out in the lane and immediately pivots into looking for his mid-range jumper. In actuality, Ingram would have a clear advantage should he decide to attack the paint but Ingram has to make a split-second decision and decided against it.
Next, let’s look at a rotation on the baseline involving Davis Bertans.
The same principles apply here as in the first clip but with a much worse defender. Like Finney-Smith, Bertans abandons his man in the corner in order to shade towards the strong side action. Bertans is a traffic cone on defense but sound rotations and being in the right place at the right time allow him to help maintain the integrity of the team defense.
Bertans recognizes Brunson is at a height disadvantage and instantly switches with Brunson as soon as Valanciunas gets in a favorable position down low. His presence, while offering little if any actual rim protection, allows Kleber to come off his man and double team. That double team negates the physical advantage and forces Valanciunas to look for the open man. More often than not, big men in that position don't have the court vision to quickly identify the open man and the skill to get the pass there in time.
Now let’s look at a play where the initial defense breaks down, but the help and rotations cover the breakdown.
Look at where Dorian-Finney Smith and Dwight Powell are focused: the ball-handler and making sure they help wall off the paint. The shooter in the corner is of no concern to them.
The Mavericks are playing a numbers game. Giving up points in the paint get teams killed. Giving up wide-open threes is never ideal but open layups will always be the worse of two evils.
In order for this defense to work, players have to trust each other. In order for the weakside defender to crash into the lane and abandon his man, he has to know that his teammates will rotate over to the open man. This defense works because most players asked to stand in the weakside corner can either shoot or can attack closeouts, but rarely both. If the player receiving the pass is a sub-par shooter, the Mavericks are happy to let them bomb away. If that player is a knockdown shooter, however, the opponent has to be good enough to make the passes necessary to get them the ball on time. If the offense hesitates for a split second, that open space can evaporate quickly.
The amoeba defense is a way of covering up individual weaknesses. Teams have to be disciplined against us and have enough dynamic playmakers to stress test our sound team defense. The question that fans want an answer to is whether or not this type of defense can succeed in the playoffs. By now, everyone understands that tactics that work well in an 82 game regular season may not hold up in the post-season.
In short, the answer is....maybe. It will depend on who we match up against. Against a team like Memphis, our defense can close off the paint against Ja Morant and put pressure on other players to beat us. Steven Adams and Jaren Jackson Jr. aren’t known for their passing. Dallas can afford to play them straight up and force them into a contested hook shot or push shot. If they have a non-shooter on the perimeter, the Mavericks can crash down and try to force a steal or bad pass.
Against a team like the Suns or the Nuggets, Dallas will likely get picked apart. Chris Paul forces teams to play defense on his terms. The same goes for Nikola Jokic. The weakest spot in any zone is the middle of the paint just shy of the free-throw line. It allows the offensive player to scan the entire court, identify where the help is coming from, and make a simple pass to the open man. Should a team decide to stay home on the shooters, he can score over your center at will.
Jason Kidd and his staff deserve a ton of credit for how this team has performed on the defensive end. In Milwaukee, his teams were extremely aggressive against the pick and roll. Too aggressive really, as that aggressiveness put a ton of pressure on the back line and it burned them within a season as opponents adjusted. With Porzingis gone, Kidd understands Dallas lacks a true rim protector and is using sound rotations and team defense to help contain opposing offenses. He is implementing a scheme that understands the strengths and weaknesses of his personnel rather than forcing his players to execute a scheme that doesn’t fit them. The success of the Mavericks in the first round will be matchup dependent but it is refreshing to see that Kidd has been adaptable in his first season as head coach.