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Is the Dallas Mavericks offense good enough to win a playoff series?

Dallas has shored up its defense in a big way, but recent trends show a competent offense is needed to make a playoff run.

Dallas Mavericks v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Before this Mavericks season started, there were plenty of questions on how new coach Jason Kidd would impact the team on both sides of the ball. For all the optimism on his potential to shore up the Mavericks below-average defense (and that optimism has paid off), there was equal concern about negative impact on the Mavericks offense, which set the league’s all-time mark in efficiency in 2020 and remained in the top 10 last season.

Before the season started I wondered if Kidd’s history of coaching teams that just didn’t shoot a ton of three pointers would come back to bite a Mavericks team built specifically to take advantage of Luka Doncic’s elite three point shot creation:

The math won out for Dallas over the last three seasons, despite the roster having questions marks at various points about their shooting. It doesn’t matter that Dallas didn’t have a crop of 40-plus percent sharp shooters, it mattered that they had a bunch of guys that were pretty good and were willing to shoot a lot. That’s been the key to the Mavericks’ offensive success since Doncic’s arrival.

Kidd potentially dragging that number down could have catastrophic consequences. Those role players thrive on a diet of steady three point shots fed to them by Doncic. There isn’t really another alternative for guys like Finney-Smith, Kleber and Bullock. If those guys aren’t taking threes, what do those possessions turn into? It’s hard to imagine players with such limited ball-handling skills exchanging three point attempts for shots at the rim. If those shots are funneled into Porzingis to give him more post ups and mid-range looks, that won’t end well for the Mavericks either. Simply put: the Mavericks built a roster specifically designed around Doncic’s sublime three point shot creation. Limiting those attempts would be self-sabotage.

In related news, the Mavericks are currently seventh in the league in team three point rate, according to stats site Cleaning the Glass. Terrific! There’s just one problem — the Mavericks offense, for the season, still hasn’t been great (although things are getting better).

What does that mean for the playoffs? There are two main points:

Point 1: Historical significance of offensive rank in the playoffs

I went through Cleaning the Glass and looked at every single team that won a playoff series from 2011 to 2021. I picked 2011 because the Mavericks title felt like the beginning of the shift into the modern pace and space, three point heavy era the NBA finds itself in.

I took every team that won a series from 2011 till last season, which there were 88 teams. The average offensive rank of those 88 teams? 7.9. When you go back to 2016, which is when you can say most NBA teams started chasing the Warriors offensive juggernaut, only four teams since 2016 with an offensive rating 15 or worse won a playoff series. Those four teams:

  • 2020 Raptors, 16 in offense (second in defense)
  • 2018 Celtics, 18 in offense (first in defense)
  • 2018 Jazz, 16 in offense (second in defense)
  • 2016 Hawks, 22 in offense (second in defense)

Not that hard to pick out the pattern — if you’re a below average offensive team, you need to have one of the best defenses in the league to compensate and win a playoff series. The Mavericks defensive rank is currently sixth.

This leads to the main follow-up question: why the shift to offense mattering so much? If you’ve watched an NBA playoff series over the past four the five years, you’ve no doubt noticed how brazen playoff defenses have become with ignoring bad offensive players. With spacing and clean three point looks mattering so much in the current NBA, playoff teams have no problem abandoning a bad shooter to throw more attention at a lead ball handler or to clog up the paint. This was never more evident then back in the Warriors/Grizzlies 2015 playoff series, where Warriors center Andrew Bogut “guarded” Grizzlies guard Tony Allen, a notorious defender with a limited offensive game. Bogut basically played free safety, leaving Allen wide open on the perimeter, shading toward the Grizzlies more potent offensive threats. It paid off and the Warriors won the series and eventually their first title. This strategy has only become more popular ever since, with recent example being the Utah Jazz using their ace defensive center Rudy Gobert to guard the opposing team’s least threatening wing.

The lesson lately, is clear: it’s never been more important to have five players on the floor that can present some sort of threat on offense. If there’s even one weak link, NBA defenses are too good to exploit it. We’ve seen the Mavericks encounter this themselves, with Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber abandoned in clutch moments in both the regular season and the playoffs.

Point 2: Can the Mavericks offense improve enough before the playoffs start?

The good news for Mavericks fans: despite Dallas being 15th in offense on the season, the team is eighth over the past two weeks. Things are trending in the right direction, although the Mavericks schedule after the All-Star break — starting on the road against Utah Friday night — is tough.

Without Kristaps Porzingis, Luka Doncic has been the alpha and omega of the Mavericks offense. Freed of the burden of involving Porzingis, the Mavericks offense has distilled down to pure Luka — Doncic has a 42 percent usage rate in the month of February. Dallas has increased it’s pick and roll usage, involving both Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber more often. Powell and Kleber both are in the 91st percentile of roll men in the NBA — Powell has a 74.3 effective field goal percentage on such plays and Kleber is at 70.3 percent. Without needing to dump the ball into the post to give Porzingis his customary touches, Powell and Kleber are screening and rolling like mad men. Dallas’ offense isn’t diverse, but when Doncic is as good as he is, its effective to let him do as much as he can physically handle.

It also doesn’t hurt that the Mavericks are spamming dribble hand-offs, as Iztok Franko noted recently in D Magazine. For the season Doncic is scoring 1.08 points per possession on hand-off possessions, according to NBA.com, good for the 83.3 percentile. I’ve even wrote this in the past: hand-offs allow Doncic to gain speed before he even touches the ball, enabling him to scoot past defenders instead of pounding the air out of the ball in an extended pick and roll or isolation.

Doncic running the show, with Jalen Brunson providing crucial secondary scoring, could be enough. Unfortunately we’ve already seen what a Mavericks offense 100 percent reliant on Doncic looks like in the playoffs and Doncic riding a 40-plus percent usage rate into the playoffs could be playing with fire. These final 23 games will be huge to see what the Mavericks can wring out of Spencer Dinwiddie, as he’s had some positive, if quiet, couple of games to start his Mavericks tenure.

Dallas has an opportunity to win its first playoff series since 2011, but the offense has to keep pace with what its done the last two weeks. Offense matters more than you think considering the old adages about defense winning championships and thankfully the Mavericks have enough time to improve theirs so the defense isn’t pulling all of the weight.

Here’s our latest episode of Mavs Moneyball After Dark, looking ahead just a bit. If you’re unable to see the embed below, click here to be taken to the podcast directly. Or go to your favorite podcast app and search Mavs Moneyball Podcast.