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How the Mavericks turned their season around

The Mavericks were in a dark place just over two months ago.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Mavericks fans were flooded with emotions as Chimezie Metu sank a corner three at the buzzer to bury Dallas on Dec. 29.

Anger, frustration, and disappointment were all present, to name a few. Dallas fell to 16-18, sat at 12th place in the Western Conference, and without their star Luka Doncic in the lineup, it felt like the sky was falling. Dwight Powell and Frank Ntilikina played a combined 66 minutes in that game and scored a total of 11 points. The season was almost halfway through and the Mavericks of old were not going down without a fight. The Mavericks weren’t bad, but they weren’t good. Their offense was clunky and inconsistent, and although their defense was improved they just felt like a first round exit again, if they got there at all.

Now, nearly two and a half months later, the Mavericks are clearly one of the best teams in the NBA, and are sniffing home court advantage in the playoffs. Turnarounds like this don’t happen overnight, but you may find yourself waking up this morning wondering: “how did this happen?”

I, too, found myself baffled at the Mavericks’ (who are now 14 games above .500) timely 180. So, I crunched some numbers, made some charts, and analyzed what I’ve been watching since that gloomy night in Sacramento all those years ago (it was actually only 71 days ago). Here is how the Dallas Mavericks turned their season around:

A change in culture

A complete overhaul of the Mavericks’ front office and coaching staff this offseason signaled a concerted effort to change the team’s culture. From day one as head coach of the Mavericks, Jason Kidd embodied just that. Kidd is a player first, defensive-minded head coach that wants to develop the team both as a whole and individually. In previous years, the Mavericks have been an offensive juggernaut, and with no defensive presence to speak of, sought to simply out-offense each opponent. This worked for a lot of regular season play, but as we have seen in the playoffs the last two seasons, when the game slows down and you have to get a stop, the Mavericks simply had nothing to fall back on to do so.

Enter Kidd and assistant coach Sean Sweeney. They have implemented a defensive scheme based on quality rotations and team defense, rather than relying too heavily on an anchor in the back line. Switching and the importance of guys like Dwight Powell having to guard in space play much bigger roles than they did in the past. They completely transformed the Mavericks from an offensive juggernaut to a defensive powerhouse in less than a full season. The Mavericks are currently sixth in defensive rating (107.8) and 14th in offensive rating (111.4), juxtaposed with their respective 21st and eighth rankings of the same statistics last season.

In addition, the coaching staff, along with the front office, has made the locker room cohesive. Bringing in guys like Jared Dudley to the coaching staff, who just retired a few years ago, and Theo Pinson, who has a lot of connections on the team, to help the team mesh have been masterful moves. The team acts like they like each other, which is a quality no number can accurately capture.

When the going was tough early in the year, the Mavericks never fell completely under because of the base they had molded. Once they figured some other things out, the base continued supporting their reinvigorated season.

The absence of Kristaps Porzingis

Blessings in disguise do exist, and the Mavericks got an exceptionally important one when Kristaps Porzingis left the Jan. 29 game against Indiana with knee soreness. He would never wear a Mavericks jersey again, and, as if extracted from a movie script, would play his final game in Dallas and first game in his new Washington home against Rick Carlisle’s Pacers.

Losing Porzingis at the time seemed like another “here we go again”, but in reality was actually an unexpected “oh, here we go”.

Let’s revisit offensive and defensive ratings. Here is a chart that shows the rolling offensive and defensive ratings over the first 19 weeks of the season (I counted Feb. 20 through March 5 as one week because it contained the All-Star Break). To calculate the rolling ratings, I simply took the sum of the current week, the week before, and the week after and then averaged it, to create a smoother curve:

For both offensive and defensive rating, 110.5 is the league average. As seen in the graph, the Mavericks have been operating on defense below the league average for most of the season, which is evidence that Kidd’s defensive scheme is working. If you look at the data after the black line, which is where Kristaps Porzingis played his final game as a Maverick, the Mavericks offense has skyrocketed to upwards of 120 recently, while their defense has stayed around the league average with just a slight uptick in the last week. Again, evidence that Kidd’s decreased reliance on an anchor and increased emphasis on rotation was working.

At first glance, an improved offense a would not seem like byproducts of losing a stretch five who averages around 20 points per game. However, if you take a look deeper to examine shot efficiency and the types of shots the Mavericks have been taking, it makes a lot more sense:

Once again, I took rolling three point percentage and rolling midrange frequency in the same way as I did offensive and defensive ratings. There are two things that jump out from this graph. The first, Dallas started taking significantly less midrange shots after they fell to 16-18. They are 24-8 since. Additionally, since 55555Porzingis went out of the lineup, the midrange frequency has been at an all-season low, and the three point percentage has been at an all-season high. The Mavericks do not have to force-feed Porzingis in the midrange post anymore, which means the offense stalls less, there is more ball movement, and thus more rhythm shot attempts, leading to a higher three point percentage. Systematically, the Mavericks offense is looking more like their historically great predecessors, and is phasing the “inefficient” midrange out of cycle.

Their offense is improving, their defense remains sound, and the Mavericks turnaround continues on the back of their sturdy foundation.

The right rotation

Another huge reason for the Mavericks’ turnaround is simply them finding the right rotation and playing those guys more. Experience builds chemistry, and chemistry improves overall team play. The lineup that has seen the most minutes on the floor together this year (187 minutes) is Luka Doncic, Jalen Brunson, Reggie Bullock, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Dwight Powell. Here is how their minutes have trended, by month, this season:

Four out of the five starters are playing around 35 minutes a game, and Bullock and Doncic are up to almost 39 in March. Bullock and Brunson both started at well under 30, and are now integral parts of the Mavericks closing lineup down the stretch.

In addition to finding the right rotation of guys they had, they have now added a third playmaker and a knockdown shooter to their rotation as well. With Porzingis gone, Dallas can fully commit to the four guard/wing and one big lineup, and Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans fit that mold perfectly.

Dallas is 7-2 when Dinwiddie plays, and has fit the already meshing rotation almost too quickly. The offense is clicking, the defense is staunch, and the players are starting to learn to play together. Dallas is really gaining traction now.

Doncic downsizing

Finally, the biggest reason Dallas has made such a jump is the rejuvenation of Luka Doncic. To use parallel verbiage, Doncic’s three week absence in December was another “blessing in disguise”. He got in shape, healed his ankle, and has stormed back to MVP-caliber form ever since he returned on Jan. 2.

If we just look at the counting stats, he has been on a tear since returning from health and safety protocols:

His point average is up over four points, rebounds up over two, and assist numbers have improved slightly. Averaging nearly 30, 10 and nine is impressive by itself, but when you look at how he is doing it, it makes it all the more impressive.

Doncic was a midrange maestro to begin the season, but as the team has strayed away and gone to a more “threes and layups approach”, so has Doncic. He has been making threes at a nearly two percent higher clip, and has increased his free throw rate (free throw attempts per field goal attempt) by nearly 14 (!) percent:

Knocking down threes, and then getting to the basket and getting fouled when the defender steps up, is a lethal scoring combination to possess. Doncic does this as well as anyone in the league, and his increased efficiency has carried Dallas to new heights.

Lastly, the Mavericks play a lot of clutch games (this is defined as within five points in the last five minutes). They have played 34 total, which is tied with Brooklyn for sixth most in the league. That means over 52 percent of their games have been close down the stretch. Winning games like this is imperative for success not only in the regular season, but in the playoffs as well. Winning a clutch game shows poise, and that your team has an identity that doesn’t waver down the stretch.

Before Doncic returned on Jan. 2, they were 6-11 in such games. Since his return, they have the second highest clutch win percentage behind Phoenix and are 12-5 in such games:

The black line represents a 100 percent win rate, and the closer you are to it, the better. The Mavericks have been better in clutch scenarios than all of the western conference teams around them in the standings since Doncic has come back. They now have an 18-16 clutch record, which is almost identical to the 18-15 record they had last year, and they still have 16 games to go.

Luka Doncic’s leap from having a good season to a great one was the final piece of the puzzle for Dallas to right the ship.