Jalen Brunson will be a free agent after this season. He opted to not sign an extension because the technicalities of the salary cap prevented him from signing one for his full market value. This should not be held against Brunson or seen as a sign that he wants to leave. One common refrain in the comments of posts and on social media following the Dallas Mavericks trade for Spencer Dinwiddie has been that Dinwiddie serves as insurance should Brunson leave.
That should not be (and likely isn’t) the Mavericks thought process. There is certainly a price point at which the Mavericks should walk away from Brunson, but that was true regardless of the trade for Dinwiddie. They are very different players and they amplify, rather than duplicate each other’s skill sets.
Brunson has struggled with long athletic defenders at times in his career and especially during the playoffs last season. Despite that, Brunson was very good in the limited minutes he played with Luka Doncic during the playoffs last season. During the 59 minutes that Brunson shared the floor with Luka, he had a 70.5 true shooting percentage.
The team still struggled in those minutes as the Los Angeles Clippers offense ran them off the court. But it would be incorrect to blame all of those defensive shortcomings on Brunson. He is not a defensive plus, but he was far from the only defensive issue in those minutes.
Brunson absolutely wilted when asked to run the offense by himself in the playoffs. His true shooting percentage fell to 46.3 percent when Doncic was off the floor. The Clippers hounded him with a collection of length and athleticism that he simply was not prepared to handle on his own. The Mavericks scored only 88.9 points per 100 possessions in the 55 minutes Brunson was asked to run the show alone.
Brunson appears to be less than ideal guard to share the floor with either Luka or Dinwiddie because he is not a high volume three point shooter (though he really should shoot more threes, particularly of the catch-and-shoot variety). He is a good enough shooter that teams have to honor his jumper. He has shot 39.7 percent on 393 three pointer over the previous two seasons. He also knows how to take advantage of the space that Luka or Dinwiddie creates by attacking a scrambling defense.
Unfortunately, the Mavericks have had an extreme lack of playmaking outside of Brunson and Luka. Brunson is only 6’2” with shoes on. The only person in his draft class with a shorter wingspan than Brunson was Trae Young. Brunson can be enveloped by bigger defenders when they are focused on stopping him as the primary option. Adding Dinwiddie and staggering the rotations correctly ensures that Brunson is never the defenses primary concern.
Brunson is at his best getting to the rim against a scrambled defense and finishing with stunning efficiency once he gets there. He is also a very efficient shooter despite shooting with limited volume. The Mavericks have limited shot creation outside of Dinwiddie, Brunson and Luka, but everyone else is unselfish and willing to swing the ball in order to get a better shot. In the below play, the Los Angeles Lakers know that Carmelo Anthony cannot defend Dinwiddie on an island. They send immediate help which creates an advantage for the Mavericks that ends with Brunson knocking down an open three.
Davis Bertans and Dorian Finney-Smith deserve credit for their swings in the above play, but they are not capable of creating an advantage like this themselves. Then on the below play, Dinwiddie attacks a scrambled defense in transition which creates another wide open jumper for Brunson.
Brunson has been taking advantage of the openings created by a big point guard who demands a ton of defensive attention for his entire NBA career. Dinwiddie is not Luka Doncic, but he duplicates several of Luka’s strengths. He is massive for a point guard in the traditional sense. He leverages his extreme size and length to get to the rim and finish or create open shots for teammates.
His size and athleticism prevents Dinwiddie from being enveloped by perimeter defenders the same way Brunson can be. The Mavericks have played 82 minutes with Brunson and Dinwiddie on the court and Luka on the bench. During those minutes the Mavericks have a net rating of +16.2. As with any lineup data with so few minutes, that net rating is of extremely limited value but it shows the value of keeping three playmakers. The Mavericks are shooting 46.6 percent from three in those minutes.
Brunson and Dinwiddie have both been on unsustainable shooting runs but that does not mean that the offense won’t continue to dominate once they cool off. Brunson is shooting 63.6!!!! percent from three since Dinwiddie joined the team. Brunson has averaged 16.7 points on 62.8 percent true shooting during this time. The Mavericks are 6-1 in these games despite playing tough opposition. Bench units, which the Brunson and Dinwiddie combo will mostly face are simply not equipped to handle two play makers this good.
Dinwiddie has been sensational with the Mavericks. He has averaged 17.6 points and 5.1 assists on 66.0 percent true shooting. Most impressively he has done so without detracting from the game of either Luka or Brunson. Luka has still averaged 32.2 points per game since Dinwiddie joined the team.
Luka has often been compared to Lebron James. James famously asked for more playmakers with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Lakers made some odd choices in roster building, but they did try to add playmaking around James. The Mavericks have never successfully added a difference making playmaker since drafting Luka and Brunson on the same night. They have finally done so but that does not mean they can let Brunson go now.
Brunson is going to get paid this offseason and he deserves to do so. He has an extremely malleable game which can fit in virtually anywhere. He has thrived playing with one of the most ball dominant players in the NBA. He has shown an ability to toggle between a pick and roll running facilitator when playing by himself or as an off ball shooter when paired with another point guard.
The Mavericks are in a unique situation where three of their best players play the same position. They do so without making each other redundant. Most teams with this many point guards would be putting themselves at a huge size disadvantage by playing them together. Fortunately, Luka is big enough that he is not undersized playing as a forward. Dinwiddie is bigger than most shooting guards. This allows the Mavericks to play a competent defense while realizing Rick Carlisle’s dream of playing three guards in the most important minutes.
The early returns of the three point guard lineup have been positive on defense as well as offense. The Mavericks have a defensive rating of 103.8 in the 34 minutes they have played together. Again that data is of incredibly limited value given the limited sample size, but it is much better for small sample data to be positive than negative.
The best teams in the league and the true contenders are generally in the top ten on both offense and defense. The Mavericks have become a top ten defense this season after being a top ten offense the previous two seasons. But they have not been able to be both at the same time. Their best chance to finally do so comes from continuing to get the best from both Brunson and Dinwiddie rather than choosing between them.
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