In Remember the Titans, Coach Herman Boone says, ““I run 6 plays, split veer. Its like Novocaine. Just give it time, it always works.” Coach Boone was referring to a simplistic, repetitive offense used by his high school football team.
He could have been talking about the Dallas Mavericks offense during the Luka Doncic era.
The Mavericks offense can be very innovative at times, but it will always revolve around the high pick and roll with Luka. Just like Novocaine and the Titans offense, if given enough time it always works. That is because it relies on precision of execution and Luka’s brilliance, rather than deception. Powell has been his most effective screener and while Luka deserves all of the attention he gets, Powell’s contributions should not be overlooked.
There is a tendency for fans to devalue rim running because it appears as though anyone can do it. Many fans think that any athletic 6’10” or taller big man could dunk the wide open looks that come at the end of screening and rolling with Luka. No fan base should be more aware of the folly of that line of thinking than Mavericks fans. Deandre Jordan, Willie Cauley-Stein, Kristaps Porzingis and even Maxi Kleber have all attempted to be pick and roll partners for Luka. None of them have matched the chemistry and success with Luka that Powell has.
I wrote an article on the skill of rim running itself during the off-season. During this article, I touched on Powell and his elite rim running but was dismissive due to the volume of his rolling and his defense. That was a mistake. In previous years the Mavericks have employed a drop coverage scheme to protect and aging Dirk Nowitzki and then a hobbled Porzingis. With those players gone along with Rick Carlisle, the Mavericks have employed a much more aggressive system which has the big men hedge or trap quite often. This system relies on a ton of movement from the big men and there are not many center duos in the NBA more equipped to move in this manner than Powell and Kleber.
Powell’s failures on defense will always be more glaring than his successes because of the nature of his skills. He is among the most mobile big men in the entire league, but he has a high center of gravity and short arms. This prevents him from being a dynamic shot blocker. The change in scheme mentioned earlier has allowed both him and the team to become much better defensive though.
The improvement in his defense has been important, but his bread will always be buttered with his rim running. Powell is in the 94th percentile of roll man scoring averaging 1.44 points per play per NBA.com. The Mavericks offense has been 3.68 points per 100 possessions better with Powell on the court than off the court this season. Lineups with Dwight Powell as the lone big man are even better at 118.08 points per 100 possessions. They have struggled defensively but manage to still have a positive rating because of the elite offense. Powell is rarely given enough credit for his role in that elite offense.
Powell is an elite rim runner for several reasons. The pick and roll always begins with the same element, setting the screen. This sounds simplistic but watching Cauley-Stein among others should show Mavericks fans that this skill should not be taken for granted. Powell is often called for illegal screens, and those are maddening for fans. But they highlight how much Powell attempts to give his guards an advantage by actually getting a piece of their defender. Take this play below. Powell creates several feet of separation between Luka and Wes Matthews.
The pick and roll is primarily about exploiting advantages. The initial advantage is most often created by the screener giving the ball handler a head start. All screen setters occasionally create this much space, but what makes Powell special in this regard is that he always sets a solid screen.
The next strength of Powell is his effort level and relentlessness as a roller. This is not meant to pick on Cauley-Stein but he serves as a good counter point because he would often screen and then float in the free throw line area negating any advantage created by the screen because this essentially left the offense four on five. Powell rolls hard to the rim on most occasions where he does not pop to provide some variety and spacing. In the play below, he rolls to the rim but does not stop once the initial pick and roll play is stymied. Luka chooses not to shoot the step back three as he often does. Instead he continues working to get a better shop. Powell works with him or his effort would have been for naught. Powell comes out to set another screen, but Luka rejects it. Powell then rolls to provide an option for Luka which Luka uses his brilliance to find.
After setting a good screen and moving enough to get open, the final step of finishing a rim run is to catch and finish the dunk. Powell has very good hands. He rarely fumbles passes and has only 58 turnovers the entire season. Then he uses his explosion to finish, having completed 100 dunks this season. But he is also good at finishing even when he can’t get to a dunk because of his solid touch around the rim. He is a career 77.5 percent shooter inside of three feet. The combination of getting himself into such a nice position and then finishing at an elite level makes him one of the best rim runners in the league.
The final skill which Powell has developed is the ability to make passes as a short roller or as a release valve once Luka is trapped. No one will confuse Powell with Draymond Green as a short roller, but he has become quite proficient as a passer. The play below actually results in Powell finishing but it is a good example of the types of passing he has become able to make consistently. Whether or not the play results in an assist, these types of passes are important in preventing the offense from becoming stagnant.
Powell’s production has been impressive throughout but it has risen to a crescendo over the last 8 games. Powell has averaged 13.9 points and 7.1 rebounds over this stretch while shooting 74.5 percent from the floor and 93.5 percent from the free throw line. That equates to an 80.9 true shooting percentage!
He has done this while Maxi Kleber has struggled mightily which makes it more important. Kleber has averaged 5.3 points and 6.4 rebounds while shooting 32.6 percent from the floor and 50 percent from the free throw line, which comes to a 40.5 true shooting percentage.
Kleber will be incredibly important to the Mavericks in the playoffs, so this is not meant to disparage him. Rather, it is to highlight how important Powell has been recently. The Mavericks have been linked to many potential big men over the years and likely will continue to do so as the media attempt to create a dream pick and roll for Luka. Every team that views itself as a title contender should be attempting to upgrade every position it can at all times and the Mavericks are no different. But the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence. Powell has received an important part of the Mavericks and has received a large amount of undue criticism due to a contract which has turned out to be team friendly. Powell is a good NBA player and the Mavericks are lucky to have him. Those of us who have spent time criticizing him, should be every bit as adamant in their praise now when he so clearly deserves it.