The Dallas Mavericks have been a better team with Luka Doncic on the bench this season than on the court. That seems impossible but the Mavericks net rating drops from plus-3.97 with Luka on the bench to plus-1.61 with him on the court. Some of this is due to Luka’s slow start and to the competition which he plays. But another issue has cropped up recently.
Luka plays the entire first quarter unless he is injured or in foul trouble. For the first roughly six minutes he plays with the current starting lineup of himself, Jalen Brunson, Reggie Bullock, Dorian Finney-Smith and Dwight Powell. That lineup has been one of the best lineups in all of basketball with a net rating of plus-9.35 and an offensive rating of 128.33 points per 100 possessions per pbpstats.com. To put those numbers in perspective, the Golden State Warriors “Death” lineup with Kevin Durant never averaged 125 points per 100 possessions.
Unfortunately that lineup cannot play the entire quarter let alone the entire game. Once they begin subbing the non-Doncic starters out the Mavericks encounter problems. Spencer Dinwiddie, Josh Green and Maxi Kleber are often among the reserves to finish out the quarter with Luka. Dinwiddie has been fantastic since arriving in a trade with the Washington Wizards, but he and Luka have not been enough to close out these first quarters.
The Mavericks have to play the bench some time. The issue is that they cannot afford to forfeit minutes that Luka plays. Against the Milwaukee Bucks, the Mavericks were up 17-16 with 4:13 remaining in the first quarter when Green and Marquese Chriss entered the game for Brunson and Powell. Luka played the remainder of the quarter, but the Mavericks finished the quarter trailing 33-25.
This is not an isolated incident. Against the Washington Wizards, the Mavericks were trailing 21-16 with 4:56 remaining when Kleber substituted in for Powell, beginning the Luka and the bench minutes. The Mavericks finished the quarter trailing 41-30. Overall, the Mavericks have been outscored 130-109 from the time of the first substitution of the game until the end of the first half over Luka’s last ten games (this omits the Houston game which Luka did not play.) The Mavericks were plus-13 total in the games against the Lakers and Cavaliers but negative in every other game.
The trio of Dincic, Dinwiddie and Green have a net rating minus-16.55 in 118 minutes played together. When Maxi Kleber, who also closes many first quarters, is added that net rating falls to minuis-26.81 in 66 minutes. Both sets of numbers need to be viewed with a grain of salt given the incredibly limited number of minutes but they do show a pattern.
There was skepticism regarding how well Dinwiddie and Luka would mesh given the similarities in their skill sets. Both are oversized guards who can get to the rim and pass but neither is a high volume catch and shoot shooter. Playing them together gives the Mavericks an abundance of shot creation as few teams have multiple defenders who can handle both of them. But that shot creation drastically declines in value when there is no one to make the shots they create.
Kleber’s struggles have been beaten to death and there is no need to further kick him while he is down. But since the All-Star break, any time he is on the court the Mavericks are essentially playing four on five on offense. Green is improving and looks much more comfortable taking and making catch and shoot threes, but he simply does not shoot enough to scare teams. He is shooting 40.6 percent from three since the All-Star break but he has only taken 32 threes in 20 games. Defenses are not going to worry that a role player might make one or two threes. His career high in threes made in a game is two.
At least one of three things has to happen for the Mavericks to rectify this problem. They can alter Luka’s minutes and have him sit some of this time so that while the team may continue to hemorrhage points, they do so without exhausting their best player. They can hope that Kleber remembers how to play offense. Then he coupled with either Bullock or Finney-Smith could provide enough shooting around the Luka, Dinwiddie, Green trio to make them viable. Or they can give Green his minutes at other times with a better shooter taking his time in those minutes.
Green’s development has been a good thing this season and it is important for the Mavericks going forward. But it is time to begin identifying weaknesses that other teams can exploit in the playoffs. These four to six minutes a game represent between 10-15 percent of the minutes Luka will play in any given game and the Mavericks cannot afford to forfeit that many of his minutes. Coach Jason Kidd has done a fantastic job this season. He has earned the benefit of the doubt that he will sort this problem out going into the playoffs. He will have to, if the Mavericks want to win their first playoff series since 2011.
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