Back on Feb. 10 — when the Mavericks traded Kristaps Porzingis and Spencer Dinwiddie was only an idea for this team — there was talk about the guard’s future in Dallas and how it might relate to their chances of re-signing Jalen Brunson. It is well known around the league that Brunson will be sought after this summer, his first opportunity at unrestricted free agency. Though it’s believed he will stay in Dallas there remains a chance the young guard could walk, leaving the Mavericks empty-handed.
“Brunson Insurance” was the phrase used when referring to Dinwiddie, a possible solution to the Mavericks’ need for a secondary ballhandler. Even if he was coming off a major injury plus a rough stint with the Washington Wizards, there was hope he could regain some of the playmaking he displayed with the Brooklyn Nets. For the rest of the regular season Dinwiddie fulfilled that hope.
In 23 regular season games with the Mavericks he averaged 16 points and four assists while shooting 40 percent from three and posting a true-shooting percentage of 62.4 percent. Yes, everyone understood that the outside shooting was a mirage (a career 32 percent three point shooter), but his ability to get to the rim was an ability Dallas needed more of. Even better, he was playing well alongside both Brunson and Luka Doncic.
But then the postseason hit.
Sports are funny in how quickly storylines can shift. Luka goes out in the final game of the season, thrusting the other two guards into outsized roles entering the playoffs. Suddenly in three games Jalen Brunson was morphing into Doncic Insurance. He was simply dazzling in Luka’s absence, averaging 32 points (doubling his 16 point-per-game season average), five rebounds and five assists while shooting 41 percent from deep and 50 percent from the floor while doubling his workload with 24 attempts per game.
Dinwiddie also saw an increase in opportunity, from 10 attempts to 18 attempts per game, but only increased his scoring average by four points (19.7 points per game) while shooting 17.6 percent from three and 33 percent from the floor. A steep decline while facing some of the weakest perimeter defense one could see in the playoffs.
There was reasonable hope that in Doncic’s return Dinwiddie could feel more comfortable in his usual role; even after his play declined more in Games 4 and 5. Maybe facing a new opponent, where Rudy Gobert isn’t lurking near the rim, helps him find a rhythm. But outside an efficient Game 6 against the Jazz, Dinwiddie looks lost and his confidence around the rim has disappeared.
It was a small sample size, but in 23 regular season games in Dallas he connected on 74-percent of shots inside three feet — a little better than the hyper-efficient Brunson around the rim. Dropping a full 27 percent at the rim in the playoffs is sort of chilling, right? Equally concerning is the shift from taking 22 percent of his shots inside three feet in the regular season, to taking just 16 percent of his shots there in the playoffs. It is either his inability to get into the lane, or his tentativeness once he gets there. Judging from an eye test it’s been a little bit of both.
Doncic carried a heavy load against the best team in the West in Game 1 Monday night, and will badly need one or both of Brunson and Dinwiddie to be a release valve to that pressure. But if we’ve learned anything from the seven postseason games that Spencer Dinwiddie has now played with the Mavericks it is that he will not fulfill the same role Brunson has if the soon-to-be free agent leaves this summer. Brunson has remained lethal around the rim, even after both Game 1’s were rough (he still shoots 70 percent inside three feet, a carryover from the regular season). Dinwiddie’s best role in the playoffs rather has been as the third guard on the floor. That is a valuable role, no doubt, just different than initial expectations.
There was a small glimmer of hope late in Game 1 against the Suns. Dinwiddie attacked a weak closeout with two minutes left and drove direct to the rim, then later hit a corner three — five of his eight points in the game. Maybe it is the confidence boost he needs and he can build back to the potential we saw in the regular season.