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Diagnosing the new look Mavericks lineup

Jason Kidd’s vision for the Mavericks identity is taking shape

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Phoenix Suns v Dallas Mavericks - Game Six Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

As the NBA offseason slowed to a crawl and the Mavericks appeared to be mostly finished shopping, barring a surprise trade, my eyes next gazed toward figuring out how the new Mavericks roster would work and how the presumably revamped starting lineup would look.

Mavericks coach Jason Kidd finally gave some hints to that new lineup, telling ESPN in an interview during NBA Summer League that Spencer Dinwiddie and freshly signed center JaVale McGee would be starters. That’s all I needed to start cranking away at some analysis at the new lineup and how the roster fit. I assumed with Kidd confirming Dinwiddie and McGee as starters and his comments about playing bigger, that meant the new starters were Luka Doncic, Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, trade acquisition Christian Wood, and McGee. As such, I began some research, looked at data, and watched clips to start forming an outline of this column you’re reading right now!

So, about that.

The Athletic’s Tim Cato reported in his piece about the Mavericks new roster that Wood is actually coming off the bench and that as of July 12, two months before training camp starts by the way, the starting lineup will be Doncic, Dinwiddie, Reggie Bullock, Finney-Smith, and McGee. OK then! Now that we know this knowledge, I can readjust my thoughts. So here’s how the Mavericks new roster could look on the court:

Starting lineup: don’t fix what isn’t broke

If we are to believe the Mavericks hold true to what Cato reported in July, then logically it appears the Mavericks are determined to not break what wasn’t broken last season.

Last season the Mavericks turned their fortunes around with a lineup of Doncic, Jalen Brunson, Bullock, Finney-Smith, and Dwight Powell, after Kristaps Porzingis left the lineup with a knee injury and then traded. Surrounding Doncic with another capable ball handler/scorer, two shooters, and a legitimate roll threat has always been a recipe for success since he’s arrived in Dallas. The Mavericks appear to want to stay true to this archetype with this upcoming lineup.

Doncic, Dinwiddie, Bullock, Finney-Smith, and McGee should be able to replicate what the previous configuration did last season. And there’s a good reason to want to replicate that: the previous lineup did wonders. The combo of Doncic, Brunson, Bullock, Finney-Smith, and Powell played 708 possessions together last season according to stats site Cleaning the Glass. In those possessions, the lineup was plus-14.7 points per 100 possessions, going 31-12 in the games that lineup played in.

Clearly if this new lineup takes shape later this fall, the Mavericks want to continue that success, with perhaps some tweaks. McGee is an elite roll man, but has done so at a significantly less volume than Powell has for the last handful of seasons. Dinwiddie was a revelation after being traded to Dallas, but there will be pressure on him to back that up with Brunson no longer being the lineup’s safety blanket after he signed in New York. Thankfully, there’s some upside: theoretically Dinwiddie and McGee can do the things Powell and Brunson did, while providing some bonuses defensively. I don’t think anyone would confuse Dinwiddie as being an elite defender, but he is 6’5 with a long wingspan — try as hard as he did, Brunson’s size always placed a ceiling on his defensive impact. Last season Dinwiddie had some of his better games as a starter, although that was mainly with Doncic being out of the lineup. According to Cleaning the Glass, when Doncic and Dinwiddie shared the court, the Mavericks scored 120.6 points per 100 possessions. Offensively, there is some upside since Dinwiddie is a much more aggressive rim attacker than Brunson was. Where Brunson liked to pull up in the mid-range or score floaters in the paint, Dinwiddie was more a straight-line drive attacker, and that’s where the space Doncic provides by scattering defenses on the first action helped Dinwiddie. It provided clearer paths to the rim, allowing Dinwiddie to do what he does best: get to the basket and draw fouls. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Mavericks overall team free throw rate (free throws made per 100 field goals attempted) was 19.4 percent. When Doncic and Dinwiddie shared the floor, it rose to 26.7. Dinwiddie was easily the Mavericks best player at drawing fouls last season.

Comparing Jalen Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie

2021-2022 Season Drives Per Game FG% on Drives Frequency of P&R Ball Handler Possessions P&R Ball Handler PPP
2021-2022 Season Drives Per Game FG% on Drives Frequency of P&R Ball Handler Possessions P&R Ball Handler PPP
Jalen Brunson 13.6 56.7 32.4% 1.06
Spencer Dinwiddie 10.4 57.9 33.8% 0.94

Defensively the Doncic/Dinwiddie duo wasn’t great, so that’s why with McGee it’s much easier to see the upside. He’s a significantly better rim protector than Powell has ever been, although we’ll have to see how McGee holds up with the Mavericks more aggressive, switching scheme, where Powell did do better defensively under Kidd compared to the Rick Carlisle era. Whereas the Mavericks can mix things up a little with Powell at the five defensively, when McGee is on the floor it’s likely the Mavericks exclusively play drop coverage.

Comparing Dwight Powell and JaVale McGee

2021-2022 Season Frequency of P&R Roll Man Possessions FG% on P&R Roll Man Possessions P&R Roll Man PPP P&R Roll Man Percentile
2021-2022 Season Frequency of P&R Roll Man Possessions FG% on P&R Roll Man Possessions P&R Roll Man PPP P&R Roll Man Percentile
Dwight Powell 28.9% 71.2 1.42 92.6
JaVale McGee 24.8% 73 1.4 89.5

We also need to see how much McGee can give the Mavericks night in and night out, as McGee has only eclipsed the 20 minute per game mark once in his previous 10 seasons. Say what you will about Powell’s playoff minutes, he has averaged 20-plus minutes per game in three out of the four regular seasons of the Doncic era.

Where does Wood slot in?

The biggest question around the Mavericks lineup is where does Christian Wood factor in? Wood is by far the splashiest move the Mavericks made this offseason, so if Wood is indeed coming off the bench, it reinforces a couple things about the Mavericks thinking:

  1. They believe in the formula that worked last season, I.E., one big, two big wings, two ball handlers to create four or five out spacing.
  2. They do not currently believe Wood is a good enough defender to start in that formula

There was some concern when the Mavericks signed McGee after trading for Wood that Dallas would be going to a two-big lineup, just like the Lakers had with McGee and Anthony Davis when Kidd was an assistant in Los Angeles. The Mavericks just completed an impressive Western Conference Finals run on the backbone of five out basketball, so immediately reverting to a more traditional two-big look was a little weird.

Well if Wood is coming off the bench, it can help soothe those that thought the Mavericks didn’t know what they had last season. It means the Mavericks should retain the identity that they thrived behind, with Doncic surrounded by shooting, rim running, and at least one other capable ball handler.

It is odd though for Wood, perhaps the second most talented player on the roster, to be coming off the bench. Optics wise, it definitely is puzzling, even though in a vacuum we know “starting” is sort of a nebulous term — what really matters is minutes distribution and who closes games. Does it really matter that much in the grand scheme of things if Wood doesn’t start but still plays around 30 minutes per game and finishes most nights? Jason Terry is one of the greatest Mavericks of all time, and he started less than half his games in a Mavericks uniform (285 out of 619).

My thinking is that the Mavericks know that, as I wrote previously when the Wood trade went down, that Wood isn’t a good defender. Dallas’ turnaround last season was fueled by small ball, yes, but it was also fueled by a drastic defensive turnaround. The Mavericks went from below-average to top 10, and it’s looking obvious that Kidd wants to continue building around that going forward. Keeping the small ball lineup but starting a 34-year-old McGee instead of Wood would be about as clear a message it can be that Wood will need to prove to the Mavericks he can be a quality defender before he earns that starting nod. There’s always a risk that starting your relationship with your player that way could increase the player’s flight risk, as Wood is an unrestricted free agent next summer, but we have no idea knowing how viable that risk could be. It’s just speculation and murmurs at this point in the dead of the offseason.

Wood off the bench makes sense if the Mavericks want to keep their scoring threats consistent throughout a game and Maxi Kleber is malleable enough to play with any type of big. Combined with the return of Tim Hardaway Jr., the Mavericks could be betting on Doncic carrying the load with the starters like he always does, but having a better bench to keep pace when Doncic isn’t on the floor. Wood isn’t a playmaker, but as I noted when Wood was traded to Dallas, Wood’s drives per game last season in Houston would rank fourth among last season’s Mavericks. Now that Brunson is gone, that number would be third among current Mavericks. Wood isolating in the mid-post for aggressive quick first dribble rim attacks could keep the Mavericks offense afloat while Doncic takes his breathers, while also providing space for whoever the Mavericks play as a bench guard, whether it’s Dinwiddie staying on while Doncic goes off, or the Mavericks experimenting with Hardaway, Josh Green, or Frank Ntilikina.

Of course that presents an easy counter: why wouldn’t you want to maximize the time between two of your most talented players? Much of the excitement about the Wood trade was Wood finally playing with a premier playmaker in Doncic, after languishing on some bad rosters with shoddy guard play for most of his career. Wood and Doncic could play enough even if Wood comes off the bench, but much like last season with Reggie Bullock, it doesn’t make too much sense to hamstring yourself. Wood off the bench provides obvious benefits and the Mavericks might not think he’s ready defensively, but eventually Dallas will need to figure out how to get Doncic and Wood on the floor at the same time as much as possible.

Tim Hardaway Jr. and the rest of the bench

As Dallas’ rotation was stretched as far as possible during the playoffs, it was clear despite whatever inclinations you might have about his game, Tim Hardaway Jr. would have been a major help. Mavericks general manager Nico Harrison certainly seems to think so.

With Kidd confirming Dinwiddie as a starter, it feels clear that Hardaway will be counted on as primary guard off the bench, hoping to fill some of the gaps from Jalen Brunson. While Hardaway can certainly replace Brunson’s raw point total, the two players are very different in terms of how they go about their scoring — Brunson is a lead guard that can attack in a pick and roll, while Hardaway is more of a spot-up threat, that needs offense created for him.

Last season was an all-around bummer for Hardaway, as he experienced slumps in his shooting compared to his previous two seasons in Dallas. A foot injury in January ended his season, but in that limited time, Hardaway wasn’t much of a creator — he scored 0.89 points per possession as the ball handler in the pick and roll, with a 44.3 effective field goal percentage. Hardaway was a bit better a season before, but it’s still not a strong suit in his game. A little over 73 percent of Hardaway’s field goals last season were assisted, which is inline with his previous two seasons.

Hardaway has faired well without Doncic on the floor in the past, but only because Brunson’s game continued to grow. The Mavericks were a plus-4.4 in a little over 1,000 possessions last season with Hardaway on the floor and Doncic off, but almost 800 of those possessions had Brunson paired with Hardaway. Hardaway only played 246 possessions last season without Brunson or Doncic, and although the team numbers were decent in the small sample (plus-3.4 per 100 possessions), Hardaway struggled individually, with a 45.8 true shooting percentage.

The Mavericks will have to find a way to get Hardaway back on track. Coming off the bench, it’ll be crucial to see how Kidd plays his rotations. If Hardaway comes on when Luka goes out, presumably Dinwiddie will run the bench unit. Dinwiddie only played 111 possessions without either Doncic or Brunson last season according to Cleaning the Glass, barely more than the average NBA game, so needless to say the numbers are a small sample. In those 111 possessions, however, the Mavericks were a plus-17.1 per 100 possessions with Dinwiddie sporting a 23 percent assist ratio — same as Doncic’s total number last season. So the hope will be with Dinwiddie as a full time point guard, he can be a “Luka light” and still give Hardaway the open looks he needs. Plus, the big man rotation of McGee, Wood, Kleber, and Powell should guarantee Dinwiddie always has a solid screening partner on the floor with him.

This has been a big problem I’ve run into whenever I try to analyze or predict how the Mavericks will do this season — most of the role players were always on the floor with one of Doncic or Brunson the last two seasons. Without Brunson, and if the Mavericks don’t make a trade to find a replacement, we’re venturing into uncharted waters for a lot of these players. Doncic and Brunson have been steady floor leaders for almost four years. Dinwiddie will help, but there’s going to perhaps be some bumpiness as they figure out rotations and how to play together without that third point guard to lean on.