The list of roadblocks the Mavericks cleared in 2022 is long and substantial. They made it past the first round, beat the Suns after dropping 11 straight to them, and made it back to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in 11 years. Most importantly, however, they moved on from a Kristaps Porzingis-Luka Doncic pairing that just never seemed to work. At times, it looked as though the duo was going to propel the Mavericks to heights the team had not seen. But the majority of the time, it just looked forced and as though both guys could not seem to translate what it looked like on paper into a real game.
Dallas opted for a smaller, more guard oriented look, putting not only Jalen Brunson but Spencer Dinwiddie on the floor with Doncic to create space and drive the ball instead of running pick-and-whatever-Porzingis-did and a plethora of post ups. This style of play looked better, performed better, and brought Dallas farther in the playoffs. It seemed like this was going to be the preferred style of play going forward; that is until Dallas lost Brunson and brought in Christian Wood this offseason. Now, they face the issue of trying to not harbor another Kristaps Porzingis. Here is how Wood (and the Mavericks) can get that style of play right this time around.
Wood and Porzingis are very similar players offensively: tall, lanky bigs with a decent three point shot (Wood is actually very good, he shot 39% to Porzingis’ 31% last year from deep) and above average mobility and handle for guys their size. The most glaring difference between them comes in an area of contention between Mavericks fans and the organization: the post up.
As a Maverick last year, Porzingis posted up at a ridiculous 22.3% rate, while only scoring 0.89 points per possession (PPP) on 42.3% shooting. For comparison, of players with 100 or more post ups, MVP Nikola Jokic led the league in PPP on post ups (1.17) last year, and only posted up 21.6% of the time. Porzingis was posting up more in Dallas than the MVP, and scoring at just over three-fourths the rate. This may seem like a decent mark, but while Jokic had a better PPP than 91.4% of the league, Porzingis was only better than 37.4%. It’s a lot of math, but it’s important to contextualize as there are only so many possessions in a basketball game.
Wood, on the other hand, did not even post up 10% of the time. He scored 0.95 PPP (good for the 56.8th percentile) and shot 49.4 percent on such shots. He was more efficient on a lower frequency, and if Dallas wants to make him work this has to stay the same. While I won’t go as far as say the post up is a bad play, the advantages are far outweighed by the risk in today’s NBA. To be an effective post player now, you must possess two qualities: the dominance to command a double team, and the ability to pass out of it. This is what makes guys like Joel Embiid and Jokic so good, because they can score at will with their backs to the basket and find open shooters when the defense sends another man. Porzingis is neither a dominant post force, nor a good passer, which is why his post ups felt painful to watch. Wood is neither as well, so if he continues to post up at a lower rate, his middle-of-the-pack scoring rate on those shots will feel far more impactful than Porzingis’ were.
Secondly, and quite simply, Wood has to roll off of picks far more than Porzingis did. The Mavericks’ most lethal weapon (and, frankly, any team’s most lethal weapon) is the pick and roll (PnR). Luka Doncic is one of the best PnR players in the NBA, and last year, every Mavericks big man (except Davis Bertans) scored 1.10 or more PPP as the roll man, including Dwight Powell’s absurd mark of 1.42. To put that into context, if you score at the basket on a roll every time, your PPP would be 2.
Wood was a good roll man last year, averaging 1.20 PPP in PnR, rolling fairly frequently at 16.9% of the time. Porzingis was down near 14 percent and for the Wood experiment to work he has to be closer to 20. Because he is such a good shooter, he has to establish his paint presence on these rolls to allow himself to pop and space while the defense respects his inside presence. The Mavericks clearly do not need another soft, thin, big man who can shoot, they need a guy with good size, great physicality, and a threatening aura in the paint. And so the final, and most important, way in which Wood can avoid giving the Mavericks deja vu is by being more physical and crashing the glass.
Porzingis was a good rim protector mostly in Dallas, but he struggled with consistency, and rightfully so after his injuries, but nonetheless did not provide Dallas with enough intimidation at his size. Without Porzingis, things got even worse as the Mavericks got killed inside throughout the playoffs, most notably against the Warriors where the Dallas made Kevon Looney look like a young Shaq. They need someone who can box out, create extra possessions, and provide a presence on the inside that can defer drivers and alter other big men’s shots. Javale McGee is exactly the kind of big man the Mavericks need, but because of his limited offensive skill set and, realistically, his age, he cannot play big minutes, especially in the playoffs. This is where Wood can make his biggest leap.
Wood is not the shot blocker that Porzingis is, but he doesn’t have to be. Jason Kidd’s defense works, and Wood doesn’t have to be elite to make a difference, he just has to provide effort and physicality. He is more mobile than Porzingis, which will see to his advantage in Kidd’s constant movement and rotation based defense.
In terms of rebounding, Wood has to be better. Not in regard to his numbers, but in regard to the way he collects them. Wood is a high point rebounder, meaning most of the time he goes up and collects the ball in the air, without necessarily boxing out. He has to get physical and move bodies and collect his rebounds in a more leverage-based way, because against bigger guys like Deandre Ayton, Jokic, and Anthony Davis, “high-pointing” will not work. On the other end, Wood has got to crash the offensive glass. Last year, he was very good on put backs, scoring 70.1 percent of the time, placing him in the 91.4 percentile. He has to continue this activity next season, with Dwight Powell seemingly running out of minutes to play. Defense and rebounding are 85% effort, and Wood has got to put in as much as he has.
If Wood can put this all together, the Mavericks will be serious contenders again. They will be the team they could have been two years ago, and their ceiling will have no limit. If not, things could get ugly, to a certain degree. Wood isn’t on a max deal, and he was acquired for almost nothing, so if things go south the pushback to benching him will not be nearly as severe.
Not often are second chances handed down so freely, but the Mavericks have a golden opportunity to rewrite history.