Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban made light of the difficulty of replacing Jalen Brunson. Whether or not that is true remains to be seen. Unfortunately these statements make it clear that the team either does not understand or will not acknowledge what they actually need to replace.
Brunson’s raw scoring was impressive and important as he averaged an efficient 16.3 points on 50.2 percent shooting from the field, 37.3 percent shooting percent from three and 84.0 percent shooting from the free throw line. Those combined to equal a 58.3 percent true shooting percentage.
The most important part of his scoring is how much of it he created for himself. 75 percent of his field goal attempts were from two point range and only 26.2 percent of those shots were assisted. That put him in stark contrast with every player on the team not named Luka Doncic or Spencer Dinwiddie.
In the playoffs, Dorian Finney-Smith had the lowest catch and shoot frequency of any rotation player aside from the three point guards and Dwight Powell. Powell averaged 3.2 points per game so he was not exactly creating his own shot frequently. Finney-Smith still relied on 66.9 percent of his shots being catch and shoot attempts. Davis Bertans, Reggie Bullock, Frank Ntilikina and Josh Green all took over 80 percent of their shots as catch and shoot attempts. Maxi Kleber was at 70.8 percent catch and shoot shots.
Doncic will always keep the Mavericks from ranking near the top of team catch and shoot percentages because he takes so many shots and virtually none(5.4 percent in the playoffs) are catch and shoot. Dinwiddie took 20.3 percent of his shots as catch and shoot attempts while Brunson took 14.5 percent of his attempts as catch and shoot attempts.
It is tempting to think the ideal lineup for Doncic, is to surround him entirely with long three-and-D players who make up for his short comings defensively while thriving off of the open looks he creates. In the regular season, that recipe does appear to be pretty accurate. One issue is, Dallas really only has three players who are truly three-and-D players in Bullock, Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber.
Doncic has been more successful when paired with another creator. Doncic’s Slovenian teams have always featured at least one other shot creator in a free flowing offense. The Mavericks were 33-24 before Dinwiddie played his first game with Dallas last season. They finished 19-6 once they made a commitment to have at least two ball handlers on the floor as often as possible.
Three-and-D players are an important part of playoff success. This season showed the importance of defense as the two best defenses in the league squared off in the finals. The shooting component of three-and-D is important to keep the other elite defenses that are a lock to make the late stages of the playoffs honest. But NBA defenses can stop teams that rely too heavily on three-and-D players through sheer effort. If a player has no choice but to shoot once Doncic or another creator creates a shot for them, the defender can use the otherworldly athleticism and length that most NBA players possess to close out hard enough to heavily contest or even block threes.
The above play is a perfect example of the ability of NBA players to close out on stationary shooters. This is not purely due to Finney-Smith’s limitations as a driver because the shot clock is running down, but both Stephen Curry and Draymond Green are able to close incredibly hard resulting in a blocked shot. If they had to fear a drive, they would not be able to close as hard resulting in a better shot.
That is where having multiple creators comes into play. Defenses can only help so many times in a possession and that style of defense is exhausting over the long haul. When Doncic creates an advantage, if the player receiving the pass is capable of driving as well as shooting, it puts the defense in a much tougher position. Brunson was an integral part of the Mavericks driving offense as he averaged 16.7 drives per game in the playoffs. Doncic led the team with 21.7 drives per game and Spencer Dinwiddie was the lone other volume driver as he averaged 9.6 drives per game.
This is a common NBA offensive strategy as there simply aren’t that many players who are capable of driving against locked in playoff defenses. The problem for Dallas is that while Christian Wood should be able to replace or even improve upon Brunson’s raw scoring, he is not capable of driving in this manner. He is capable of creating some of his own offense but he is an elite play finisher rather than a creator. Asking a round peg to fit in a square hole is not the best way to get the most out of them.
Dinwiddie will likely take some of the creation burden created by Brunson’s departure but he already carried a large burden. He averaged 27.8 minutes per game and the 9.6 drives per game mentioned earlier. If he absorbed all of Brunson’s drives, he would usurp Doncic as the primary driver of the Mavericks offense. He has a checkered injury history himself which makes overloading him a dangerous proposition.
This is not the end of the world. The championship is not decided by the best roster in August but rather by the best roster in June. The Mavericks appear to have limited flexibility but the Kristaps Porzingis trade ended up being one of the most successful trades of last season and it came out of nowhere. The Mavericks will have to find a way to replace Brunson’s shot creation, but they have time to do so.