When the Mavericks became a good defensive team in the 2021-2022 season, the common refrain was that they were playing over their heads. One could point to the fact they had been bad since Luka had entered the league, that they had average personnel and no Defensive Player of the Year candidate. It was more complex than that, but it’s easy to say those talking heads were right with how the defense is performing now.
Another take tied to doubt in last year’s Mavericks was about the flukiness of their run, with comparison to the Atlanta Hawks and Portland Trail Blazers from prior years. Again, I always thought it was more complicated than that (Luka exists), but defensive regression is a common theme. Portland and Atlanta were offensively-oriented teams whose defenses were just average enough. Portland dropped from 16th to 27th, Atlanta 18th to 26th, and both teams fell from ascending quasi-contender to .500.
Dallas, on the other hand, has gone from 7th to 25th. The regression was coming; eighteen spots though feels like something more. There have been injuries, there have been fall offs from players, and there always was a lack of interior presence. Yet when the drop is that pronounced, it’s an organizational failure, and all that’s left is looking for lessons the team can use going forward.
On Tuesday Night, the Washington Wizards went to the hole with impunity. They shot 59% on two pointers, a ghastly number, and the limitations of Dwight Powell defensively rang loudly. With Christian Wood out, who’s flawed defensively but offers length, the Wizards simply rose up over Powell…over, and over, and over.
Only two games earlier against Miami, Powell had looked like a better fit for what the team does well—the same things it had done a year earlier. Mobile lineups that allow for more blitzing of pick and rolls, playing more level to the screen, and occasional trapping meant to stop teams before they get to the rim and more easily contest perimeter shots. Powell is fleet footed and smart about where to be. Christian Wood has shown improvement as a rim protector, but does not have the instinctual reaction time to play such a style, and thus with him at the 5, the team is forced to play drop coverage. Truthfully, the Heat slept walked through the game, taking too many bail-out jumpers, and the performance felt like a mirage in comparison to any recent game. The fundamental issues are so wide spread that while the Mavericks were best in a switching and aggressive style, they currently can’t execute any coverage. This results from the combination of a lack of length, and an inability to keep the ball in front of the defender.
The aggressive scheme which functioned well last year still demands these qualities as a last line of defense. In two recent games against the Clippers, the Mavericks doubled and trapped, hoping a team with decision making issues would struggle. Instead, after the first pass, players like Norman Powell simply went toward the rim without roaming arms impeding them from the weak side. No one had to make a second read.
Not only do Finney-Smith and Bullock lack the kind of weak side protection to recover and make plays, but they’ve been much worse at the point of attack compared to last year. They are aging into their 30’s, coming off a playoffs in which they played insane minute loads. Josh Green has recently performed as the best point-of-attack defender on the team, but he isn’t big enough to guard the big wings who’ve given the team the most trouble over this stretch; Julius Randle, Lebron James, Leonard and Kuzma.
If it sounds like a daisy chain reaction of badness, that’s because it is! By the time the Mavericks heavily shaded toward the middle of the court against Washington, the final nail was in the coffin; multiple times Maverick’s defenders wandered from their shooter. Spencer Dinwiddie did it in back-to-back possessions. Once the open threes started falling, Washington drove and kicked, turning Kyle Kuzma and role players into a more efficient machine than Luka attempting the same.
There is one player whose absence coincided with the defensive plunge, and whose specific skill set functions as a keystone for whichever scheme the Mavs use. Events continue to conspire over the last few years to show that Maxi Kleber is simultaneously underrated and overly important. Against the Clippers, he himself was the missing link who’s mobile and long enough to cover ground and contest shots behind a blitzing defense. If Wood is in drop, it’s he who protects Wood’s slow reaction time from the weak side.
Relying so much on a role player to be your infrastructure is problematic, especially one with limited durability. There is still much to learn from what Kleber does well. While the team must contain drives better, what his absence shows is modern defensive schemes are dependent on a combination of length and mobility for any kind of coverage. The Dallas Mavericks signed JaVale McGee to be a rim enforcer, but he’s too slow to do it how the NBA demands.
What this team needs in the future is a new and improved Kleber-archetype. McGee and Wood may look the part in different ways, but there is no substitution for the cross-section of mobility and rim presence. Kevon Looney turning into Shaq led the Mavs to believe it was size that was needed, but the truth was the defense was so stretched to the limit by the Warriors style that Looney was never impeded. The team needed a better Maxi, not a new Eric Dampier.
There’s other issues at play, too many for one piece. Jalen Brunson is a superior defender than Spencer Dinwiddie, despite their size difference. Tim Hardaway needs to play next to Luka, making it difficult to create a balanced lineup. In the end, the rim presence problem is most important, but there is no substitute for effort and buy-in.
Jason Kidd was brought in to foster a defensive identity and change a culture, and it lasted one year. Ranked slightly ahead of the Mavericks on defense are the Sacramento Kings and Indiana Pacers, and you could make an argument that those teams have better personnel, but you can’t win one. There’s something rotten in the structure when the same team talks about defense in each presser, then refuses to attend a presser after a loss, then comes out flat against a lottery team at home. I won’t lay the blame only at Kidd’s feet–Luka deserves blame as well, for when your star loafs, it convinces the team that it’s okay. And, it’s the team building which put outsized responsibility in limited players hands.
Either way, these kinds of issues fester. It’s important to remember that winning titles is a multi-year project. Defense really does win championships–check the history books if you don’t believe me, and habits are built from year-to-year. The front office knows it wishes to improve this team in the near-future, and will have the ability to do so, but you can’t build a new room on to a burning house. If they don’t find the championship resolve with a play-in roster, who says it will come around when it’s winning time?