After a dismal 2022-2023 season, the Dallas Mavericks knew that the only way they could get back to the playoffs was by improving on the defensive end of the floor. In the offseason, they committed to this idea, drafting defensive-minded prospects Dereck Lively II and Olivier Maxence-Prosper and signing versatile defenders Grant Williams and Derrick Jones Jr. in free agency. The hope was that these new additions, coupled with growth from players like Josh Green and renewed buy-in from superstars Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving, could help Dallas buoy their excellent offense with respectability on the other end of the floor.
And there were signs that they might be doing just that for the first few games of the season. Just two weeks ago, I wrote about the massive impact that Lively’s presence was having on the defense. Sure, Dallas’ defensive rating was sitting at just 18th in the NBA at the time, but that represented a step forward. Lively is still doing the best he can; the Mavericks have a 113.6 defensive rating in his minutes, an average mark. But as a whole, the Mavericks have fallen all the way to 25th in the NBA with a 121.3 defensive rating (per cleaningtheglass.com, which filters out garbage time minutes).
The last seven games have seen Dallas give up an average of 126.6 points to their opponents. They’re 3-4 in these contests. The offense has been remarkable but asking them to score 127 every night is not a sustainable business model. If the Mavericks go cold for even a quarter, they’re liable to fall apart and lose the game. Last night against the Sacramento Kings was a perfect example of this.
Dallas was going shot for shot with Sacramento for nearly three quarters before running out of gas in the fourth on the second night of a back-to-back. Although blaming the schedule for this result is an easy thing to do, this game was lost on the defensive end long before the final period. The Mavericks couldn’t string together consecutive stops all night, and one stretch in the second quarter really stuck out. I was at the game, and it seemed like Sacramento scored on 20 possessions in a row; after going back and looking at the play-by-play, I determined that number was actually nine straight Kings’ trips down the floor with a bucket.
It started with a Harrison Barnes driving layup off an offensive rebound with 8:10 to go in the second:
The Mavericks allowed 14 offensive rebounds and 22 second-chance points in this game. Even when they got stops, they couldn’t finish the defensive possession. After the Sabonis rebound here, Luka gets caught ball-watching, wandering around in no-man’s land while his man cuts to the rim for an easy layup. Queue the next defensive possession:
Simple swing pass to Harrison Barnes. Grant Williams gets into his defensive stance and then promptly gets absolutely dusted by Barnes. There’s just no reason for a guy who has a reputation as a good defender to get blown by this badly. This was Harrison Barnes, not Ja Morant.
It wasn’t the first or last time it happened in this game, either. Lively is forced to help on the drive and Williams does a poor job of picking up Sabonis, who makes himself available for an easy dump-off and score. This prompted a timeout from Jason Kidd. Tim Hardaway Jr. scored coming out of it and then this happened:
Irving actually does a really good job of staying in front of Barnes on the drive. But Grant Williams, asleep at the wheel, loses Chris Duarte and lets him saunter along the baseline on the back cut for an easy layup. Williams was dreadful in this game. An Irving three on the other end cut the deficit in half, but the Kings would get their six-point lead right back:
Not terrible pick-and-roll defense from Dallas, but watch Irving and Williams at the start of the possession: the two try to execute a switch but instead a really good shooter in Keegan Murray gets free for an open corner three. It’s hard to tell who of Irving or Williams is at fault, but there’s clearly a breakdown in communication. Murray hurt them again on the next possession:
Again, Sacramento targets Doncic in the pick-and-roll. The Barnes drive leads to four Mavericks touching the paint which feels a bit unnecessary; but Dallas was getting killed inside, so the overreaction makes sense. Barnes finds Murray in the corner, and Hardaway runs him off the line with a closeout. Hardaway does a decent job here, but Murray hits a nice floater in the lane. He’s feeling it after hitting a three last time and Dallas doesn’t get a break. After Irving missed a three, the Mavericks actually forced a miss the next time down! But sadly, they gave up an offensive rebounding, leading to this:
Dallas traps Fox off the dribble-handoff, and Fox makes the pass to Sabonis as the 4-on-3 safety valve. This is already a questionable strategy, as Sabonis is a gifted playmaker out of these situations, but Fox was on fire, so I get it. Irving crashes down to tag Sabonis, and Josh Green is late on the closeout to the corner, leaving a solid shooter in Duarte wide open for three.
Hardaway responded with a three of his own, but Duarte was up to his old tricks next time down:
Again, Dallas traps Fox out of the pick-and-roll with Sabonis. This time, Kyrie tags Sabonis early and Hardaway cheats down ever so slightly, leaving Duarte open on the wing. Fox alertly whips it to Duarte and Hardaway is late on the rotation, leading to another open three. This is what happens when you run such a small lineup against an All-Star big man; everyone has to help and rotate.
Kidd called another timeout after this play, begging his team to get a stop on the next possession. Finally, they forced a Kings miss. But, alas, they could not grab the rebound:
This one is a backbreaker. The Mavericks played 14 seconds of great defense; Powell does an incredible job staying with Duarte and forcing him into a very tough midrange shot. But because Powell had to pick up Duarte, leaving the rest of the tiny Maverick lineup alone in the paint, Sabonis is able to grab the easy offensive rebound. The unstoppable streak of Sacramento baskets concluded with one last defensive miscue from Dallas the next time down:
Dallas looks confused from the jump with Sabonis bringing the ball up. Hardaway doesn’t pick him up and drifts over to his man, Barnes, assuming that Powell will take Sabonis. But Fox sets a great down screen and Exum doesn’t switch, allowing Sabonis to blow past a recovering Powell and waltz to the rim for an easy reverse layup.
The Mavericks finally forced a miss and grabbed a rebound on the next Sacramento possession. At this point, the Kings were up 65-58. Dallas’ offense allowed them to stay in it during this stretch; the game was competitive for a long time after this. However, had they been able to get a few stops during this time, their offense might have built a lead instead of fighting to stay connected. Playing on the second night of a back-to-back, it would have been beneficial to establish some breathing room in the first half, knowing that tired legs would take over down the stretch. But the Mavericks’ complete inability to defend prevented anything close to that from happening.
Everyone on the team is to blame for this defensive ineptitude. Coach Jason Kidd has presided over a terrible defense for a long time now. Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic aren’t impact defenders and likely never will be. But, as our editor Josh Bowe articulated on the Pod Maverick After Dark postgame show last night, when the guys you’re paying to be good defenders aren’t doing their jobs, this whole thing falls apart. Grant Williams, Josh Green, and Derrick Jones Jr. were all terrible on defense against the Kings. Green in particular has struggled to defend all year. When your best perimeter defenders can’t stay in front of guys, it destroys your entire scheme and puts too much pressure on rookie Dereck Lively to clean up the mess.
Something has to change. Unfortunately, there aren’t a ton of internal options on the Maverick roster. The guys that are playing now need to have some pride and resolve to be better until the front office can make a move.