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The most valuable skill for Mavericks’ role players is defense

Unfortunately, very few Mavericks role players possess that skill, especially Tim Hardaway Jr.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Washington Wizards Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Mavericks are off to a good start. They are 9-5 with a +1.8 net rating following a season in which they were 38-44 with a -0.2 net rating. Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving are combining to form an elite offense, mixed with enough defense to lead to a 119.9 offensive rating and a 115.6 defensive rating when the pair are deployed together per NBA.com. It is important to note that the possession and subsequent per 100 possession ratings data varies depending on which website one uses for their information.

The problem is, the Mavericks have somehow gotten even worse defensively. Following a 116.1 defensive rating last season, the Mavericks have fallen to 118.2 defensive rating this season. This is despite the Mavericks adding rookie Dereck Lively who has been a revelation on both ends of the court and Grant Williams who has done everything that could have reasonably been expected of him.

The Mavericks are “only” giving up 116.3 points per 100 possessions per PBPstats.com with Lively on the court. That number would be roughly the same as the Mavericks total defense last year. That number balloons to 122.6 points when Lively sits.

Similarly, the Mavericks are only giving up 118.3 points per 100 possessions with Grant Williams on the court and 121.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench. Williams has quietly had a much more profound impact on the offense with his all court shooting ability despite his defensive reputation.

Derrick Jones Jr. has also improved the defense with the team allowing 112.5 points while he is playing versus 125.9 while he sits. He has been a revelation as a minimum signing. The final truly positive defender on the team is Dante Exum, though he like Grant Williams has quietly had a more positive effect on the offensive end. The defense has only been roughly 1.6 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Exum on the court.

Those four players have something else in common besides being the Mavericks’ best defenders. They are by far the most positive players on the team by on/off rating. Depending on the lineup data source one uses, those players range from +7.0 (Exum) to +12.1 (Williams) and somewhere in between for positive on/off differentials. No other Maverick, not even Doncic or Irving, has a starkly positive on/off differential by any of the websites who share possession metrics.

The Mavericks’ best defender though is none of these four players. It is simply not playing Tim Hardaway Jr. The Mavericks are only giving up 110.9 points per 100 possessions when Hardaway is not on the court. That number skyrockets to 126.2 points per 100 possessions when he plays. The 110.9 defensive rating would be the tenth best rating in the NBA. Hardaway is not all negative. He has been a breathtaking shooter this season and is likely the front runner for the Sixth Man of the Year award. He has a hugely positive impact on the Mavericks scoring, as the Mavericks score 8.7 points per 100 possessions more with him on the court.

Hardaway is also a truly catastrophic defender despite a solid combination of size (6’6) and athleticism of his own. He even tries really hard on the defensive end. He simply does not know how to defend NBA offenses well. He dies on screens, a trait far from unique to him among Mavericks’ defenders, and rotates poorly.

A common question among Mavericks’ fans has been what happened to the seventh ranked defense from the Western Conference Finals team in 2022. The answer is simply the presence of Hardaway. Hardaway started the first 19 games that season. The Mavericks had the 21st defensive rating in the league during those 19 games. Hardaway was then moved to the bench and eventually injured. From the time Hardaway was removed from the starting lineup till the end of the regular season, the Mavericks were fifth in defensive rating.

Hardaway is a useful player. He is an amazing shooter and he is of value on the contract he is on. However, the Mavericks two best players are even better offensive players who are also defensively neutral at best. It can be fun to build on a strength to the point of making it a juggernaut, a strategy the Indiana Pacers are utilizing as the only team with a worse defensive rating than the Mavericks and a winning record this season.

However, if the goal is to truly contend, a balance must be struck. Because Doncic and Irving provide so much offense, the value of Hardaway’s offense is neutered. The combination of Doncic and Irving has combined for a +7.6 net rating with Hardaway on the bench behind a sizzling 120.9 offensive rating and respectable 113.4 defensive rating.

The net rating when all three are combined falls to -8.5 despite the offensive rating rising to 126.9. The defensive rating when Irving, Doncic and Hardaway share the floor is a truly unbelievable 135.3 (!). Because of the defensive limitations of Doncic and Irving, the value of players who can provide defensive value like Lively, Jones, Williams and Exum are greatly enhanced.

Scarcity has always driven value while abundance decreases value. This is one of the fundamental rules of economics and the reason water is more valuable than oil in the desert. The Mavericks have an abundance of shooting, rendering Hardaway’s special talent less valuable on the Mavericks. They also have an extreme scarcity of defense, making Lively, Williams, Jones and Exum among the most valuable players on the entire roster.