Through seven games of the NBA season, your Dallas Mavericks are the proud owners of a sparkling 6-1 record. The road to such an impressive start hasn’t always been a smooth one, but there are a ton of positive things that help explain how they’ve managed to pull this off. Massively improved clutch play, hot three-point shooting, and the brilliance of Luka Doncic have all contributed to this strong start. The wing additions of Grant Williams and Derrick Jones Jr. look to be incredibly savvy free-agent pickups.
But the biggest X-factor, one that seemed wholly improbable even a month ago, has been the play of rookie big man Dereck Lively II. Lively has hit the ground running in Dallas, and his early emergence has huge ramifications for this Maverick squad. A team that features Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving was always going to be an elite offense. Last season, Dallas had a 123.2 offensive rating in Luka + Kyrie minutes, a figure that ranked in the 94th percentile for all lineups with at least 15 possessions. How the Mavericks would stack up offensively was never a question heading into 2023-2024.
The defense, on the other hand, was a big concern. I don’t have to waste time detailing how bad the Maverick defense was a season ago; most of you watched the team. And, on the surface, the defensive numbers through seven games this season aren’t very impressive, either. Their defensive rating on the year is 113.2, a sure step up over last year’s mark, but still just 18th in the NBA. But that improvement is due in large part to the efforts of Dereck Lively II.
According to cleaningtheglass.com, lineups featuring Dereck Lively II this season have a +7.6 Net Rating. For context, the Mavericks have a +6.8 Net Rating as a whole, good for seventh in the NBA. The Lively minutes by themselves would be sixth in the league, just ahead of the Hawks’ 7.3 Net Rating. So, we can see that the team has played marginally better when Lively is on the floor. And most of that is because of what he is doing to the defense.
Offensively, the Mavericks have been a top-four team with a 120.0 offensive rating. In Lively’s minutes, that number drops down a bit to 118.5, still an elite number. It stands to reason that a 19-year-old rookie who played just 700 minutes of college basketball might not be able to keep up with advanced stats darling Dwight Powell (121.7 offensive rating in his minutes). But Lively’s chemistry with the Mavericks’ star guards and his ability to operate as an effective roll-man have allowed Dallas to maintain a high-level offense no matter who is manning the five position.
On the other end of the floor, Lively is working wonders. When he’s on the bench, Dallas’s defensive rating sits at 115.5, a figure that would rank 22nd in the NBA. But when Lively is on the floor, that number shrinks to 110.9, which would put Dallas on the borderline of a top-10 NBA defense. When Lively, Grant Williams, and Derrick Jones Jr. (the Mavericks' three main offseason additions) share the floor, Dallas has been suffocating with a 103.8 defensive rating. This kind of effect is remarkable for any player, but when you consider Lively’s age and experience level, it defies logic entirely. While the raw defensive numbers don’t jump off the page, it’s clear that his presence in the paint and ability to switch, communicate, and rebound is changing the game defensively for Dallas.
Lively has a 2.1 block% (63rd percentile) and a 1.3 steal% (61st percentile), illustrating that he’s been solidly above average in making defensive plays. His 12% offensive rebounding percentage is the 10th best in the NBA. Lively is doing a great job of changing the game on the defensive end and generating extra possessions for his team on the offensive end. Expect all of these numbers to go up as Lively gets more experience and grows more acclimated to the league. The one bugaboo for him thus far has been his extremely high foul rate (4.8%, 12th percentile), an issue that we all knew would plague him coming out of Duke.
Dereck Lively II will continue to improve his all-around game. He will learn to play defense without fouling and work toward becoming a more complete offensive big. There is so, so much time for him to grow, and the potential for what he can turn into is exciting to think about. It appears as though the Mavericks knocked this draft pick out of the park. One can’t help but dream of what a future version of Lively looks like. But, until then, he’s doing a great job of helping this team win in the present.