Let’s be honest — it’s not fun to talk about defense. Especially bad defense.
That’s why it’s been well over a month since the last time I checked in on the Dallas defense, which was falling apart due to poor play and injuries. The team, at the time, was missing Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, and Josh Green. Back on Jan. 12, I thought that stretch of games would be the worst the Mavericks defense looked all season. Players would get healthy, the team would adjust, and things would improve.
Whew, was that wrong!
The Mavericks lost for the fourth time in five games Sunday afternoon in Dallas against the Los Angeles Lakers. While the game didn’t play out exactly like the previous three losses, the overall theme remained the same: the Mavericks cannot keep teams out of the paint. Just about every opponent shot chart for the Mavericks lately looks exactly like the one from Sunday. There’s an uncomfortable amount of green near the rim and in the paint.
The Lakers scored 62 points in the paint on Sunday. The Spurs on Thursday scored 66. The Nuggets right before the All-Star break had 64. The Timberwolves matched that number on Feb. 13. Add 10 more to that number — that’s right, 74 points in the paint! Granted, it was an overtime game — for the Kings on Feb. 11. For context the Memphis Grizzlies lead the league in points per game in the paint at 59. The Spurs allow the most points in the paint per game at 56. What the Mavericks are doing is bad.
When I last checked in on the Dallas defense, I analyzed a recent six game stretch at the time, and the Mavericks during that time frame were 25th in percentage of opponent's shots allowed at the rim. For this recent five game stretch starting with the overtime loss to the Kings? That rank for the Mavericks is 28th. They’re getting worse!
Qualifier: Maxi Kleber is expected to return hopefully by the end of the week, and if not, sometime soon after that. He’s the best defender on the roster and his presence is sorely missed. But unlike that January post I wrote, the Mavericks don’t have a lot of horses ready to come back — Finney-Smith was traded for Kyrie Irving and Josh Green has been healthy for almost a month. Kleber will help, but the Mavericks defense has been so bad lately, one has to wonder just how much difference one person can make, even if that person is as good as a defender as Kleber is.
The main problem is the Mavericks are overmatched both by scheme and roster. Dallas doesn’t have the same aggressive, more attacking scheme from a season ago and in addition the roster is definitely worse defensively from a talent standpoint. That talent drop off on defense also feeds back into the first part — scheme. Without the trio of Finney-Smith, Reggie Bullock, and Kleber together, Jason Kidd and his coaching staff have been forced to play more conservatively to help try and hide the weaknesses of some of the players in the rotation.
Take these examples from most recent loss to the Timberwolves on Feb. 13. It didn’t matter if the Mavericks big was Dwight Powell or Christian Wood, the Mavericks played drop coverage most of the time against Rudy Gobert and the Wolves pick and roll game.
In each scenario above, the possession ended with the Wolves getting an easy layup. It’s clear the coaching staff doesn’t trust Powell or Wood to play at the level of the screener consistently, although I would argue for Powell that’s a better use of his specific skills (quick feet, good hands) rather than giving teams an open runway to challenge Powell at the rim (where he’s never been good, defensively). Drop is also difficult when you have guards that can’t fight through screens, which has been happening to Dallas a lot, even with Bullock and Green on the floor.
Kleber was the big the coaches trusted to play more aggressively against the pick and roll, so maybe the scheme looks better when he returns.
The scheme is what it is at this point, because quite frankly, in some of these losses, the scheme wouldn’t matter. To be even more blunt: the Mavericks need to show some pride on defense.
There won’t be much for Kleber to help if he’s going to get left out to dry by Mavericks defenders that have been incapable of stopping any semblance of drives to the basket or stick with their man. You could find multiple examples in the Lakers loss that is less scheme and more “play harder.”
The first bucket of the game for LA was because Irving just stopped guarding his man after he passed the ball.
Jarred Vanderbilt (who outworked the Mavericks at just about every opportunity) got an easy dunk in the third quarter because Malik Beasley easily blew past a terrible closeout from Bullock. That forced Doncic to step up and help, leaving Vanderbilt open for an easy score as Powell stayed attached to Anthony Davis. If Bullock does a better job closing out and staying in front of Beasley, this play never happens.
Another way to stop easy points in the paint is to box out and grab a rebound every now and then. The Lakers had 17 offensive rebounds and it’s honestly a miracle they only had 18 second chance points.
This one is going to look ugly for Luka in the film session.
If we’re being honest, Luka needs to be better. With Irving in tow, the excuse for Doncic’s subpar defense being that he’s worn out from doing everything on offense won’t last as long. After Kleber comes back, that’s it — there is no white horse storming the countryside to save the Mavericks defense. No more trades, no more buyouts, this is the roster till the season is over. That means the guys on this roster have to do some self-reflection and truly ask themselves if they can be giving a better effort. That includes Doncic, and everyone else. It’s hard to watch the Mavericks defense falter because Doncic is still on the floor with an exasperated look on his face toward an official while the other team races down the floor to score an easy transition bucket. Luka is the face of the franchise, has his huge $200-plus million contract, it’s time for this silliness to end. He doesn’t need to be All-Defense, or even above average. But his effort has to be better consistently.
Luka gets caught head in the clouds pic.twitter.com/JaHaiZz7VI— MavsHighlights (@MavsHighlights) February 24, 2023
What’s most concerning about this recent stretch is what teams are doing from three point range. In the last five games, teams are shooting only 29.1 percent from three against the Mavericks. Why is this a big deal? Well three point shooting percentage defense has been mostly accepted by smart NBA people to be more based on luck/variance than anything a defense can particularly do. It’s the “make-or-miss” theory, that regardless of how well or poorly you’re contesting three point shots, the three point shot itself is so variable, that a good or bad shooting night can happen almost randomly. Teams regularly get smoked by a hot shooting night even with solid defense and escape terrible defensive nights when opponents go cold from the field. So the Mavericks defense has been getting rocked this season and you can’t even qualify this recent stretch as having received poor three point shooting luck. If anything, the Mavericks defense should be getting more waxed, if teams were just hitting league average from three in the last five games. What’s going to happen when teams eventually start making their threes against the Mavericks? It could somehow get uglier than it is now.
In the meantime, the Mavericks only option is to hope Kleber is healthy soon and look themselves in the mirror and play better. Dallas is still within range of home court advantage in the first round, or falling to the play-in tournament. No matter how potent Luka and Kyrie are, if the defense doesn’t change, the team isn’t going anywhere this season.