The Mavs learned the right lesson from the Lakers’ championship run. As big as Los Angeles was up front last season, its defensive dominance began with its size on the perimeter. The Lakers didn’t start anyone shorter than 6-foot-5 in the playoffs. They shrunk the court with waves of long and athletic defenders around their two stars. Dallas now has the same kind of roster after some smart offseason moves.
Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis will never be as good defensively as LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but they may not need to be. The Mavs just have to be more balanced than they were last season, when they combined the most efficient offense in NBA history with a below-average defense. As sacrilegious as it sounds, Doncic can be as dominant offensively as LeBron. And now the Mavs have the players to surround him with a great defense. They have gone from just a fun team to a legitimate contender.
The key move was the draft-night trade that sent Seth Curry to Philadelphia for Josh Richardson and a second-round pick. Curry was one of the best bench scorers in the league, but possesses many of the same strengths and weaknesses as Doncic. Richardson’s skill set, in contrast, might as well have been invented in a lab to complement the Mavs’ MVP candidate. After struggling on a 76ers roster that didn’t make sense, he should look more like the elite role player he was with the Heat two seasons ago.
Richardson and Doncic are a near perfect pairing. At 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, Richardson has the physical tools to defend players at all three perimeter positions. He gives the Mavs someone who can protect Doncic by hounding opposing point guards like Damian Lillard and Steph Curry. And playing with a point forward like Doncic will allow Richardson to match up with smaller players on defense without having to carry the burden of running the offense.
The limitations in Richardson’s offensive game were exposed in Philadelphia. That will not be an issue in Dallas. No guard will ever be asked to do too much on offense next to Doncic, arguably the most ball-dominant player in the league. He’s a one-man offense who only needs his teammates to knock down open shots and attack closeouts. That’s the ideal role for Richardson, who shot 36 percent from 3 on five attempts per game and averaged almost twice as many assists (3.3) as turnovers (1.7) over the last three seasons. He has just the right amount of offensive creativity to excel next to Doncic—enough so that the defense can’t ignore him, but not enough to be unhappy and want more responsibility.
Doncic isn’t the only Mavs player who should be better next to Richardson. Tim Hardaway Jr. was a surprisingly effective 3-and-D guard last season, but was pushed beyond his limits on defense. Now he returns to a more natural defensive role on the wing behind Richardson and Dorian Finney-Smith, who is coming off a breakout season. That interchangeable perimeter group is better than the sum of its parts. Hardaway is the best shooter and worst defender of the bunch, while Finney-Smith is the worst shooter and most versatile defender. Richardson fits comfortably between them in both categories.
All three are in the right spot of their careers when it comes to accepting secondary roles. Hardaway is 28, while Richardson and Finney-Smith are both 27. They are still in their athletic primes, but aren’t younger players dreaming of being more than they really are. It’s not like Jerami Grant in Denver, who left a perfect situation because he wanted to be a primary option. Richardson and Hardaway have already lived that life. Hardaway, who had the best 3-point shooting season of his career (39.8 percent on 7.2 attempts) playing off Doncic last year, knows how good he has it in Dallas. Richardson is about to find out. It’s similar to Houston’s dream 65-win season in 2017-18, when they put a hungry group of 3-and-D players (Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute) around James Harden and Chris Paul.
From a size perspective, the new-look Mavs look pretty similar to the group the Lakers used to start Game 6 of the NBA Finals:
2020-21 Mavs vs. 2019-20 Lakers
|Josh Richardson||6'5||200||Alex Caruso||6'5||186|
|Tim Hardaway Jr.||6'5||205||Kentavious Caldwell-Pope||6'5||204|
|Dorian Finney-Smith||6'7||220||Danny Green||6'6||215|
|Luka Doncic||6'7||230||LeBron James||6'9||250|
|Kristaps Porzingis||7'3||240||Anthony Davis||6'10||253|
The Lakers realized that JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard weren’t essential to their success. They were better when they benched their traditional centers and put more versatile defenders around Davis, who could switch on the perimeter and guard past the 3-point line. That’s how they won their series against the Rockets and Heat. The Mavs can do the same thing with Porzingis, allowing him to stay in the paint and protect the rim, while trusting him to handle bigger assignments like Nikola Jokic.
Porzingis’s health is the big question mark hanging over Dallas’s season. He tore his meniscus against the Clippers and will miss at least the first few weeks of the regular season while recovering from surgery. The Mavs treated Porzingis with kid gloves last season, playing him only 31.8 minutes per game and keeping him out of most back-to-backs. They likely will do the same this season given the compressed schedule and quick turnaround from the bubble.
But his absence should not be felt much in the early going. Maxi Kleber can fill his role as a 3-and-D center in the starting lineup, while Rick Carlisle is a creative coach who can piece together a rotation among their other big men (Dwight Powell, Willie Cauley-Stein, Boban Marjanovic, and James Johnson) depending on the matchup of any given night.
Doncic doesn’t need much offensive help. He averaged 28.8 points on 46.3 percent shooting, 9.4 rebounds, and 8.8 assists last season, and had a better net rating without Porzingis (plus-6.5 in 893 minutes) than with him (plus-4.5 in 1,154 minutes). As a 21-year-old entering his third season, he will benefit from having younger legs in a bizarre season in which most of his peers will need load management.
He doesn’t have anything left to prove, either. Not after averaging 31.0 points on 50.0 percent shooting in the playoffs against Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Look at how easily he moved Kawhi out of his way in this crunch-time play:
It’s easy to underestimate Luka Doncic’s strength, but this is a strong drive to the basket against Kawhi, who’s not typically one to be moved. pic.twitter.com/mnzwT5JIzp— Positive Residual (@presidual) August 18, 2020
Luka, like LeBron, combines physical power with breathtaking passing ability. It doesn’t matter that he’s not at the same level athletically. Doncic is so big that he can always create angles for himself off the dribble, and he has such excellent touch around the basket that he needs only a sliver of space to score. He shot better from 2-point range last season (57.4 percent) than both LeBron (56.4) and Davis (54.6). Defenses have to pack the paint to stop him. Then he picks them apart once they do.
The philosophical adjustment the Mavs have made this season is emphasizing defensive versatility around Doncic instead of 3-point shooting. That’s what the Richardson-for-Curry swap represents. Dallas will not space the floor quite as well, but it can afford to shave a few points off its offensive rating if it means boosting its defensive respectability. Balance is crucial when building around an offensive-minded star. It’s no coincidence that Houston’s two trips to the Western Conference finals with Harden came in their only two seasons with a top-10 defense.
Dallas’s new approach also extended to the draft. Josh Green, a freshman wing from Arizona it took at no. 18 overall, is the same type of player as Richardson. He’s a tenacious defender with the size (6-foot-6 and 210 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan) and athleticism to defend multiple positions, the basketball IQ to move the ball in a secondary role, and a respectable enough shot (36.1 percent from 3 in college, 78 percent from the free throw line) to be an off-ball threat. Green probably won’t play much as a rookie, but could develop into a solid complement for Doncic. The Mavs also took interesting flyers in Stanford combo guard Tyrell Terry (no. 31), Colorado forward Tyler Bey (no. 36), and Houston wing Nate Hinton (two-way contract). Hitting on at least one will be important; their cheap salaries will allow Dallas to fill out a rotation around multiple players on max contracts.
The other side of the Mavs’ savvy offseason moves, including trading Delon Wright and Justin Jackson for James Johnson, is that they created enough cap room to chase Giannis Antetokounmpo next summer. The Mavs have been linked to Giannis for awhile, and there’s no indication whether he will take himself off the market by signing a supermax extension with the Bucks, or if he would even be interested in playing with Doncic. The only question is if they could share the ball and the spotlight. The rest would be easy.
But the beauty of what Dallas has done is that they don’t need Giannis. The franchise isn’t all in on that scenario. Doncic could dethrone the reigning two-time MVP and win the award himself this season. He’s the future face of the league, and all the right pieces are in place around him. Porzingis is a great second option. Richardson and Hardaway could be the third and fourth best players on an elite team. This is an organization ready to win big. Their front office has nailed move after move over the last few seasons. They have an owner (Mark Cuban) willing to spend money, and a coach (Carlisle) who can make the right adjustments in the playoffs. The scariest part for the rest of the West isn’t just what Luka could do with Giannis. It’s that the Mavs will be contenders for a long time either way.