The Mavericks needed time to figure themselves out. The team they were at the start of the season is really different from the one they had become when the NBA shut down on March 11.
Dallas had to find the right types of role players around stars Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Mavs coach Rick Carlisle cycled through several starting lineups before landing on the best one in late January. The end result was the best offense in NBA history.
Unlocking Doncic was the first step. The second-year guard got in better shape last offseason and turned himself into an MVP candidate. He’s putting up incredible individual numbers (28.7 points on 46.1 percent shooting, 9.3 rebounds, and 8.7 assists per game) while leading the Mavs to the highest offensive rating (116.7) ever, ahead of the 2018-19 Warriors (115.9), who closed games with at least four future Hall of Famers, at no. 2. The gap between the two is as wide as the one between the Warriors and the no. 10 team all time.
The key lineup change was pairing Doncic with Tim Hardaway Jr., who became a starter in mid-November. Hardaway has the best net rating of any Mavs player with Luka (plus-10.8 in 1,032 minutes). He has gone from a score-first gunner to a 3-and-D player, using his size (6-foot-5 and 205 pounds) and athleticism to shield Doncic on defense, while burying catch-and-shoot 3s and pouring in points (15.8 on 43.7 percent shooting) without needing to dribble.
Getting Porzingis going next to Doncic was more complicated. He needed to find his rhythm after sitting out 20 months with a torn ACL, as well as adjust to playing with a ball-dominant point guard. His offensive production has climbed as the season has progressed, from 15.8 points per game on 38.7 percent shooting in November to 25.2 points per game on 48.3 percent shooting in February.
Bad luck also played a role in Porzingis’s growth. He started next to Dwight Powell, an elite roll man, until Powell tore his Achilles on January 21. The Mavs traded for Willie Cauley-Stein, who is sitting out the restart, to replace him. But the real solution was going small with four perimeter players around Porzingis. Powell, for all his strengths, was always going to be a placeholder even if he had stayed healthy. Using him as a roll man turned Porzingis into a 7-foot-3 bystander on offense, and neither big man had the speed to keep up with the best frontcourts.
Carlisle had to adjust his offense for Porzingis to thrive. He has always preferred athletic rim runners at center, from Tyson Chandler to Brandan Wright to Powell. But that isn’t KP’s game. He strolls more than he rolls to the rim. It’s risky for someone with his size and injury history to spend too much time in the air. The good news is that he’s so big he can dunk while barely jumping:
He’s more dangerous fading to the perimeter because of how much space he creates in the lane. Someone has to stay attached to a shooter with his length and quick trigger. Forcing switches on those plays has allowed Porzingis to better use his post game. Instead of banging against bigger defenders in the paint, he can shoot over smaller ones in the midrange:
His role doesn’t even change much when Doncic is out. He scored 38 points against the Pacers and 36 against the Grizzlies without his costar, and 34 against the Pelicans with him. Lineups with Porzingis at the 5 actually have been better without Doncic (plus-21.5 in 164 minutes) than with him (plus-7.7 in 176 minutes). KP’s true shooting percentage skyrockets (60.2) when he’s the sole big man, regardless of who his guards are. He deserves credit for buying into Carlisle’s new system even as he was getting ripped for it by the Inside the NBA crew and others, as well as accepting the physical punishment that comes with playing center on defense.
His position switch also created a spot in the starting lineup for an elite scorer in Seth Curry. He’s long since left his brother’s shadow. The younger Curry is an all-time-great shooter in his own right (career 44.3 percent from 3 on 3.9 attempts per game) and can shoot off the dribble from anywhere on the floor. It looks effortless when he gets going, like when he scored 37 points on 15 shots against the Heat in February:
Rounding out the starting five is Dorian Finney-Smith, a prototypical 3-and-D forward who does a lot of the dirty work in Dallas. The list of his most frequent defensive assignments this season is a who’s who of the NBA’s best scorers. He’s the only starter who doesn’t need an above-average defender on him, and even he is a consistent shooter (37.4 percent) with a high release point (6-foot-7 with a 7-foot wingspan) who can’t be left open:
This Luka dime is mind-blowing @luka7doncic || #MFFL pic.twitter.com/sCZkZitXz4— House Mavericks (@HouseMavericks) June 30, 2020
The new starting five has been dominant in a limited amount of time (plus-11.7 in 122 minutes) this season. They space the floor as well as any lineup in NBA history. All five players are legitimate threats from beyond the arc:
Mavs Starters’ 3s
They combine for 32.6 3-point attempts per game, which would have led the league four years ago. Even more impressive: Dallas doesn’t have the tradeoff that typically comes with volume versus efficiency. The team is no. 2 in the NBA in 3-point attempts (41.5) and no. 8 in 3-point efficiency (36.9 percent). No other top-five team in attempts is in the top half of the league in efficiency.
The Mavs are pushing the boundaries of the game. Doncic and Porzingis don’t just take 3s. They take deep 3s. Doncic has taken 22 shots from 30 to 34 feet this season. And Porzingis is right behind him at 21. It’s no wonder they have the greatest offense of all time. They are forcing teams to completely rewrite the traditional rules of defensive basketball. A 6-foot-7 and a 7-foot-3 guy bombing from half court with three more shooters around them is a glimpse into the future. Look at how far the Mavs stretch the defense and how they swing the ball around the floor to create open 3s. This is how all the best teams will play in 2025:
The question, as it has been in Dallas going back to the days of Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash, is whether the defense can match the offense. The Mavericks have the no. 17 defense (110.3) in the NBA this season.
There is room to grow. Doncic is the starting lineup’s only bad defender. It’s the one area of his game that he still has to improve. He’s too big and smart to not be an adequate team defender who understands his role in the scheme and knows where to funnel the ball.
Porzingis is an elite rim protector, but he has limitations on that side of the ball too. There’s no reason to ask a 7-foot-3 center to switch screens and chase smaller players around the 3-point line.
The three wings have to be the spine of the defense. They need to man the best perimeter scorers while also covering a lot of ground on the help side. Finney-Smith is the best of the bunch, but Hardaway and Curry are better defenders than their reputations allow. They are tough-minded players who play with an edge and allow Doncic to rest on that end of the floor.
Dallas brings two excellent defenders off its bench in Delon Wright and Maxi Kleber. Wright, at 6-foot-5 and 185 pounds, slides among three positions on defense, while Kleber, at 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds, moves his feet well for a player his size. They have been two of the best bench players in the league this season. Wright can run the offense and get to the rim while Kleber can stretch the floor (career 35.4 percent from 3 on 3.0 attempts per game) and finish above the rim.
The Mavs have only one real weakness on either side of the ball. While Finney-Smith is the team’s best defender, at 220 pounds he doesn’t have the elite athleticism or sturdy frame to match up with the best wings. Look at the way Jimmy Butler gets into his chest and draws fouls in this clip:
The problem for Dallas is it might have to go through Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, and Giannis Antetokounmpo in three consecutive rounds to win an NBA title. The road to winning in the modern NBA runs through the big wing position. Few can defend those players while still contributing on offense.
The Mavs need a 2020 version of Shawn Marion or Andre Iguodala. They were both elite defenders who also had the scoring ability to average 20 points per game earlier in their careers. Marion, unlike Iguodala in 2015, didn’t win a Finals MVP in 2011, but he was the unsung hero of the Mavs’ championship. He guarded Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and LeBron in those playoffs. It’s no coincidence that Dirk’s only ring came with a player like that next to him.
Dallas has come a long way this season. The team found the perfect roles for its two stars as well as the right supporting cast to fit around them. It needs only one more piece. But it’s also an incredibly hard one to find.