Of the 10 NBA teams who have won at least 60 percent of their games this season, only one has a negative point differential. The Mavericks, who enter Friday’s matchup with the Suns—the back half of a two-game set between the two teams, after Phoenix notched a seven-point win on Wednesday—sit in fourth place in the West at 9-5, despite having been outscored by 16 points through 14 games.
If you find that kind of confusing, well, you’re not alone. I suspect an awful lot of Mavs fans share your “dog tilting its head” disorientation, and would appreciate some clarity on just what this team ... y’know ... is.
We have a sense of what it’s supposed to be: an indomitable offensive juggernaut led by European talents Luka Doncic, an MVP-candidate-in-the-making from the second he touched down in the States, and Kristaps Porzingis, imported from New York to serve as the Slovenian frontman’s 7-foot-3 rhythm section. It’s been effective at times—most notably in the 2019-20 season, when the pair fueled the most efficient offense in NBA history, and may well have knocked off the favored Clippers in the first round of the playoffs if not for a soft ejection removing Porzingis from Game 1 and a torn meniscus shelving him for the final three games.
The Mavs labored to repeat those performances last season, as Porzingis struggled to return to form following a lengthy rehab, the Seth Curry–for–Josh Richardson trade whiffed, and Dallas slipped from first to eighth in offense. Even so, Doncic’s transcendence (plus strong turns from Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jalen Brunson) was enough to propel the Mavs back to the postseason and once again put the fear of God into the Clippers. But after Dallas fell short in a seven-game slugfest, the organization shifted in a sweeping shake-up that brought in former Nike executive Nico Harrison to take over basketball operations from longtime general manager Donnie Nelson; legendary point guard Jason Kidd came in to replace Rick Carlisle at the head of the Mavs bench.
The general pitch of the new regime? Revamp the defensive approach of a team that hadn’t finished better than 13th in points allowed per possession since 2017, and democratize an offense in which Doncic had become the alpha and omega, perhaps to the detriment of his teammates (chiefly Porzingis). So far, though, ehhhh. Doncic still leads the league in time of possession and usage rate, and is averaging just as many frontcourt touches per game, and the Mavs as a team are averaging fewer passes per game than last season (though their assist percentage is up from last year). On the other end, while Dallas’s ability to limit 3-point looks has led to the NBA’s sixth-best defensive shot profile, according to Cleaning the Glass, the Mavs haven’t been great at preventing points, ranking 21st in the league in opponent effective field goal percentage.
It all adds up to a slightly below-average team—16th in offensive efficiency, 18th on defense—that has benefited from one of the West’s softer opening schedules (Dallas is 8-1 vs. sub-.500 teams) and from strong crunch-time play. The Mavs are 5-1 in games in which the score was within five points in the final five minutes, and 3-1 when it was within three points in the last three minutes. Having a guy who can do this helps:
LUKA MAGIC BUZZER-BEATER THREE FOR THE WIN pic.twitter.com/DXb8pzyJR6— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 7, 2021
The Mavs don’t have him right now, though, with Doncic sidelined by knee and ankle sprains just five games after Porzingis returned from a bout with lower back tightness. Dallas’s two stars have shared the floor for just 173 minutes over eight games thus far—a fitful start to the season that has made it difficult for the team to develop much chemistry and cohesion.
Despite Doncic missing two-thirds of his shots outside the paint and showing an early-season aversion to venturing inside it (he’s averaging fewer drives to the rim per game than in either of the past two seasons, and a career-low share of his shots are coming at the rim), Dallas’s star is still averaging 25-8-8; his scoring numbers seem a good bet to surge once his shooting touch thaws. After a rickety first few games and an early injury, Porzingis has played well, averaging 22.8 points on .598 true shooting to go with 8.8 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.3 blocks in 30.8 minutes per game since his return to the lineup.
Kidd has looked for opportunities to feature Porzingis when Doncic sits, recently landing on a five-man unit—KP at center, Brunson at the point, Hardaway Jr., Sterling Brown, and Frank Ntilikina on the wings—that has looked good in a limited run (plus-14 in 24 minutes). Lineups like that weaponize the threat of Porzingis’s shooting ability, allowing the Mavs to play a five-out style that creates more driving and cutting lanes by drawing opposing centers out of the paint and stretching defenses past their breaking points:
Flanking Porzingis with lower-usage wings also affords him more chances to cook; he’s scored 28 points in that lineup’s 24 minutes, shooting 10-for-16 from the field with a superstar-ish 32.1 percent usage rate.
The Mavs outscored Phoenix by three points in 18 minutes with Porzingis at the 5, with the team generating assists on two-thirds of its baskets. (Porzingis dished a career-high seven assists against Phoenix on Wednesday—Dallas’s first game without Doncic this season—looking comfortable operating as a dribble-handoff hub from the elbows and, to some degree, facilitating out of the post, a wrinkle he’s been showing off a bit more recently.) With Doncic and versatile big man Maxi Kleber out, small-ball lineup constructions should become an even bigger part of Dallas’s rotation.
And yet, despite Porzingis-at-the-5 lineups dramatically outperforming ones in which he bumps down to power forward, Kidd’s playing him at center about half as often as Carlisle did the past two seasons. Some of that owes to the continued presence of screen-and-dive big man Dwight Powell in the starting lineup—a move that Kidd said was made as a “group decision” in concert with the rest of the roster, but one that tends to cramp Dallas’s spacing, making it harder for Doncic to get inside and for Dallas to consistently find good looks. It’s not just a Powell problem—over their last five games together, Luka-KP lineups had been outscored by nearly as many points with him off the court as they had with him on it—but considering the healthy starting five is minus-29 in 96 minutes for the season, it might be time for the Mavs’ leadership council to review that decision.
Maybe, as has been the case with Anthony Davis for much of his career, the lean toward two-big lineups stems from a desire to save Porzingis the wear and tear of having to bang into opposing centers night in and night out. It could also be that Kidd’s a bit squeamish about how playing the upright-and-slow-footed Porzingis at the 5 invites opponents to target him with a steady diet of pick-and-rolls, aimed at either generating switches onto smaller players who can dust him on the perimeter or pull up to take advantage of the space he cedes while dropping to protect the rim:
It all leaves the feeling of needs nearly met but not quite—of a Magic Eye picture that never really gets clearer no matter how much you squint. A stretch-5 to open the floor makes perfect sense alongside Doncic … but not if he’s only a part-time center that you don’t really trust to guard in space or command the back line of your defense. Bigs who stand a better chance of doing that—like Powell, Kleber, and the theoretical version of Willie Cauley-Stein (who hasn’t played very well this season)—make perfect sense alongside Doncic … but not if you don’t have enough other scoring threats or supplementary shot creators in the lineup. And finding complementary players capable of generating their own offense off the bounce, knocking down shots off the catch, and providing the kind of tight perimeter defense you need alongside Doncic, Porzingis, and Hardaway Jr. … well, that’s awfully difficult. (There’s a reason Mikal Bridges’s new deal will pay him more per season than Reggie Bullock, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Sterling Brown are making this year in Dallas combined.)
Ideally, first-rate play from your superstars can paper over any roster-construction blemishes. There’s reason for optimism on that note: On a per-minute basis, Porzingis’s production over the past six games has been right in line with what he turned in over the final six weeks of the 2019-20 season before its suspension and what he did in the bubble, and Doncic, even amid his early-season shooting slump, remains incredible. But while there have been flashes in their limited run this season of the sort of synergy Mark Cuban hoped for when he sent the Knicks two first-round picks for the right to max out Porzingis …
… the pairing has mostly, maddeningly struggled. It feels at times like the Mavericks are three teams, and the one they most need to be great—the one on which Cuban has placed Dallas’s biggest bet—is the one that just doesn’t quite work.
A Divide in Dallas
|Lineup||Minutes||Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating||Net Rating|
|Lineup||Minutes||Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating||Net Rating|
|Luka, No Kristaps||62||115.4||100.8||14.6|
|Kristaps, No Luka||72||110.6||102.0||8.6|
|Luka and Kristaps||113||108.8||117.3||-8.5|
|Statistics since Porzingis's return from injury on November 6. Lineup data via NBA.com.|
That discrepancy could well level out; we’re looking at small samples, after all. Luka finding his touch would help a lot; so, too, would Kidd shuffling the starting lineup to decongest Dallas’s spacing, and wings like Finney-Smith, Bullock, and Brown starting to make more than a third of their 3-pointers. But the entire premise of this Mavericks team was that pairing Doncic and Porzingis would produce an indefensible offense that could overwhelm teams en route to playoff glory. What we’ve seen so far, though, suggests that it might only produce a puzzle that’s still missing a few pieces; finding them promises to be tough, now that new deals for Doncic and Hardaway Jr. mean Dallas isn’t likely to have significant financial flexibility for several years. In the meantime, the Mavs curiously plug along—somehow both better and worse than they seem like they should be.