In case you haven’t been paying attention, the Dallas Mavericks are tied for third in the Western Conference with a 6-3 record. They are a young team with a very bright future and they happen to be an absolute joy to watch. With teams like the Pelicans, Warriors, and Kings all struggling in the early stages of the season, Dallas has a legitimate shot at making the playoffs. A postseason appearance would be a huge first step in the Mavericks rebuild around their two young stars, Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. It also would send a great message to impending free agents in the summer of 2021 – – in which the Mavs could move around enough money to generate max cap space to add a third star. There are still lots of questions for Dallas moving forward, but through 9 games, there is plenty of reason for optimism.
The main reason Mavs fans should be excited is the play of Luka Doncic. Breaking news – – he’s really good! It appears he’s avoided the sophomore slump, as he’s improved in just about every area. One of the biggest jumps in the early going appears to be his finishing at the rim. Through 9 games, he’s shooting 69 percent at the rim – – which is a noticeable jump from 62 percent last year, per Cleaning the Glass.
He’s mixing speeds more effectively to keep defenders off balance, shown here as he takes several elongated steps to let McGee fly by and create the opening:
If he can’t get all the way to the rim, he has shown nice touch on his floater – – a shot that he can hit jumping off either foot:
He’s also improved his efficiency by cutting out long mid-range jumpers. He took 8 percent of his shots from that area last year, while taking just 3 percent of his attempts from there this season, per Cleaning the Glass. We all saw how effective he was at the step-back three as a rookie, and he’s relied on that even more in his second year. It’s frankly shocking the kind of separation he’s able to generate with the combination of his ball handling and that right to left step-back:
All-NBA defender Jrue Holiday had no chance on that play. He’s able to get to that shot whenever he wants, and unless you play directly on his left hip – – which would give him a free runway to the rim, it’s an un-guardable shot:
One of the few disappointing elements of his rookie campaign was his 71 percent free throw shooting. He’s improved his numbers there as well, sitting at 83.6 percent through 9 games. Part of that jump can be attributed to his superior conditioning. Luka has improved his true shooting percentage from 54.5 percent as a rookie to 60.9 percent in his second year, per Basketball Reference. The fact that he’s been more efficient while handling an even larger share of the offensive load is an encouraging sign.
Another area of strength for Doncic as a rookie was his passing, and he’s taken that to another level this year. His assists numbers have jumped from 6 to 9.1 per game. And his assist percentage has leapt from 31.7 to 47.4 percent, per Cleaning the Glass. He is so great at manipulating the defense, and now that Dallas has more firepower around him, we’re seeing his passing talent fully realized:
He’s especially good at sucking in the defense and hitting corner three point shooters – – the most efficient look in basketball outside of a layup or dunk:
Watch this slingshot he throws while never having to put his left hand on the basketball:
He utilizes clever pass fakes to the roller that draw in the weak-side defender:
One player that’s been a recipient of Luka’s brilliant vision is Kristaps Porzingis. A lot of people were concerned about his ability to return to being a top-30 player after his ACL tear, but fear not, this guy is still really good:
The fit with Doncic couldn’t be more perfect, and they seem to relish playing with one another:
He’s been a bit rusty inside the arc, shooting 36 percent from the mid range, per Cleaning the Glass. Occassionally his timing looks off, and he can appear a bit clumsy. Those plays will lower in frequency as time goes on; it has been over a year and a half since the guy played competitive basketball. There are enough flashes to assume better days are ahead:
Defensively, there are moments were Porzingis finds it difficult to move laterally, and perhaps that is something he will never quite get back after his ACL tear:
When he cuts off the initial drive, you can tell he’s not fully confident pushing off his knee to keep up with the secondary move:
Despite not changing directions quickly, he was still able to challenge Kyle Kuzma’s attempt due to his enormous size and length, and even if the mobility never fully returns, he’ll still make a positive impact defensively:
One of the key summer signings for the Mavs was Delon Wright, and he has been a terrific fit on both ends of the floor. He gives them something the team has lacked over the last few years – – a guy that forces turnovers and gets the Mavs running in transition:
Watch these consecutive defensive stops in their game against the Lakers, in which Wright uses his anticipation and quick hands to help Dallas go on an impressive run:
The concern with Wright will always be the offensive end, as he isn’t a player most teams respect off the ball – – but he has frequently used the lack of attention from his opponents against them:
The idea of a third star would be most helpful on this team when either Porzingis or Doncic is on the bench, and the team needs more playmaking. However, Wright has done a decent job of being a secondary creator. He’s quite crafty and changes gears effectively in his off-the-bounce game:
He’s been a seamless fit in Dallas so far, and he’s even made 6 of his 15 threes:
Another young rotation piece that is a joy to watch is second-year guard Jalen Brunson. He has a calm, patient style that belies his age. Unfortunately, his shot has abandoned him in the early portion of the campaign. He’s shooting a tick under 27 percent from three. That, combined with his diminutive stature on the defensive end, makes it hard for Coach Rick Carlisle to determine who should be getting the backup point guard minutes. Veteran J.J. Barea received 16 minutes to Brunson’s 6 in their recent win against Orlando. I expect Brunson’s three-point shooting numbers to jump back into the 34-36 percent range sooner rather than later, which is around where he was as a rookie. If that happens, he should win the primary backup point guard duties. He’s already showing some next level reads as a passer:
If the NBA Awards show adopts a “best passes of the year” category, this one might just make the cut:
The other big acquisition of the summer for Dallas was that of Seth Curry. He played previously on the Mavericks back in 2017-18, and the organization knew they needed more shooting around their two stars. Like the whole Curry family, Seth is a terrific shooter, and in limited minutes he’s done a solid job providing spacing. Here he converts on another nice dish from Brunson:
With Maxi Kleber, Dorian Finney-Smith and Wright all being more corner specialists, Curry provides the Mavericks with a lethal above the break three-point option:
The priority of this past offseason seemed to be improving the backcourt, and in Wright and Curry, they’ve done that. They aren’t the flashiest of guys or players you’d want playing 35 minutes, but they are both competent rotation pieces that bring differing skill sets to the table.
Dorian Finney-Smith is a steal on the 3 year, 12 million dollar contract he inked with the Mavs in July. He isn’t necessarily a good starting wing – – the position Dallas should focus on when adding to this roster in the future – – but he is another solid rotation piece that they have locked up for well-below market value. He is a capable three-point shooter – – he’s hitting 40 percent of his corner threes while overall he’s at a 30 percent clip. He also does a lot of the little things to help teams win. He’s looked a lot more comfortable with the Mavs pace of play this season, which is noticeably faster than in previous years:
He also does a great job on the offensive glass, ranking in the 100th percentile for his position. A stat he’s been in the 87th percentile or higher in the previous two seasons, per Cleaning the Glass.
Maxi Kleber’s 4 year, 36 million dollar contract may have surprised some people, but everyone in Dallas knows he’s a really good two-way role player. He can space the floor if you need him to and he’s a capable roller to the rim:
Defensively he can do it all – – he can switch, he’s a sturdy post defender, and he protects the rim. Watch him move his feet on the perimeter:
He’s incredibly strong and difficult to move. Paul Millsap expects to create separation here by lowering his shoulder, but Kleber is having none of it:
Having Porzingis and Kleber on the floor at the same time gives the Mavs some of the best shot blocking in the entire league. He made an incredible play in the closing stages of their win against the Nuggets:
A guy that has been quite underwhelming so far has been Dwight Powell. Why did the Mavericks pay him over TEN MILLION DOLLARS annually for the next FOUR SEASONS? He literally can’t do anything other than dunk. They hyped up his three-point shooting, but he’s attempted a total of 4 through his first 6 games and has made only 1. If he can’t slam it home, he has terrible touch around the basket:
Defensively he makes almost zero impact. There are several types of bad defenders. There are the ones that give minimal effort, like James Harden. And then there’s ones that try, but just don’t have the tools or basketball IQ to make the players they’re guarding uncomfortable. Powell falls into the latter category. In the NBA, if the offensive player can get to wherever he wants without any impediment – – it’s going to be a bucket. In their matchup against the Lakers, Powell lost the game for the Mavs almost single-handedly. Whenever Los Angeles saw Powell was guarding Anthony Davis, they immediately attacked him:
If you’re keeping track, Davis scored on a straight line drive, got to the middle of the floor, and spun baseline. Powell didn’t force him a certain direction or attempt to get physical. That’s a recipe for disaster. If you’re wondering, but hey, that’s a superstar he’s trying to defend! Well, there was another play in that same game that showcased Powell’s inept defense:
Caruso will never get an easier bucket for the remainder of his NBA career. Opponents have shot 6.1 percent better at the rim when Powell is on the floor this year – – and he’s been in the 26th percentile or worse in that category every year he’s been in Dallas, per Cleaning the Glass. Again, what do the Mavericks like about the guy? Good locker room guys that are culture setters have value, but I’m fairly certain you can find that for less than 11 million a year.
Overall, the Mavs seemed to do a fairly good job building this roster and it’s translated into wins in the early going of the new season. They are absolutely a must-watch League Pass team. They have Tim Hardaway Jr. taking several ill-advised shots every night, they have the most exciting young duo in the league in Doncic and Porzingis, and they have Boban Marjanovic. That’s right, the 7-foot-4 Serbian giant that can dunk without jumping and who’s also appeared in the John Wick franchise is on this team!
To quote Adam Scott from the hilarious Starz series Party Down, “are we having fun yet?”
Carlisle has a lot of experimenting and tinkering to do if he is going to find the perfect lineup combinations. Keep an eye out for lineup data involving Doncic, Porzingis, and Kleber as the season goes on – – the three of them provide so much size, shooting, and rim protection. Wright and Curry are perfect complements to that trio as well. As crazy as it would be given where this organization was just a few years ago, a second round playoff run this year seems very possible. Doncic is 20, Porzingis is 24, if they are this good already, who knows how far this team can go over the next decade.