On Thursday, the eyes of the NBA migrated toward Little Caesars Arena for a duel between the Dallas Mavericks and Detroit Pistons, the lone game of the night. Despite Cade Cunningham’s continued absence, Detroit snagged its sixth win of the season, a 131-125 victory, behind Bojan Bogdanovic’s 30 points and Killian Hayes’ crunch-time scoring flurry.
While Bogdanovic’s season-long torrid shooting and Hayes’ ascendant improvements dominated storylines for the winning side, I found myself fixated on Dallas, which has now lost five of six and is 11th in the Western Conference at 10-11. Six months ago, the Mavs won 52 games, earned the No. 4 seed, and were Western Conference Finalists to mark their most successful season since the 2011 title. Now, they’re closer to the 13th seed than they are a top-4 seed.
Jalen Brunson’s exit is assuredly hurting this team. He’s a tremendous player whose secondary creation was a synergistic complement alongside the greatness of Luka Doncic. But the Mavericks did bring in Christian Wood, a different player off to his own very good start, albeit one who is not on Brunson’s level of talent or fit. The rest of the rotation, save for Tim Hardaway Jr.’s return, is quite similar — eight of the top-10 minutes-getters are the same.
The tradeoff from Brunson to Wood should not be the difference between a top-4 finish and missing the postseason altogether. This is a playoff-caliber team. It’s not a title contender, yet it’s led by a superstar and flanked by quality, albeit flawed, players. Dallas should not be on pace for 39 wins.
Although last year’s defensive resurgence garnered much of the acclaim (eighth in defensive rating, 21st the season prior), the Mavericks plied their trade on offense following the Kristaps Porzigins-Spencer Dinwiddie deal. Before that move, they were 17th in offense and sixth in defense en route to a 33-24 record. Afterward, they were fifth in offense, 16th in defense, and went 19-6.
Winning 10 of 11 games in clutch time, due to an improved roster and some shooting luck, aided those post-trade numbers. However, the point remained: Porzingis’ departure signaled an offense-first style.
That’s the case again in 2022-23. Dallas is 10th in offensive rating and 15th in defensive rating. The issue: Doncic is at the height of his regular-season powers and a legitimate MVP contender. He’s averaging a league-leading 33.6 points (60.6 percent true shooting), 8.7 rebounds, 8.7 assists, and 1.9 steals per game. His plus-8.0 Estimated Plus-Minus is a career-high. If the Mavericks want to maximize his splendid season, the offense can’t hover a couple ticks above pedestrian. That’s especially the case if Wood and Dinwiddie, a pair of tenuous defenders, are going to factor so prominently into the plans.
There are a slew of factors responsible for this development, Doncic’s approach included (this is, to be clear, a minor part). Chief among them is the bland scheme. The overwhelming basis of Dallas’ offense is to yield mismatches for Doncic, Wood, and Dinwiddie, all of whom are fit to thrive in these scenarios.
So much of the action is window dressing designed to provide that trio an advantageous matchup. Rarely is the intention for Xs and Os to actually scheme an advantage by generating space, either for drives or open jumpers. Everyone aside from Doncic, Wood, and Dinwiddie are generally treated as a conduit to help enact that mismatch rather than being considered both a conduit and option if an advantage were to arise.
They’re quite effective with this style, too. The Mavericks rank first in isolation frequency (14.2 percent) and second in points per possession (1.07). At 9.9 percent, the Philadelphia 76ers are second in isolation frequency. Dallas is in a class of its own with regard to volume here.
Beyond Doncic, the duo of Wood and Dinwiddie are producing gaudy numbers. Wood is tallying 16.8 points and 7.7 rebounds on 63.8 percent true shooting (.556/.406/.671 split). Dinwiddie is notching 16.2 points and 4.9 assists per game on 59.8 percent true shooting (.472/.397/.804 split).
Problems arise when these mismatches prove difficult to find. Possessions stall. The Mavericks are 30th in pace. Doncic’s methodical ethos spearheads this. They take so long to organize the offense. That itself is not cumbersome, it’s that what they take so long to organize is often myopic. There aren’t any counters. If Plan A collapses, there is no Plan B, nor do they have time to even consider a Plan B if it existed.
Watching the glacial nature of their one-trick offense versus the jet-engine, multifaceted Sacramento Kings’ attack is enough contrast to induce whiplash. The Kings flow into their offense immediately and holster read after read. Their personnel lets them accomplish this, but they also emphasize it to widen the margin for error. Dallas exacerbates its own shortcomings and burrows itself into a narrow avenue for success. When mismatch-hunting unravels, their possessions can end like these disappointing ones.
Doncic, Wood, and Dinwiddie’s individual scoring numbers aren’t hurt by those instances. The collective offense does take a hit, though, and that dichotomy provides a glimpse into the flaws of the scheme. It’s overly reliant on that trio and reduces everyone else to onlooker, not confident in their creation aptitude until the initial read spirals and they’re forced into service. Nothing has been done to ease their already arduous position or avoid them from being overextended.
Similarly, the offense has routinely been neutralized when defenses trap or double-team Doncic. According to Second Spectrum, the Mavericks are scoring 0.988 points per possession (50th percentile) when opponents blitz pick-and-rolls. This tactic reveals various limitations. Among them is Doncic’s inactivity after he passes out of a trap, as he’s prone to removing himself entirely from the play and witnessing things unfold rather than providing a lifeline.
His supporting cast is full of shaky ball-handlers, poor passers, and questionable decision-makers who can be flustered by prompt, lively rotations. They struggle to parlay his gravity into prosperous opportunities. His apathy exacerbates the challenges, even if he’s not the primary culprit.
He’s a dazzling offensive talent whose shot-making and facilitating will flood teams. Coaxing plays elsewhere is a natural solution made easier by Dallas’ ineffectual responses to it. The record-scratches, hesitancy, and delayed passing reads burst onto center stage when Doncic isn’t directing the events. Really, the collective passing of this roster beyond Doncic, not solely in scramble situations, contributes to their underwhelming offensive rating.
Throughout much of Thursday’s first half against Detroit, the Mavericks dialed up more set plays than I can recall at any other stretch this season (my viewing sample, of course, is not foolproof). They posted an offensive rating of 122.4 over that span. The actions weren’t complex, largely centered on Motion Strong, as well as some Horns pick-and-roll, Spain pick-and-roll, and 77 Exit.
Complexity isn’t required. The salient angle here is diversifying the deployment of everyone around Doncic and the utilization of his ball-dominance. Advantages were forged that weren’t merely “here’s a switch for you, go rock out.”
Detroit’s 29th-ranked defense isn’t the proper litmus test, nor is a half of 63.2 percent true shooting. But possessions in which Doncic sets others up without the defense keying entirely on him after he works his way into a compromising place on the floor are a welcomed change. There’s notable offensive talent on the roster around him, it’s just geared toward play-finishing rather than secondary creation like it was when Brunson co-starred last season.
Aside from the heightened post-up volume, the schemes hardly seem to amplify Doncic’s talents. Instead, they lean on his greatness to prop up everything. His lack of off-ball proficiency complicates matters, though much less than the dull playcalling. He’s not a beneficiary of his context when making him one shouldn’t be particularly hard.
A career-high 90 percent of his baskets are unassisted this year, per Cleaning The Glass. He leads the NBA in usage rate (42.3 percent). Giannis Antetokounmpo (39.7 percent) is in second, 2.6 percentage points below him. Dallas is 0-6 when he scores fewer than 32 points.
None of this feels sustainable. Doncic’s fourth-quarter true shooting is 48.9 percent this season. His final frame struggles are not exclusive to 2022-23. This time, though, they underscore the taxing method of his game, some of which is self-inflicted, while further emphasizing the burdensome scheme dragging him down.
The Mavericks are yet to build upon the delight of last season. It may never materialize in 2022-23. The roster is worse and deep playoff runs are tough, almost always borne in part because of fortuitous matchups or circumstances. Regardless, something needs to change offensively, both for Doncic’s sake and the aspirations of the team. Luka Magic alone isn’t going to get them there. They, and he, must help one another.