Can the Dallas Mavericks Save Their Season?

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For the Dallas Mavericks, this should’ve been the easy part. They already have Luka Doncic, the era-defining megastar they poached in the 2018 NBA Draft, whose eliteness has already been accepted as indisputable, universal knowledge. His presence alone guarantees a tremendously high baseline of perennial playoff appearances. Accordingly, they’ve tried to tailor a bespoke supporting cast for Doncic—a stretch big with burgeoning defensive chops (Kristaps Porzingis), an implacable rim-runner to catch lobs (Dwight Powell), nervy shotmakers (Tim Hardaway Jr and Jalen Brunson) and defensive-minded wings (Reggie Bullock, Dorian Finney-Smith, Frank Ntilikina and Sterling Brown). But by building so comprehensively around Doncic, the Mavs have forgotten to build anything else.

Offensively, Doncic is empowered to play with such freedom that it borders on solipsism—there’s no offense beyond the realm of his own creation. His 41 percent usage rate and 46 percent assist rate are both the highest in the NBA (per Cleaning the Glass) and yet those figures still undersell his ball-dominance. Of the 35ish minutes that Doncic plays per game, he controls the ball for over nine of them, according to Second Spectrum stats; assuming that the Mavs are on offense half the time, Doncic holds the ball more than the rest of his teammates combined when he’s on the court. 

And, to an extent, this approach makes perfect sense—it’s generally good when good players have the ball rather than bad ones; nobody is exactly clamoring for Dorian Finney-Smith to cook. More, it’s hardly a departure from Dallas’s strategy in the past—Doncic’s usage rate surpassed 40 percent in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons too. The main difference? It used to work. Whereas the Mavs had the most prolific offense in NBA history two seasons ago, they’re now scuffling to a 107.7 offensive rating this year, which qualifies as one of the 10 lowest marks in the league. 

Since the Mavs’ attack can basically be boiled down to Help me, Luka Doncic, you’re our only hope, any small tremors that interfere with Doncic’s Atlas-ian undertaking quickly grow into a season-derailing earthquake. Compared to the last two seasons, Doncic’s production is down a skosh, but he’s still Luka Doncic; he’s fundamentally the same All-NBA caliber force he’s always been, even if his body looks especially yeasty this year.

As such, the problem with the Mavericks isn’t so much Doncic’s relative struggles as much as their own misconceptions about themselves. Going into this year, they seemed to think that their Doncic-driven approach was an indestructible black box, that Doncic was so incredible that he could sustain an elite offense regardless of the context. Conversely, their offense is more of a Swiss watch, its small, fragile mechanisms hidden beneath a glossy bezel. 

So far this season, Doncic is getting to the rim at the lowest rate of his career and his drives peter out in the midrange because the paint is too densely packed; the Mavs three-point percentage has plummeted because Doncic’s skip passes find shooters who aren’t comfortable with the new Spalding basketball;  is getting to the rim at the lowest rate of his career. Individually, it may not be such a huge deal that the Mavs rely on two-big lineups with scrunched spacing or that Reggie Bullock is in a slump or that the new balls feels weird or that their roster “is not built to play defense” (ok, maybe that’s a big deal), but minor hindrances compound into bigger problems.

 You know, all for want of a nail, etc.

In this sense, beset by truly lousy vibes and struggling to maintain a winning record, the Mavs are discovering the perils of such extreme heliocentricity (which is NBA Twitter-speak for giving one guy the ball all the time). The secret recipe to this strategy’s success, though, is that you have to create an environment in which your star can actually succeed—the Bucks did so by finding the right mix of players and spacing to optimize Giannis Antetokounmpo; the Rockets cynically and rigidly did everything imaginable to give James Harden maximum space. Instead, the Mavs, uh, have made the floor as cramped as possible, repeatedly posting up their alleged stretch-big and stocking their rotation with non-shooters. This is baffling self-sabotage, the hoops equivalent of slopping an otherwise delicious steak.

Dallas's ability to win games is contingent on Doncic doing everything, but they can’t help themselves from getting in Doncic’s way. Doncic is their clear, guiding star; the Mavs need to allow him to shine.

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