If you’ve paid even a minimal amount of attention to the NBA in the past week, you’ve likely heard about second-year stud Luka Dončić’s dominant stretch. The 20-year-old, who already has one of the league’s most complete offensive games, continues to rack up triple-doubles and break statistical records at an alarming clip.
But in the process of all that, something else may be a bit overlooked: As a team, the Mavs have quietly pieced together the statistical profile of a title contender.
That probably sounds like a stretch, but this week could help strengthen the case.
Dallas, 11-5 and enjoying a five-game win streak, will play the Clippers on Tuesday night before getting another crack on Sunday at the Lakers, who, with their NBA-best 15-2 mark, barely escaped Texas with an overtime win the last time the two played. And Dallas not only has the most efficient offense in modern NBA history so far, but it is also leading the league in net rating, blasting foes by 8.9 points per 100 possessions. All of that merits a look into whether we should take the Mavs more seriously.
We could start analyzing Dallas from any number of places. The team, which somehow sees its net rating improve slightly when Dončić goes to the bench, has incredible depth. At the moment, 10 players are getting at least 13 minutes of spin per game.1 (Another impressive stat: All but two of the 14 Mavs who’ve gotten playing time this season — Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kristaps Porzingis being the exceptions — have effective field-goal percentages above the league-average mark.)2 And while the club ranks in the middle of the pack in terms of age — a couple of nonrotation players, 34-year-old Courtney Lee and 35-year-old J.J. Barea, skew those numbers upward — the core group is far younger, providing reason to believe that the best is yet to come.
Yet on some level, it’s become patently obvious that Dončić is the best reason to think the Mavericks’ glass is three-quarters full, if not more. The league MVP candidate is averaging 30.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and 9.8 assists per contest, and he ranks first in the league in offensive production, according to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metrics. He has almost certainly become the NBA’s closest facsimile of James Harden.
Similar to the left-hander, Dončić relies on his craftiness more so than any otherworldly athleticism. Like Harden, Dončić’s world-class ability to decelerate factors into how he gets separation. His 31 stepback triples this season rank second to Harden’s, and he’s thrown more lobs (21) than anyone not named Harden. His peripheral vision is next-level, as corner 3-point shooters are converting almost half of their tries off passes from Dončić, per Second Spectrum.3
That’s not to suggest things are perfect in Dallas. Both Dončić and his teammates are often less than impressive on the defensive end. While the Mavs keep opponents out of the paint and force a considerable number of midrange jumpers, they don’t wreak havoc or prompt miscues. And Dončić’s amazing run of late has led to a number of breezy wins, obscuring the fact that the Mavs’ offense — historically great in one sense — has been one of the worst in the clutch. They’ll need to iron out both problems to beat veteran teams in postseason — and maybe even as they move further along in the regular season, since they’ve had the NBA’s sixth-easiest schedule so far.
Shining a light on clutch time clarifies what’s been the biggest issue all along: Porzingis, still getting his legs under him after more than a year and a half away from game action, simply hasn’t played well consistently. He’s just 2-of-13 (15.4 percent) from the field in clutch moments, a mark that ranks as the NBA’s second-worst among players with 10 shots in such scenarios.
The Porzingis issue runs deeper than just the last few minutes of close games. Oddly enough, despite the team’s blistering offensive numbers, he and Dončić clearly haven’t found a rhythm yet. The Mavs have been just fine with the duo on the court (6.4 points better than opponents per 100 possessions), but they launch into orbit, scoring 124 points per possessions when Dončić is without Porzingis (outscoring foes by 16.1 points per 100 plays). Another troubling early statistic: Porzingis shoots just under 36 percent off passes from Dončić, while Luka sinks just 34 percent of his shots that stem from Porzingis feeds, according to NBA Advanced Stats.
Porzingis has been accustomed to being the screener in pick-and-roll scenarios before. But in Dallas, where the Mavs already have Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber in that role to maximize the team’s looks for lobs, Porzingis — who’s usually more comfortable picking and popping out to the arc — is often waiting on the wing for a kickout pass.
The 7-foot-3 big man has a tendency to disappear for stretches of games if he’s not directly involved in a play, and then when he does finally get the ball back, it’s often in the form of a seemingly forced post-up or a suboptimal contested jumper over a shorter defender from midrange. (We wrote about his questionable shot selection when he was still starring in New York.)
Coach Rick Carlisle said earlier in the month on Zach Lowe’s podcast that the partnership between Luka and Porzingis is still a work in progress4 and that the team is still experimenting with how best to use them together.
But on the flip side, if the Mavericks’ offense is putting up record-breaking numbers without its second star comfortable or playing well yet, how good can they be once he is himself again?
It seems somewhat obvious that Dallas would need to be better on the defensive end to truly join the conversation of title contenders. Still, if Luka and the Mavs are capable of this sort of firepower, even without Porzingis playing like an All-Star, we may need to be more open-minded about the idea of dominant offense being able to make up for a less-than-stellar defense.
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