All of us have friends or family members who struggle with the simple concept of knowing themselves. It’s a frustratingly difficult thing for all of us, to be reasonable about our own strengths and weaknesses as people and make decisions that reflect that in our lives. The same is true for those who make up the brain-trusts of NBA teams, and in some cases it can really bite them.
Think about how the Cleveland Cavaliers early in LeBron James’ career believed aging star big men were the answer when in actuality another elite perimeter player brought his game to another level in Miami. The Philadelphia 76ers struggled to build around their own talent for years in the interim between the Sam Hinkie era and the recent Daryl Morey hiring and subsequent overhaul of the roster this week. Even the Kevin Durant-era Thunder had an overly hard time acquiring wing shooters to surround him, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka.
As Luka Doncic heads into his third season and betting odds have him as a co-favorite for the 2021 NBA MVP, the Dallas Mavericks are wasting no time piecing together a roster that will maximize his talent right away. That has been true since Dallas made a gutsy move to acquire Kristaps Porzingis as he came off a significant knee injury, but it became even more clear this week, as the Mavericks made multiple moves that should allow Doncic to be even better than he was in a close-fought six-game series against the Clippers in the 2020 playoffs.
Despite Doncic’s brilliance in that series, the Mavericks often had players like Tim Hardaway Jr. or Seth Curry defending Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Of course, you want to keep players like them around for their shooting, but Dallas this week decided to split the difference and find athletic wing players who can fit more of the Dorian Finney-Smith mold than the Hardaway/Curry mold. That should help them dramatically.
To start things off, Dallas drafted Josh Green, who is an absolute handful on defense and a great overall athlete (though he has significant questions on offense). The Mavs followed up by giving up Curry, one of the best shooters in basketball, for Josh Richardson, one of the best perimeter defenders in basketball, as well as the 36th overall pick. To fill the Curry role, they took internet darling Tyrell Terry of Stanford with the first pick of the second round. They drafted Colorado forward Tyler Bey at No. 36, seizing another elite athlete who has a chance to be a special defender.
All these guys may take a bit to develop, but they fill more necessary roles next to Doncic than the players they’ll replace. In the coming years, with Curry now gone and Hardaway in the final year of his contract, the roster will be more young, athletic, and big.
Not only were the Mavericks just 18th in defensive efficiency in 2019-20, Doncic was in the fifth percentile when it came to perimeter defensive lineup talent, according to BBall-Index’s player profile. Doncic also, like many do-it-all play-makers, often defended lesser players. Specifically, he defended “starter” level players most often, including 15 percent more than the league average, as opposed to “core” level players. Doncic most often defended secondary play-makers in the fourth tier of usage rate in the NBA. The problem was he didn’t have enough help.
The Mavericks did what they could to limit what Doncic had to do on defense so that he could anchor their historically great offense. Going into this offseason, it’s clear they trust Doncic to keep up that MVP level on offense but knew they had to do more to shift the balance of the roster toward defense. To do that, they went all in on wing defense on Draft night, and it will be interesting to see if they do the same in free agency.
In a vacuum, the players Dallas drafted would pose pretty big questions about how they stay on an NBA court. Just don’t forget about the Mavs’ cheat code. The presence of Doncic (and to a lesser extent Porzingis) means they have the luxury of playing defensive role players in a way few other teams can. As an example, Dallas was able to put Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on the floor in the playoffs and fell to a minus-14.3 net rating in his minutes, which while ugly was not the worst mark on the team, and came in a series Dallas lost fairly definitively in the end. Because of Doncic’s ability to create efficient offense for himself and others in nearly any context, Dallas is betting that it can veer further toward defense on the margins and still improve the team.
There’s also reason to believe Doncic can actually help the development of such players on offense. Finney-Smith went from a 31.1 percent three-point shooter in 2018-19 to a 37.6 percent three-point shooter last year in large part because of Doncic’s ability to set the table for him in the corner. Green and Bey have technical issues to work out, but when Doncic is serving up wide open shots all the time, it’s a lot easier than fitting into crummy Pac-12 offenses. It’s not just the rookies, either — Richardson should look far better as a role player on offense than when he was asked to handle the ball in Philadelphia and his turnovers jumped.
What began with an effort to reorganize the frontcourt with Porzingis, Dwight Powell, and Maxi Kleber — three versatile offensive screen-and-roll partners for Doncic — has now transitioned to a remodeling of the perimeter group. Head coach Rick Carlisle still loves multiple ball-handler lineups, which means Jalen Brunson and Trey Burke probably aren’t going anywhere, yet the roster will nevertheless strike a better balance.
Even if Porzingis misses games to the start of the year, as is expected, the Mavs are operating firmly with Doncic’s strengths and weaknesses in mind. By doing so, they are getting ahead in the project of building Dallas into a championship contender again.