How is it that a team that couldn’t even qualify for the play-in tournament last year is now sitting high and mighty in the venerable Western Conference through seven games?
In a conference that features the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors and new-look Los Angeles Clippers, it is the Dallas Mavericks who sit behind the defending champion Denver Nuggets for second place in the West.
Can they keep it going? And should they be viewed as serious title contenders?
Let’s take a closer look at the Mavericks’ fast start.
As we discussed in our in-depth breakdown of his powers last year, Luka Doncic is the perfect offensive engine.
His combination of strength, control and ball handling make him one of the best drivers in the association. Couple that with his jumper (he’s been a scorching-hot 41.3% from downtown to start the year), and Doncic is a walking bucket.
Along with being a great scorer, Doncic is a legendary passer. So when defenses try to send a second defender in his direction, he can burn them by relocating the basketball to the teammate his scoring gravity creates an open look for.
When you have a player like this, you want to surround them with great catch-and-shoot snipers and efficient rim finishers so that they can profit off all the open layups and 3-pointers that their primary ball handler creates.
And to their credit, the Mavericks have done a great job of placing offensive personnel around Doncic to amplify his strengths. According to NBA.com, the Mavericks are eighth in catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage (39.4%) and sixth in roll man efficiency (1.29 points per possession).
In the past, opponents have tried to limit the damage done by Doncic’s wizardry by sending hard doubles at him early on in possessions, thereby forcing his teammates to play 4-on-3 without him. And ever since the Mavericks lost Jalen Brunson during the 2022 offseason, Doncic’s teammates haven’t been consistently able to take advantage of these predetermined power plays (like this).
That is, until this season. Nowadays, when teams trap Doncic, they are asking to be eviscerated by his supporting cast. Like this:
Pay close attention to the first clip in the sequence above, and you’ll see the two main reasons why Dallas has gotten so much better at navigating 4-on-3s: Kyrie Irving and Jaden Hardy.
We already know the book on Irving. Irving is a monster scorer and playmaker, which makes him one of the very best offensive players on the planet (he’s currently 12th in offensive DRIP).
But the second-year Hardy has been a pleasant surprise. He’s kind of like an Irving lite out there. He can score on and off the ball, and he’s a burgeoning passer and playmaker. On top of that, he’s a little bit bigger (6-foot-4 compared to 6-2) and stronger than Irving, so he isn’t as much of a target on defense.
So far, the Mavericks are 8.2 points better per 100 possessions when Hardy is on the floor compared to when he’s off of it. And the way he plays third banana behind Doncic and Irving is akin to the way Poole would for Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson during their title run in 2021-22.
Hardy and Irving have made the Mavericks less dependent on Doncic’s heroics. Last year, Doncic had an on/off plus/minus of plus-4.9. This year, the Mavericks are actually 2.6 points better per 100 when Doncic is on the bench. Now, this isn’t to say that the team is better off without Doncic (there is likely some noise contributing to this outcome). This just shows that Dallas’ supporting cast has leveled up.
Speaking of the supporting cast, the Mavericks are a lot deeper now. Despite only playing seven games so far, they’ve played 21 different lineups for at least five minutes. And that’s not because of injuries, either. It’s because they have so many different pieces to plug and play.
As we’ve seen time and time again in the past (i.e., the 2022-23 Lakers), depth is huge in the playoffs because it gives you a better chance of matching up against the wide variety of styles you are bound to encounter during the game’s second season.
The Mavericks currently tout the fourth-best offense in the league based on our adjusted offensive ratings (AOR). However, their defense is nothing to write home about (they are 22nd in adjusted defensive rating).
(Sidebar: Since the sample size for the 2023-24 is still so small, our adjusted team ratings are still heavily influenced by last season’s performance, as our metric factors in past production.)
Typically, to build a good defense, you need either high-end rim protection (think last year’s Milwaukee Bucks) or high-end point-of-attack defense (last year’s Chicago Bulls). As presently constructed, the Mavericks don’t really have either.
Rim protection was a major concern heading into the season – as we discussed in our “Immediate Impacts” profile on Dereck Lively II. And while Lively has been awesome to start the season (he’s fifth in our DELTA metric, which tracks changes in DRIP from the start of the season until now), he’s still just a rookie.
Very rarely can rookies anchor a defense all on their lonesome, and it shows when you look at some of the team’s rim protection indicators. On the year, the Mavericks rank 27th in opponent points in the paint per 100 possessions (54.7 points per 100, per NBA.com).
(Sidebar No. 2: Maxi Kleber, when last seen fully healthy, improves the team’s rim protection. But he’s hurt (again), and even when he has been available, he hasn’t looked like his old self.)
As for their point-of-attack defense, a good statistic for estimating a team’s prowess in this area is opponent assists. That’s because when a player beats another player off the dribble, they collapse the defense and hit an open teammate. With that in mind, the Mavericks are 26th in opponent assists per 100 (27.5 per 100).
Dallas has good perimeter defenders. But none of them are of the caliber necessary to build your defense around (like you can with someone like Alex Caruso). Grant Williams doesn’t have the footspeed (first clip in the montage below). Derrick Jones Jr. is quicker, but he can’t keep elite speedsters in front of him (second clip). Josh Green is probably their most talented perimeter defender, but he’s still too out of control to deal with shiftier players (third clip).
The Bottom Line
As unsexy as it is to say, we still don’t know if the Mavericks are for real. On one hand, the Mavericks’ AOR of 4.11 puts them in the same boat as the elite offensive teams that have made the conference finals in the past.
Also, there is a chance that their defense improves. Their overall defensive rating may be unimpressive, but they have the sixth-best second-half defense in basketball. That means that part of their current deficiencies can be cleaned up with effort.
On the other hand, at least on the surface, Dallas doesn’t seem to have enough two-way players to field a respectable defense in the playoffs. And all six of the Mavs’ wins have come in close games, which isn’t exactly sustainable. Although, it is worth noting that two of the top three teams in clutch net rating last year were the Nuggets and the Miami Heat. You know, the two teams that made the NBA Finals last year.
Simply put, the Mavericks are intriguing. They have some glaring flaws. But they also could be very dangerous. And the possibility of that danger turning into something tangible makes the Mavericks worth keeping tabs on moving forward.