Luka Doncic's little helpers: The Mavericks beyond their superstar

Uygar Karaca
Collaborator
2022-03-16 13:00
Credit: USA Sports Today-Scanpix
Credit USA Sports Today-Scanpix

Let's recall: Remember the days in the first part of the season when Dallas Mavericks' historic offensive efficiency from the year before was down to the earth level?

Or that day when people doubted Jason Kidd's coaching abilities to maintain that scoring prowess where Rick Carlisle built on Luka Doncic's otherworldly talents?  

Or even debates concerned about Doncic's rising inclination to shoot the ball further away from the rim due to his difficulties getting to the paint, or he looked tired and even unfit?

2-pointers this season

54%
26,2
Points made: 26,2
Accuracy: 54,1%
Place in standings: 24
Record max: 39
Record min: 15
Most made 2FGs: Luka Doncic

Remember the days people started to ponder whether the Mavericks are playoff material?

Well, all these are long gone now.

The Mavericks won 6 of their last 7 and 13 of their 16. They defeated the Celtics, Jazz, Lakers, Warriors, and 76ers in the process.

They are currently chasing 4th place and tied the Utah Jazz's winning ratio (0.618) for home-court advantage in the potential playoff match. 

Question: How did they do it?

Reasons for this transformation and recuperation are, of course, numerous. In this article, we will assess the matter from a micro perspective. That is to say, it is not the team stats per se, but rather, the individual agency behind those team stats will be of interest.

Let's start with the most obvious one, and then, I will elaborate further while getting deeper in numbers and details. Unfortunately, not each and every aspect of this successful phase could be touched upon as they are too many to cover in one compact article.

Important contributors like Maxi Kleber, Jalen Brunson, or Reggie Bullock will not find much space for this time. Instead, I sought creme-de-la-creme Top3 names outside Doncic, who became extremely useful in the roster after the trade deadline. 

Doncic is in da House 

Well, NBA is a heliocentric universe that may be more than ever and for better or worse about the stars. Luka Doncic is among the brightest ones, and his presence and level of form matter a lot. 

Those who were labeling Doncic's overall effort regarding the first part of the season as underwhelming had their reasons: From October 15 towards the end of 2021, his points per possession efficiency were 0.91; an unprecedented low figure of efficiency in his entire career. His shot was barely clinging to 45%, with sub-par 32.6% from the 3-point range.

Starting with mid-November, he also had occasional knee and ankle injury problems that left the team deprived of him, and on December 10, he got Covid-19 and missed further 10 games. Without Doncic, his teammates struggled big time.

Starting November 17 towards New Years' eve, the Mavericks were left with 8-14, and they fell below 50% winning rate, finding themselves in 8th place.

Things only went better after Doncic fully recovered, starting with the new year. The Slovenian magician is currently averaging 26.9 points, 8.4 assists, and 1.2 steals this season. His assists percentage is 45%, much better than the previous season and almost his career-best.

Since the beginning of 2022, Doncic has played 6 games with 40+ points, 5+ assists, and 5+ rebounds, so these numbers already tell a lot about his dominance. What is more, his level is getting better and better during these days, when it matters the most to get into the best position available for the playoffs.

By today, his average for the past month is 30.2 pts with 102.0 points per 100 possessions.

Doncic's last quarter takeover against the Warriors, holding them back when they attempted to do the same in the rematch, followed by 30+ points and 15+ rebounds showcase against the Jazz, were amongst the best highlights of the recent weeks.

Of course, not to forget that "challenge for a high-five" which canceled his foul against Marcus Smart's 3-pointer and clinched the game against Boston Celtics as a controversial finish in a blockbuster game.

However, by no means was he alone doing all these and putting things into proper order at the Mavericks.

Let's take a look at those prominent 'little' helpers that keep contributing to Mavericks' surge in the shadow of Luka Doncic.

The Picture of Dorian Finney-Smith: Corner 3s and Spacing

Without a doubt, Dorian Finney Smith comes among the first ones to mention, who is helping the Mavericks in various ways with his extended role, especially in the offensive setup.

In that respect, he is the most efficient player, with 138 points per possession in the last 10 games. And that list includes Luka Doncic as well.

During the night against Sacramento Kings, where Doncic was unavailable, he was the hero of the game, hitting the game-winner three upon the assist of Jalen Brunson.

That corner three was by no means a coincidence. But let me formulate this from a wider perspective.

As it was very well known, a high volume of 3-pointers was a signature component of Mavericks' offensive revolution in recent years. During their historic 116.9 offensive rating in the 2019-20 season, they were also attempting a historically high volume of 3 pointers, 42%.

But they were far from locational efficiency, meaning that they were dependent on some very big success on specific locations and poor on some others to maintain a certain level of accuracy.

A similar problem could also be observed this season; They are a high-volume team beyond the arc, and their non-corner threes, 33% (24th overall), are at their worst rate since 03-04. (Luka, is that you?)

At this point, the corner threes come to the rescue: They have been the fourth-best corner shooting team since January 2022. And somebody needs to make those corner 3s to compensate for the misses from tops and the wings. Who is the guy?

Dorian Finney-Smith.

As hit by 46%, Finney-Smith is not only the best corner shooter of Dallas, which is essential to hit due to locational inefficiency, but also among the best in the entire NBA. 

NBA's Best Non-Garbage Corner 3PT Shooters (at least 100 attempts)

Hits

Attempts

%

Harrison Barnes

53

104

50%

Grant Williams 

52

105

49%

Max Strauss 

49

100

49%

Cameron Johnson

64

135

47%

Dorian Finney Smith

67

147

46%

Finney-Smith is taking nearly 40% of the shots as a spot-up shooter in this years' offensive scheme. But complying with some better spacing principles, he started to operate where his support could be more fitting. Somehow in Jason Kidd's tenure this season, his accuracy from the corner got much better as opposed to non-corner shots.

Season

Non-Corner-Threes

Accuracy%

Corner-Threes

Accuracy%

Overall Accuracy

2020-2021

42%

37%

40%

2021-2022

34%

46%

39%

 

But as he can make open shots when the entire defense is dealing with Doncic, Jalen Brunson, or Spencer Dinwiddie, Finney-Smith also showed that he is more than a stationary shooter.

The 18 points scored in the second half were crucial for Dallas to come back against the Celtics, but also, Finney-Smith showed how effective he could be as an off-ball cutter and with his drives to the rim. 

 

Finney-Smith also proved his case for his reliability by consistently providing a double-digit scoring contribution this season. Since February 15, he has been averaging 15 points, 1.7 assists, and 5.3 rebounds per game and got beyond even 15 points in crucial games against Lakers (16 pts), Warriors (18 pts), and Jazz (21 pts)

Josh in Greenland: The Defense and The Dishes

It remains unknown whether there were no injuries or the roster crises that came along with the omicron Covid-19 surge towards the end of the year. Josh Green would have found a chance to make his case in the Mavericks rotation. But he did.  

Usually known for his athleticism and authentic dishes, the Australian wing/swingman is having is the best season in NBA. His impact from the bench for Dallas was a big game-changer on many occasions. In order to understand his worth, we should mention a teamwise improvement in a specific area: the defense.

This issue appears to be particularly important for Kidd's priority list as the defensive efficiency of the Mavericks is among the top ten defensive seasons since the 2003-04 season (per cleaning the glass).

Currently, the Mavericks are the 6th best defensive team with 108.9 DRTG. There is not a better figure in this respect in the last six seasons. Their most recent best was 109.1 in 2017-18, but interestingly, they were not in the Top 15 defensive teams in the league. 

Here are the last 10 Seasons of Dallas Mavericks Defensive Rating and their relevant standing regarding defense in the NBA. 

Seasons

Defensive Rating

NBA Defensive Standing

2021-22

108.9

6

2020-21

113.8

22

2019-20

112.0

18

2018-19

111.5

19

2017-18

109.1

16

2016-17

108.6

13

2015-16

107.1

17

2014-15

106.3

19

2013-14

108.4

22

2012-13

106.5

19

There are many reasons behind this improvement. For one thing, the Mavericks are a team that has good versatility in defense. Maxi Kleber, Dorian Finney-Smith, and even an improved Luka Doncic could defend multiple positions.

When it comes to defending difficult matchups, they have a specific profile like Reggie Bullock, who is a good "point of attack" defender, a player type that can disrupt opponent pick and rolls and isolation plays. 

But if we are looking for the players as having the greatest defensive impact, we would find two players that make a great difference on the court: Maxi Kleber near the rim and Josh Green around the perimeter. 

Statistically speaking, this duo comes as the top two players in the Defensive Lebron (Bball-index.com), Defensive Raptor (fivethirtyeight.com), and defensive box score on/off stats (Cleaning the Glass) among the players who played at least 10 minutes per game.

Certainly, their roles differ: Maxi Kleber is a greater helper in rim protection as he is very good at contesting shots in the paint. On the other hand, Josh Green is a very mobile perimeter defender. He can actually bully and break the offensive rhythm of the opponents by constantly trying to steal the ball or forcing them for a turnover.

The mismatches against the bigs like Isiah Hartenstein, Domantas Sabonis, or Rudy Gobert could be daunting regarding his size, but actually, it is an opportunity for Green to make steals.

Even playing against the intimidating drives in one-on-one defense, he has quick legs to match with the speed of the attacking player like Mike Conley or De'aron Fox in this example and contest the layup successfully, for the most of time. 

Green also has one additional dimension in his game; the assists. He has the peculiar style of doing things to make you feel as if a basketball game is more of an acrobatic spectacle, but I don't think anyone would complain about what Josh Green is doing on the court in the offensive end as a role player.

Green is not a playmaking guru at this point, but his kick-outs after very explosive drives are providing a huge pace and space for the Mavericks. Even if the offensive action is a helter-skelter type transition, he is talented enough to find the right spot.

Josh Green improved his assist percentage to 11.9% this season, which means that the player assisted nearly one-tenth of the field goals that were made by his teammates when he was on the court. We should keep in mind that many of his good passes do not qualify as assists due to an unsuccessful shot.

But what is more, Green is currently having the 3rd highest ratio of Assist/Usage with 0.96 at the Mavericks, which comes after Luka Doncic and Jalen Brunson, with each of them having 1.08 of the same figure as point and combo guards.

Green could be labeled more of a wing player, and in that respect, his assist to usage ratio is in the Top 5 quantile in the NBA. Roughly speaking, he is better than every other 95 players in his position out of 100 in that respect. 

Spencer D-Win-widdie Rolling the Years Back

The trade which sent Kristaps Porzingis to Washington Wizards and brought Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans raised some eyebrows: No doubt that Porzingis was injury prone. Still, neither Dinwiddie nor Bertans were having spectacular seasons. It seems like a change of air was the thing that they both needed. 

Upon arrival to Dallas, the good effects were immediately felt on Bertans. Not that he turned back to 40% 3-point shooting days (he had the worst shooting numbers in his career this season at the Wizards), but at least, he was much more focused on the court, both offensively and defensively. He seemed to enjoy what is coming to him. 

On the other hand, Dinwiddie is on the way to become of the best feel-good stories of the second part of the season.

Missing last season due to his ACL injury, Dinwiddie was trying to get back on track with the Wizards this season, but he was far away from his 20.6 points per game efficiency figures at Brooklyn during the 2019-20 season.

Averaging 12.4 points, shooting 30% from deep, and with only 8 games out of 45 that he could provide 20+ scoring, Dinwiddie was displaying sub-par figures at Washington.

Predominantly playing at the point guard position, his partnership with Bradley Beal in the perimeter did not bring much flavor. Together, they played 1223 possessions, and 103.5 points per possession was not a good scoring rate. 

On the contrary, Dinwiddie's partnership with Doncic worked very well, so far as the duo played 413 possessions together on the court, scoring 1.17 points per each. 

In fact, Dinwiddie would be much more glad if he had the ball in his hand and loved to play isolations to a much more great extent in his entire career. It appears that Wizards' more egalitarian pattern of the offensive setup did not seem to fit him that well. 

Spencer Dinwiddie Playtypes

Pick and Rolls (Points Per Poss)

Isolations (Points Per Poss)

Career

37%(1.24)

25%(1.13)

Wizards

39%(1.04)

20%(0.79)

Mavericks

34%(1.14)

28%(0.93)

In contrast, his one-month tenure at Dallas shows how much he enjoys having more time and decision-making duties with the ball and reminds everyone how good he is when it comes to helping the team win games. 

After his arrival to Dallas, Dinwiddie is averaging 19 points 4.4 assists while shooting 46% from the 3-point range. He played 62% of his possessions as either a pick and roll ball handler or isolation, where he scored 1.14 and 0.93 per possession, respectively. He found a place where he could be a better fit.  

His growing self-confidence came very timely for Dallas because when the opponents somehow contain Luka Doncic, a clutch player who can make a big shot was direly needed.  

Perhaps most famously, Dinwiddie's 24 points showdown against Golden State Warriors sparkled that final quarter comeback from 19 points deficit for a win. That was followed by another decisive impact in the late part of the rematch against the Warriors.

His presence in the court relieved the pressure off Doncic and helped him to conserve his energy for the crucial moments.

Compared to the first part of the season, Dinwiddie's usage rate increased at Dallas by 1%, despite not being a starter in 7 of the 11 games, in contrast with the case at the Wizards, where he started every game.

Dinwiddie also has a complementary aspect of Dallas offenses. Given that both Luka Doncic and Jalen Brunson usually opt to take a jumper from mid-range or deep, Dinwiddie has the will and the ability to go all the way to the rim. 

In this way, he already had many shooting fouls on him (20% as the percentage of shot attempts that he was fouled on). This is not only a higher rate than both Doncic and Brunson (13.7% and 6.5%) but also the second-highest rate in the entire NBA that comes after James Harden (23.6%) among the point and combo guards, as well as wings.

Against the Kings, Dinwiddie came to the charity stripe 13 times and hit 12 of them. In a night where Luka Doncic was unavailable, Dinwiddie played his best game in 5 months, scoring 36 points and making 7 assists to inspire another double-digit deficit comeback.

He was also the one to make a court clearing screen for Brunson to deliver the ball for the winning shot of Finney-Smith.

When not attacking the rim, he is not afraid to take shots beyond the arc, and he is shooting pretty well. Alongside Dorian Finney-Smith, he operates as an impactful corner 3-point shooter with 39% and 40% from both left and right corners maintained this season.

From February to March, Dallas recovered from being a sub 35% shooting team from deep to 37%. All in all, the first impact of the Porzingis trade was a great win for both Dallas and Dinwiddie himself. 

Verdict

This article was inspired by the late surge of Mavericks and the main instigators of this spark beyond Luka Doncic. As we mentioned initially, this was not an exhaustive list. There are many more names and factors that need to be explored to understand this winning run better.

But not all of the aspects could be wrapped up in one huge article, not in this one at least. Maybe the next one. 

Where does all lead Dallas Mavericks for the upcoming days and the concluding days of the season?

According to tankathon, the Mavericks have the 7th easiest schedule left for their 14 games. Their main rivals for the 4th place in the West, the Utah Jazz, have the 6th toughest.

That means the Mavericks have a realistic chance to get a home-court advantage in the playoffs for the first round, an advantage that Doncic and co. could not enjoy in the two preceding post-season experiences. 

The Mavericks appear to be a much more compact roster in the first days of the post-Porzingis era. All the small parts come together to take some heavy burden off Luka Doncic's shoulders and let him concentrate more thoroughly on the things that he does the best.

Brunson, Finney-Smith, Dinwiddie, and Green give him some breathing time and space on the court in the perimeter. The timeline is not certain, but Tim Hardaway Jr. is expected to be back at some point, and it remains a question of how he would fit in this established and working order. 

Are the Mavericks the real deal? It was not the question that the article was asking in the first place. The low scoring games against the New York Knicks and the Boston Celtics might be indicating some offensive ceiling after such an impressive term, but this is NBA, and the winds could change direction very rapidly. 

Regardless, the supporting cast around Luka Doncic did very well in the previous month, and somehow, Kristaps Porzingis' trade seemed to work until this point.

For this exact reason, the Mavericks would be even more fun to watch in the upcoming days. And interestingly, there are far more reasons to watch them beyond Luka Doncic.



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