Archived: Doncic & Mavs headed towards Bad Season

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Doncic’s previous Mavericks teams subsisted on an unfathomably efficient offense overriding deficient defenses. But the cracks in their offensive foundation began to show last year when the Mavs went from boasting the most efficient offense ever in 2019-20 (115.9 points per 100 possessions) to the eighth-ranked offense of 2020-21 (114.6), the final year of Rick Carlisle’s Mavericks tenure as head coach.

That slippage has continued under Jason Kidd this season, as Dallas enters Wednesday’s game against the Lakers an inexcusable 17th in offensive efficiency (108.4). Worse yet, the team’s offensive rating when Doncic is on the court (106.7) would rank 23rd.

Some of that is because one of the league’s most 3-point-reliant teams is shooting below its standards from deep. But on top of that, the Mavs are the most rim-averse team in the league, get to the free-throw line at a bottom-five rate, rarely get out in transition, don’t crash the offensive glass all that well, and don’t incorporate a lot of off-ball movement into their attack.

This offense is as predictable as it is underwhelming, relying on Doncic’s brilliance, Kristaps Porzingis post-ups, and long jumpers in general.

Doncic is still averaging better than 25 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists in his version of a “down” year, but his efficiency has nose-dived and his turnover rate is up. His plummeting free-throw rate might be most concerning, as Doncic went from averaging 40 free-throw attempts per 100 field-goal attempts through his first three seasons to 26 this year.

Doncic has been one of the players most negatively affected by the league’s crackdown on unnatural, non-basketball moves intended to draw fouls, but that can’t explain everything. Doncic’s free-throw attempt rate has dropped by 25.5% since last season, while the league average has decreased by only 7.1%.

Part of the problem likely boils down to conditioning and quickness. Though Doncic has never been the most fleet of foot, he’s admittedly usually in better shape.

Doncic did have a long, Olympic-filled summer in a condensed offseason, so it’s understandable he gave his body much-needed rest at some point. But it’s also understandable that Dallas might’ve expected its 22-year-old superstar – fresh off signing a $207-million extension – to be in better shape than this.

Kidd also had a point earlier this month when he said Doncic needs to start getting back in transition rather than hanging back to argue with officials.

Dallas’ wonderboy isn’t blameless in the team’s lackluster start, but the Mavs also aren’t doing Doncic any favors.

Doncic leads the league in usage rate for a second straight year, finishing more than 36% of Dallas’ possessions when he’s on the court. To put Doncic’s workload in perspective, consider that his last three seasons all rank among the 14 highest-usage seasons ever recorded. Only James Harden also has three seasons on that list.

And that’s just a measure of the possessions that end in his hands. He also leads the league in assist percentage, assisting on more than 45% of his teammates’ field goals when he’s on the floor.

Four years into Doncic’s career, the Mavs have yet to find the kind of secondary shot-creator every contender needs; the kind worthy of a Doncic-led team.

Jalen Brunson is playing the best basketball of his career, and Tim Hardaway Jr. – while slumping right now – has had his share of big moments for Dallas since coming over in 2019 from New York in the Porzingis deal. But you’re not winning a title if one of Brunson or Hardaway is your second-best offensive initiator.

Porzingis has had stretches this season where he’s played his best ball in years, but he’s still not suited to be the second star on a true contender, and his game hasn’t complemented Doncic’s in the way the Mavs envisioned when they acquired him.

Doncic is a pick-and-roll maestro without a starter-level pick-and-roll partner. Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber are both good rollers who pair well with Doncic, but they’re also role players who play roughly 20 minutes per game. Porzingis, meanwhile, wants to pop more than he wants to roll and prefers posting up in general, which helps explain why some of his most productive performances as a Maverick have come with the ball-dominant Doncic sidelined.

Since Doncic and Trae Young were traded for each other at the 2018 draft – with Atlanta essentially choosing Young over Doncic – the Hawks have come under fire for being one of three teams to pass on Luka (along with the Suns and Kings). But at least Atlanta can say it’s done a much better job building an optimal team around Young than Dallas has done for Doncic.

Dallas’ offensive drop-off under Kidd has coincided with a defensive boost, as a Mavs team that finished 21st in defensive efficiency last season (112.3) is up to 15th this year (108.4). Kidd’s Mavs do a decent job protecting the rim with Porzingis, while the defenders in front of the big man force a ton of long twos and limit threes.

Sophomore forward Josh Green might even be the future solution to Dallas’ woes when it comes to guarding the league’s biggest and best wing scorers, with all due respect to Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith.

A middle-of-the-pack defense would’ve been good enough when the Mavs were scoring at historic levels, but it’s only helping them tread water now that they’re floundering offensively.

There doesn’t appear to be any easy fix in sight, either.

The Mavs struck out in free agency when they had max space, and now they appear capped out for at least the next couple of years. In terms of trade routes, it’s unlikely teams are willing to take on the nearly $70 million potentially still owed to Porzingis in the two years after this one, and Dallas can’t trade another first-round draft pick until 2025.

Other than a nearly $11-million trade exception (which can’t be combined with other players), Brunson and Green might represent Dallas’ best non-Doncic trade chips. But as youngsters still playing on their rookie deals, they also make less than $5 million combined. If either gets moved, they’d have to be packaged with some veteran rotation players on bigger contracts – and at least a second-rounder or two – to even get the Mavs in the mix for perhaps a borderline All-Star. Perhaps.

Doncic is under contract through 2027, so the situation in Dallas is far from now or never. But while opposing fans and media members too often rush to push stars out of their current situations, incumbent teams housing superstars can be equally guilty of operating like they have all the time in the world, which is rarely the case – even when that star is under long-term team control.

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