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Right now the Dallas Mavericks sit in 13th in the Western Conference with an 8-12 record. The team has been by most accounts, one of the most disappointing in the league.
In year three of Luka Doncic, after a playoff series against the Clippers he dominated, they came in with a ton of expectations. Doncic was the runaway betting favourite for league MVP and the team had the 11th best odds to win the title. Yet over a month into the season and the Mavs sit lower in their own conference than they were in the preseason title odds.
So what exactly is going wrong?
Well for starters, Doncic was pretty clearly out of shape to start the season. There was some reporting done that the lockdowns in Europe combining with the NBA starting faster than most anticipated resulted in Doncic reporting for camp overweight and it showed.
Check out how bad his numbers were in the first five games to start the season.
Since a game in Chicago that Doncic rested though, his play has been on track. In the last 14 games, he’s putting up the MVP numbers we expected and yet, here the Mavs are with a 6-8 record in those games.
The first and most obvious explanation for why this is is that Doncic and the Mavs have been doing their best Harden Rockets impersonation and neither are good enough yet to make it work. Doncic isn’t there yet as the Harden character in this experiment because well, he just flat out isn’t as good as Harden.
It sounds simplistic but Doncic is shooting just 29.4 per cent from three this season and is only getting to the free-throw line 7.4 times a game. He just hasn’t quite mastered the nuances of what Harden did all those years in carrying the Rockets yet and it shows in his efficiency.
With that said though, it isn’t fair to simply blame Doncic. His numbers as I showed above are more than good enough to win at a higher level. What we often glossed over with those Harden teams is just how well his teammates fit into the system they were implementing. Guys like Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and more were just built to jack threes time and again.
Meanwhile in Dallas this year, this Mavs team is lacking that type of firepower. Outside of Tim Hardaway and Jalen Brunson who have been on the level you’d expect, Josh Richardson, Kristaps Porzingis, Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber have all disappointed.
For Mavericks fans, the Richardson piece has to really sting. Losing a guy like Seth Curry who shot 45 per cent on five attempts from three a game for a player who’s shooting just 28 per cent is a tough pill to swallow.
Similarly, Porzingis has looked far from himself since he came back from injury. The supposed second piece on this Mavs team has looked marginal at best in nine games, bringing real concerns on what his future in the league is.
The reality is, this team lacks a secondary creator alongside Doncic. Part of what made Harden play at his best on those Houston teams was Chris Paul and even to a lesser extent Russell Westbrook. On this Dallas team, they have no one close to that and it shows.
They’ve devolved into running the clutch offence that ruined countless games for them last season into using it seemingly most of the game. What made Dallas’ offence great last year was the movement and when they would stop doing that in the clutch and stagnate, it was exceptionally frustrating. Now for some reason, they’ve moved this Hardenesque style that didn’t work last year into their more common offence and the results have been brutal.
Dallas is way down in assists (13th to 28th) and total passes (16 fewer a game in 2021) this year which is directly leading to their lower offensive rating and three-point percentage. They aren’t getting the looks they got from last year’s movement and constant pressure which is how you go from 10th in the NBA in three-point percentage to last with almost no major roster changes other than Curry.
Obviously, Curry was an important piece to last season’s team but he wasn’t worth the seven points per 100 possessions they’re down this season.
No, what’s causing that is the complete stagnation of this offence. They constantly standstill and put hardly any pressure on a defence. It’s truly perplexing how they have effectively taken out a majority of what made their offence the best in league history last year for what killed them in close games.
Rick Carlisle is a great coach and should figure it out soon to the point where they can at least get back into the playoff discussion. However, if this team wants to win a championship any time soon, they need to fix a heck of a lot more than just their ball and player movement.
It’s abundantly clear no team is in greater need of a secondary creator than this one. Much like how Milwaukee overpaid for one in Jrue Holiday in the offseason I’d expect Dallas to do something similar soon.
As much as we can criticize Luka for the shape he came to camp in, he is now in shape and dominating a month in. The problem is no matter how much they systemically change this offence back to what it needs to be, they don’t have the talent to go much further than the first round of the playoffs.
Houston got Harden Paul and they became real contenders. It’s time that the Mavs do the same for Luka because that’s the only sizable way this team will improve from what it was last season. If not then I’m afraid to say Mavs fans but the 8-12 record you have now is much closer to what you are than any kind of real title contender.