Dallas has certainly had a rough start to the year, as injuries have ravaged an interesting bunch and robbed the team of all its key playmakers at one point or another. There have been some bright spots, and we aren't quite yet ready to shift our coverage to draft prospects. Let's dive into the state of the Dallas Mavericks at 20 games in.
Last 6 games: 2-4
Standings/Playoff Picture: 7 games out of the 8 seed, last in Western conference
Key Stat: By opponent winning percentage, Dallas has played the toughest strength of schedule in the NBA to date.
Harrison Barnes leads the team in scoring at 20.9 ppg, while Deron Williams leads in assists at 6.6 per game. J.J. Barea is the second leading assister at 5.4, but the highest player qualifying for league leaderboards under games/minutes played is Seth Curry, with his 2.6 apg. Needless to say, the biggest struggle for Dallas this season has been playmaking and shot creation. The team ORTG (points per 100 possessions) is 28th in the league at 99.4, and they play at a 91.9 possession pace (29th in the association).
Shot creation has caused depressed shooting percentages, as players like Wes Matthews are stuck creating off the dribble threes with stepbacks and sidesteps rather than being able to catch and shoot – which is typically far more efficient for NBA players. One solution to this will be the return of Dirk Nowitzki, who remains out indefinitely with Achilles issues. Another solution will be Harrison Barnes developing some passing vision. He currently sits at 1.2 apg, but his drives collapse the defense and could lead to more opportunities if he saw them. Barnes needs to be watching film of James Harden, a similarly sized player (though a much better ballhandler) who always seems to find the right angles and deliver the ball right in the shooting pocket. For instance, look at this play from the first quarter against Chicago:
Barnes is able to drive baseline, draw help, and fire a pass on the money to Gibson. If he can find more ways to find his teammates with that type of pass, this offense will grow healthier. Add Dirk Nowitzki back into that mix, and it could become downright dangerous.
There are some bright signs and some very intriguing lineups for Dallas. Take the Chicago game, for example, where Dallas defended Jimmy Butler effectively with, at various times, Harrison Barnes, Wes Matthews, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Justin Anderson. Barnes, Smith, and Anderson each also guarded Taj Gibson at times. If those four can hold up defensively, and at least one can guard the opposing point guard, some interesting lineups of Dirk at Center and Williams at PG open up with potential to cover the big German’s weaknesses.
Andrew Bogut has been one of the best rim protectors in the NBA when he gets there, but has also been blown by on the pick and roll a little too frequently. One oddity to keep an eye on is Dwight Powell, with one of the best defensive box plus-minus scores on the team at 3.6. Powell has a positive impact with his energy, but still fails to protect the rim or grab defensive boards too often (20.5% DRB rate). If he can shore up those areas, he could grow into a suitable center figure for the Mavericks and earn that big offseason contract.
Team MVP: Harrison Barnes
Barnes leads the team in scoring and minutes and almost never turns the ball over. His free throw rate (rate at which he attempts free throws as compared to the number of shots he takes) is still only 0.195, which is far too low for a wing of his caliber (Gordon Hayward: 0.425; Paul George: 0.249). He needs to get to the line 6+ times a game as a first step.
As mentioned above, he needs to create more also. That said, Barnes has carried the load night in and night out for this team as a defensive stopper when needed (see his game against Jimmy Butler) and as a scorer to rely on (see down the stretch vs. Boston). Without Barnes, there is almost no light for this team. With him, the potential of powerful defensive lineups and explosive offensive lineups exist alongside the hope that Dallas has the makings of its next All-Star in the midst.
Best Defensive Player: Andrew Bogut
Bogut has protected the rim, created deflections, stymied post-ups, and leads the team in defensive box plus-minus as well as DRTG. When Bogut sits, the team’s DRTG gets worse by roughly 15 points. That is a huge impact. With his recent injury sidelining him for approximately two weeks, Dwight Powell and Salah Mejri will need to step up in a big way for this team to get something going in the way of wins.
The Elephant in the Room: Will Dallas full-on tank?
Mark Cuban has been quoted in the past as all for an opportunistic tank season. He’s also been quoted more recently as running a team that will not tank. In the end, the question may be moot. Unless this Dallas team can figure out how to create some offense (a little more transition would juice the numbers), they won’t be pushing anyone for key wins. In a year where nobody else is trying to lose, Dallas may not have to tank—injuries and roster fit may leave them as simply the worst team, albeit with the 6th-highest payroll.