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For quite some time, the biggest question surrounding the Dallas Mavericks had been whether or not Luka Doncic as a lone star would be enough to win and, if not, who would be a fitting co-star for him. When the team botched the retention of Jalen Brunson, who was the closest thing they had to a secondary star, and watched him walk away over the summer, that question became even more pressing. An answer presented itself during last month’s trade deadline in the form of Kyrie Irving, who wanted to leave the Brooklyn Nets. The Mavericks traded away Dorian Finney-Smith, Spencer Dinwiddie, and three future draft picks to finally get an All-Star teammate for Doncic.
Theoretically, Doncic and Irving could form the most lethal scoring backcourt in the entire league. Reality, however, is that the Mavericks lost four of the first five games that their two stars have played together, and their sole win came against the rebuilding San Antonio Spurs. No disrespect to the Spurs, but they are currently 14th in the West and that game was a must-win for Dallas. That very same stretch also included a 111-108 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, in which Dallas blew a 27-point lead. Before that meltdown, teams had been 138-0 for the season when leading by that large of a margin.
Obviously, everyone knew that it would take some time for everything to click after the trade, but in the five games Doncic and Irving have played together, nothing seems to have changed. It still seems as if they are taking turns on offense rather than playing together, which is especially an issue in crunch time. Before, it was clear that Doncic would be running the final possession. Now, they have no idea who should have the ball in their hands and fall apart in late-game situations, which is how they have racked up losses. These meltdowns range from Doncic and Irving playing a game of hot potato against Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels without ever getting a shot off to the team missing its last six shots against the Indiana Pacers or Doncic committing a turnover on an inbound pass.
Similar patterns also show themselves in regular offensive possessions. Too often, Dallas’s offense looks stagnant, as if everyone is waiting for someone else to do something. There is not much off-ball movement even though they could be a great pick-and-roll team and as a result, they often shoot too early rather than moving the ball.
Five games are not enough to call this trade a failure yet, and people keep saying that Dallas will figure it out, just like last year when they made it all the way to the conference finals with the difference that they now have some additional firepower. The problem is not who they added, though. It is who they lost. Dorian Finney-Smith was their best perimeter defender, and his absence is impossible to miss. The Mavericks never had a particularly great defense, but now they look simply horrific on that end of the court.
Yes, they have a great offense, and their backcourt is hard to defend, but that doesn’t do you any good if you cannot guard anyone on the other team. They do not guard the three-point shot or any action on the perimeter particularly well, but their biggest issue is that they cannot keep opponents out of the paint. They allowed the Lakers to score 62 points in the paint, the Denver Nuggets scored 64, and the Spurs 66 points in the paint. To put this in perspective; the Memphis Grizzlies lead the NBA in paint points per game with an average of 59. The fact that Dallas gave up over 60 paint points in three consecutive games just highlights how bad their defense has become.
One reason for this is that two of their big men, Dwight Powell and Christian Wood, are not rim protectors and Maxi Kleber missed several games with a hamstring injury. The latter was missed sorely because both Wood and Powell struggle to defend pick-and-rolls. Neither of them is good in drop coverage, and especially Wood is not particularly switchable. Kleber returned to the lineup against the Pacers and his presence will help Dallas defensively from now on, but it will not save them. While he is one of the few remaining defenders on the team alongside Tim Hardaway Jr. and Reggie Bullock, it is not up to him to save their defense, especially after struggling with injuries and aging out of his athleticism.
Dallas needs its stars to play defense to win in the long run, and that does not only include Doncic and Irving. Wood wants to be a starter. That means he has to play defense, too. The spotlight is on Doncic and Irving, though, because the team’s lack of perimeter defense jumps out at you on every possession. Their guards do not close out well and get beat on drives. They do not fight over screens and stay in front of ball handlers. Especially Doncic, shows no urgency to get back on defense, choosing to argue foul calls instead of helping his team. As the face of the franchise, he should not be such a weak link defensively. He does not have to be an All-Defense player, but he should at least be good enough to hold his own now that they are low on good defenders. Scoring is important and Doncic and Irving carry the heaviest load on that end of the floor, but ultimately it is only half the game and has to be complimented with good defense.
Over the last seven games, the Mavericks had a defensive rating of 119.8. The only teams with a worse rating over that stretch are the Sacramento Kings, the Pacers, the Brooklyn Nets, and the Houston Rockets. The Mavericks also allowed a league-worse 62 points in the paint. Back in November, they still had a defensive rating of 110.8, and they only allowed 45.7 points in the paint. One month later, these numbers already dropped to a defensive rating of 115.9 and 50.1 points allowed in the paint. Their defense has been getting worse all season long, but it hit rock bottom since the trade.
Over the games he played with Dallas this season, Finney-Smith usually took on one of the toughest defensive assignments on the perimeter and fared fairly well. He held DeMar DeRozan to only 6 points on a 30 percent field goal percentage when he guarded him. Guarding Paul George, he only allowed the Clippers’ star to score 6 points on 22.2 percent shooting over 50.3 partial possessions, and Damian Lillard only shot 20 percent on field goals and missed all of his five three-point attempts over 47.3 possessions. Hardaway Jr. recorded similar defensive stats against Mikal Bridges, Keldon Johnson and Klay Thompson so far, while Bullock fared similarly well against Donovan Mitchell, Jalen Green, and Dennis Schröder. This means that the Mavericks still have good defenders after the trade, but it also means that those two will have to pick up the defensive load Finney-Smith carried last season unless someone else steps up. So far, it does not look like that is going to happen anytime soon. Coach Jason Kidd even challenged his team, particularly their stars, to “grow up” and play some defense. This is especially frustrating because the Mavericks are not a young team. They are a veteran team, with only few players under 30 or even in their early twenties. The Mavericks now have a 33-31 record and have fallen to the 6th seed in the West with a tough schedule ahead. They still have to face a ramped-up Phoenix Suns team, the contending Philadelphia 76ers twice, and a scrappy Memphis Grizzlies team three times. This means that Jason Kidd and his squad do not have much time left and a lot of issues to address in that time if they want to make another playoff run as well as prove that they can contend for a title.