Over the past few years, the identity of the Dallas Mavericks has revolved around offense. With a generational talent such as Luka Doncic, Dallas thrived on the offensive end using their 22-year-old superstar as the catalyst. It has yielded success over the years. They arguably could have made the second round of the playoffs in the last two seasons if Kristaps Porzingis did not get hurt.
This past offseason, the Mavericks did something different. They signed defensive players such as Reggie Bullock and Frank Ntilikina to help improve their defense. But the biggest move they made was to replace long-time head coach Rick Carlisle with Jason Kidd.
Kidd was a great defensive player back in the day. A nine-time All-Defensive Team member, it makes sense that Kidd would want to pass his expertise to the teams he’s coached. In the 2014-15 season, he coached the Milwaukee Bucks to the fourth-best defensive rating in the entire league. As an assistant coach of the Los Angeles Lakers for two years, he also became instrumental in building their defense.
So how did a team mostly built for offense respond to a defensive coach?
The Mavericks are currently fifth in the West with a 27-21 record. They have been on a roll since the new year, all because of their improved defense. They snapped the long win streaks of the Chicago Bulls and Memphis Grizzlies, while going on a six-game run of their own. Coming into their match against the Golden State Warriors earlier, they have won 11 of their last 13.
It’s surprising to hear that the Mavs are one of the best defensive teams in the league right now. They currently have the fifth-best defensive rating, which is quite an impressive turnaround considering they were ranked 21st the season prior. What’s more impressive is that Dallas is one of the worst teams in terms of blocks and steals, which are frequently used as indicators of good defense.
Even as you take a look at the Mavericks’ roster, the overall team construction does not scream defense. Dorian Finney-Smith is their best defender, but after him, it drops off considerably. Dwight Powell, Maxi Kleber, and Porzingis are all good rim protectors, but just blocking shots does not equate to good defense.
Dallas’ elite defense banks on the fact that they allow the third lowest opponent points, third lowest opponent field goal attempts, and sixth lowest opponent field goals made. If you look at opponent field goal percentage, the Mavericks are actually in the middle of the pack, but opposing teams are not getting the volume of shots that would create a bigger impact.
This can be explained by Dallas’ 29th-ranked pace. The idea is by increasing the time per possession, they are reducing the number of shots that can be taken for the entire game. Fewer shots equal fewer points, which equals a higher defensive rating. However, when looking at the overall defensive statistics, whether basic or advanced, the Mavericks are in the middle of the pack for most categories.
This goes to show that there are factors affecting a team’s overall defense that are not captured by stats alone, such as effort, hustle, and defensive IQ. Credit goes to the coaches for creating an effective defensive scheme using the players' strengths and abilities. Credit also has to go to the players for executing the defensive schemes with intellect and effort, which leads to good results.
With about half the season remaining, will Dallas be able to maintain their top 5 defense? I honestly don’t think so. Teams such as the Utah Jazz, Toronto Raptors, and Miami Heat are all candidates to break into the top 5 once they get past their injury woes. But I am happy for the Mavericks and their fans as they enjoy their current rise.
If teams can get their superstar to buy in on the defensive end, like what the Mavs have done with Luka this year, it forces the other members of the team to buy in as well. It becomes contagious, making them a more dangerous team. Hopefully, the effort and intellect continue even if the Mavs’ defensive rating drops later on in the season. You never know, we might see Dallas finally enter the second round for the first time since they won the title in 2011.