Will the real Dallas Mavericks please show up?

Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks - Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks - Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /

When watching the Dallas Mavericks, it feels like walking aimlessly through the desert and seeing a mirage. Just like one sees a false image, distorted by light and hunger, the Mavericks to look better than they are due to the bright light exuded by their star Luka Doncic.

Earlier in the season, the Mavericks looked like one of the teams that could separate themselves from the rabble in the Western Conference. Instead, at the mid-season mark, they’re just as close to the 3rd seed (2.5 games) as they are from being out of the play-in entirely.

At just two games over .500, Dallas looks to be squarely stuck in the middle of the NBA. They rank 16th in the NBA in Net Rating at 0.2, speaking to their need for a spark. They haven’t exactly faced a murderers row either, as per ESPN, they’ve only faced the 16th toughest schedule so far.

Despite having a consensus superstar in Luka Doncic, the Mavericks appear a long ways away from contention. When looking into how they ended up here, there are a number of reasons outside of their control, but just as many self-inflicted errors that are hamstringing them as a team today.

What has hurt Dallas that isn’t their fault?

It’s not all the Mavericks’ fault that they’ve disappointed. Like most teams, they’ve dealt with a myriad of injuries, but Dallas has had a tough roll of the dice with their various ailments.

Doncic has missed five games, while Christian Wood, arguably the team’s second star, just broke his thumb and will be out for a few weeks. Dorian Finney-Smith, Dallas’ defensive skeleton key, has missed almost a third of the season with a strained abductor. Both Josh Green and Maxi Kleber, key role players for the Mavericks, have missed more than half of the team’s games, with Kleber slated to be on the shelf for a few months at least.

While every team in the West seems to have dealt with injuries, Dallas can also blame some unfortunate big man regressions for their drop in the standings. Dwight Powell and Davis Bertans, two vastly different players who can fit into important niches for the team, have both been some of the least effective versions of themselves this year.

Even worse is that JaVale McGee, signed to a sizeable contract as a role player in the offseason, doesn’t look close to being the impactful bench center who can impact the game on both ends of the floor like he was for Phoenix last year.

When combined with Wood and Kleber’s injuries, it’s clear that the Mavericks’ “big man by committee” approach has had as nightmarish a season as one could imagine. While the Mavs could have maybe held onto a player like Moses Brown as insurance, it’s unfair to penalize them too harshly given that any team in their ravaged front court position would likely look the same.

What issues are the fault of the Mavericks?

That’s not to say that the Mavericks are blameless, however. In fact, the injury issues they’ve suffered from are neither unique nor the biggest problems they’ve faced all season.

The first part of the failed equation comes on the defensive end for Dallas. In Jason Kidd’s scheme, for the first time, the team was able to play switchy, rangy defense that frazzled opponents all season long. They finished with the 7th best defensive rating in the NBA, which is a far cry from where they are now.

Sitting at just 24th in defensive rating this year, there are a number of factors contributing to their disappointing D. They’re 22nd in steals, 26th in blocks, and 17th in points given up in the paint. Without their usual cadre of big men, they’re neither defending the rim with any presence nor stopping opponents score when they get in close:

While they’ve been an elite offensive unit this year, there are some factors propping up that reputation a bit higher than it should be. Namely, the Mavericks are incredibly dependent on Luka Doncic being his otherworldly self every night. While that’s a fair bet to make given his all-world talent, the Mavericks are not equipped to pick up slack whenever Luka has an off night.

In five games without Doncic this year, the Mavs have gone 0-5. More concerning is that Dallas is only 4-12 in games where Luka shoots less than 50% from the field. While it may seem obvious for the Mavericks to go the way that Luka goes, it makes it hard to actually consider them a contender when their fate is so intertwined with their superstar’s efficiency.

That makes the fact that they let Jalen Brunson go much worse in retrospect. He’s looked like an All-Star in New York, and while it may be true that he was intent on heading to the Knicks in free agency, the Mavericks could’ve signed him to an extension a year prior. It’s fair to wonder if the Mavs offense could be even better at offense if they’d only retained Brunson.

It’s not like the Mavericks have been beating good teams, either. Outside of a 7-game win streak in late December, the Mavs are only 18-23 on the season. That streak came against only one team above .500, the Knicks, and it took Dallas overtime to beat them. Similarly incriminating is the fact that the Mavs are only 9-10 against teams over .500 in the whole season. Their positive win total has been propped up by beating lottery teams.

All of this paints a troubling picture for the Mavericks: outside of Luka Doncic, their team is only capable of consistently beating bad teams. That’s a losing formula in the playoffs, no matter how good their offense looks now, and with Doncic second in the league in minutes played per game, he’s only going to get more worn down as the season.

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Maybe sooner than later, the real Dallas Mavericks will reveal themselves as the principle of “ball don’t lie” is never wrong. When they show themselves, the mirage of their contender status will be up, and the many problems they have will be on full display.