Many Dallas Mavericks fans came away from their summer disappointed. In an offseason where the Mavericks had space and a legitimate appeal led by their two star players, Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, many believe Dallas struck out. Tim Cato of The Athletic said he was “unclear on what Dallas’ plan was this summer.” They reportedly didn’t even sit down for a meeting with Patrick Beverley, whose defensive energy and spot-up shooting would have been a perfect fit alongside Luka Doncic. Still, there is absolutely no guarantee that Patrick Beverley would have abandoned the Clippers and their quest for Kawhi Leonard to join Dallas.
The disappointment is somewhat understandable, with Mavericks fans being more critical of the process than the results. The pipe dream of Kemba Walker was ended hours before free agency began as he signed with the Boston Celtics. Again, it feels hard to pin this one on the front office. Part of why the process felt so odd was that Dallas basically signaled their intention – to sign veteran players. They ended up doing the opposite. In came Delon Wright and Seth Curry. Two decent players, but they were not exactly what Mavericks fans expected.
The Mavericks also committed to keeping their existing players under control. Maxi Kleber, Dwight Powell and Dorian Finney-Smith were all locked up long-term. To many this was not particularly exciting. Some are spinning this as Dallas committing to a roster that had them far away from the playoffs. To me, that isn’t an accurate reflection of what happened.
Dallas was not a playoff team last year because it didn’t have a second star. Harrison Barnes was a disaster for the money he was being paid. His best attribute was spot-up shooting, and he completely eroded this skill every time he abandoned the perimeter and barrelled himself into a contested fade-away jumper because he lacked downhill skills and the mix of handle and power required to get to the paint. Wesley Matthews was asked to do too much, and like many Mavericks free-agent buys, his cap hit didn’t match the output.
The negative spin on the Mavericks’ process is understandable, but I have a different take on it. In an era where teams have been going small in order to try and generate better results, some teams have decided to go “big.” The Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers both used frontcourts with size to dominate their opponents. The Sixers doubled down on this in the summer by re-signing Tobias Harris and adding Al Horford to start at power forward. Size will generally win out in the end if it also contains floor spacing and skill. JB Bickerstaff’s infamous Joakim Noah-Marc Gasol frontcourt would not get the job done.
Take the Raptors for example. Marc Gasol spaced the floor, and Pascal Siakam destroyed the majority of the “4s” he came up against simply because they could not cope with his mix of height, power and fluidity. The beauty of Gasol, though, was that teams had to stay big to respect him on the variety of opportunities Nick Nurse’s offense gave him to wreak havoc downhill. Coping with two large wrecking balls is almost impossible. Part of me wonders if Toronto changed the NBA with its playoff run. Everyone was trying to go small, with some believing every team’s best bet was to surround a rangy power forward with four shooters. Toronto stuck with more traditional positional labels and powered through teams. Having Pascal Siakam, the best offensive four in the game, obviously helped. This didn’t stop teams from trying to copy the Warriors, though, as many believed any good defensive power forward could start as a center because of Draymond Green’s all-time-great prowess.
Having a big frontcourt also allows you to dictate the matchups of your opponents. Teams will get killed on the boards against you and will have to abandon their smaller lineups quite often. For some teams, this doesn’t matter. For example, the Raptors struggled against the Sixers because Philly could match Siakam with an equally big and skilled lineup. For the most part, though, teams had no answer for Siakam. Other teams found success with size, too. The Milwaukee Bucks‘ scheme was built around Giannis Antetokounmpo blitzing the opposing four to death and drawing double teams, which opened up space for shooters.
Dallas acquired Porzingis at the trade deadline, and in Maxi Kleber and Dwight Powell, they have two pieces who fit perfectly alongside him. More importantly, though, Dallas has the personnel to get into the playoffs because it offers something different and presents a horrible mismatch for the majority of its opponents. Porzingis is a unique mismatch weapon, and if he starts at the “4,” there are only a handful of players who would be able to match up with him. When you also consider that their “point guard,” Luka Doncic, is 6-foot-7 and they have Dorian Finney-Smith and his 6-foot-11 wingspan on the wing, the Mavericks’ size becomes downright scary.
Maxi Kleber and Dwight Powell don’t have similar skill sets. Kleber is a big with an improving jump shot who was in the 89th percentile for the frequency of shots coming from the perimeter. His real value comes with his elite defensive footwork and positioning. Dwight Powell’s jump shot was like a rollercoaster, but his elite rim-running ability and ability to find space on the interior was the main reason he was joint-first in true-shooting percentage this year alongside Rudy Gobert. In essence, Dallas has three big men who all fit alongside each other. Powell and Kleber played well together last year as they had a net rating of +8.5 with each other. The offensive rating of 113.1 was the highest Kleber had with any Mavericks player. Many fear the offensive output of a big pairing. For Dallas last year it worked, even with Kleber and Powell both having up and down jump-shooting numbers. When you add Porzingis to the mix, it starts to become a really positive picture.
Kleber was also one of few players to actually post a positive net rating with DeAndre Jordan. They posted a net rating of plus-six together. What is most important about this is that Dallas has two big men on the roster who are already capable of playing positive net basketball with another big man alongside them. Neither of these guys has played with a guy at the level Porzingis is at, which means, theoretically, the numbers could be even better next year.
Porzingis himself shouldn’t need an introduction. But given how low people seem to be on this Mavericks team after their lack of star acquiring this summer, maybe people need a reminder of what he can do. Porzingis spending a lot of time as the four is a good thing simply because he is like Pascal Siakam on steroids at his best. He stands at 7 feet, 3 inches, and his jump shot release is the highest in the League. He makes Larry Nance look silly here.
The Knicks sets were terrible in Porzingis' final year there, paint was clogged here. He still made tough shots consistently. Used his high release point to punish pretty much every power forward in the NBA pic.twitter.com/sdg7utG7hs
— Joe ?? (@HulbertJoe) July 23, 2019
Porzingis can be instant offense from anywhere. Many stretch bigs don’t really have a response if they are pinned on the perimeter. Porzingis has the fluidity to be able to drive inside, using his agility and ball control to make things easier for himself. On the play below, Porzingis receives the ball in the corner and looks as if he’s going to get trapped there at the end of the shot clock. He sizes Marvin Williams up and glides past him toward the paint. He uses his high release point to give Williams zero chance.
7'3' human beings shouldn't be able to do this. High release point in action again. pic.twitter.com/EiDAN6duTE
— Joe ?? (@HulbertJoe) July 23, 2019
The Knicks ran poor sets in Porzingis’ final year there. They ended up with way too many midrange jumpers and plays that ended with him having to make something happen. Again, though, it kind of worked. That’s a testament to the Latvian. Here, he takes a tough shot over Kevin Love. The commentator is right when he says “you can’t block it.” The release point is too high.
His size can be destructive against smaller fours. Here, LeBron James, the power forward in this Cavs lineup, tries to get ahead of him and deny the entry pass. The Knicks swing it to Lance Thomas, and Porzingis uses his size to seal off James and get an easy bucket inside. This is a nice way of generating easy buckets for one of your two big men. O’Quinn pulled the center out of the play, and Porzingis bullied the smaller player inside.
It’s not complex stuff, but if this kept happening, the opponent would have to go bigger. Most teams don’t have the skill level in their big-men pairings to really be effective on these lineups.
Porzingis being a stretch big is known to all, but he has so much range.
Deeeeppp three from Kristaps. Knicks had no other actions on this play and he still scored. pic.twitter.com/XCb0HLLLhs
— Joe ?? (@HulbertJoe) July 23, 2019
You see teams start to shoot more really deep 3s in order to maximize the entire court. What amazes me is that it’s usually guards such as Damian Lillard, Trae Young and Stephen Curry doing this. We sometimes need to remind ourselves that Porzingis is the second-tallest player in the NBA and can do stuff like this.
Porzingis pulling big men all the way out to deep range creates so much space for other actions. Rick Carlisle must be licking his lips thinking of all the possibilities.
If Porzingis can space teams this far out, then you have to feel that someone like Dwight Powell is just going to make an even better living inside. Powell was joint-first in true-shooting percentage last year despite the Mavericks having some spacing troubles throughout the year.
Powell is likely going to be starting alongside Porzingis. As we noted, Powell played well with Maxi Kleber last year, and Porzingis is infinitely more talented on the offensive side of the ball. Powell brings instant offense in the half court. He led the NBA in half-court scoring at the rim amongst people with 200 attempts. He has his defensive flaws, but offensively he is fluid and excels at getting into the paint.
Powell isn’t just a rim roller; he can attack from the perimeter as he does below. His shot falling always opens this up more, but it isn’t essential for him to establish his 3-point shot to be valuable and effective driving from deep. Here he sizes up Khem Birch and bullies him before expertly finishing off the glass.
Below he does the same out of the same set, with Jahlil Okafor being the unlucky victim this time.
This set was one of the core ones for the Mavericks last year. Both of their bigs would be at the top of the key, and the other three players would attack on cuts, handoffs and screens. Imagine Porzingis alongside Powell in this set instead of a 40-year old Dirk Nowitzki. This set could be a way for Dallas to get Doncic working off-ball. Powell’s ability to create instant offense and Porzingis’ elite floor-spacing ability make this set more dangerous than it was last year.
Powell will take advantage of any space given to him. Something else Powell excels at is finding space. Even when the paint is packed he can still find something to work with. Here he finds space in a five-man paint to score an easy layup. He does this after curling around the defender whose responsibility was the corner. He’s always alert, and his anticipation is elite.
Have high hopes for what Kleber, Powell and KP bring to Dallas. Powell's ability to find space in a congested paint is his best skill, gets easy looks for himself. Here he curls round Justin Holiday and finds space amongst a 5 man crowd. pic.twitter.com/46ch9O2Ytt
— Joe ?? (@HulbertJoe) July 22, 2019
Powell is one of the smoothest roll men in the game. He ranked in the 90th percentile as a roll man last year. He’s good at timing his roll, and he mixes up his game between slipping and setting a hard screen and then rolling.
Powell’s 3-point shot is extremely hard to gauge as we enter a new season. He shot 19% in the first half of the year and over 40% towards the end of the year. Even if his shot isn’t particularly effective, I’m not sure it matters. Powell’s fluidity attacking off the dribble and his ability to play well with others in rolling situations goes well with his genuine ability to be a scavenger and find space around the basket. A serviceable 3-point shot is a nice bonus, but his value to a size-driven Mavericks team does not hinge on him being able to shoot. Teams may choose to sag off of Powell and basically force him to shoot. Dallas could exploit this in ways such as using one of their guards in a dribble-hand-off action to exploit the dropping defender and get an easy open look.
In this frontcourt pairing, the Mavericks have a blend of size and fluidity with which to kill teams. Obviously, plays such as post-ups for Porzingis where he can use his size will be key to exploiting pretty much every “4” outside of Philadelphia, Toronto and Los Angeles. But their ability to pull bigs out of the paint and either hit 3s or fluidly attack downhill makes me believe that come the end of next season, this will be one of the most statistically impressive frontcourts in the League.
Rick Carlisle will have to continue riding his Pick-and-roll-heavy game to ensure that this team spaces opponents internally. He has an excellent starting point, though, and the Mavericks should be able to dictate the types of lineups opposing teams put out on the floor.
When you add Kleber to the equation, you start to believe that the Mavericks have a dangerous frontcourt pairing for 48 minutes. Kleber was used purely as a perimeter big last year. He was in the 86th percentile among big men for the frequency of his shots coming from 3. He becomes even more analytics-friendly when you learn he was in the 91st percentile for the amount of his shots coming from the corners.
Kleber played the majority of his minutes next to paint-heavy bigs in Dwight Powell and DeAndre Jordan, so it’s not too surprising to see he didn’t take many shot attempts at the rim. Kleber is not an elite 3-point shooter, but he is easily good enough to be of concern for the defense. Kleber’s 3-point clip improved from 32 to 35% this year. He was just 1% behind Marc Gasol, Nikola Vucevic, Blake Griffin and Brook Lopez. These are all guys with the reputation of being sharpshooting bigs. His midrange efficiency is really good, as he ranks in the 84th percentile there. His stroke is fluid, and his midrange numbers alongside his generally good touch suggests his clip from downtown should hold.
The majority of Kleber’s work comes as a spot-up shooter. The addition of a second star in Porzingis means this should continue to be the case, with his spot-up usage primed to go up. Kleber moves well on the perimeter and had good chemistry with Doncic throughout the season. 35% is a really impressive mark for a big man, and he will allow Powell and Porzingis to wreak havoc inside. Most importantly, he brings legitimate spacing to the bench unit and allows Dallas to play with size constantly. Dallas also signed Boban Marjanovic. This suggests Dallas is committed to size even with its bench unit. Kleber played well with other bigs last year. He should be able to do the same this year due to his shooting prowess.
Luka Doncic is magic. pic.twitter.com/uYviEBF4NH
— Joe ?? (@HulbertJoe) July 27, 2019
Where Kleber really brings value is on the defensive end. Though Dwight Powell will start, you have to imagine Porzingis will spend a fair amount of time playing with Kleber. The German is a really good shot blocker. He was 18th in the NBA in blocks per 48 minutes. Before Porzingis went down injured in the 2017-18 season, he was joint-fourth in blocks per 48 minutes, alongside David West.
One of the issues teams have when they go big is that they end up sacrificing perimeter defense. With Porzingis and Kleber, this wouldn’t be the case. They are both excellent perimeter defenders who move with fluidity. This pairing could be formidable defensively. What is also impressive alongside the blocking prowess of the duo is their footwork. Kleber, in particular, is a fluid big who closes out to the perimeter at a high level for his position. Due to DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Powell’s presence, Kleber spent the majority of his time defending as a “4” on the weak side. He has great instincts and he uses his body to funnel players into areas. He essentially sets traps, luring the opponent into thinking he have a driving angle before closing it off with his feet and body.
This particular frontcourt pairing is unique and has the potential to be elite. There have been 11 seasons in NBA history where a player has averaged 2.5 blocks per 48 minutes and shot 35% from 3 on three attempts per game. Kleber and Porzingis account for three of them. These two players will be playing next to each other next year.
Kleber gets blocks because of his ability to stay vertical without fouling. His feet are always in the right place, and even when they are planted, he possesses the necessary acceleration to move back out to the perimeter. The play below is an example of this.
The Hawks love to drive and kick for John Collins at the top of the key from the baseline. This gives him a chance to either shoot or drive into the paint. He chooses the latter here, and Kleber not only acts as a roadblock, he stuffs Collins’ second attempt even though Collins was in space to score.
Maxi’s timing is the best part of his game. Here the Thunder run a wing DHO action to get Alex Abrines downhill. Kleber makes sure he doesn’t come over too early so that Patterson won’t be wide open in the corner. He gives Abrines the illusion that he’s got a free lane, and as Abrines commits to going for the score, Kleber steps across and sends his floater into the stands.
Maxi is an amazing defender who slows offensive schemes down because of his timing and his ability to funnel offensive players into unfavorable situations. This becomes even more valuable when you realize Porzingis has almost the exact same defensive skillset.
The defensive potential of Porzingis and Maxi Kleber is pretty immense. Both have elite footwork and use their length to close off driving angles. Here's KP stuffing Rudy Gay at the baseline. pic.twitter.com/hdXVWijeKY
— Joe ?? (@HulbertJoe) July 23, 2019
Porzingis has insane fluidity on the offensive side of the ball. This is pretty well documented. What went under the radar because he was on irrelevant Knicks teams is his amazing defensive footwork. This sort of stuff only really gets noticed when a player is on a good team.
Porzingis also possesses acceleration that isn’t normally an attribute for someone this tall. Here he executes drop coverage perfectly and stays with the speedy Dennis Schroder for the entirety of his journey toward the rim.
Porzingis is capable of being the interior anchor. This might be the best fit for him, as Maxi Kleber has superior perimeter defending skills. In Porzingis’ final year in New York, he was statistically the best rim protector in the NBA as he allowed a field-goal percentage of just 48.7 at the rim. On the play below, he waits for Kemba Walker’s angle to Dwight Howard to disappear, before swatting Kemba’s shot emphatically. The Knicks would go on to win this game. This was a winning play from a player who made so many on losing New York teams.
To conclude, the Dallas Mavericks should not be slept on this year. The playoffs reminded us all that size is incredibly important. The “small” revolution was really just a “skill” revolution, with back-to-the-basket-bigs who do all of their work in the low post just not being that useful anymore. Size is an advantage if you have it, especially at the “4.” Part of me wonders if, like everyone tried to find Draymond Green after the Warriors’ dominance, teams will soon begin looking for big, skillful “4s”. It’s naïve to think it’s that easy, as the likes of Siakam and Porzingis are not often found. Teams will still try, regardless of how unrealistic the strategy is.
I am not suggesting the Mavericks should never go small. Surrounding Doncic with shooters and a more mobile outside center such as Kleber would still yield positive results. But too many teams are getting far too caught up on this “revolution.” Porzingis would still be good as the small-ball center, but by placing him alongside another big, Dallas can begin to take control of the game before the ball is even tipped off. Like Draymond Green made everyone want to go small, I wonder if the Sixers, Raptors and Mavericks will signal a switch towards “tall ball.”