Mavericks player analysis, Part I: Luka Dončić, Spencer Dinwiddie and more
The Mavericks play two preseason games this week, and they’re just 17 days away from the season opener in Phoenix. We held off examining the roster on a player-by-player basis this summer because it felt like another move was coming; it should be noted that the Dallas front office did explore trades, just without finding any successful matches. The team does hold one open roster spot, although the likeliest scenario is that the Mavs will keep it open heading into the regular season. They’re comfortable starting the season with this group of players.
So now’s a good time to look closer at every player, the roles they’re expected to fill this season, and a big question they can answer in the season’s opening months. I’m splitting this into two installments by alphabetical order; I’m including Tyler Dorsey and his two-way contract since he’s something more than a developing prospect.
In Bertans’ world, he’s never not open. He’d rise up for a jumper in the middle of a Coachella mosh pit if you passed to him. But a shooter who always shoots — and who does little else but shoot — must make enough of them to justify his free spirit. Including the postseason, Bertans made just 96 of his 281 shots from distance last season: just 34.2 percent. Bizarrely, he was even worse when actually open for Dallas, converting just 24.2 percent of his wide-open regular season looks, per the NBA’s tracking data.
Perhaps the lower body injuries he’s suffered has changed where he generates his jumper’s power, or disrupted his balance, or affected some other hard-to-identify physical component of his shooting that has sapped the marksmanship that earned him his $80-million contract. He won’t be a rotation player this season, but his shooting reputation and the gravity it brings still has use as a change-of-pace substitute in case of injury or one-off games.
The big question: Can he really make 3s again?
How strange it feels to remember Bullock didn’t earn his starting spot last season until February. The indefatigable wing morphed into an essential presence on the court that month, averaging 35.2 minutes per game in the season’s final three months and 39.3 minutes per game in the postseason. But until the Kristaps Porzingis trade helped cement his spot, Bullock wouldn’t even play half of a game (23.8 minutes per game) from October through January.
It was questionable at the time, but it wasn’t entirely unjustified given his slow shooting start. It’s a trend that has followed his entire career. As Mavs Moneyball’s Matthew T Phillips wrote last December, “In October and November, (Bullock) shoots like Russell Westbrook and the rest of the year he shoots like Ray Allen.” For his career, Bullock has hit 29.5 percent of his 3s in October and November. He’s shot better than 40 percent in the months that follow.
Bullock enters this year with the clearest expectations of any player on the team. He’ll start most games (if not all), guard the opponent’s best guards, and shoot lots of open 3s. Whether he has to suffer through this familiar slump might affect the team’s early success, but little more than that. He’s a known ingredient to this team’s proven formula, and Dallas knows it.
The big question: Can he avoid his typical early season shooting slump?
Who’s the Mavericks’ third ballhandler? That question has been asked in these past months so many times, in so many different podcasts and articles and conversations, that it’s become gibberish. They call it semantic satiation, you know, when you say some normal-sounding word so many times that your brain recognizes a weirdness to the way its spelled. It’s basically that meme: They always ask who the third ballhandler is, but they never ask how the third ballhandler is doing.
In this ambiguous vacuum, we certainly know that the Mavericks didn’t replace Jalen Brunson. But I also feel we’ve lost sight of another aspect of this conversation, one that focuses on Dinwiddie. As good as he was for the team last season, he wasn’t flawless. I think he could be even more complementary — which isn’t to say better — to Luka Dončić than Brunson was. I’m optimistic he’ll be good. But Dinwiddie’s production for Dallas last year was so distinct from his career success that it at least warrants caution. And if Dinwiddie isn’t who he was last season, this odd-sounding repetition about ballhandling turns into a sound that’s downright scary.
Dinwiddie received lead ballhandling duties his fourth year in the league, and he has never played as efficiently in that timeframe as he did in his shortened regular season with the Mavericks last year. He had career highs in the following: 2-point percentage, 3-point percentage, True Shooting, turnover rate (meaning fewer turnovers), free throw rate. You can explain plenty of that situationally. His 2-point percentage increased because the Mavericks have better spacing than his past stops, and his 3-pointers went in more often because he took more catch-and-shoot looks. His free throw rate was only marginally better his two best seasons in Brooklyn, which is good. It shows that it’s aligned with past results rather than a small sample size aberration. And he turned the ball over at the lowest rate of his career? Well, of course he did, given his role.
That’s not his role this year. Much more than last season, Dallas will lean on Dinwiddie not only to share the court with Dončić, but also to lead the offense when he’s out. Are we sure the improved tendencies he exhibited next to another alpha guard will remain when he’s running the team on his own? Do we know how his overall impact will change if (and likely when) his shooting percentages drop off by a few points? I’m bullish on Dinwiddie’s coming season, but I’m also asking questions that are real and outstanding. What Dinwiddie means contextually to this team changed this summer, and his goodwill earned from his roaring success after being traded here can’t be translated on a 1-to-1 ratio. It has to be discerned anew.
Again, I’m not that worried. I think the explanations for Dinwiddie’s success last season are bigger and broader than the constant nature of the two-guard backcourts. But these are questions worth keeping in mind as this season nears.
The big question: What really made Dinwiddie successful last season?
I’ll write thousands of words about Dončić this season. He’s one of the league’s best players and could soon eliminate the need to write “one of” when describing him. What does in-shape Dončić look like to start a season? What does it mean, granularly, for his game? When Dončić started his second season, and again when basketball resumed in the bubble, he wasn’t just fresh-legged but a rim-attacking menace. After the All-Star break last season, when he finally looked physically right, he shot 38.5 percent behind the arc. What aspect of his game can we expect more efficiency from the season’s start? He’s the league’s MVP favorite for a reason. He brings joy and wonder to this sport in a way few players ever have.
The big question: What does in-shape Luka really look like?
What’s interesting about Dorsey is his movement shooting, which stands somewhat apart from a roster largely full of static 3-point launchers. In past stops and in European games this summer, where he played for Greece, Dorsey showed an ability to take 3s coming around screens or after several dribbles, even if he is far from being a self-sufficient scorer of the ball. Does that translate? He has a career 36.6 percent 3-point percentage in the 104 games he’s played in the NBA. On a two-way contract, there aren’t any expectations for him to meaningfully contribute this season. But he has a better chance — and, I think, will get one at some point — than most two-way players given his age (26) and experience.
The big question: Does he earn any chances at playing time this season?
If Bullock’s expectations are most certain, Finney-Smith must come right behind him. He’ll play 30-to-35 minutes nightly while guarding the opponent’s best wing, knocking down open 3s and making winning plays — an offensive rebound here, a transition dunk there — all along the way. If there’s one area we might see improvement from him, it’s his dynamism attacking closeouts. He’s turned into a sneaky effective passer when driving into the lane, frequently finding the right kickout pass to keep the offense humming. This past season, he took slightly more shots after dribbling at least twice (1.3) than he did two years ago (1.1). After a conference finals defeat where the Warriors’ secondary playmaking shined, any incremental improvements from the 29-year-old would be welcome.
The big question: Can he do slightly more off the dribble?
Dinwiddie aside, the who’s the third ballhandler debate does have merit. It’s oft-repeated because it’s an obvious concern to draw from any meaningful glance at this roster. Dallas believes Green, to some extent, can be an answer. The way he’s started training camp has given those around the team reason to feel they might be right.
Green is a really sharp, inventive passer who struggles getting into situations to use those skills. For such an explosive athlete, he rarely beat defenders last season without being gifted the runway of a defender recklessly closing out. As teams recognized his shooting hesitancy, they stopped running at him, content to let him fire away. Sure, he hit some 3s, but never enough to really change the scouting report that began compiling. It doesn’t matter how well you can throw no-look, behind-the-back dimes if you can’t beat the defender in front of you.
Both the Mavericks and Green himself feel that offseason improvements to his shooting and ballhandling might change that. Green still won’t be a prototypical lead guard; he doesn’t ever project as that. But if he’s sharing the court with Dončić or Dinwiddie, he doesn’t need to run every pick-and-roll. Dallas just needs another player with an on-ball skillset to take advantage of an unbalanced defense when the ball rotates to the weak side. Add in some transition scoring, better spot-up shooting and his improving wing defense. If it all comes together, that’s a rotation player, one the Mavericks could really use.
I’m not convinced just yet. But the idea of what Green could be is starting to feel more tangible.
The big question: Can he be consistently be impactful on the court?
(Photo of Luka Dončić and Spencer Dinwiddie: David Dow / NBAE via Getty Images)