How the Dallas Mavericks Built the Most Efficient Offense Ever

By Andrew Lawlor

The Dallas Mavericks’ 116.5 offensive rating is the highest in NBA history. Even though their defense has struggled, they will be a threat in the Western Conference playoffs on the back of their lethal offense. This season, their offensive success can be boiled down to a simple equation: Luka Dončić + three-point shooting = profit.

In his second season, Dončić has been immense. He made his first all-star team as a starter, and he will likely make his first All-NBA team at the end of the season. When he’s on the court, Dončić is essentially the Mavericks’ offense. His 35.5% usage rate is the second-highest in the NBA behind Giannis Antetokounmpo, according to the NBA website. He takes 9.0 threes, 20.8 field goals, and 9.3 free throws per game.

All images by Andrew Lawlor

Even with all that usage, Dončić has remained efficient. He is a brilliant passer, averaging 8.9 assists per game, third in the NBA while limiting his turnovers to 4.3 per game, an acceptable number given how much he controls the ball. He has great size and is able to get to the basket and finish through contact. Dončić averages 20.7 drives per game, first in the NBA, and attempts 7.0 field goals per game inside 5 feet, converting on 69.2% of those shots. He attempts 9.3 free throws per game, fourth in the NBA. When he handles the ball in a pick-and-roll, Dončić is in the 90th percentile of scorers.

Here, Dončić shields the ball with his body against the Kings’ Alex Len, and finishes through contact:

The Mavericks surround Dončić with shooting; almost everybody in their rotation shoots and makes threes at a high rate. The starting lineup they have used so far in the bubble consists of Seth Curry (44.6% from three-point range this season), Dončić (31.6%), Dorian Finney-Smith (37.4%), Tim Hardaway Jr. (39.7%), and Kristaps Porzingis (34.3%). On the bench, they have more capable shooters in Maxi Kleber, Delon Wright, and Trey Burke. The only heavy-minutes player on the roster who does not take threes is Dwight Powell, a rim-running center who is out injured for the restart.

All of that shooting pushes defenses past their breaking points. Defenders cannot afford to leave anyone alone on the perimeter, even for a second. There is space inside for everyone, and it is especially helpful for Dončić, who excels at getting past the first line of defense. This puts defenses into an impossible choice. If they let Dončić get to the basket, he is a great interior scorer; if they collapse on him, he will find the open shooter. He is playing in the perfect ecosystem.

Here, Dončić shows off his moves to collapse the defense on him, then kicks to Finney-Smith for the open three:

There are still some areas in need of improvement. For one, Dončić has not been a great three-point shooter; his 31.6% mark is well below average. But this figure is a little misleading. Dončić takes 7.3 pull-up threes per game, fourth in the NBA. These are very difficult shots. He is not an elite shooter, as evidenced by his 75.5 free throw percentage, but his true shooting ability is a little better than what his raw statistics show. Defenses still pay attention to him, so his poor shooting has not hurt Dallas’s spacing. But he has left points on the board.

Kristaps Porzingis post-ups have also been a source of concern for the Dallas offense. Porzingis gets 3.4 post-ups a game, and he only shoots 41.8% on these opportunities. Moreover, he only passes the ball 19.9% of the time he gets the ball on a post-up, and is only fouled 7.2% of the time. The team is young, and it will help them going forward if Porzingis improves his post-up skills—it is always useful to have additional tools in the belt—but for now, he is hurting the team when he posts up.

Dallas has also struggled at the end of games: their offensive rating plummets to 98.3 in clutch situations. (For perspective, Golden State has the worst overall offensive rating in the league with 104.4.) Their struggles were evident in their first game of the restart against the Rockets, where they blew a double-digit fourth-quarter lead. Their offensive strategy does seem to change in late-game situations, so there probably is something to these numbers. This is a big deal, and will hurt them in the playoffs if it continues. But the team has a ton of talent, so they may be able to work through their late-game issues.

The biggest issue in Dallas is defense—in their defense, they have none. The Mavericks have only the 18th-best defense in the league, allowing 110.7 points per 100 possessions. This is not good enough to be a real contender.

The Mavericks’ have focused on acquiring offense-first players on the wings. While they do not play many total sieves on defense, they also do not really have any stoppers. Finney-Smith and Hardaway are good defenders, but they, like the rest of the Mavericks’ wings, struggle to defend big wings. Finney-Smith is 220 pounds. He is giving up 30 pounds to LeBron James. Here, James powers through Finney-Smith:

The Mavericks are very likely to stay in the seventh seed and play the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs. The tagline for that series is great: Kawhi Leonard and Paul George take on the best offense in NBA history. The Mavericks’ offense is dangerous enough to threaten the Clippers, but their defense will probably hold them back. Still, Doncic is only 21, and Porzingis is 25. The Mavericks will be back again.

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