Analyzing the Streaky Dallas Mavericks and the NBA’s Offensive Downturn

Each Thursday of the NBA season, we’re analyzing a grab bag of topics from around the league. This week, we’re taking the temperature of the hot-and-cold Dallas Mavericks, highlighting Anthony Edwards’s ridiculous volume, and trying to understand what’s causing NBA offenses to slow down. This is the Kram Session.

Under Review: Can the Dallas Mavericks Find Stability?

The Mavs might be the streakiest team in the NBA. Just look at their performance since early February. They won seven games in a row, during which time they traded for Daniel Gafford and P.J. Washington to upgrade their frontcourt rotation—a combination of trend and transaction that had some analysts wondering whether they were a Finals candidate.

Yet they responded to that speculation with a stumble, going 1-5 in a stretch against Eastern Conference opponents in which they allowed at least 120 points in every game. Then they swerved again, with a four-game winning streak entering Thursday’s national TV game against the Thunder.

The Mavericks should be better than this. Luka Doncic (who might have injured his hamstring on Wednesday) is an MVP candidate, en route to a scoring title, and the team has traded almost all its future first-round picks to surround him with talent. Moreover, the Mavericks need to be better than this, after missing the play-in—not just the playoffs, but the play-in—rounds last season. But after beating the Steph Curry–less Warriors on Wednesday, they sit in eighth place in the West, half a game back of sixth and an automatic playoff berth.

Yet Dallas can’t help but tantalize. When the Mavericks are clicking, they look fantastic, with a sixth-ranked offense that can bury opponents in a hurry.

The addition of Gafford in particular means the Mavericks can fill all 48 minutes with a high-motor, bouncy big man on the court; both Gafford—who has now made 33 shots in a row over his past five games—and rookie Dereck Lively II are happy to fill their offensive possessions with picks, dunks, and little else. In a blowout win in Chicago on Monday, the two centers combined for 42 points on 20-for-21 shooting: 22 from Lively and 20 from Gafford. (The only miss came from Lively, who immediately grabbed his own offensive rebound and scored a putback layup.)

“I have never seen that before, where you have two centers dominate like that,” coach Jason Kidd said after the game.

Gafford and Lively give Dallas an athleticism advantage over most opponents, which manifests not only in half-court pick-and-rolls but in transition as well. “I like to turn the game into a track meet,” Lively said. “Because I can’t outmuscle anybody, y’all know that. So I can definitely get around people, I can outrun them, and I’ve got to be able to use my stamina and energy to try to get up and down as many times as I can.”

Dallas’s rookie center sprinted out for a few easy dunks on Monday, but his eagerness to run also benefits the rest of the roster. When Lively or Gafford fills the lane early in the shot clock, it forces defenses to collapse into the paint, leaving their teammates open for 3s.

Dallas ranks sixth in the NBA in fast-break points, after ranking 29th and 28th in the last two seasons. The 2023-24 team is scoring an extra five to six points per game on the break compared to its prior output. Dallas is also ninth in pace, after ranking 28th and 30th in the last two seasons.

This roster has better stylistic balance than in previous seasons with Luka at the helm. “Luka plays slow, but everyone else plays fast,” Lively summarized.

The slower half-court action remains, of course, the offense’s bread and butter, as Luka is perhaps the league’s preeminent pick-and-roll maestro. Doncic scores 12.2 points per game as a pick-and-roll ball handler, per Synergy, the highest mark in the league, and ranks in the 92nd percentile in efficiency on the play type.

After their standout showing in Chicago, reporters asked both Lively and Gafford how they might defend a Doncic pick-and-roll. “I try to stop it in practice, but I can’t, so I can’t give you an answer on that one,” Lively said.

Gafford added, with a laugh, “Just pray. That’s pretty much how it was every time I played against him.”

The problem is that sometimes, the Mavericks might as well be praying on defense, too. When it looks bad in Dallas, it looks terrible.

The Mavericks rank 21st in defensive rating over the full season—the only team with a winning record behind them is the Pacers—and a putrid 28th since the All-Star break. Some of that recent downturn is the result of flukish opponent shooting, but the Mavericks are still moving in the wrong direction.

This isn’t a new problem, either: The Mavericks have had a top-15 defense just once in six seasons with Doncic on the roster, and not coincidentally, that was the year they reached the conference finals.

Doncic isn’t as disastrous a defender as some other lead guards—his size inoculates him against the very worst outcomes—but his engagement comes and goes on that end. And Kyrie Irving is a below-average defender as well, meaning Dallas’s defense is built on a shaky foundation. Gafford and Lively can both block shots, but neither is the sort of anchor or deterrent at the rim who can compensate for lousy perimeter play. The Mavericks allow the most points per possession when playing drop coverage.

Sixty-plus games into the season, the Mavericks are still trying to work out the optimal lineup combinations next to their stars. Kidd recently shuffled his starting five, and he’s talked since the trade deadline about his roster’s newfound depth, as Dallas has a legitimate 10-man rotation now:

  • Guards: Doncic, Irving, Dante Exum
  • Forwards: Washington, Derrick Jones Jr., Josh Green, Maxi Kleber, Tim Hardaway Jr.
  • Centers: Gafford, Lively

In a vacuum, depth is valuable; it means a team can better adjust to injuries and mix and match based on opponent weaknesses. But depth becomes less important in the playoffs. And when it comes to the players behind Doncic and Irving specifically, Dallas has a quality, not quantity, issue.

Luka and Kyrie are the only Mavericks who place in The Ringer’s Top 100 NBA Player Rankings. The Kings are the only other Western Conference playoff contender with so few top-100 players. (It’s not just us; the DARKO projection system doesn’t count any Mavericks beyond Luka and Kyrie as top-100 players either.)

Top-100 Players on Western Conference Playoff Contenders

Team Number of Players
Team Number of Players
Timberwolves 6
Nuggets 5
Clippers 4
Lakers 4
Pelicans 4
Warriors 4
Suns 3
Thunder 3
Kings 2
Mavericks 2

Based on The Ringer’s top 100 player rankings

So while Dallas is flush with decent players, it lacks great ones relative to the best teams in the conference. Coaches like Mike Malone in Denver and Tyronn Lue in Los Angeles know how their rotations should look, while Kidd is still trying to figure out his.

The Mavericks are talented enough to upset anyone in a playoff series. (It’s worth a reminder that Doncic is one of the greatest statistical playoff performers ever, at 33 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists per game.) But three upsets in a row, which is what they’d need to reach the Finals, with this defense and supporting cast? They just aren’t consistent enough to make such a run seem realistic.

Zacht of the Week: 28.5 Field Goal Attempts per Game

On our Top 100 NBA Player Rankings list, which we updated this week, Anthony Edwards sits at 17th overall, in the middle of a large cluster of guards. Right ahead of Edwards are Tyrese Haliburton, Donovan Mitchell, and Jalen Brunson; right behind him are Jamal Murray and De’Aaron Fox.

Ringer staffers met to finalize the updated order on the same day that we learned Karl-Anthony Towns had torn his meniscus, and I noted that by next month’s update, Edwards will have either vaulted to the top of that guard tier or fallen to its bottom. The next few weeks without KAT will say a lot about Edwards—not about his potential as a two-way star, which is immense, but rather his present ability to lead a title contender, which is the mark of a top-10 player.

Edwards’s first week without KAT offered a microcosm of both his ceiling and floor as a no. 1 option without much scoring behind him. In the first game, he exploded for 44 points and a game-winning block at (above?) the rim while producing one of the greatest individual highlight reels of the season. In the next two games, both losses, Edwards scored a combined 44 points on 50 shots. And in the fourth game, he scored 37 while leading the Timberwolves to a crucial win over the Clippers.

Amid that inconsistency, one common theme was Edwards’s volume. He attempted 114 total field goals over those four games; until this most recent stretch, Edwards had never exceeded 100 shots in any four-game span of his career.

On average, that total comes out to 28.5 shots per game. For context, no player has averaged even 25 attempts per game over a full season since Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson did so in 2005-06; no player has reached 28 per game since Pete Maravich in 1976-77.

Without Towns to share the load, Edwards has upped his usage rate while also playing more: He’s averaged 39.3 minutes per game over this stretch (versus 34.9 per game before) because coach Chris Finch simply can’t afford to leave his only remaining scorer on the bench for long. Minnesota’s offensive rating is a ghastly 106.7 with both Edwards and Towns off the floor this season, per Cleaning the Glass.

Edwards has had his ups and downs with this burden, but it’s important not to overanalyze shooting splits in such a small sample. For instance, Edwards certainly won’t keep making just 23 percent of his 3-pointers, as he has in the past four games—though the traffic he’s facing on drives to the rim may well remain.

Opposing defenses feel free to steer their coverage toward Edwards, because—like Finch—they know he’s Minnesota’s only real option now. Here is every player who appeared for the Wolves before garbage time on Tuesday, ordered by usage rate; remember that the league average is 20 percent:

Timberwolves Current Rotation by Usage Rate

Player Usage
Player Usage
Anthony Edwards 32.5%
Naz Reid 22.2%
Jaden McDaniels 15.5%
Rudy Gobert 15.3%
Mike Conley 15.1%
T.J. Warren 15.1%
Nickeil Alexander-Walker 14.3%
Kyle Anderson 14.3%
Jordan McLaughlin 13.5%

Naz Reid is Edwards’s only teammate who comes close to an average usage rate because Minnesota is so accustomed to playing through Edwards and Towns. The next few weeks will reveal whether the Edwards-alone offense, and Edwards’s hefty volume within it, is remotely sustainable, as the Timberwolves both push for the West’s no. 1 seed and potentially enter the playoffs without their 7-foot shooter.

Take That for Data: What Explains the NBA’s Offensive Downturn? It’s Not Just Fouls.

The big question of the week, as postulated by Bill Simmons, Tom Haberstroh, and others, is simple: Where have all the points gone? Through Tuesday’s games, teams are collectively scoring four fewer points per game after the All-Star break than they were before it, down from 115 to 111. After a spate of 60- and 70-point efforts, no individual player has scored more than 46 in a game in the past month. Earlier this week, the Knicks and 76ers played the first game in eight years in which neither team cracked 80 points.

So what’s going on? The immediate answer also seems simple: Referees are calling fewer fouls, even if the NBA contends it gave no instructions to start calling the game differently. As Sravan Pannala showed on Twitter, fouls of all types have fallen in recent weeks—offensive and defensive, shooting and non-shooting. (Pannala also noted that the downturn in both scoring and free throws began at the end of January, a couple of weeks before the All-Star break, but we’ll use that latter point as an easy dividing line.)

Let’s dive into the numbers. Since the All-Star break, referees have called 1.65 fewer fouls per 100 possessions, according to an analysis of PBP Stats data. Not all of those fouls lead to free throws, but that comes out to about 2.5 fewer free throw attempts, or 2.1 fewer points, per 100 possessions.

So if fewer foul calls account for 2.1 of the 4.0 “missing” points, where does the remaining 1.9-point gap come from?

Shot distribution has remained basically the same since the break. Shot accuracy is mostly the same, too, albeit with a slight drop-off in finishing from floater range (perhaps because of fewer foul calls in that area). Star absences might play a role; led by those Joel Embiid–less 76ers and injury-ravaged Knicks, the 10 teams that have lost the most offense since the break have generally suffered from injuries to stars:

Greatest Offensive Declines Since All-Star Break

Team ORtg Decline
Team ORtg Decline
76ers -11.7
Knicks -8.0
Warriors -6.7
Hornets -6.6
Cavaliers -5.5
Clippers -5.3
Suns -4.9
Grizzlies -4.9
Nets -4.8
Timberwolves -4.8

But a less discussed and larger reason for further scoring decline is a shocking downturn in pace. Since the All-Star break, teams are averaging 98.05 possessions per 48 minutes, according to an analysis of NBA Advanced Stats data. If that holds, it would be the slowest second-half pace since 2016-17, which is roughly when the pace-and-space era began.

In the first half, for comparison, the leaguewide pace was 99.71 possessions per 48 minutes, which is in line with recent seasons. The drop-off of 1.66 possessions per game is more than three times larger than any other pre-to-post-break drop in the past decade.

On the surface, this massive drop-off seems strange. If anything, pace typically rises in the first three weeks after the All-Star break, likely because players are refreshed by the time off.

But the broader context of the past few weeks provides reasonable hypotheses for why games have slowed down so drastically. Fewer whistles should mean longer possessions, and they would allow teams to play better defense, which would also extend possessions. Fewer foul calls could further mean less rest during stoppages for players, which would limit their energy to fly up and down the floor so many plays in a row.

The current math checks out, too: 1.66 fewer possessions multiplied by 1.15 points per possession (the average leaguewide offensive efficiency) comes out to 1.9 fewer points per game—the entirety of the remaining scoring gap referenced above.

In summary: Teams have lost four points per game since the All-Star break, and fewer free throws and a slower pace account for all of it. This dynamic shows the ripple effects of fewer whistles and more defensive physicality: Officiating, fouls, defense, pace, and scoring are all intertwined.

It’s useful to step back and think about what these changes mean for spectators’ experiences watching an NBA game. These aren’t massive upheavals. After all, the 114.2 leaguewide offensive rating since the All-Star break, per CtG, would still be the second highest in NBA history over a full season (behind only last season’s mark). And the difference in pre- and post-break foul calls is only 1.65 fewer fouls per 100 possessions. Spread out across an entire game, that’s not a major difference—that’s less than one “missing” foul per quarter.

But if those 1.65 fouls are the ones that generate the most outrage, and the most slowed-down, zoomed-in Zapruder footage online, then maybe the league has arrived at a healthy medium. Teams are still scoring a lot, but they might have to work just a little bit harder to generate all those points.

Fast Breaks

1. Should the Kings be taken more seriously?

The Kings aren’t as good as they were last season, when they took the West by surprise en route to 48 wins and a third-place finish. The defense is still lacking, the league-leading offense has dropped to eighth in efficiency, and the team ranks just ninth in the West in point differential (albeit tied for sixth in record).

Yet there’s a funny thing about this Kings team: They’ve held serve against every possible playoff opponent this season, with the exception of the Clippers and New Orleans, the latter of which is also in the bottom half of the playoff field and thus incredibly unlikely to face Sacramento in the play-in or the first round.

Kings Record Vs. Contenders

Opponent Kings Record
Opponent Kings Record
Lakers 4-0
Mavericks 2-0
Nuggets 3-1
Thunder 2-1
Timberwolves 2-1
Warriors 2-2
Suns 2-2
Clippers 1-2
Pelicans 0-4
Total 18-13
Non-Pelicans Total 18-9

After completing a season sweep of the Lakers on Wednesday, the Kings are now 18-9 against non-Pelicans contenders in the West, including a winning record over each of the conference’s top three teams. Will that regular-season performance mean anything in the playoffs? Probably not—it’s not like anyone would expect the Kings to beat the Nuggets just because they won the regular-season series against the defending champs. (Jamal Murray missed two of Sacramento’s wins, but Nikola Jokic played in all four games between the teams.)

But for months now, the Kings have profiled as one of the West’s weakest postseason squads. Maybe it’s not quite that simple.

2. The NBA’s most interesting tank-related subplot is in Toronto.

The NBA’s longest losing streak doesn’t belong to the Wizards (who recently won two in a row!) or the Pistons (three of four!). It’s the Raptors’ burden to bear, as Toronto’s dropped five consecutive games, including one in Detroit on Wednesday.

Despite strong point guard play from Immanuel Quickley, Toronto is now 1-6 since Scottie Barnes’s hand injury (counting the game he left early)—which sets the scene for the most extreme tanking scenario of the season’s final month.

Toronto owes a top-six-protected pick to the Spurs, from last season’s ill-timed Jakob Poeltl trade. The Raptors leave Wednesday’s loss just half a game better than Memphis for the no. 6 spot in the lottery order. Portland, at fifth, is 3.5 games worse than Toronto, and thus all but uncatchable, so the Raptors’ odds of keeping their pick boil down to:

Catch Memphis for the no. 6 lottery spot: 46 percent chance to keep pick
Don’t catch Memphis, stay in the no. 7 spot: 32 percent chance to keep pick

On the one hand, a 14 percentage point difference isn’t all that much—thanks to the flattened lottery odds, there’s a good chance that one of the lower-seeded lottery teams will jump into the top four, thereby pushing the team in the no. 6 spot down to seventh or worse. On the other hand, we’ve seen teams tank entire seasons for a 14 percent chance at something valuable (the no. 1 pick), so why would Toronto not take advantage of Barnes’s absence to try to boost its odds of keeping a mid-lottery selection?

3. Jamahl Mosley is working his Magic in Orlando.

The Magic announced an extension with Jamahl Mosley this week, which will keep the head coach in Orlando through the 2027-28 season. It’s a well-deserved deal: Despite working with the NBA’s fourth-youngest roster and almost no point guard to speak of, Mosley has the Magic in position to nab a top-five seed in the East.

When I saw the extension news, I thought back to something Mosley told me at a press conference in November, when he downplayed the team’s persistent shooting woes. “The one thing that we’ve talked about is: What is our superpower, and what are we capable of doing?” he said. “And that’s our ability to get to the rim, our ability to get to the free throw line, and defense.”

From the beginning of the season to near its end, those superpowers remain super. The Magic rank first by a mile in their percentage of shots at the rim, according to CtG. (The distance between first place and second place is the same as the distance between second place and 17th place.) They rank first in free throw rate. And they rank fourth in defensive efficiency despite the roster’s inexperience.

Mosley gets the most out of his players, and he has the right temperament and teaching style to connect with his young team. Perhaps next season, after a summer in which they have lots of cap space, the Magic will see how Mosley can integrate an actual scoring guard into the fold.

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