Playing a different sport

Luka Doncic and the Mavericks' offense was historic most of the time and horrible when it mattered most. How is that possible, and is there a fix beyond "make more shots?"

Did I delay this piece a day so I could use a clip from the Mandalorian finale? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, this one fit perfectly.


You’ve probably seen that famous clip from Hoosiers. The one where the awestruck Hickory High players enter the Butler Fieldhouse for the first time to prepare for the Indiana state title game.

Half of you are beaming. Half of you are groaning. But all of you can picture Norman Dale taking out his tape measure to prove a point.

“Fifteen feet,” he says after one of his players measures from underneath the basket to the free-throw line. “Ten feet,” he confirms after two others reach up to the rim and let the measure slide to the floor. “I think you’ll find these exact same measurements as our gym back in Hickory.”

The subtext is so obvious that it may as well be actual text. The giant gym, the crowd, the freshly painted lines … those are irrelevant distractions. They’re still playing basketball, and it still has all the same rules they mastered on its magical run.

You, an enlightened person, know Dale’s message is overly romantic and practically useless. No matter what he says, playing in a massive gym in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans will always feel different. No human, not even a world-class athlete, has complete control over every subconscious bodily function triggered when the environment changes.

Still, it’s easy to picture Norman Dale, sans tape measure, delivering the same message to his team in the huddle. Close game? Only a few minutes left? Feeling the pressure because the stakes are so high? Relax. The basket’s still 10 feet in the air and 15 feet from the free-throw line. The rules don’t change. The clock still runs and stops at the same time. Unless the referees suddenly instituted the Elam Ending, we’re still playing the exact same sport as we did in the previous 43 or so minutes. Take a deep breath. Be yourselves. Play the way you usually play.

You know that no team follows that advice to the letter of the law. You’ve watched basketball. You’ve played basketball. You know points late in games are more valuable even though they’re technically worth the same as they were in the first quarter. You’ve seen generations of players and teams at all levels rapidly change their style of play to end games. You’ve consumed storytellers, myth-makers, and arbiters of truth who focus on the game’s final 10 percent and barely mention the first 90 percent.

Yet you’re also an enlightened person with (at least) a basic understanding of statistics. You know that clutch samples are small and thus prone to unexplainable swings. You know that the best way to win close games is to avoid them entirely. On some level, you know that Dale’s message is technically accurate. Crunch-time basketball is still basketball. Aren’t teams and players behaving irrationally when they play the game differently? Do they need their coach to trot out a tape measure to prove the basket is still 10 feet in the air?

It’s tough enough to reconcile these contradictory messages in the abstract. What do you do when you root, analyze, or work for a team that scores at will in first 90 percent of the game and suddenly can’t if the game is still close in the final 10 percent? How much weight do you put on that 10 percent? Do you try to fix it even if it messes up the larger sample? How do you even know your failure in the final 10 percent has anything to do with your success in the first 90 percent? How do you know it has anything to do with anything but uncontrollable fate?

If that paragraph resonates with you, congratulations! You’re a Dallas Mavericks fan! This dilemma is personal to you.

Led by Luka Doncic’s wizardry, Rick Carlisle’s sharp tactics, and the league’s cleanest floor spacing, the 2019-20 Mavs averaged nearly 116 points per 100 possessions during the regular season, the most in NBA history. They were also the only team in the league to score more than a point per possession in half-court situations last year, according to Ben Falk’s Cleaning the Glass. That high-octane offense powered a return to the playoffs after a three-year absence. It was unstoppable.

That is, unless the Mavericks were in a close game late in the fourth quarter.

In clutch situations — defined as a five-point game in either direction with less than five minutes to play— the Mavericks averaged just 99.2 points per 100 possessions. The gap between their normal scoring rate and their crunch-time scoring rate was the third-largest margin this decade. (Your top two: the 2016-17 Bucks and last year’s Pistons, oddly). They lost 20 games by six points or less, which amounts to nearly a third of their season. Their late-game issues tumbled them to the No. 7 seed in their conference — and a first-round matchup with the more-vulnerable-than-expected-but-still-juggernaut Clippers — despite owning the league’s sixth-best point differential.

It’s even weirder that this happened to the Mavericks of all teams. Doncic is a passing genius, and Carlisle’s teams have historically thrived in close games. You wouldn’t call them poorly coached or undisciplined — quite the opposite. Doncic is still a kid, but he starred in many big games games overseas before jumping to the NBA. Yet somehow they were the ones staring at the horizon when the game got tight, never their mind on where they were and what they were doing? It’s confusing.

That paragraph is all in past tense because it describes last year’s Mavericks. Will it describe current and future Mavericks teams as well, ones that’ll undoubtedly be built around the league’s best young star since LeBron James? Is there something endemic in the Mavericks’ offensive structure that transforms their greatest strength into a weakness, or were they just unlucky last year? Will they prove Norman Dale’s message naive and impractical, or reaffirm it as true, if overly cliche?

The answers are well within their control, but they won’t be easy to execute. In many ways, the elements that powered Dallas’ offensive success for the first 90 percent of games are the same ones that contributed to their downfall in crunch time.

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We don’t need the benefit of hindsight to know that Doncic should have been the No. 1 pick in 2018. Stupid then, even dumber now. The reason he slipped to No. 3, to the degree that any existed, was due to concerns about his athleticism. If he struggled to get by Euroleague players, could he really beat NBA guys off the dribble?

This criticism was always misguided. Basketball — especially nowadays with the floor so open — is a game of many quick movement patterns. NBA athleticism shouldn’t be measured by how high you jump or how fast you run. It’s about how well you shift from one speed and/or direction to another. How balanced you stay when doing so. How effective you are at using your core strength to pivot off your initial move. How coordinated you step to navigate the most direct path to wherever you want to go before the defense can cut you off. A great NBA athlete is more like a pedestrian weaving through a crowd than one who can leap over it.

When defined that way, Doncic is one of the league’s most athletic players, and those who failed to see that forgot the sport he played. Nobody in 2018 — hell, no draft prospect in years — was better at shifting from slow to fast to sorta slow to really fast to slightly less fast to suddenly surging forward or in reverse than Luka Doncic.

Still, those critics did have a kernel of a point. Those athletic skills we just referenced are deadliest when Doncic is already moving and less so when he’s standing. His Last Step once he got going was lethal, but his first step was less impressive — though it did improve last season. If a defender could get Doncic to pause before attacking, they had a chance to contain his initial surge before he could deploy the many tricks in his on-the-move bag.

Those who misevaluated Doncic were right in identifying his biggest weakness. Their mistake was really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really overstating its importance. As long as Doncic’s team gave him space and kept him ever so slightly on the move, they’d reap all the benefits of his herky-jerky game.

That’s exactly what the Mavericks’ system does, in both obvious and subtle ways. They spread the floor with shooters, especially when Kristaps Porzingis is playing center. One ball screen and one guy rolling to the rim presents more options than any defense can possibly cover.

They set the screens high up on the floor, knowing that Doncic can see over any trap and rifle any pass through that distance.

They align their shooters strategically, with weaker ones in the corner and stronger ones spaced well behind the line on the wing. The shorter distance of corner threes forces those defenders to play closer attention to the weaker shooters, while the deep range of the better shooters pulls their defenders far enough out to remove the first line of defense against a Doncic drive or a big man’s roll.

Standing well behind the three-point line on the wing also lengthens defenders’ closeout, giving that Mavericks player more space to drive forward or even elude to the side and still dribble into a shorter three. That’s also why Dallas’ bigs — Porzingis in particular — shift to a spot well behind the line when running pick and pop.

Those tactics, while effective, resemble the increasingly heliocentric approaches used by the Bucks, Rockets, and others. Stripped down to their essence, they amount to “give the ball to a great offensive player (Doncic, James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, even Doncic’s draft-class mate Trae Young), tell everyone else to space the floor for them, and watch as the stars do cool stuff.”

The difference is that the Mavericks also open the floor with purposeful moving. That includes perimeter cuts that take advantage of help defenders ball watching, opening up wing threes and driving opportunities.

That also includes backdoor cuts from the corner, which yield long offensive rebounds as often as layups. Dallas loves to loop its corner players out into the middle of the lane to secure the long caroms that inevitably come from deep threes. Only Houston grabbed more offensive boards off missed threes last season, and only the Rockets snagged more rebounds from 10 feet or more beyond the hoop.

Yet Dallas’ movement succeeds less because of how the players move and more because of when they do. Misdirection, long a staple of Carlisle’s Mavericks teams, is even deadlier when performed on the enlarged tapestry of a well-spaced floor. There’s more room for Dallas to deploy this fake dribble handoff as a diversion while Doncic drives past the screen.

Or a fake off-ball screen as Doncic drives.

There’s also more room to quickly swing from a fake pindown or pick-and-roll to the real one.

Or to initiate set plays like this one, which uses the distraction of another Doncic-centric pick-and-roll sequence to curl Tim Hardaway Jr. to the top of the key.

These “fake” actions distract help defenders that could muck up Doncic’s vision. They occasionally work so effectively that the other team ends up chasing ghosts instead of watching the ball. But they’re also beneficial when they cause the slightest bit of hesitation in a backside rotation. One mistimed half-step — hell, one mistimed half-lean in the wrong direction or slight raise out of a defensive stance — is enough for Doncic to find a lane to whip a pass to the open man.

Dallas’ half-court offense resembles a symphony orchestra when humming properly. To us, it looks like a single entity producing a beautiful tune that transcends each individual part. But it only appears that way because of the delicate balance, interplay, and, crucially, timing of all those players and movement patterns. Like all those musicians performing on stage, the Mavericks’ players need each other to keep a steady beat and properly play their part. When that happens, the end product is far harder to defend than any of them would be individually.

But what happens if they can’t or don’t keep the beat? The same thing that happens to a symphony orchestra when just one instrument is out of tune with the others. Suddenly, the beautiful music the band normally produces turns into garbled sound.

That’s exactly what happens to the Dallas Mavericks’ vaunted offense in crunch time. The steady, consistent movement that keeps the beat for most of the game slows to a crawl. That’s all it takes to turn the end product from a rhythmic flow into a garbled mess.

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If you’re enough of a degenerate to gamble on the outcome of Dallas Mavericks offensive possessions, here’s a tip: watch how much time is on the shot clock when one of the four guys already in the frontcourt make their first purposeful movement. Not the first pass. Not the first dribble. The first bit of movement off the ball, whether it’s a cut, screen, or both.

If it’s before 19 seconds, the Mavericks are likely to score. Somewhere between 19 and 21 seconds is the sweet spot. That’s roughly the right tempo to keep Doncic ever-so-slightly in motion while also syncing up the other four players’ movement patterns. It’s quick enough to create the initial small advantage that each part of Dallas’ system can then build on, but not too quick as to be chaotic.

Any slower than that, though, and the Mavericks have a problem. Doncic is no longer operating on the move, exposing his biggest pre-draft weakness. There’s less time to execute those decoy sequences that so delightfully confuse the defense. Each player finishes their part a bit slower, which leaves less time for the next guy to execute theirs. Someone eventually rushes or hesitates, which allows the defense enough time to recover and further short-circuit the Mavericks’ precious flow. Like a relay team that falls behind on the first leg, the Mavericks start each segment of the possession at a disadvantage.

When do most teams tend to walk the ball up the court and play a more risk-averse style? In crunch time of tight games. In "the clutch.” The Dallas Mavericks are no exception.

In fact, they’re the poster children of this tendency. On the whole, the Mavericks were a middle-of-the-pack paced team last season despite not generating a ton of grab-and-go transition opportunities off misses. They were 18th in possessions per game and played at a slightly faster rate when Doncic was on the court. Not too fast, but not too slow either. Nice and steady.

But that changed in the final five minutes of five-point games. In those situations, Dallas tumbled to 26th in pace factor and uused an average of 15.91 seconds of the shot clock with Doncic on the floor, more than all but one team (Cleveland). That’s a second more than they use on average.

One second may not sound like a lot, but it is to a team whose star player and entire system is most dangerous when it can capitalize on precise timing. One second is more than enough time for a defense to properly set up its pick-and-roll defense, which then causes Doncic to spend at least a second longer pulling the ball out while deciding how to attack the coverage. That’s two or so seconds of hesitation, which is often enough to bring Doncic’s initial momentum to a full stop and is always more than enough to slam the breaks on anyone else’s cut.

It’s also enough to throw off the delicate timing of the Mavericks’ more intricate play designs. That fake Doncic pick-and-roll into a Hardaway middle screen looks lovely with precise timing, but messy if Doncic is just a tiny bit too slow bringing the ball up.

Those delays cause more delays, and suddenly the pressure of a dwindling shot clock comes into play. Dallas shot 11 percent worse from downtown in clutch situations last year despite still generating a decent number of “good look” catch and shoot treys. In fact, they got a higher percentage of their shots from three or at the rim than they do under normal circumstances. Yet they shot far worse on those shots, or at least the threes.

Statistical randomness somewhat explains that discrepancy. It feels like Dallas was snakebit on wide open shots last year. This is a great look that just missed.

And this is not a terrible shot in a vacuum, even though it’s relatively contested.

But a Doncic-assisted corner three with five seconds on the shot clock in a close game is not the same as a Doncic-assisted corner three with 14 seconds on the shot clock in the second quarter. I suspect some Mavericks players let their mechanics slip ever so slightly because they felt the need to rush their shoot-pass-drive decisions. Luck alone doesn’t entirely explain Seth Curry’s 12-percent drop in three-point accuracy last year in clutch situations, nor does it entirely explain Doncic and Porzingis making a ghastly 14 and 18 percent, respectively, from downtown in close games down the stretch.

This is the double-edged sword of relying so heavily on a drive-and-kick style. By starting possessions too slowly, the Mavericks give themselves less time to patiently seek the best shot possible. Passing up a corner three, as Delon Wright does here, has more significant consequences when he has just seven seconds to then make a play instead of, say, 12 seconds.

That led to a shot-clock violation. More often, someone’s three-point percentage — usually Porzingis’ — pays the price.

And then there’s Doncic’s own (relative) isolation struggles, which already get magnified late in games because opponents tend to switch more pick-and-rolls to keep the ball in front. Wasting time at the beginning of the shot clock only further exposes him. Now, he too has less time to patiently chisel into his best shooting positions, which means more stepback threes and fewer drives to the basket.

Doncic has nobody to blame but himself. Even if his first step has improved, it’s still best deployed as a setup to his future steps. But the more time he wastes lollygagging into the frontcourt, the less time he gives himself to actually reach those future steps. It’s as if he’s a magician trying to perform his usual act without some of his supplies.

Unsurprisingly, Doncic is far more predictable in late-game situations. He settles for more long shots without even trying to break the defense down, as if stepback threes are worth six points at the end of games.

I wonder if his iconic playoff game-winner against the Clippers will embolden this bad habit. That moment was wonderful, but rare last season. Doncic made just seven of his 48 three-pointers in clutch situations last year and shot just 24 percent from downtown in fourth quarters. He’s not replacing those shots with more layups and drive-and-kicks because too many of them come without him even getting inside the three-point line. And if he doesn’t get into the lane, the drive-and-kick apparatus that powered Dallas’ historic normal-time offense suddenly collapses.

Doncic and the Mavericks thus unwittingly created a negative feedback loop in crunch time last year. He walked the ball up, which forced him into more stoppable standstill isolations that wasted even more shot clock time. Because he gave himself less time to shake his own man, he either failed to drive or got into the lane too late for Dallas’ other players to capitalize on his kickout passes as effectively as earlier in the game. Failed drives meant more late-clock stepback threes, which further convinced Doncic’s teammates that he was just gonna take that shot again. They started walking up the court, so Doncic did as well. Rinse, repeat.

Will this happens again in 2020-21 and beyond? It’s tough to say.

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On the one hand, Dallas only needs to hit a few more open shots to improve its clutch stats. These sample sizes are small and the law of averages is powerful. Realistically, they should put the ball in Doncic’s hands because that’s what every team with a player of his caliber does in high-leverage situations. Perhaps Doncic tired late in games after carrying such a heavy playmaking burden in the first three-and-a-half quarters. Perhaps he’s a bit out of shape. Perhaps he won’t be in the future.

But even if Doncic gains more stamina, it won’t be easy for the Mavericks to untangle the negatives of his ball domination in the clutch from the positives it brings for more than 90 percent of the game. Dallas’ system works precisely because its roster is fully optimized to exploit the openings Doncic provides.

That’s smart, but it has a trade-off. The list of alternate offensive initiators on the roster was short last year and is even shorter this season. On draft day, the Mavericks traded a rough facsimile of one in Curry to acquire Josh Richardson. That move shored up their perimeter defense — a more significant weakness last year — and Richardson has looked good in preseason, but Dallas will miss the threat of Curry’s shooting in late-game situations. They also won’t have Porzingis for at least the beginning of the season after he tore his meniscus in the playoffs.

Without a roster makeover, Doncic and the Mavericks may as well heed Norman Dale’s banal platitude. No, pro basketball doesn’t behave the same way in clutch situations as it does any other time. Context always matters.

Still, the basket’s still 10 feet in the air, 15 feet from the free-throw line, and somewhere between 22 and 24 feet from the three-point arc depending on when you stand. If your usual rhythmic pace works so well for 90 percent of the game, you may as well use it for the final 10 percent, too.