The Dallas Mavericks are in the development phase of their life cycle, waving goodbye to a franchise icon while ushering in the next generation of (hopeful) stars. The future of the organization now rests on the development of Luka Doncic and Dennis Smith Jr. As much as we dissect the pre-NBA film on every prospect to scout their natural abilities, the trajectory of a player’s career is equally dependent on the ‘Nurture’ part of the equation. Landing in the right situation is vital to any prospect’s chances of realizing their potential.
Though Doncic and Smith Jr. differ by 4 inches, 23 lbs and 4,680 miles1, their on-court roles will be very similar: create offense out of the pick-and-roll. When it comes to that primary skill, Dallas should serve as a Pick-and-Roll Academy of sorts—a perfect testing ground equipped with a few key training aids to fast-track their development.
Dirk Nowitzki’s Shooting
Dirk Nowitzki wobbles around like an NBA Life Alert commercial, but his shot remains as pure as ever (40.9% on 4.4 3PA per game last season). Even if all he does is shoot2, the threat of German efficiency still induces paralysis in opposing defenses—a gravitational pull that makes life so much easier for his pick-and-pop partners.
Nowitzki’s defender is usually more concerned with recovering to Dirk than disrupting or corralling the ballhandler. Whether the 40-year-old is directly involved in a pick-and-pop or merely spacing the floor, his presence is a godsend for his teammates.
The NBA game is fast-paced and complex; offensive creators must digest all the moving pieces and react accordingly. Nowitzki simplifies the decision-making process because defenders tend not to stray far from him. If the ballhandler is patient and poised, Nowitzki’s defender is frequently taken out of the play. If the defense errs by helping too far off Nowitzki, Doncic/Smith Jr. will be left with a simple read: pass to the greatest shooting big man in the history of the game.
DeAndre Jordan’s Vertical Spacing
Dallas was one of the few teams with cap space this summer, and they spent basically all of it on DeAndre Jordan (1 year, $22.9M). Through the lens of asset optimization, this probably wasn’t the best allocation of their resources3, but Jordan should help the Mavs in the long term with his impact on Smith Jr. and Doncic. Like Nowitzki, Jordan will simplify pick-and-roll reads for the young playmaking duo.
At its core, the pick-and-roll is about prying the ballhandler free from his on-ball defender; only a handful of players are better at accomplishing that than Jordan. He ended last season as a top-10 screen assister thanks to a high basketball IQ and the size/strength to set bone-crushing screens that dislodged defenders.
As a result of his immovable screens, the big-man defender has to help on the ballhandler, freeing up Jordan for his aerial assaults on the basket. Though his athleticism has waned, he’s still one of the better lob-finishers in the league, and the attention he draws on those rumbles to the rim will make pick-and-roll decisions more obvious for Smith Jr. and Doncic.
Because Jordan is so strong in the air, help defenders must rotate early to have any chance of preventing an alley-oop dunk. If they’re late tagging the rolling Jordan, it’s an easy lob; if they’re too early, a skip pass to an open shooter becomes a simple read.
More Vertical Spacing: Dwight Powell
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Dwight Powell. He is hardly a household name, but he replicates a lot of Jordan’s offensive value, albeit with more speed/agility and less overpowering physicality. Powell led the league in roll-man efficiency last season (min. 50 possessions), a credit to his immense improvement and freakshow athleticism.
Between Powell and Jordan, the Mavs will be able to put out 48 minutes of incredible dives to the rim with two players who can catch (and finish) anything thrown within 5 feet of the hoop.
Rick Carlisle’s Affection for Pick-and-Roll & Dual-PG Lineups
The Sacramento Kings were reportedly anxious about the prospect of pairing Doncic with De’Aaron Fox because of the old “there’s only one ball” dilemma. The Mavs—facing a similar decision after spending their most recent lottery pick on a point guard with shooting concerns—jumped at the chance to grab a second playmaker. Head coach Rick Carlisle’s fondness for pick-and-roll play and multiple ballhandlers likely weighed heavily in their thought process.
Since Carlisle took over the Mavs gig in 2008, no team has run more of its offense through pick-and-rolls than Dallas, and few have been more efficient4 (data via Synergy Sports).
Carlisle has put his ballhandlers in advantageous situations for a long time now. From his first season in Dallas, Carlisle has demonstrated a proclivity for putting multiple playmakers on the floor together, even if it means sacrificing backcourt size and defense. Jason Terry’s role pre- and post-Carlisle is an example of (and perhaps impetus for) this philosophy.
Under Carlisle’s predecessor (Avery Johnson), Terry was frequently deployed as a 1 alongside a true 2 of limited playmaking ability (e.g. Jerry Stackhouse, Eddie Jones or Trenton Hassell). In Carlisle’s first season, Terry rarely played without a traditional point guard alongside him (e.g. Jason Kidd or J.J. Barea). Having two skilled ballhandlers on the floor reduces the creation burden on either one individually, freeing them up to more easily toggle between scoring and playmaking. Dennis Smith Jr. benefitted from this dynamic last year, playing two-thirds of his possessions alongside another point guard (e.g. J.J. Barea, Yogi Ferrell, Devin Harris).
Doncic adds the playmaking ability without sacrificing size, meaning Carlisle can cram even more ballhandlers on the floor at once. In a preseason interview with Eddie Sefko of SportsDay, Carlisle outlined the way he wants his team to flow offensively: “We have a lot of guys who can make plays on the perimeter. We really want to create a situation where any of those guys on a given possession can become a driver and kicker or a spacer, have real balance there.”
Carlisle’s philosophy is exemplified by one of his pet actions: his Iverson series (h/t to Randy Sherman of FastModel Sports).
It starts with a simple Iverson cut, but all the progressions and counters of this series seamlessly weave together the myriad strengths of the Mavericks’ pick-and-roll offense. Furthermore, this package of plays highlights the compounding effect of having multiple ballhandlers on the floor—bend too far towards one playmaker and you risk being burned by the other one.
For Doncic and Smith Jr. to hit their ceilings, both players will need to address their weaknesses. It is just as important, however, that they refine their strengths. Thanks to their coach, teammates and offensive system, the playmaking duo is in a perfect situation to blossom as pick-and-roll dynamos. Perhaps the most important component of the Dallas Pick-and-Roll Academy will be Doncic and Smith Jr. themselves. If the two youngsters can strike the right balance and play off one another, they’ll both benefit and the Mavs will realize Carlisle’s vision of a dynamic offense with a relentless, multi-pronged attack.
1) The distance between their hometowns, Fayetteville, NC and Ljubljana, Slovenia.^
2) Of Nowitzki’s 208 possessions as a pick-and-roll screener, only seven (3%) ended in him attacking the basket.^
3) The market was unforgiving for players—especially big men—and cap space remains a valuable commodity this season (the Sacramento Kings are the lone team with major cap room which has allowed them to get involved in the Jimmy Butler trade talks and could potentially net them an asset for taking on unwanted salary).^
4) Granted, the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat are the only other teams to have the same coach for the entire time period (2008/09 – 2017/18). As such, there is noise in this data, but the point remains that Carlisle has been very reliant on (and successful with) the pick-and-roll during his time as the Mavs coach.^