“Terrible,” Doncic said of Dallas’s effort following a blowout loss to the Utah Jazz. “There’s really not much to say. I’ve never felt like this. We’ve got to do something. This is not looking good. We’ve got to step up, talk to each other and play way better than this. It’s mostly effort. Right now, it’s looking like we don’t care, honestly, if we win games or not. [We need] more energy, more effort, dive for every ball, box out, everything. There’s a lot of things we can improve. I know we will.”
Indeed, five doctors could diagnose the Mavericks with five different ailments, and they would all be correct. Dallas has endured numerous coronavirus protocol-related absences, dealt with a tough, road-heavy schedule and seen its vaunted offense fall off a cliff. Meanwhile, Doncic hasn’t quite lived up to sky-high expectations and his sidekick, Kristaps Porzingis, has struggled badly since returning from October knee surgery. While the Mavericks are hardly in crisis given Doncic’s youth and supreme talent, they will be forced to ponder some existential questions if they can’t reverse their negative momentum.
Most of what ails the Mavericks can be traced back to their lagging offense and shooting woes. Last year, Doncic led the NBA’s top-ranked attack, emerging as a do-it-all playmaker who seemed capable of carrying a franchise with his scoring and passing like LeBron James, James Harden and Nikola Jokic. This year, the story has been more complicated: Doncic is averaging 27.3 points, 9 rebounds and 9.4 assists per game, but the Mavericks rank 21st in offensive efficiency. No team has fallen off further from last season offensively than Dallas.
Outside shooting has been a major bugaboo. In 2020, the Mavericks ranked second in three-point attempts and 10th in efficiency. This year, they rank 14th in attempts and 30th in efficiency. Some regression was expected after outpacing expectations last season, but no one could have predicted that they would rank dead last in three-point percentage after more than 20 games. Dallas has missed sharpshooter Seth Curry, who was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers for Josh Richardson, and both Doncic and Porzingis are firing at career-low rates from outside.
The perimeter issues are interconnected. Without Curry, Doncic has been forced to carry a massive shot-making and playmaking burden, prompting him to settle more often for low-percentage attempts and causing ugly dry spells when he is off the court. Porzingis flashed deep shooting range in the bubble, and his presence as a floor-stretching center opened wide driving lanes for Doncic and the Mavericks’ other guards. With Porzingis shooting just 30.2 percent on threes in his first 10 games, the spacing has dried up.
Dallas’s lack of continuity matters too. Just as the Jazz have raced out of the gate with hot outside shooting and steady play night to night, the Mavericks have sputtered due to revolving door lineups that have yet to generate much rhythm. Four starters — Richardson, Porzingis, Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber — have each missed at least nine games already this season. It’s safe to assume that the Mavericks’ three-point shooting, offensive efficiency and record will all improve as that quartet collectively logs more time alongside Doncic.
“When things are difficult, it becomes even harder to bust out,” Carlisle said Monday. “We’ve just got to stay together and keep grinding. We’re doing too many good things to not push towards progress. We’re making progress with chemistry. We’re going to be positive. There’s a long, long way to go. We’ve got to stay upbeat and support each other.”
Ultimately, Porzingis looms as the franchise’s biggest variable. When the 7-foot-3 Latvian center arrived to the NBA in 2015, he was hailed as “The Unicorn” for his combination of shooting and shot-blocking. By the time he received an all-star nod in his third season, Porzingis seemed like he might develop into an all-around scorer who could punish defenses from the post, with midrange turnarounds, and from well beyond the arc.
As time has passed and Porzingis’s injury issues have mounted, the reality of his game hasn’t lived up to the mythical expectations or the five-year, $158 million max contract that he signed in 2019. His lack of lower body strength has limited his effectiveness around the basket, he’s shown little progress as a passer and his scoring game has trended toward jump shooting rather than attacking off the dribble or regularly finishing plays above the rim. Defensively, he has appeared limited from a mobility standpoint since his mid-January return. Unless he can start hitting outside shots to keep defenses honest, he’s not bringing much to the table.
“We don’t have our roles clear,” Porzingis said last week. “We’re just kind of out there playing. We’re a talented group but until we have everybody playing together and having some time together off the court, I think we won’t really have that chemistry. I think we have to start realizing who we are and realizing our roles individually.”
Dallas’s long-term path to a title is heavily reliant upon Porzingis returning to top form and remaining healthy, something he has struggled to do while missing an average of 23 games over the past three seasons. Without Porzingis as a consistent second option, playoff defenses can load up on Doncic and dare the Mavericks’ lesser role players to beat them.
For now, a Porzingis renaissance is the Mavericks’ best hope: He is unlikely to return a star-caliber player in a trade given his contract and health history, and they are short on quality trade chips after parting with two first-round picks to land Porzingis in a 2019 trade with the New York Knicks. Worst of all, Dallas owes New York its 2021 first-rounder, which could land in the lottery barring a reversal of fortune this season.
The depths of these ongoing struggles shouldn’t cloud the rosy longer-term view. Dallas can count on Doncic for another decade’s worth of prime-level play, and he has proved that he doesn’t need that much help to lead an exciting team to the playoffs. Doncic’s wide smile defined the Mavericks’ joyride to the 2020 playoffs, and his exuberant celebration after hitting a deep buzzer-beater during a first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers last August was the organization’s best moment in years.
This season has been a drag for the Mavericks, and it has taken a toll on Doncic’s mood, body language and decorum with the referees. Yet it’s far from over, as Dallas is only four games out of the fifth seed in the West’s crowded standings. Despite the rocky start and looming questions, Doncic must remember that franchises follow their franchise players, and he must understand that grumpiness will never be part of the solution.