DALLAS — It’s easy to explain away the Dallas Mavericks’ recent struggles with injuries as an excuse. But that doesn’t tell the full story.
And it wouldn’t explain what happened Wednesday night, where a nearly fully healthy Mavericks team couldn’t stop Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks, who registered eight double-digit scorers in a 130-122 win over the Mavericks in American Airlines Center.
As a team, Dallas allowed Atlanta to shoot 57 percent from the field and 50 percent from three, making any chance at winning feel far-fetched. Luka Doncic walked into another 30-point performance, but it didn’t matter. Nor should it be celebrated. It wasn’t the offense that has let Dallas down since Maxi Kleber went down with a hamstring injury. It’s been the defense.
“It’s not, you know, just the offensive end, and tonight, again we gave up 130,” Mavericks head coach Jason Kidd said. “It’s a shootaround. You know in this case, in this league you do that no matter if you have Luka, or Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar], or Lebron [James], you’re going to lose.
“It doesn’t matter how many points you score, you’re always going to be short. And so until we put a better effort into playing defense and understanding what we have to do, then we’re going to score 120, but we’re going to give up 130, and 140.”
Harsh words from Kidd. But after last season, where he helped transform a rather non-defending Mavericks team into one of the league’s leaders on that end, it’s fair. He hasn’t received the same response as he once did in his calls to defend at a better rate. And the lack of effort on that end of the floor is evident.
In the last five games, a stretch where Dallas has gone 1-4, it ranks 28th in defensive rating (126.0). The only teams worse than that are the Charlotte Hornets and the Houston Rockets — both teams that are thinking more about Victor Wembanyama than they are about the NBA Playoffs.
And when looking at the complete month of January, the outlook for Dallas’ defense doesn’t get better, it gets worse. Since the calendar turned to 2023, the Mavericks sit second to last in the NBA in defensive rating (122.6) and hold a 3-6 record. The only team worse is the Houston Rockets.
The lapse in team defensive effort is almost unexplainable. At least to Doncic, it appears that way.
“I wish I knew,” Doncic said when asked about the defensive struggles. “If I knew we wouldn’t struggle.”
Josh Green, Dallas’ athletic wing who missed time due to an elbow injury returned to action on Wednesday and offered his perspective on the defensive issues. To him, it comes down to communication.
“I think a lot of it is communication,” Green said. “We’re trying to communicate. We know the potential we have on the defensive end, so it’s just a matter of doing it – locking in and doing it – because when we play defense at a high level it’s very hard to score against us and very hard to beat us.
“I think that’s our main thing right now going into tomorrow, going forward, is defense. It starts with everybody. I need to be more vocal, and so does everybody else. Just have to work on it.”
Communication may help, but Dallas’ defensive issues appear to be a deeper-seeded roster and personnel issue. Without Kleber anchoring the middle, and the failed experiment that is JaVale McGee, Dallas doesn’t have the players it would take to be a great defensive team.
Yes, Christian Wood has shown improvements on the defensive end of the floor — blocking shots and committing to providing effort — but he is not a defensive captain.
Dorian Finney-Smith is a good wing defender, but he isn’t going to lock down opposing stars. Doncic has enough on his plate offensively.
Spencer Dinwiddie isn’t a known defensive stopper. Reggie Bullock offers effort, but his defense isn’t something to write home about.
And with no real rim protector, once great offensive guards breakdown Dallas’ first line of defense, they often have a highway to the rim.
Dallas’ defensive struggles come down to personnel, not merely communication. Until that changes, the best Dallas can be in an average defense. And that, still, may not be enough.
“We’re good on offense,” Doncic said. “We just have to make sure we put in the same effort on defense.”
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