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Film School: Examining Dallas Mavericks through the lens of Ryan Broekhoff
Like a contemporary pop song recorded to sound retro, this season’s iteration of the Dallas Mavericks embody both a celebration of modern-day play, and a nostalgic, in utero reimagining of previous Dallas hits. Having re-hauled their roster last All-Star break, the new-look Mavs will centre their offence once again around two foreign-born stars, spread pick and rolling their way into a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Dirk homage. The offensive blueprint is clear; run through Luka Dončić and Kristaps Porziņģis, and maintain a steady long-distance love affair from beyond the arc.
Nevertheless, the questions remains – who, outside of KP and Luka, can truly hurt teams from deep? Could Ryan Broekhoff be the answer?
It's only preseason, but…
Throughout their warmup games, the Mavericks have cleverly manipulated their accumulative front court height into spacing around the floor. By pairing Porziņģis with either Dwight Powell or Maxi Kleber, Dallas have focused on implementing an inverted and adaptable front line, often running Porziņģis as a 4 on offence, and a 5 on defence. It’s only preseason, sure (is there a Bilas-esque drinking game for every time someone offers that caveat?), but this schematic front court staggering offers the Mavericks an immediate complexity going forward. With Dallas stretching the floor, teams have to monitor Porziņģis' perimeter presence, send help down from the wing on either Powell or Kleber’s rim-running, and account for KP's shot-blocking on the other end of the court. A tall ask indeed.
Likewise, in matching a 7’4” John Wick villain (in Boban Marjanović) with a 7’3” Latvian ectomorph, the Mavs have watched on in glee anytime that KP has been guarded by undersized 4s. Shooting basically uncontested over the tops of his defenders’ heads, teams have subsequently had to stunt or double, creating further fissures around the arc (video).
Manipulating the threat of an elite shooting big is nothing new for the Mavs. However, the duality of Porziņģis as both an outside marksman and a lob threat offers Dallas a unique twist on their relatively flightless Nowitzki formula. When teams worry about KP’s (and Kleber’s) interchangeable ability to both pop and catch lobs, acres of space open up around the court – especially in and around the foul line and mid-post. Reminiscent of Dallas’ lone championship run, this Gen Z Mavericks team will be at their most dangerous running complex variations of high double drag-screens.
Employing a 6’7” playmaking polymath is mighty useful as well, and Dallas will trust Dončić’s vision and passing out of the post and/or pick and roll. Luka’s ability to read defences has already generated a generous plenitude of outside opportunities for his new teammates, and if teams decide to switch his pick and roll with Porziņģis, they will be forced to pick their matchup poison. Dončić’s tremendous height at the point guard position comes into play here as well – he can either back down smaller guards or toast switching bigs. Using the post as a playmaking port, the Mavs will capitalise on meshing traditional height with contemporary skill.
Having said that, outside of KP, Luka (and the newly attained Seth Curry), Dallas lacks pure shooters. Kleber is underrated from deep (35.5% last season), though there were still justifiable reasons as to why Dallas made a run at acquiring Danny Green this past summer. Dallas were 27th in the league last season in three point percentage (34%), and if they start Delon Wright at shooting guard, teams will happily help off Wright’s man in order to contain a roll or switch. Similarly, if Dallas instead starts Kleber – expect this to happen sooner rather than later – their secondary unit’s spacing and defensive versatility will suffer.
The Mavs, and their two young stars, will create ample opportunities from deep. But where in their roster can they find a shooter ready to meet the demand?
In an industry where owners covet elite outside shooting more than Bitcoin, the only Maverick to shoot better than 38% from distance last season was Ryan Broekhoff. Following Dallas’ blockbuster acquisition of Porziņģis, the Australian averaged 15.3 minutes a game and posted strong shooting numbers across the board (45.2% FG, 40.9% 3PT, 78.9% FT). The Frankston-born swingman even showed out against a fellow Melburnian, posting 15 points (in 22 minutes) against Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers.
However, the Mavs were also tanking the second half of last season (in an attempt to keep their lottery pick from the Trae Young/ Dončić trade), and to simply point to Broekhoff’s numbers after the All-Star break is to miss the point: the Mavs were playing to lose. More than that, we can’t simply extrapolate Broekhoff’s impressive numbers (60.5 eFG% on catch and shoot attempts – 36th in the league) across 48 minutes and expect a linear and corresponding uptick in performance. Broekhoff showed how damaging he can be as a spot up shooter, curling off screens and especially in transition, though how real these numbers were is yet to be seen against top quality competition.
Last season, the Mavericks were 20th in pace and 27th in transition points per game (per Basketball Reference). You can then assess Broekhoff’s transition prowess in two corresponding ways: either this is an area in which he can desperately help the Mavs, or this is a shot that the Dallas will continue to scarcely hunt and take. Part of the reason Dallas didn’t run last season was personnel (cut to Dirk’s plodding ascent up the court), and the Mavs might shift gears with their younger core. Nevertheless, with a reliance on the bread and butter routine of Luka and KP’s two man game, Carlisle may continue to neglect fast break opportunities, instead viewing these transition threes as a veganist ‘could be healthy, but we’ll cope without’ diet of shot selection. After all, the Mavericks do play in Texas.
Furthermore, for as much as Dallas has prioritised spacing, they have also placed an emphasis on defensive versatility. The team, who will presumably start Delon Wright (6’5”) at the 2 and Justin Jackson (6’8”) at the 3, can begin games huge and mobile. Jackson, having trimmed most of his long twos and improved his three-point shooting since his time in Sacramento (30.8% up to 35.5%), will likely offer enough length and intelligence defensively to cement his place in the rotation. Alternatively, after a career year last season, Dorian Finney-Smith will split bench duties at the wing, and his ability to guard forwards will see him shifted up to the 4 in small-ball bench rotations. With Luka’s size at the point, the Mavs will likewise hope to toggle 1-5, running out a squad that is both “stretchable and switchable” at all times (video).
If Broekhoff is to steal any meaningful minutes, he will then either have to be absolutely elite from deep, or prove to Rick Carlisle that he can do a little more than just shoot. Tim Hardaway Jr will be used selectively as a tunnel-visioned sharpshooter off the pine – called upon to pop off quicker than overheated microwave popcorn – though he similarly lacks the defensive flexibility that both Jackson and Finney-Smith offer. If Hardaway’s efficiency and/or defensive intensity dips, there’s a chance that Broekhoff could be implemented as a similarly typecast sparkplug.
Carlisle, however, has a strange affinity for a three-guard lineup, and he may elect to simply move Dončić or Wright up to the 3, rather than taking a flyer on Broekhoff. Shifting up either Wright or Dončić also allows Carlisle to parcel minutes out to the smaller Jalen Brunson (6’3”), utilising Brunson’s playmaking and off-ball shooting whilst concurrently hiding him defensively. While Dallas has height out on the perimeter, many of their combo wings lack strength, and sliding Kleber down to the 3 may also prove anodyne to the Mavs’ misery when the physical likes of LeBron/ Zion/ Kawhi come to town. Dallas ran Kleber against Kawhi last Friday, and while it was only a preseason game (drink), the young German more than held his own.
Broekhoff will still be kept for break-in-case-of-emergency moments, and injuries and shooting inconsistencies could propel him up the depth chart. The uphill climb for playing time is looking steep, though Dallas have also guaranteed his contract ($1.5 million) for the entire season. Shooting will be always be a premium in the NBA, and the Mavericks have an elite marksman on a bargain deal. It makes sense, on paper, to keep Broekhoff around.
Gen Z Mavs
The other, more abstract issue for Broekhoff is that his age doesn’t fit the Mavericks’ current trajectory. This is the Gen Z Mavs, not the championship-or-bust Mavs. The team will look to work through the bumps and grinds of its younger players, rather than investing in a potentially hamstrung player-type who will turn 30 just after the season ends. According to Nate Duncan, Courtney Lee is almost certainly out of the rotation for similar reasons. Through five preseason games, Broekhoff has likewise logged only 31 minutes (he sat out against the Clippers with a mild ankle sprain) – an indicator that he’ll be hidden deeper into the bench than those crumbs you once tried hiding under your mother’s couch cushions. This season, the Mavs will be desperate to make the playoffs, and as much as Broekhoff fits a theoretical need for Dallas, we might see the Mavericks engaged in trade talks that will bring a more physical 3 and D player on board.
Having moved on from 4/5ths of their starting line-up from last season, it’s tough to accurately project how this current Dallas team will gel against real NBA competition. The health of Porziņģis and Dončić will probably be the only thing that matters.
Nonetheless, if the Mavericks’ brass really are harking back to their glory days, they may indeed have to give Broekhoff some burn. I mean, seriously, if they’re going to run pick and roll after pick roll with two light-skinned dudes, then where else are they going to find a foreign-born sharpshooter to fit the corresponding Peja Stojaković mould?