One of the biggest revelations of the Dallas Mavericks' 2021-2022 season has been their much-improved defensive effort. Dallas has gone from being a bottom-10 defensive team to a top-five defensive team in the blink of an eye despite not having a true anchor on that end of the floor. That last part could change, depending on what happens between now and the NBA trade deadline, but for now, the team is finding a way to pull together each an every night.
What has been the biggest difference? Well, given that the majority of the Mavs' roster hasn't changed in almost three years now, a lot of the credit has to be given to head coach Jason Kidd and his coaching staff, not only for changing Dallas' defensive strategy, but also for holding players to a higher standard and motivating them to keep up the energy.
“I think we’re playing great," said Doncic when the Mavs went undefeated in the preseason back in October. "Especially on the defensive end, we’ve been way better. I think that’s the key for us, to be a defensive team.”
Doncic knew what he was talking about. It took some time this season for it to all start coming together, but for the most part, the Mavs have found a way to maximize every player's defensive abilities.
At the time, Kidd mentioned that having Doncic and others actually talking to each other about their defensive responsibilities was something the Mavs really needed. Kidd came in determined to make defensive the foundation of this year's team so it would have something to fall back on when shots aren't falling. And even if the Dallas defense has an off night, the idea is to just try as hard as possible at all times.
“There’s 82 games,” said Kidd. “Our defense is not always going to be No. 1. So, how can we win those games when we’re not playing our best defense? That’s a sign of a really good team.”
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The Mavs' defense might not always be the best, as Kidd mentioned, but so far, Dallas owns the league's fourth-best defensive rating 46 games into the season. Although a lot can happen in 36 games, the pride Dallas has shown on defense gives reason to believe that it has staying power.
In Rick Carlisle's final season in Dallas, the Mavs had the No. 21 defensive rating in the league. In an attempt to stop the bleeding and hopefully raise the level of competition, Carlisle and former Mavs assistant coach Jamahl Mosley implemented a 'Defensive Player of the Game' WWE-style belt. Although it made for some entertaining social media content when the Mavs won a game, it was still merely a small bandaid being slapped onto the big crack in that particular team's foundation.
"We made it a priority to not applaud ourselves for playing defense (this season)," said Jalen Brunson after a tough loss to the league-leading Phoenix Suns on Thursday night. "(Defense is) something we should (always) do."
Strategy has something to do with the transformation, as the Mavs are now getting up into their opponents more instead of sagging off of them. The 2011 title team, which Kidd quarterbacked for, had the same kind of defensive attention to detail as this year's Mavs team does, although that team had a clear anchor in Tyson Chandler.
The biggest change, though, has been the mindset. Instead of thinking of playing defense as being a rare occurrence, it's now the main focal point for Kidd and these Mavs. As the saying goes, defense wins championships, and Kidd has some firsthand proof of that to get his players to buy in.
The Dallas Mavericks no longer need a participation trophy to motivate them to play defense. It's a collective sense of pride now, and greatness is expected, not merely hoped for. Let's see how far they can carry this newfound identity going forward.