The Dallas Mavericks used the taxpayer mid-level exception to sign JaVale McGee to a three-year, $17.2 million contract in free agency. He was promised a starting role, but he was moved to the bench after seven starts. He's been a negative on the court with some concerns about the trajectory of the signing.
"I don't really have an understanding of when my minutes will come, but I'm a professional," McGee said. "Whatever my team feels we need to do to win, I'm a part of it. If they don't feel I should start, I will cheer from the bench. If they feel I should start or however many minutes they feel I should play, I will play my hardest and do what I can to come away with a win."
The Mavs intended to address their need for rim protection while adding a lob threat in pick-and-rolls. So far, McGee hasn't made an impact on defense when protecting the paint and with how opposing defense prioritize minimizing traditional pick-and-roll opportunities for Doncic, there just hasn't been a sufficient impact in the intended ways. He's averaging a career-low 10.1 minutes per game as a result.
Last season, opposing players shot 159-307 (51.8 percent) on shot attempts within six-feet of the rim when McGee was the nearest defender — a mark that was 10.9 percent lower than what those players regularly shot on those attempts. In the playoffs, opponents shot 52.2 percent against McGee on these attempts and executed 11.0 percent lower than their regular mark.
So far, opponents are converting at a 60.0 percent clip on shots within six-feet this season, which is just 0.7 percent lower than what opponents regularly shoot on these attempts. The level of impact hasn't been the same early on. That's concerning for a player that was largely signed for rim protection pursposes.
When discussing how teammate Christian Wood is adjusting to the responsibilities in the Mavs' defense, McGee explained that he's still getting used to being asked to play at the level of the screen in pick-and-roll coverage as opposed to being in a deep drop as he was often doing with the Suns.
"He's definitely been adjusting to it. He's adjusting well. With him more, it's just communication, being able to tell everybody where they need to be being the backline, being the five and not the four. I really like the lineup when I'm in with him. I feel a lot more comfortable with a scoring four on the floor with me and I feel like our minutes together have been amazing this year.
"But, for me, it was definitely the difference between last year and how dominant I was on defense compared to this year is the being up aspect. I'm just not used to being up all the time. I'm getting used to it though. It's Game 15. My minutes haven't been enough to get my rhythm and figure it out. But it's all good."
McGee went more into detail about what the Mavs have asked of him defensively. He further explained that he's being asked to play up in ball screen coverage in a "Channel 1" or being parallel with the screener.
"Coaches have just been telling me they want me in a Channel 1, which is — I don't know if you guys know what is, but that's just being parallel with the big on screen and rolls — touching the big also," McGee explained. "That's just different for me. I'm an adjustor, I'm a winner, I work hard, and every team I go to, we tend to win a lot of games and have a lot of camaraderie. I don't know if that's me, or what it is, but I plan on bringing that energy this year also."
Against the Nuggets, McGee was a positive defensively because he did play often in a drop in ball screen coverage. The opposition lacked much for shot creation threats given they were shorthanded, but even threats like Bones Hyland missed on their looks. That's the gamble with drop coverage: make the opposition beat you hitting pull-ups, then adjust if they are dropping.
McGee has never been a defender that thrives playing out in space let alone even attempting to do it much. Regardless of adjusting to a scheme, his lack of lateral quickness makes him an underwhelming option to handle switching assignments. If those are the responsibilities the Mavs desire in a center, they should look elsewhere. In fact, it made him difficult for the Suns to play against Dallas in the Western Conference Semifinals last season.
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When reviewing McGee's clips from earlier in the season, it was abundantly clear that there was no issue of scheme. There was an individual inability for him to handle general responsibilities as a defender in space. Whether it was Jonas Valanciunas or Wendell Carter Jr., he was unable to handle them out on an island.
Whether it was a role player like Jose Alverado or star like Ja Morant, McGee was picked apart as a big defender in pick-and-roll coverage. The other issue: he wasn't playing up in these clips. He's in a drop, and even then, he isn't able to be up to the task. That's not scheme adjustment. That's up to the individual to just get the job done.
There are other situations that need to be handled better, too. Whether it's a guard, wing, or center who gets the ball after spacing out, McGee has to make a more concerted effort to close out and make a meaningful contest on the jump shot. He's shown throughout his career not to do so, and did so in the playoffs against the Mavs. He's done so early this season as well.
Even against the Nuggets, Jeff Green was deployed in a pick-and-pop and McGee did a poor job of getting out on him. The shot ended up being a miss, but more decisive communication and decision-making needs to occur from McGee and the rest of the unit. If the opposition is using a shooter as a screener, there will be real limitations.
If the Mavs want a big body that can show a presence in drop coverage against bench talents that tend to struggle on pull-up jump shots, there's value to be had. It's just not going to be an answer against starting talent that can take advantage of getting clean looks against the drop on pull-up jumpers.
Again, McGee's underachievement early this season goes beyond schemes. There has been situations when he's failed to execute while fulfilling regular responsibilities that don't require defending out in space along with failing to execute when doing so. He's also often shown a lack of urgency in getting up the court in change of possession situations. It just simply hasn't been good and has to get cleaned up.
McGee should be utilized doing what he has been doing for many years: coming off the bench and providing serviceable minutes, depending on matchup.