The Dallas Mavericks finished with a 52-30 record during the 2022-23 season despite getting off to a 16-18 start. Getting off to a faster start would have maximized their outlook to finish higher than fourth in the standings.
“That’s what we’re working for," Mavs forward Dorian Finney-Smith said. "We’re not trying to start the year off 16-17. We know it’s going to be harder. Obviously, it’s always hard when you have a good year and have to start all the way over. But I feel like we’re ready.”
A lot has changed since the Mavs' early 2021-22 season team took the floor. During last year's training camp, integrating Kristaps Porzingis in a way that he felt was more emblematic of playing "his game" was a priority. They were starting two bigs. Jalen Brunson was even still coming off the bench. Doncic was didn't enter the season in great shae
While many of the tactical choices and some roster makeup has drastically shifted, it's important to take into account just how poorly the Mavs were defending (108.9 DRTG during first 34 games — 15th) and shooting (35.0% 3P during first 34 games — 19th) during their slow start.
The Mavs made the adjustment midseason to start a secondary creator in Brunson next to Luka Doncic and went small with Bullock and Finney-Smith on the wings. The formula proved to be highly successful, even with Dwight Powell, who isn't considered even an average starting center, at the five.
After their 16-18 start, the Mavs closed out the remainder of their 2021-22 campaign going 36-12 in their final 48 games. Only the Suns had a higher winning percentage during that stretch. Dallas finished with a 52-30 overall record and earned the fourth seed in the Western Conference.
“I still feel like people in the league think it’s a fluke,” Finney-Smith said. “A lot of guys were hurt (around the league) and they’re going to be back this year. I still feel like they look (negatively) at us and we still got a point to prove.”
The Mavs' spacing applied significant pressure on defenses to account for Doncic in ball screens and handoffs. Their perimeter jump shots were dropping at a higher clip (36.7% 3P over last 48 games — 8th best) and the defensive execution was vastly improved (109.2 DRTG over last 48 games — 4th best).
Doncic found his rhythm after recording from an ankle injury and spending time in the NBA's health & safety protocol in December. He played an MVP level averaging 29.8 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 8.9 assists — earning him his third consecutive All-NBA First-Team nomination.
The Mavs' formula for success carried into the playoffs. They leaned even heavier into "Luka ball" by deploying Maxi Kleber as a small ball five and embracing the defensive versatility that comes with their small ball lineups. However, they had Brunson and Dinwiddie to attack throughout games, both alongside and without Doncic — making the most of the great floor spacing.
“I think the biggest thing is picking up where we left off,” Mavs coach Jason Kidd said. “And that’s just communicating, talking to one another both on and off the floor, and then having fun with that, and I thought today was a good start.
“Guys got a little tired. Sometimes your voice kind of disappears when you get tired. We talked about that – picking each other up. If you see someone tired, try to help them through it. I thought the guys did a great job today.”
The Western Conference will only become more competitive in during the NB with a variety of teams gaining key players back from injury and making some big moves. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will be back in the LA Clippers' lineup. Zion Williamson is healthy. The Denver Nuggets will have Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. back into the fold. And Rudy Gobert is on the Minnesota Timberwolves
“I think this year is even harder in the West, but you learn,” Doncic said. “You see how Golden State played throughout the playoffs.
“They played as a team, they played amazing, they played amazing defense, and you’ve got to look up to them and see how they played and learn from it.”
It's never easy for an NBA team to make it back to a Conference Finals immediately. After losing an important guard like Brunson, it certainly isn't going to be made easier for the Mavs. However, will be diligent to build on what they've established. Getting off to a strong start to maximize seeding helps.
Keep in mind, a common remark from the Mavs' players and their head coach on media day was a respect for how tied together the Warriors played after establishing such significant continuity. It takes time to master execution in such a high stakes environment when a third opponent is solving for your every weakness.
You can follow Grant Afseth on Twitter at @GrantAfseth.
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