Film Study: Mavs' efficient offense still has room to improve
Spread-out gameplan is finding its way behind All-Star guard Luka Doncic
The 2019-20 Dallas Mavericks have had the most efficient offense in NBA history, having scored 115.8 point per 100 possessions. That would eclipse the previous high, 115, set by last season’s Golden State Warriors.
It would be hard to describe the Mavs as the best offense ever, because this has been the most efficient season in history league-wide. The Mavs have scored 5.8 more points per 100 possessions than the league average (109.9), making theirs just the 24th best offense (and just the fourth best Mavs offense) in the 24 seasons for which we have play-by-play data.
The Mavs have still scored 2.4 more points per 100 possessions than the second-ranked Houston Rockets, a differential matched by only four top-ranked offenses — those of the 2006-07 Phoenix Suns (3.2 points per 100 possessions better than the second-ranked Mavs), the ’09-10 Suns (3.0), the ’04-05 Suns (2.4) and the ’01-02 (Mavs) — of the last 24 years.
All four of those offenses were built around the pick-and-roll playmaking of Steve Nash. These Mavs, of course, are built around Luka Doncic. Last season, Doncic had the highest usage rate for a rookie in these past 24 years, using 29.6% of the Mavs’ possessions (via shots, turnovers or trips to the line) while he was on the floor. This season, he’s seen the third biggest jump in usage rate (to 35.8%, third in the league) among 266 players who have played at least 500 minutes both in ’18-19 and ’19-20.
The Mavs don’t run much. According to Second Spectrum tracking, the Mavs have taken only 11.8% of their shots, the league’s lowest rate, in the first six seconds of the shot clock. And while Doncic ranks 11th in the league at 12.5 points in the paint per game, the Mavs are a jump-shooting team. They’ve taken 57% of their shots, the league’s highest rate, from outside the paint.
That means the most efficient offense in NBA history relies heavily on half-court execution and shots from the perimeter. And on the perimeter is often where all five Mavs will begin their half-court possessions. They stretch out the defense, aiming to keep the middle of the floor open for Doncic or his screeners, depending on what the defense gives them.
It’s definitely a pick-your-poison situation for opposing defenses, because the Mavs’ pick-and-roll game is efficient in multiple ways. According to Synergy play-type tracking, the Mavs rank in the top two in pick-and-roll ball-handler efficiency, roll-man efficiency, and spot-up efficiency. Doncic is one of the league’s best playmakers and he’s complemented by both top-ranked roll men and potent shooters.
Doncic at the controls
According to Synergy, the Mavs have scored 1.00 points per possession on pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions, *the best ball-handler mark for any team in its 16 seasons of tracking play types. Doncic has accounted for 714 (47%) of Dallas’ 1,531 ball-handler possessions.
* Five of the six best marks for ball-handler efficiency have come in the last two seasons, with last season’s Warriors and Blazers being joined by this season’s Mavs, Celtics and Blazers, as well as the ’15-16 Warriors.
Play 1. Maxi Kleber sets an early and high screen for Doncic, who puts Bam Adebayo on his heels and finishes in control.
Number to know: Doncic ranks third in the league with 13.2 ball-handler possessions per game. The 1.04 points per possession he’s scored as a ball-handler rank fifth among 49 players who have averaged at least five ball-handler possessions per game.
Play 2. On a baseline out-of-bounds play, Doncic takes a hand-off from Dorian Finney-Smith and uses a screen from Boban Marjanovic. He keeps Royce O’Neale on his hip and sinks a floater over Rudy Gobert.
Play 3. Doncic flares to left side of the floor for another screen toward the middle, this one from Kleber. Derrick White goes under the screen and Doncic steps into a pull-up 3.
Play 4. Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis play a two-man game and Porzingis’ final screen gets a switch from LaMarcus Aldridge, who falls victim to a hesitation move.
Number to know: The Mavs have scored 117.0 points per 100 possessions with Doncic on the floor. That’s the highest on-court mark for offensive efficiency among 265 players who have averaged at least 15 minutes in 40 games or more.
Play 5. Zion Williamson switches an early screen from Kleber and Doncic goes to his step-back.
Number to know: 236 (48%) of Doncic’s 491 3-point attempts have been classified as step-backs. He’s shot 34.7% on those step-back 3s and 29.0% from 3-point range otherwise.
Play 6. This time, a “pistol” screen from Seth Curry gets Doncic switched into a smaller defender. He takes Frank Jackson into the post and to a short jump hook.
Number to know: Doncic has been assisted on just 18.8% of his baskets, down from 27.1% last season and the fourth lowest rate among 164 players with at least 200 total field goals.
Popping and rolling
Stopping Doncic on the pick-and-roll is priority No. 1 for opposing defenses. But the job is not done there, because Dallas ranks second in roll-man efficiency, with their roll men having scored 1.25 points per possession. (Roll-man possessions include pick-and-pop situations.)
But playing behind and alongside Powell, the Mavs still had Kleber and Porzingis, two bigs who not only finish well enough at the rim, but can also step out and shoot 3-pointers.
Play 1. In transition, Donovan Mitchell shades Doncic in the direction of Porzingis’ oncoming screen. So Doncic rejects the screen, draws the attention of Gobert, and quickly gets the ball back to Porzingis for a 3 from the top of the arc.
Number to know: Porzingis’ 3.0 roll-man possessions per game rank 16th and his 1.20 points per possession scored on roll-man possessions rank 15th among 45 players who have averaged at least two per game.
Play 2. The “empty side” pick-and-roll involving Doncic and Porzingis is one of the toughest to guard, because of the lack of help available on the back side. Here, Porzingis sets a screen for Doncic to attack the middle of the floor. Derrick Favors steps up and, with the right side of the floor otherwise empty, there’s nobody to tag Porzingis on the roll to the rim.
Number to know: The 7-foot-3 Porzingis has taken only 21% of his shots in the restricted area. That’s the same as his rate through his first three seasons in the league, but is the 51st lowest rate among 229 players with at least 300 total field goal attempts. It was only a tick higher after Powell was lost for the season (20.7%) than it was prior (20.4%).
Play 3. When Kleber rolls to the rim after handing off to Doncic, James Ennis is in position to tag the roll. But he fails to do so and Kleber finishes another alley-oop.
Number to know: Kleber’s 2.2 roll-man possessions per game rank 36th and his 1.40 points per possession scored on roll-man possessions rank fourth (just ahead of Powell’s 1.35) among 45 players who have averaged at least two per game.
Play 4. Rolls don’t just come from on-ball screens. With Doncic off the floor, Kleber and Porzingis line up to set a double-pin-down screen for Tim Hardaway Jr. out of the left corner. But Hardaway pivots after using the first screen and screens Kleber’s man (Williamson). Favors reacts and switches out to Kleber, allowing Porzingis to roll into the paint. Kleber gets him the ball for a short turnaround jumper over the recovering Williamson.
Number to know: Porzingis has been assisted on 79.6% of his field goals, the highest rate of his career.
Play 5. This is a fun first play of the game from the Mavs’ March 10 loss in San Antonio. Doncic takes a hand-off from Finney-Smith into a pick-and-roll with Porzingis as Hardaway sets a back-screen for Finney-Smith. But those actions are just setting up Porzingis’ cross-screen for Hardaway. With Bryn Forbes trailing Hardaway over the screen, Aldridge sinks into the paint, leaving Porzingis wide-open beyond the arc.
Number to know: Porzingis has attempted 7.5 catch-and-shoot jumpers per game, second most in the league. His effective field goal percentage of 51.3% on catch-and-shoot jumpers ranks 69th among 83 players who have attempted at least 200.
Spacing and shooting
Defending both the ball-handler and the roll man would be easier if they weren’t surrounded by guys who can knock down shots. The Mavs are one of two teams — New Orleans is the other — that rank in the top five in both catch-and-shoot attempts per game (29.1, third) and catch-and-shoot effective field goal percentage (56.4%, fourth).
Play 1. The right side isn’t empty when Porzingis sets an early screen for Doncic, which means that Bojan Bogdanovic is there to tag the roll. But when he does take a step toward Porzingis, Finney-Smith relocates for a catch-and-shoot 3 from the right wing.
Number to know: Finney-Smith has taken 92% of his shots, the fifth-highest rate among 229 players with at least 300 total field goal attempts, from the restricted area (34%) or 3-point range (58%).
Play 2. Bogdanovic switches the second half of a double-drag screen for Doncic, who resets and gets another screen from Finney-Smith, with Porzingis now acting as the off-ball spacer. Gobert stays in the paint to help on the roll and calls for Bogdanovic to switch out to Porzingis. That doesn’t happen and Gobert doesn’t recover back to his man in time.
Number to know: Doncic ranks third with 215 assists on 3-pointers.
Play 3. Doncic takes a hand-off from Porzingis with the right side empty again. As Hardaway is clearing out to the left corner, Brandon Ingram remains in the paint to help on the roll. Doncic looks him off and hits Hardaway for a corner 3.
Number to know: Hardaway’s 1.29 points per possession on spot-up possessions rank third among 99 players who have averaged at least three per game. He’s seen the fourth-biggest jump in effective field goal percentage (from 47.4% to 55.4%) among 200 players with at least 250 field goal attempts in each of the last two seasons.
Play 4. The Spurs switch a Doncic/Porzingis pick-and-roll and Doncic backs out to isolate against Rudy Gay. He doesn’t really gain an advantage, but Finney-Smith does when he attacks DeMar DeRozan’s close-out. That puts the Spurs in rotation and Doncic swings the ball to an open Curry in the left corner.
Number to know: Curry’s 1.36 points per possession on spot-up possessions rank first among 99 players who have averaged at least three per game.
Play 5. Another Finney-Smith drive collapses the Heat zone and Curry is open on the left wing.
Number to know: According to Synergy, the Mavs have seen 209 possessions of zone, eighth most in the league. The 1.09 points per possession they’ve scored against zone ranks fourth among the 22 teams who have played at least 100 possessions against zone.
To the second side
But the Mavs have other guys who are capable off the dribble, even though they’re down a guard with Jalen Brunson recovering from shoulder surgery. Even with Doncic off the floor, they can create advantages by quickly running a second pick-and-roll on the weak side.
Play 1. On a sideline out-of-bounds play, Curry runs a pick-and-roll with Porzingis from the left side and pitches to Doncic at the top right, with Finney-Smith ready to set another screen. O’Neale is able to stay in front, but Doncic backs him down into the paint, draws a foul, and scores.
Play 2. Kleber sets the initial screen for Curry, who pitches to Delon Wright for the second-side pick-and-pop with Porzingis. Nicolo Melli switches that one and Wright beats him off the dribble. Williamson helps off Kleber, who drains the corner 3 with Curry also wide-open on the wing (though Josh Hart isn’t guarding anybody).
Play 3. Here are the same guys in the same roles. The Jazz don’t switch the screen, but Gobert sinks off Kleber to tag Porzingis on the roll. Wright skips the ball to Kleber, who swings it to Curry when Mitchell rotates down.
Number to know: Curry ranks second in 3-point percentage at 45.3%.
Running the stack
There are times when the floor isn’t completely spread for the Doncic pick-and-roll. Most of the league runs a “stack” or “Spain” pick-and-roll, where a third player starts in the paint and sets a second screen (from the back) on the guy defending the initial screener. But the Mavs run it the most, and most often with Curry as the second screener.
Play 1. Kleber sets the initial screen, Gobert stays attached to his man and Jordan Clarkson stays attached to Curry, leaving a driving lane wide open for Doncic.
Play 2. A few possessions later, the Mavs run it again. This time, Mike Conley (guarding Curry) picks up Doncic and calls for Clarkson to switch out to Curry. But Doncic gets to his spin move and drains a short floater over Conley.
Number to know: Doncic is the league’s leading first-quarter scorer at 9.3 points per game.
Play 3. Later in the same period, Hardaway is the second screener, but doesn’t make contact with Tony Bradley, who picks up Doncic. The Jazz appear to be in good shape, but when O’Neale recovers to the ball, Kleber has an open path to the rim and Doncic hits him with a wraparound pass.
Number to know: Kleber has been assisted on 91.1% of his baskets, the fourth highest rate among 164 players with at least 200 total field goals.
Play 4. In the third quarter of the same game, Doncic goes back and forth before gaining an advantage with the high screen from Marjanovic. When Curry sets the back-screen on Gobert, Clarkson has to be the one who stops the ball. With O’Neale still trailing Doncic, Curry is open when he pops out to a 3.
Number to know: Curry has an effective field goal percentage of 72.1% on catch-and-shoot jumpers, the best mark among 83 players who have attempted at least 200. Hardaway has the 10th best mark (63.7%).
Play 5. Yogi Ferrell knows what’s coming and slides over to help on Doncic’s drive, but Curry slips out to the weak side early and Kent Bazemore (initially guarding Doncic) doesn’t have time to get there.
Dallas’ issues in the clutch
The Mavs rank just 17th on defense, having allowed 110.0 points per 100 possessions. But with such a huge difference between their offense and everybody else, their point differential per 100 (+5.8) ranks sixth in the league and third in the Western Conference, with a big gap between them and the fourth-ranked Rockets (+3.4).
So how are they in seventh place? Because they’re just 14-21 (worse than the Knicks) in games that have been within five points in the last five minutes. Amazingly, their offense has disappointed down the stretch of close games.
While they have the most efficient offense in NBA history, the Mavs rank 29th in clutch offense, having scored a paltry 93.9 points per 100 possessions with the score within five in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime. Hardaway (37.9%), Doncic (36.9%) and Porzingis (32.5%) account for 138 (62%) of the Mavs 223 clutch field goal attempts, and they rank 64th, 67th and 70th in clutch effective field goal percentage among the 71 players who have attempted at least 25 clutch shots.
In late-game situations, defenses are more likely to switch screens. Doing so closes some of the openings that the Mavs’ pick-and-roll game usually creates. A team that relies on jump shots will have a tougher time when those jump shots are more tightly guarded. Of course, the Mavs have scored more than 120 points per 100 possessions in both of their games against the Houston Rockets, who switch screens all the time.
The Mavs are the only team that has taken more than half of their clutch shots (51.6%) from 3-point range, and they rank last in clutch 3-point percentage (22.6%). Doncic has shot just 6-for-35 (17%) on clutch 3-pointers, the third worst mark among 40 players who have attempted at least 20.
Most of those 35 attempts (watch them all here) have been well-defended step-backs. Only three, including one of the six makes (where he was the second screener on a “stack” pick-and-roll and popped out to the right wing), have been directly off the catch. Doncic is 0-for-9 on shots to tie or take the lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime, with eight of those nine attempts having come from beyond the arc.
It would help if he could get to the basket more in those situations. But there’s also just some bad luck in the Mavs’ clutch numbers. While they rank 15th in overall free throw percentage (77.3%), they rank 28th in clutch free throw percentage (70.5%).
Their point differential says they’re a better team than their record would indicate. Maybe they’ll have better luck in clutch situations in Orlando, or maybe over-reliance on half-court execution is a bad thing when you haven’t played in four months.
There are a lot of things to keep a close eye on when games resume, not the least of which is the effects of the hiatus on the most efficient offense in NBA history.
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