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High-powered Mavericks look to emphasize defense

As good as Luka Doncic and the Mavs are on offense, coach Rick Carlisle doesn't think they can seriously contend without defensive improvement.

Michael C. Wright

Michael C. Wright

The Mavs believe they’ve added toughness and defensive prowess to the high-powered offense led by Luka Doncic.

The eyes widened, and immediately Rick Carlisle shot back only one word to answer whether the Dallas Mavericks utilized this offseason to acquire protection against opponents looking to rough up star guard Luka Doncic.

“Yeah,” he said.

Long pause.

Of course, the young, ascending Dallas Mavericks maneuvered more meaningfully than just that in trading away Seth Curry on draft night for former Philadelphia guard Josh Richardson (and the 36th pick they used to draft Tyler Bey) while adding forward James Johnson (an undefeated mixed martial arts fighter) in a three-team trade that sent Justin Jackson to Oklahoma City and Delon Wright to Detroit.

In ensuring protection for their franchise player, the Mavericks believe they’ve boosted their collective toughness with long, athletic players expected to shore up last year’s struggling defense, which failed to properly complement the most efficient offense in the play-by-play era and, most likely, NBA history.

“When you establish that you’re a galactically successful offensive team, but below average defensively, that’s not gonna win you a championship,” Carlisle explained Tuesday on a Zoom call ahead of Friday’s start to training camp. “I don’t believe there’s ever been a team that’s won a title in the NBA that hasn’t been a good defensive team.

“It’s great to be the very best at something as we were last year. We were the best offensive team in the history of the game on a points-per-possession basis. That is a substantial accomplishment. But we’ve got to raise the level of our defense. We feel that with some of the changes we’ve made, and also with the way we’re gonna approach things, we’re just going to put a greater emphasis on the defensive end of the floor.”

Behind Doncic’s wizardry, the 2019-20 Mavericks broke Golden State’s 2018-19 record for offensive efficiency (115.9 points/100 possession) but ranked in the bottom half of the league in points allowed (112.1), defensive rating (111.2), points allowed in the paint (48.8) and points allowed in transition (16.4).

Toss in the lessons learned from watching the Los Angeles Lakers’ postseason run after their own 4-2 series loss to the L.A. Clippers in the opening round, and it’s easy to see how the Mavericks arrived at their current state.

“You watched the Lakers as they went through their playoff run,” Carlisle said. “They lost Game 1 to Portland, and then they just put the clamps down defensively the next four games. Defensively, they were dominant. Same thing happened in their next series against Houston. Houston won Game 1, and they just tightened the screws. They won those series with defense.

“Ultimately, they won the title with defense and a lot of their offense came off of their defense. They’re a great transition team. And with LeBron and [Anthony] Davis, they were a great execution team. To aspire and realistically have a chance to be a better defensive team, you’ve got to get better defensive players. I think we’ve added some really good elements there through the draft, through trades. We’re looking forward to getting this thing going.”

So is Doncic, after taking inventory of Dallas’ offseason moves.

“It’s gonna make a difference for sure,” Doncic said. “We got some great pickups. The players we traded for, they’re amazing players, amazing defenders and I think they’re gonna help us in a lot of ways.”

Some of the holdovers should play a role, too, with second-leading scorer Kristaps Porzingis expected to sit until at least January, according to Carlisle, as he recovers from October surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee. Center Dwight Powell returns after suffering a torn right Achilles tendon last January along with guard Jalen Brunson, who missed the remainder of 2019-20 following surgery in March to correct a torn right labrum.

“As a young, developing team that’s gone through one stage of development of getting out of the lottery and into the playoffs, but experiencing a loss in the playoffs, we’ve got to look at this as a situation where our collective toughness will increase anyway, regardless of who’s on the team,” Carlisle said. “So, you can never have enough toughness on an NBA team, particularly in the Western Conference.

“We’ve got to be very competitive. We’ve got to be tough-minded, unselfish. I don’t know what the exact pace of our game is going to be. We’ve got to be able to win games by getting stops as well as by scoring. So, that’s the basic gist. The identity of this team is largely gonna be a reflection of Luka because the best player always is a big part of the identity of the team.

“Luka in the playoffs last year showed that he can sit down and defend people, too. We’ve had him guard all different kinds of positions. He’s guarded point guards, he’s guarded 4 men, at times he’s guarded centers. He could do that. So, I want us to be an edgier team defensively. I think we’ve added pieces that will help us do that.”

Richardson sounded ready to relish his new role alongside Doncic. Richardson, 27, has been a starter for the majority of his career, helping his teams advance to the postseason in three of his five years in the NBA.

A guard for the Miami Heat at the time, Richardson first encountered Doncic when the star guard was a 16-year-old, training in Santa Barbara, California, and the youngster made an immediate impression after just a few pickup games.

“The first time we played, I came back to Miami and I told some of my best friends,” Richardson said. “I was like, ‘Yo, I just met this kid. He’s gonna be the first pick in the draft.’ I still think he should’ve been. But he’s lived up to my expectations so far and more. We’ve just been cool since. I’m excited to play next to him because he’s one of the best playmakers in the NBA.

“He has a really high gravity on the court. So, he’s gonna need guys to help take pressure off of him. I think I can take some of the defensive pressure off of him. The other team’s best guard, I’ll usually be picking up. So, he can just get in where he fits in on defense and handle what he has to on offense.”

But will Richardson also serve as a protector for Doncic against teams looking to knock around the rising third-year guard?

“I don’t know. A guy like me, I don’t really take well to my brothers being messed with,” Richardson said. “But I’m not an instigator of situations. So, I’m not gonna be out there just trying to get in people’s faces and do a lot of extra stuff. But I have no problem doing what needs to be done if people aren’t being treated right. And I feel like there’s a few other guys on this team that feel the same way about that.”

As for Doncic, he’s spent the bulk of this offseason working to improve as a shooter after leading the NBA in triple-doubles (17) last season, while averaging 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists.

“Every year, I want to be better,” Doncic said. “That’s the goal for me. Like I always say: ‘I want to win the championship.’ That’s the goal we entered last year [with]. That’s the goal we’re gonna enter this year [with] as a whole group.”

***

Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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