Mavericks’ Luka Dončić-led offense was always efficient. Now, it’s explosive too

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Since their entrance into the NBA in 1980, the Dallas Mavericks have never been boring.

In the ’80s, the franchise immediately became relevant in part due to a trade so lopsided that a rule was named and created for it. The next decade, despite miserable on-court results, had pop star drama and a coach named Dick Motta known for breaking the sport’s norms. (He once brought a tiger into the team’s locker room at halftime in an attempt to “scare the apathy” out of his players.) Dirk Nowitzki and Mark Cuban soon arrived. Dennis Rodman made an appearance. And now it’s the Luka Dončić era.

But Dallas has been the league’s slowest team for about two decades, finishing 15 of the past 18 seasons with a pace beneath the league’s average. And slow can make for an inherently boring on-court style. Nowitzki, far spryer in his youth than you remember, aged into a half-court maestro who constantly turned Dallas into plodding-tempo, turnover-resistant scoring machines. It’s fitting for many reasons that Dončić succeeded Nowitzki, but one is that Dončić has those same sensibilities about methodically ruthless half-court basketball.

Until, at least, this season.

Since the 2019-20 season, the Dončić-led Dallas offense has finished every season with a bottom-12 pace — typically last or close to it — and a top-five half-court offense. He abides by the dialogue from the “Dune: Part Two” trailer, where Paul Atreides tells Gurney Halleck, “All my visions lead to horrors.” “Because you lose control?” Halleck asks. Atreides answers, “Because I gain it.” What Dončić does to defenses with the ball in his hands can only be described, at least in the opponent’s telling, as horrors. Why would he play faster and risk the team’s turnover rate, which also has been within the league’s top 10 in each of those seasons, when he’s able to dissect defenses just fine without fast breaks?

On Sunday, in a 136-124 win over the New Orleans Pelicans, the Dallas Mavericks achieved something they hadn’t since 2019: They scored 30 or more transition points with six or fewer turnovers. The statistic, first noted by team announcer Mark Followill, is more telling than contrived more-than-X-less-than-Y queries tend to be. Dallas hadn’t even scored 30 fast-break points, turnovers aside, since 2020. Now, amid a 9-3 start, the Mavericks are finally playing faster without losing the tempo or the security that Dončić craves.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

How Mavericks have subtly made their Luka Dončić-centric offense even deadlier

When training camp began, coach Jason Kidd enunciated from the start that one of the team’s goals would be a faster tempo. “How that looks number wise, we’ll see,” he said in October. “It’ll always be nice to be in the top 15; that means we’re playing faster than we’ve ever had.” Right now, they’re fifth.

Kidd pointed out that the team had players who could “get out and run,” something that has been absent in the Mavericks’ past rosters. The rotation is now filled with players who can either outsprint opponents down the floor (Derrick Jones Jr., Dereck Lively II) or dribble past them (Jaden Hardy, Dante Exum) while the team’s two lead guards (Dončić, Kyrie Irving) orchestrate.

After playing just nine games with more than 100 offensive possessions last season, Dallas already has nine this season. The team hasn’t eschewed its half-court offense — far from it, since it’s second-best in the leaguebut it has dramatically picked up its tempo to monopolize on the sport’s most efficient scoring opportunity: An opponent not yet set up to defend. The fast-break points have come in every manner: one-man fast-break layups, long kick-ahead passes, quick actions that start at half court and a green light to shoot good shots right away.

The results have been this. (All stats as of Nov. 16)

The 2023-24 Mavs' offense

Off RtgPaceTO%3PT > 18

2nd

5th

3rd

5th

The last number shown, 3-pointers attempted while the shot clock has 18 or more seconds on it, is the fifth-highest tally in the league this season. The team also is shooting 48.6 percent on such shots, second-best in the NBA.

The transformation was personified by a game-sealing 3 from Dončić himself in a win over the Orlando Magic last week. Dallas had an 11-point lead with just under two minutes remaining, a scenario in which many teams would run out the shot clock. Instead, Irving rebounded Orlando’s missed shot and sprinted down the court before finding Dončić on the right wing, who nailed the dagger before two Magic defenders even got into the television frame.

Dončić’s catch-and-shoot numbers are staggeringly different no matter when he takes them: 32 percent of his made 3s are assisted, the highest rate since his rookie season, and he’s attempting more catch-and-shoot looks from distance than he did back then. Add in his self-created looks, and only Stephen Curry has made more 3s so far this year.

“As you can see, (I’m taking more),” Dončić said recently. “I think people didn’t believe me (when I said I would), but I’ve been working on that. It’s a way easier shot than a stepback, so that’s the beauty of it.”

Dallas couldn’t play meaningfully faster this season without Dončić embracing it, but the team’s giddy-up-and-go attitude revs up even further once Dončić leaves the court. Non-Dončić lineups are averaging 107.7 possessions per game, nearly six possessions faster than Dončić’s 101.95. During last season’s catastrophic flameout that left Dallas out of the postseason entirely, one of the team’s biggest defects was the time spent without Dončić on the court. Non-Dončić lineups were bad, but they also played at Dončić’s same tempo. It was bread without Dončić’s baking soda that consistently left them flat. This year, it’s a different recipe when Dončić leaves the court.

Not only is Dallas currently second behind the Indiana Pacers for the league’s best offense, but both teams are currently on pace to have the most efficient scoring season in NBA history. Dallas has been here before, after all, setting the league’s all-time mark in the 2019-20 season with Rick Carlisle as their coach. Now, Carlisle is coaching the Pacers to the league’s fastest tempo while Dončić is pushing his own pace further than he ever has before.

The season’s drudgery comes for every player: injuries linger, legs grow heavy, old habits reemerge. Whether Dallas’ newfound cadence can outlast that depends most on Dončić’s continued dedication to it. So far, these Mavericks aren’t the ones you’re used to seeing.

Slow doesn’t have to be boring. But fast, or at least faster than we’ve seen in Dallas for a long time, most certainly isn’t.

(Top photo of Luka Dončić, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Grant Williams: KeShawn Ennis / NBAE via Getty Images)

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