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The Mavericks are already good enough to make the playoffs

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The future is now for the Dallas Mavericks.

Luka Doncic attempts a jump shot in the preseason.
Are the Mavericks finally set to change their identity?

The Dallas Mavericks are known for inching through basketball games with little room for improv. Under Rick Carlise’s precise micro-management, their astute half-court offense has guided them past opponents that don’t cherish possessions like they do.

Over the past four years, Dallas has had the third-slowest offense in basketball, and in three of the past six seasons they avoided transition chances more than any other team in the league, per Cleaning the Glass. This made sense. Their transition offense had been bad while operations in the half-court were, if not very good, at the very least a pain to deal with. As recently as 2016, Dallas had one of the five most efficient half-court offenses in the league.

Instead of rushing up the court — not so easy with an aging Dirk Nowitzki! — they patiently shared and took care of the ball while hunting for the shots they preferred. In some ways this was a sensible approach. In others, any system so reliant on timing and synchronization is vulnerable when not executed to perfection, particularly in a league that’s getting faster and faster.

But now, with Nowitzki gone, Luka Doncic coming off a scintillating rookie year, Kristaps Porzingis in the fold, and only three players on the roster born before 1990, it’s time for the Mavs to speed things up a little bit. Nothing needs to be too dramatic, but adapting a style that better fits their personnel and today’s game would go a long way.

It’d also enhance another area of offense that they’ve already embraced. This feels like a somewhat surprising statement, for whatever reason, but the Mavericks value the three-point line as much, if not more than any team outside Houston. They finished second in three-point rate last season. It was their fourth-straight year in the top five and their fifth finishing in the top 10.

This year’s Mavericks don’t have a perfect roster, but a slight step on the gas will create even more three-point chances for players who, unlike the past few years, can actually make open threes. They already have an unselfish 20-year-old prodigy who may lead the league in assists some day, and over the summer they taped a “four-point line” down on their practice court, the benefits of which are twofold, as several players have stated. First, any legitimate threat standing a few feet behind the three-point line must be accounted for, which widens driving, passing, and cutting lanes even more than they’d otherwise be.

The second reason parallels an old golf exercise: In order to make the cup look like a sand bucket, putters will spend time aiming at a dime instead. By regularly shooting from a distance deeper than the actual three-point line, shots that toe the arc will feel shorter. Makes sense! Now let’s assume two things: 1) Dallas’ three-point rate will climb even higher than it was last season, when they didn’t exactly go out of their way to attempt more of them early in the shot clock, and 2) their new personnel will make outside shots at a rate that justifies launching so many of them. Both feel...probable?

Not to read too much into one shot, but the first basket Porzingis ever made in a Mavericks jersey didn’t feel like an accident. He got into his motion with 22 seconds on the shot clock, standing a foot in front of the Pistons logo.

Before he tore his ACL during the 2017-18 season, Porzingis drilled 41.6 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes. At this time last year DeAndre Jordan — who’s made one three in 11 NBA seasons — was Dallas’ tallest starter. It’s not an insignificant positional upgrade for a team that’s primary want is to create space. Porzingis’ second three came deeper in the shot clock after Detroit stifled Dallas’ first couple actions, but he somehow looked even more comfortable than the first.

This addition will single-handedly magnify the potency of Dallas’ offense, particularly when he’s deployed as a trailing big, Doncic’s pick-and-pop partner, or even a double-team-drawing option in the post. He jacked nine threes in just 24 minutes against the Milwaukee Bucks last week.) And on the other end in his debut, Porzingis was aggressive against pick-and-rolls, springing his arms up at the point of attack and blitzing Pistons’ ball-handlers. It’s a strategy designed to force turnovers — which the Mavs didn’t do much of last season — speed the game up, get more possessions, and, shoot more threes. This is a hypothetical leap of faith based off one preseason game but something to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

Elsewhere, there are more incoming pieces that fit nicely. Seth Curry is an obvious help, particularly when Carlisle turns to three-guard lineups that pit Porzingis or Boban Marjanovic at the five. He’s a 44 percent three-point shooter who made a career-best 137 of them in a previous stop with the Mavs three years ago. Delon Wright isn’t known as an outside threat, but two seasons ago he made 41.2 percent of his spot-up tries. His ability to knock them down could very well decide the scope of his role. (Same for Tim Hardaway Jr. and Ryan Broekhoff, to a lesser extent.) Do what Dennis Smith Jr. was not able to and complement Doncic off the ball.

So far, so good!

Speaking of Doncic, none of this works without him. He has the size, vision, and patience to make important passes out of the pick-and-roll, freezing defenders with his eyes (as seen above) and keeping every option open until the very last second. The Mavericks will only go so far as he takes them, and if some of the assists he completed as a rookie are any indication of what’s to come, a long-term ceiling doesn’t really exist. (BTW: Nobody sleep on Jalen Brunson, who nearly made 40 percent of his above-the-break threes as a rookie and is awesome.)

Players who can generate efficient looks (Doncic averaged more corner-three assists than all but three players in the entire league last year) and manufacture their own three-point shots are invaluable in today’s NBA. The only two players who attempted more pull-up threes per game last year were James Harden and Kemba Walker. Doncic’s accuracy on most of these shots didn’t vindicate his volume, but, yeah, 1) he was a teenager and 2) he actually made 36 percent of his step-back threes. We already know he can create separation against NBA athletes, and if/when they drop at a higher rate it’ll only add another dimension to an offense that’s already giving defenses so much to worry about.

Doncic can’t manufacture every opportunity by himself, but the good news is several of Dallas’ shooters are not solely comfortable in catch-and-shoot situations. They’re also fine racing around the floor, coming off screens, and forcing defenses to bend and switch. Most can even put the ball on the floor and shake a closeout.

Whether Carlisle chooses to play five out (a la last year’s Milwaukee Bucks) or blend that system with one that leans a bit more on dynamic player movement (a la peak Golden State Warriors), the Mavericks should be up for the challenge.

Again, Dallas’ roster is flawed in a few areas — it’s hard to see how they’ll match up defensively against just about all the dynamic duos out west — and they have two years to show how good they can be heading into the summer of 2021, when several marquee free agents will be available and they can carve enough cap space to fit a third star. If they miss there, cap flexibility dwindles and all of a sudden Porzingis’ third contract will be due two years after that. Not having a first-round pick in 2021 or 2023 hurts. But here in the short term, a few tweaks to their identity can spring them farther, faster than most expect. The playoffs aren’t out of reach when the three-point line is your best friend; Dallas can be one of this season’s best storylines if they deepen that relationship.