The Long Two: Mavs’ defense and Derrick White’s impact in Boston

Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, NBA

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The Dallas Mavericks have turned their season around with one of the NBA’s best defenses, while Derrick White has given the Celtics exactly what they need.

It wasn’t long ago that the Dallas Mavericks’ season, and a year of Luka Dončić’s prime, was on the brink of falling by the wayside. On December 30, Dallas was 16-18, Dončić was out with a sprained ankle and the team was struggling to find a rhythm under first-year head coach Jason Kidd. Since then, the Mavericks have won 18 of 24 games, posted the third-best net rating in the NBA and pulled within two wins of the Utah Jazz for fourth place in the West.

Given Dončić’s prowess as a pick-and-roll orchestrator, it would be logical to assume that Dallas has set the rest of the league on fire with its offense while defending just well enough to outscore opponents. But the NBA often defies logic, and indeed the Mavericks have salvaged their season, somehow, with one of the league’s best defenses over the last six weeks.

What is driving the Mavs surging defense?

This roster’s personnel doesn’t scream “top-10 defense”, or even “above-average defense”, but in the absence of an elite defensive anchor, the Mavs have stymied their opponents by committee. They rank fifth in defensive rating over the full season, and second (!) since Dec. 31. There’s some shooting variance involved in that success (Dallas’ opponents are shooting a league-worst 33.8 percent from 3), but the Mavs limit the most efficient shots on the floor as well as almost any team in the league, allowing the fifth-lowest share of shots from 3 or at the rim and the third-fewest transition points per 100 possessions.

Those marks aren’t the result of a grand schematic change, but rather the product of collective buy-in and renewed effort; Dallas hasn’t changed its approach so much as fully committed to it. The Mavs play with almost frenetic energy, yet remain connected and under control. There are fewer off-ball breakdowns, missed rotations or weak points for opponents to exploit and thus, fewer easy scoring opportunities. Energetic role players like Maxi Kleber, Reggie Bullock and Dorian Finney-Smith have spearheaded that turnaround, but even players like Dončić, whose defensive effort has waxed and waned throughout his career, and Dwight Powell, who has historically struggled as a rim protector, have been key parts of the Mavs’ success. The entire team is rotating faster, closing out harder, making multiple efforts and generally playing with a higher activity level than it did during a sluggish start:

They’ll no longer be able to lean on Porzingis as a backstop at the rim, though the Mavs defended at roughly the same level this season whether he was on the floor or not. As important as his floor spacing and rim protection could be, Porzingis didn’t exactly fly around on defense or galvanize the offense with his decision-making; he wasn’t nimble enough to thrive in anything but a drop pick-and-roll coverage, and couldn’t read the floor well enough to punish defenses when Dončić’s drew extra attention. Replace him with a more versatile big like Powell or Kleber, who capably protect the rim and defend on the perimeter, and it unlocks a wider range of options.

The Mavs’ offense, meanwhile, has broadly been a disappointment this season, though it has begun to show signs of life. Dallas ranks 12th in points per possession over its last 24 games as Dončić has looked more like the MVP candidate he was two seasons ago than the meandering blob he was at the start this year.

Kidd has introduced more ball and player movement into an offense that was often over-reliant on its ball-dominant star, and as a result, the Mavericks are tallying nearly 25 more passes and about one more secondary assist (or “hockey assist”) per game since Dec. 31 than they did up to that point. Jalen Brunson has emerged as a capable on-ball creator while players like Kleber, Bullock, Finney-Smith and Powell have become more empowered decision-makers. Dončić’s increasing willingness to let his teammates make plays triggers some truly gorgeous improvisational passing sequences:

We don’t yet know how the addition of Dāvis Bertāns and Spencer Dinwiddie affects the team on either end of the court, though Tuesday’s win over Miami offered a glimpse of how they might fit into the offense. Bertāns provided the kind of dynamic movement shooting Porzingis never quite could while Dinwiddie served as a secondary playmaker who diversified Dallas’ attack and alleviated the pressure on Dončić and Brunson.

Betting on that to sustain for the rest of the season, however, goes against all of the evidence from Dinwiddie and Bertāns’ time in Washington and probably places too much faith in the idea that a mere change of scenery can fix what ailed them. Both have been below-average defenders throughout their careers, which could be problematic for a team that has leaned so heavily on that end of the floor.

That said, playing in a defensive scheme like this one and with a player like Dončić on offense can make all the difference, so long as players are willing to buy into their roles. The Mavericks have done that, and they’re learning just how powerful it can be.

Boston finds a missing piece in Derrick White

When faced with the option of breaking up their star duo and pivoting into a new era, the Boston Celtics instead chose to invest further in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s primes, and made one of the most important, if largely overlooked, moves of the trade deadline. It cost the Celtics Josh Richardson, Romeo Langford and two first-round picks to pry Derrick White away from the Spurs — a fairly high price for a rotation guard — but he has so far proven to be exactly the kind of player Boston desperately needed.

Not only is White a significant upgrade over Dennis Schröder (now of the Houston Rockets) on both ends of the floor, he addresses some of Boston’s most pressing issues — many of which Schröder exacerbated. While he may not be the type of primary on-ball initiator who can carry an offense, White’s complementary playmaking and versatile defense fit wonderfully in the Celtics’ ecosystem.

So much of Boston’s offense early in the season involved Brown and Tatum taking difficult, self-created shots against set defenses; White helps create easier shots, not only for the team’s stars but for everyone on the floor. He makes quick, sound decisions (as all True Spurs do), rarely turns the ball over and innately executes the basic reads that don’t come as easily to others. Crucially, he pushes the ball in transition, giving the Celtics a needed element they didn’t have before (tiny sample size, but Boston ranks third in transition frequency since White became a Celtic after ranking 24th before the deadline). White’s opportunistic drive-and-kick game has introduced more dynamic motion into the offense and his ability to facilitate from the top of the floor lets Boston’s stars receive the ball in more advantageous spots:

“Just try to make their lives easier: space the floor, create and make plays, compete defensively,” White said when asked about how he fits next to Tatum and Brown. “Just try to do a little bit of everything, just play my game, and I think I’ll help the team.”

So far, White has done exactly that, establishing instant chemistry with his new teammates as the Celtics have crushed opponents with him on the floor (again: tiny sample size). White’s unreliable jump shot could eventually pose spacing concerns, and his offense is somewhat duplicative of Marcus Smart’s; neither player, however, is so inflexible as to preclude them from sharing the floor, and both help smooth some of Boston’s rougher edges. Playing in a new environment could also benefit White’s game, giving him comfortable lanes in which to work without overstretching himself. Playing alongside creators like Tatum and Brown should allow him to do less off the dribble and find easier opportunities off of spot-ups, cuts and second-side actions that could help lift his scoring efficiency.

It’s the other end of the floor, however, where White could make the biggest imprint. The Celtics have been the NBA’s stingiest defense (by a wide margin) since Jan. 1, and have now added another versatile on-ball defender who can stay in front of nearly anyone on the perimeter and switch across multiple positions. It isn’t a coincidence that the Spurs’ defense was meaningfully better with White on the court in each of the last four seasons, and he already looks a natural fit in the Celtics’ aggressive, switch-heavy scheme.

Few guards in the NBA are as nimble getting over ball screens, and even fewer pack enough strength into a 6-foot-4 frame to wrestle with bigger players on switches. White is also an alert help defender (he ranks fourth in the NBA in charges drawn per game) and should help what has been only an average transition defense. The foursome of White, Smart, Brown and Tatum has only played 15 minutes so far, but could quickly become one of the most hellacious four-man defensive combinations in basketball.

For all the good White has done and will continue to do, he doesn’t singlehandedly vault Boston into championship contention, even after a scorching nine-game win streak that ended on Wednesday; that kind of leap would require Brown or Tatum taking a significant step forward in the playoffs and the rest of the roster to alchemize in a way it hasn’t so far. But whatever progress the Celtics do make over the rest of the season will almost certainly involve White, fitting seamlessly into whatever role the team asks him to play. “No matter what spot you’re in on the court, just try to make the right basketball play,” he said. “It comes pretty easy after that.”

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