DALLAS — All throughout the offseason, the focus was placed on the Dallas Mavericks’ need to add a secondary ball-handler to pair with Luka Doncic.
There was interest in established star options like Kyle Lowry and Mike Conley but those efforts unraveled well before the official start of free agency. The focus quickly shifted to Goran Dragic, who was moved from the Miami Heat to the Toronto Raptors in part of the Lowry sign-and-trade.
After coming up empty (with Dragic of course still in the conversation), internal options naturally became the focus for the Mavericks with Jalen Brunson ranking atop the list with the best outlook to seize the opportunity. So far, it’s safe to say he’s making the most of it.
The Mavericks turned to Brunson to start in the backcourt over their last two outings. He posted an impressive performance with 25 points and seven rebounds on 10-13 (76.9 percent) shooting from the floor against the Miami Heat in his first start of the season.
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One of the main limitations to the Mavericks’ half-court offense, while Luka Doncic has been on the floor, has been the team’s inability to produce viable actions that don’t involve him as the initiator. Brunson presents an option to operate in ball screens that otherwise aren’t present.
Doncic displayed real trust in Brunson during the ‘winning time’ portion of the Mavericks’ 109-108 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Nov. 3. Brunson scored 13 of his game-high 31 points in the final 4:09 of the fourth quarter.
“It’s a credit to Luka,” Brunson said. “At any given time in a game situation, wherever he is, if he calls for the ball, you’re probably going to give it to him. He just has that type of respect. For him to kind of let me do what I did in those last couple of minutes just shows he trusts not just me but the team, and that’s big time. That gives us a bunch of confidence.”
The ways in which Brunson took over were particularly intriguing and were a showcase of what the Mavericks could experience with a legitimate secondary creator alongside Doncic. The Spurs’ lesser defenders were tasked with slowing down Brunson to no avail.
There was a clear focus from the Mavericks to ‘hunt’ Doug McDermott on switches down the stretch. Brunson initially used Dorian Finney-Smith as a ball screener to draw that outcome.
On the first made field goal of the 4:09 stretch where Brunson took over, the Spurs let him attack McDermott with just minimal presence from Derrick White at the nail. The Mavericks often have not had shooters ‘drift’ to neutralize nail coverage as plays develop, but Brunson executed despite that — getting to his spot in the paint and using his off-arm subtly to create space for a jumper over the 6’7″ defender.
The Mavericks looked to attack McDermott on the switch once again and this time, White offered more of an intentional presence at the nail helping off Finney-Smith. As a result, Brunson took advantage of the quick pass back exchange and forced McDermott to commit his body angle using a hesitation dribble to open up the outside driving lane — resulting in the contact floater for the and-one.
The Spurs began switching things up after Brunson had successfully attacked McDermott on the switch on consecutive possessions. San Antonio began deploying a ‘show and recover’ strategy to ultimately keep White as the on-ball defender responsible for Brunson as opposed to allowing the quick switch.
After the initial show and recover sequence, Brunson understood the change in strategy from the Spurs and got creative — using a re-screen to set up an ideal counter. By coming off the re-screen wide, White had to cover a lot of ground to get back to Brunson — setting up a push crossover opportunity for Brunson to counter White’s body momentum to get to the rim for the finish.
The Spurs determined the show and recover strategy was just not going to work with Brunson already picking it apart after the first possession. San Antonio adjusted once again by having Dejounte Murray pick up Brunson full-court and engage with pressure throughout the possession.
Once again, Brunson countered the Spurs’ latest approach. He used a hard drive right to begin the possession to force Murray to overcommit — setting up a prime opportunity for the ball screen to result in a switch. With Finney-Smith as the screener, McDermott was forced to switch once again.
The Mavericks reverted to utilizing Doncic as the game was in the final minute, but after a miss from deep, Dallas recovered possession. Brunson took full advantage of the circumstances despite the lengthy Devin Vassell as the on-ball defender.
Brunson tested out the situation with a hard drive to the paint with Vassell defending but made the smart choice to pull out of the retreat dribble as opposed to forcing a tough shot. Brunson determined the best outcome was to get to an open spot for a pull-up and did so along the baseline after re-engaging Vassell.
Having a secondary creator is crucial for any team since it offers numerous options to attack lesser matchups that otherwise could have been hidden on a given play. Instead of having to repeatedly attack Dejounte Murray, the Mavericks were able to bring McDermott into numerous plays in addition to attacking the Spurs’ lesser on-ball defender in White.
Jalen Brunson essentially portrayed the ideal embodiment of what it means to be a secondary creator alongside Luka Doncic in this game. Is he capable of doing this on a consistent basis? That remains to be seen and needs to be played out over larger sample size.
Another factor to consider in the situation is Brunson’s contract status. With no contract extension getting done before the 2021-22 season, he is set to become an unrestricted free agent next offseason with no shortage of potential interested suitors to choose from.
Regardless, whether it’s Jalen Brunson or a different player that has yet to be added to the roster, it’s clear the Dallas Mavericks are at their best when Luka Doncic has this level of help from a secondary creator.