Postgame: Doug McDermott

Mavs F Doug McDermott dishes on Monday's win over the Pacers.

The Mavs’ bench is good.

That was true earlier this season. At the time, the lineup of J.J. Barea, Yogi Ferrell, Devin Harris, Dirk Nowitzki, and Dwight Powell were terrorizing opposing second units to the tune of a whopping 113.3 points per 100 possessions and allowing only 93.9. For reference, no NBA team allows fewer than 101.0. Only one scores more than 113.3.

Very good second units have been a point of pride around Dallas for years. Jason Terry was one of the best sixth men in the league as a Maverick, carrying the offense in the second quarter and helping close games in the fourth. Jerry Stackhouse and Antawn Jamison were major contributors even before him. More recently, Vince Carter and Brandan Wright ran the show for a couple seasons before handing the reins over to Barea and Harris. The 2017-18 version of the Mavs’ second unit was statistically one of the best — if not the best — we’ve ever seen.

When the Mavericks traded Harris at the deadline for Doug McDermott, there was reason to wonder what would happen to the bench dynasty. Losing Harris’s playmaking and defensive versatility was a big blow. It turns out, though, that they haven’t missed a beat since bringing in McBuckets.

The five-man unit of Barea, Ferrell, McDermott, Nowitzki, and Powell has outscored opponents 152-104 in 53 minutes together. That group’s offense has been scoring at an astronomical rate, pouring in 137.4 points per 100 possessions in its five games together. Five games and 53 minutes together is a pretty small sample size, yes, but given the success the bench had earlier this season, there’s reason to believe this can still be a consistently good unit.

Briefly, here’s what the four players who have been here all year long do on offense. Barea is the man at the wheel, running pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll until something opens up. He is the man who pulls the strings.

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“J.J. has the ball and runs a great show for us,” Nowitzki said. “We all know he’s one of the best and smartest pick-and-roll players the league has. He makes great passes out of there.”

“Barea has had a brilliant year,” Carlisle said. “He is the engine driving a lot of this stuff and he has been fantastic.”

Ferrell and Nowitzki spread the floor, both hitting 3s at about a 40 percent clip. Nowitzki’s gravity is still stronger than the sun’s, as teams still fear his jumper to an absurd degree.

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Powell is always there to eat up all the open space left over from defenders leaping out to keep Dirk from hoisting a trailing 3. Meanwhile, sometimes Nowitzki is the one to benefit from Powell’s rolling.

“That’s really rewarding for me,” Powell said. “Obviously if I’m rolling hard, it’s always run to get a dunk or get a layup. but to know if they take that away and we’re getting a 3, we still are getting rewarded from that action, so it’s still a positive play.”

Ferrell, meanwhile, injects some much-needed quickness on the perimeter. The Barea-Powell and Barea-Nowitzki pick-and-rolls bend defenses in ways many others around the league do not, and Ferrell can capitalize on that imbalance by creating plays for himself or for others. For example, in the play below, the Pacers deny the hand-off and re-screen between Powell and Barea, so Powell attacks the basket, finds Ferrell on the cut, and Ferrell finds the shooter. It’s beautiful basketball.

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Powell is showing much more skill as his career has developed — he’s averaging 13.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 2.0 assists and shooting 59.2 percent from the field 85.7 percent from the free throw line in his last nine games — but his most important contribution to this particular group is his ability to run hard to the rim in search of lob passes, whether it’s following a screen or is just a hard cut. Rick Carlisle even recently rolled out an old favorite set play he used to run for Brandan Wright, now calling it for Powell.

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“As a roller, you’ve got to assume it’s always gonna work,” Powell said. “I’m always ready to go, and I’m always assuming J.J. will throw it.”

That’s what those four players do in a nutshell: Nowitzki screens and shoots, Ferrell cuts and shoots, Powell screens and rolls, and Barea is the guy who makes all the decisions.

Now enter Doug McDermott, a knock-down 3-point shooter with an extremely fast release, strong cutting ability, and hops. Quality 3-point shooters have gravity of their own, and the driving force behind this lineup’s nuclear offense is the interaction of McDermott’s influence with Nowitzki’s, Powell’s, and Ferrell’s. Simply put, teams fear 3-point shooters. And when you get a bunch of smart players together playing for a smart coach, you’re going to see some clever designs to get guys open. In the play below, Julius Randle leaps out to deny a pass to McDermott in the corner, leaving no one home to guard Nowitzki.

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Later that game, we see a play that better illustrates all of these gravities interacting. The Mavs set up a double drag screen for Barea on the right wing, with Nowitzki as the first screener. The idea of this play, at least as the Lakers see it, is that Barea will use both screens to move to the middle of the floor while Nowitzki pops out for 3 and Powell rolls to the rim. But that isn’t what the Mavericks do, and McBuckets capitalizes on the confusion.

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The Lakers intentionally switch on every screen, so Isaiah Thomas winds up on Dirk after the first screen. Dallas obviously abandons the play and Dirk quickly posts up the much shorter Thomas. Kyle Kuzma thinks the second screen is going to come so he switches onto Barea, but the screen never happened so Randle is still guarding Barea, too. As Powell rolls, Corey Brewer tags down to keep him from getting a dunk. So too does Josh Hart, who likely assumes that Brewer is going to either double-team Nowitzki or go guard Ferrell in the corner. Every Lakers defender is in a difficult position, and Nowitzki still has a one-foot size advantage over his defender. Advantage Dallas. Dirk finds McDermott, and he attacks Josh Hart who’s closing out with everything he’s got to keep a 3-point shot from going up. He beats the confused defense so quickly that no one can stop him before he evolves into McBounce and slams it home.

(Five hundred things happened in that play so it might be a bit confusing. The great thing about gifs, though, is that they loop over and over again. And if you think you’re dizzy after watching it five times, imagine how tough it was for the Lakers to defend it.)

“When they run him off, he’s actually decent putting the ball on the floor,” Nowitzki said. “He’s more athletic than I think we all though. He’s been making big plays for us.”

McDermott’s shooting puts points on the board and forces defenders to respect his 3-point shot, but it’s his movement that greases the wheels of an incredibly powerful offense. His cutting ability turns simple plays into very complex ones to defend.

During one sequence in Utah, Dwight Powell faked like he was setting up for a pick-and-roll with Barea before darting over to McDermott’s defender like a heat-seeking missile. It resulted in an open 3.

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The Mavericks ran a similar play the next time down the floor, and the Jazz defense wised up. This time, Donovan Mitchell snuck past the screen by sticking to McDermott’s hip. If Barea passes to McDermott coming off that Powell screen, he’s not going to have a chance to get off a shot; there simply won’t be room. Utah has him beat. But McDermott feels Mitchell behind him and sees an open alley in front of him, so he curls toward the rim and keeps going.

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This is another instance of player interaction. Barea played Rudy Gobert with his eyes like a quarterback looks off a safety. As McDermott begins his run to the rim, Barea looks over to Dwight Powell as if he’s going to toss it to him and go get it back to set up a pick-and-roll. The same instant Gobert averts his attention away from McDermott and back to Powell, Barea finds McBuckets for the layup. Those two baskets were part of a stretch when that five-man group outscored Utah 30-10.

The Mavs ran the same play following an inbound pass on Monday against Indiana with the same result.

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“McDermott is the kind of player that can play with any kind of lineup because he moves well, has great skill, and a really good basketball IQ,” Carlisle said. “He has picked up our stuff very quickly.”

Once you start feeling good as a group and get into a rhythm, you can start pulling out the tricks.

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That was obviously not an easy pass, but it wasn’t an easy shot either. McDermott didn’t have a lot of time or room to get that shot off, but his release is so quick that it almost turns a contested shot into an open one. Whether he’s standing still or on the move, he’s able to get off a clean look.

“He really needs no room to get his shot up,” Nowitzki said after the Pacers game. “Even the one in the corner he made today was fantastic. He didn’t even bring it down and knocked it in. He’s been great. What makes him great in that unit is he doesn’t really need the ball. He’s constantly on the move. We run staggers for him and down picks, and he just comes flying off of there.”

McDermott has made an unusually smooth transition into his new role in Dallas. He’s now played for four teams since the start of last season, so his ability to pick up the playbook and develop chemistry with his new teammates (and former high school buddy) is a testament to his hoops smarts in addition to his talent.

“I just think we have a lot of guys that just know how to play basketball,” McDermott said. “We have good spacing out there with me and Yogi, Dirk and J.J. can all shoot it, and then Dwight Powell just rolls really well to the rim and it opens up everything for us. I can’t thank him enough for rolling every time, and then having unselfish guards that are finding me.”

His contract expires at the end of this season, but if he continues to play like this for the Mavericks, it will be difficult to envision him playing for a fifth team anytime soon.

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