Mavericks mailbag: Are Luka Dončić’s injuries concerning? Who’s in the closing lineup?

The Dallas Mavericks’ interrupted preseason, thanks to the team’s 16,500-mile international trip, concludes Friday at home against the Detroit Pistons. The season opener in San Antonio happens next week. We’re almost there.

In the meantime, there are some final questions that need answers before we launch into more traditional previews next week — and start watching, finally, real NBA basketball once again.

@iwanttoimplode asks, “Are there any major concerns about Luka’s lower body injuries in the long term?”

Yes and no. Yes, because Luka Dončić is the team’s most important player, not just for the obvious reasons, but because this team’s success hinges around him being available and at his best this entire season. There’s no real clarity on the mysterious thigh injury that’s been bothering him since this summer’s international competitions. Dončić declined to share any information about it at media day. It’s ominous even if it ends up being a non-issue.

But I’m not yet overly concerned. The thigh issue is different than the calf sprain that limited Dončić to just five minutes against Real Madrid, which the team said he suffered in practice a day before that game. Dončić will miss Friday’s preseason finale, but head coach Jason Kidd has said Dončić‘an expected to play in next week’s season opener. That tracks.

This isn’t the first time Dončić has had this calf injury. It’s the same one he had in the team’s 2022 regular season finale, one which caused him to miss the first three games against the Utah Jazz in that postseason. He recovered from it just fine. It might be worth revisiting my interview with Jeff Stotts, an injury expert, which I conducted back when that happened.

Dončić was sidelined for 13 days when that injury occurred. There are 16 days between when he suffered this one and the team’s opening night. Any injury to the team’s most important player is concerning, but the calf injury didn’t linger that postseason and this one isn’t expected to, either.

@Coopz___ asks, “Have Dante Exum and Derrick Jones Jr. solidified their rotation spots on a nightly basis?”

On a nightly basis? It’s impossible to know right now. It does seem like those two have traction to be rotation players when the season begins next week, but where their roles go from there depends on their performances and the team’s.

I wrote about the rotation dilemma last week, and I don’t feel any more clarity about the situation than I did then — at least not for what it might look like a month into the regular season. Because the Mavericks don’t have a clear hierarchy, Kidd will need to create one. But how he does that with many similarly talented players is something I don’t expect to be instantly sorted out.

@gabbybunshin asks, “Which five would you think end games?”

And, like, this is the whole thing, right?

It’s definitely Dončić, Kyrie Irving and Grant Williams when healthy. It should be Josh Green, but the team’s hesitancy to start him this preseason makes me wonder. It’s not wrong to worry about who would guard taller wings in such lineups — Williams is better suited guarding bigger players, Green the opposite. For example, the team’s fourth game of the year is against the Chicago Bulls. Does Green guard Zach LaVine while Williams takes DeMar DeRozan? How confident are you in that? But, to be clear, I’d side with Green’s talent and trust his tendency to play better when confident.

You could solve the defensive dilemma by closing games with Jones as a small-ball center, or really more of a four while Williams guards the other team’s tallest player. I have no clue if Jones is good enough to warrant that, although I think he deserves the early chance at rotation minutes that he seems likely to receive.

I don’t think the fifth closer is likely to be Dereck Lively II every night, or even most of them. His inexperience and foul trouble, which might be fine for a starting role, are more concerning for the final minutes of a close game. Of course …

@MunkFruitNBA asks, “Will Maxi and Dwight be closing out games? Will THJ close out games even though coming off the bench?”

… there’s always Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber. We know both players’ limitations. I’m somewhat worried about Kleber’s effectiveness this season; he’s 31 years old and hasn’t stood out athletically in the team’s opening preseason games. He’s been the preferred closing center for the past few years, and that might still be the case in the season’s opening weeks, but Kleber’s someone to watch closely. Some nights, maybe it is Powell.

As for Tim Hardaway Jr., I can’t imagine the team wants to complete games with him, not over better defensive options like Green, Exum or Jones. But Hardaway Jr. simply might be better than that trio and could return to a closing role, at least some nights, for that reason.

Honestly, it’s really hard for me to imagine Dallas having a consistent closing lineup that the team keeps using. It probably should vary based on performance and matchups, even on a nightly basis.

@KirkSeriousFace asks, “Do the Mavericks have enough size?”

This has been such an emphasis for the past two seasons that I almost feel foolish suggesting smaller closing lineups — though I’m curious about them, they don’t seem likely to be used given Kidd’s approach. It’s impressive that a team with a 6’7 point guard still plays small and feels easy to push around at times. Williams should help with that, and he should play bigger than Dorian Finney-Smith did. But the same old center options and a 19-year-old rookie trying to speed run his first-year development aren’t going to fix this dilemma right away.

@sewsgup asks, “If ‘pick-and-roll’ and ‘alley-oop’ are Level 1 basketball terms, what are some Level 2 (and beyond) vocab words fans can learn?”

Studying how teams defend pick-and-rolls feels like the next step up to watching basketball in a “smarter” way! It’s the cat-and-mouse strategy that I write about most often, especially in postseason settings, because it can be genuinely interesting to see how teams juggle different players and assignments in the various ways that modern defenses do.

For example, I’m very curious how Dallas uses Lively as a pick-and-roll defender. He’s a natural fit for drop coverage, coming up to the free-throw line and eating space beneath the opponent’s action while his teammate recovers over the screen. But Lively’s athletic enough to show-and-recover, flashing above the screen to impede the opposing ballhandler before sprinting back. He’s also big enough where the team might ask him to send ballhandlers toward the sidelines, which is most often called icing. (Many teams have unique names for it, though.) He could be a switchable big man with his athleticism, but he might not be disciplined enough to do that right away without getting into foul trouble. Modern centers really need to be adept at all variations of pick-and-roll defending.

It’s interesting in the other direction, too. I remember one mid-series adjustment from Golden State in the conference finals two years ago. Stephen Curry had begun the series guarding Reggie Bullock, which made sense, but he changed assignments to Finney-Smith in the second half of Game 2. Dallas had been spamming Dončić-Bullock pick-and-rolls to involve Curry, and Curry’s show-and-recover defense — meant to make sure he didn’t get matched up one-on-one against Dončić — wasn’t working well against Bullock’s quick shooting release. Despite Finney-Smith having enormous physical advantages over Curry, he had too many offensive limitations to punish that matchup.

Grant Williams may be the team’s Finney-Smith replacement, and may on many nights have box scores that look identical to past Finney-Smith ones. But I’m confident that Williams, with a quicker release and a deeper offensive skillset, will be much harder to limit with a smaller guard in a similar situation.

(Top photo: Borja B. Hojas / Getty Images)

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