Dallas Mavericks: The Dwight Powell injury is a costly blow

NBA Dallas Mavericks Dwight Powell (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
NBA Dallas Mavericks Dwight Powell (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) /

The loss of Dwight Powell will prove costly for the Dallas Mavericks as they prepare to make their second-half playoff push

During the first quarter of Tuesday’s home loss to the LA Clippers, Dallas Mavericks starting center Dwight Powell suffered what appeared to be a serious leg injury. Achilles’ ruptures have a long history of being the most devastating injury in basketball, so Powell likely has a long and tough road ahead of him to get back onto the court.

The one saving grace is that since he signed a contract extension this past offseason, Powell did not miss out on an opportunity to earn life-changing money for himself and his family.

The Mavericks will sorely miss Dwight Powell’s presence on both sides of the floor. He is most valuable in the pick-and-roll with Luka Doncic as a lob threat, as Zach Lowe and others have noted.

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Since opposing big men have to respect Powell rim-running behind them, it opens up Luka to get clean looks on floaters and push-shots that would typically be rushed amongst the trees in the paint. Powell has also flashed some playmaking ability out of the short roll, which gives Dallas much-needed counters and flows to its offense. The screening he does for their off-ball actions – Iverson cuts, pin downs, cross-screens, etc – is vital as well. It is not just Luka turning everything he touches into gold, either. Powell is one of the most dynamic rim finishers in the league with his quickness and leaping ability. These are not just open dunks.

On defense, Powell has his limitations as an undersized center. His rim-protection and post defense leaves much to be desired, but that is where having a unicorn on the roster can paper over many issues. Playing the 4-man defensively, Powell mainly used his speed to disrupt ball-handlers far up on the floor.

So where does Dallas go from here? In the second half of the Clippers’ game, they went super small and started J.J. Barea in Powell’s place. Starting Maxi Kleber appears to be the logical move as of right now. Going with Kristaps Porzingis as the center and playing five-out is intriguing. However, given Doncic’s effectiveness with a true dive man and the rebounding struggles of KP, I do not see this as more than just a change-of-pace option.

A Boban Marjanovic/Porzingis frontcourt is another option, and they have bludgeoned opponents to the tune of a 135.1 offensive rating (in a giant sample size of 17 minutes total), but the next time a coach trusts Boban in a larger role will be the first time. (Brett Brown openly talked about wanting to have a high tolerance level for playing the Serbian center, and then proceeded to play him basically zero meaningful minutes in a series where the Sixers were approximately minus a thousand with Joel Embiid off the floor).

The loss of Dwight Powell has ripple effects that trickle down on the rest of the team. All of the pieces in the current starting lineup fit together extremely cleanly. When Doncic plays without Powell, the Mavericks’ team eFG% (effective field goal percentage) drops a staggering 7.7 percentage points. This play against the Clippers demonstrates Luka’s comfort level with a lob target. Afterward, he even appears to go console Marjanovic about what he expects in that situation. Suddenly, Hardaway, Finney-Smith and the other shooters do not have quite the airspace on their shots without Powell’s gravity.

Kleber is a versatile shape-shifter who can adequately fill some of Powell’s roles, but then suddenly the bench units are left without a vital cog. Once the puzzle is left with some jagged edges, the whole may no longer be greater than the sum of its parts, like the Mavericks have been so far this year.

Ultimately, the Dallas Mavericks will remain a formidable team in the Western Conference, even without Powell. This loss, however, impacts their level of consistency game to game, particularly on the offensive end. In the West, this can be the difference between being the two-seed (and having an easier first-round opponent in Oklahoma City) or the six-seed and facing tough odds to win a playoff series. Doncic’s raw numbers will also likely go down a bit, which could impact his standing in the MVP race.

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Dallas will likely scour the trade/buyout market for another big man who can help them. Offense-oriented centers such as Richaun Holmes or Christian Wood come to mind. Time will tell how the 2019-20 Mavericks fare, but in the end, we could be looking back at this injury as a key inflection point in their season.