January 27, 2020, 1:50 pm
The Mavs were dealt a crushing blow with the loss of Dwight Powell last week. The 6’10” Canadian had been coming on strong of late after a rough start to the year, with his numbers up to 12.0 points, 6.3 rebounds, 0.7 steals and 0.5 blocks per game on an otherworldly .710 from the field through his 10 games in January. A late-preseason injury kept Powell playing catch-up to begin his campaign, but he was eventually able to rise to the starting center spot and was averaging a career-best 26.5 minutes per contest before rupturing his right Achilles on January 22.
For a player like Powell, the real impact is felt beyond the basic box score stats. More specifically, he has become a lethal part of Dallas’ pick-and-roll game, which is a huge component for the team considering Luka Doncic’s nightly maestro displays and Kristaps Porzingis’ proficiency from range.
Powell’s rim-running is a major asset for the Mavs, and he’s done well to really hone that part of his game. He’s used as the roll man in pick-and-rolls approximately 27 percent of the time according to the NBA’s tracking data, and his 1.35 points per possession on those plays puts him in the league’s 86th percentile. If we filter out players who rarely run those actions (Brandon Ingram and JJ Redick top the list with frequencies below 2.1 percent) and look at guys who are used as roll men over 20 percent of the time, Powell ranks ninth in the league (out of 61 qualifiers). Though Powell can get bullied by bigger players, isn’t much of a rim protector, and has seen his 3-point shooting go into the tank, he offers a valuable skillset that the Mavs will miss.
It’s worth noting that expected replacement Maxi Kleber also fares well by those measures, a shade below the 90th percentile at 1.39 points per possession. That’s all well and good, but the on-off numbers point to Powell’s effectiveness, even if Kleber has a slight edge as a roll man and floor-spacing threat.
With Powell on the floor, the Mavs have a net rating of plus-8.9. When he’s off, it sinks to plus-5.4. For Kleber, Dallas’ net rating is plus-5.3 when he’s on the court and rises to plus-7.6 when he’s on the bench. Most of Kleber’s negative differential comes on the offensive end of the floor, and that points to another area where Powell has become quite effective – in the screen game.
That makes logical sense given Powell’s work as a roll man, but he’s eighth in the league with 4.7 screen assists per game compared to Kleber’s more pedestrian 2.1 – the story is the same in per-minute figures.
This is not to say that Powell is in the “irreplaceable” tier of player, but rather that his fit with the current iteration of the Mavs is excellent, and his proficiency isn’t necessarily the type that you can find in plug-and-play guys from the scrap heap.
Enter Willie Cauley-Stein. Dallas wasted no time in finding someone to shore up their depth at the center spot, and understandably so. Kleber has done well but shouldn’t be tasked with the full burden, while Porzingis’ health dictates that he avoid constant crashing and banging, and Boban Marjanovic has obvious matchup limitations.
Despite Cauley-Stein’s own flaws as a player, he’s as good as the replacement market has to offer in terms of a guy who can fill a pure rim-running role – theoretically. One of the knocks on Cauley-Stein’s game was his tendency to play away from his strengths in Sacramento, partly due to the team’s excess of frontcourt types, and partly due to a dispiriting lack of awareness. Even this season, Cauley-Stein has done well when he stays in his lane but has been atrocious in any other area.
Of his 257 shots this season, 151 have come from the restricted area. 110 of his 144 makes have come from that spot too. 74 of his shots have been dunks. 82 have been layups, though he’s only converted on 42 of those. He’s 16-for-67 on jumpers. Outside the restricted area – including the rest of the paint, mind you – Cauley-Stein is 34-for-106. That’s a horrid .321 from the field. Putting the clamps down on his offense will be key for the Mavs, though they also have surrounding personnel that should make things easier to digest by offering the best playmaking and spacing that Cauley-Stein has ever worked with. It’s easier to work when you know exactly what your purpose is.
The loafing and general inattention shows up on the defensive end of the floor as well, where Cauley-Stein’s frequent lapses put him in the doghouse with the Kings. For most of his NBA career, he’s looked nothing like the player who averaged 1.1 steals and 2.2 blocks across his three years of NCAA play. He’s been floating around net neutral in terms of on/off defensive rating throughout his career, though that should probably be taken with a grain of salt considering he’s played exclusively for the Kings and this year’s smoldering husk of the Warriors. Still, he offers more rim protection than Powell, more strength than Porzings and more mobility than Kleber. Even if things don’t go perfectly you don’t have to squint too hard to see how Cauley-Stein could be the optimal center choice in certain matchups.
It seems like it’s now or never for the former 6th overall pick, who was already forced into a two-year deal worth $4.5 million in last summer’s market. This is by far the best basketball situation that Cauley-Stein has inhabited, and if he plays his way out of the mix in Dallas a la Nerlens Noel he won’t have anyone other than himself to blame. If you can set screens and roll with vigor, the Mavs will make you look good.
If the on-paper profile actually shows up on the floor, then everyone goes home happy. The persistent issue is that Cauley-Stein has yet to make good on that perceived potential, and at age 26 there’s pretty much no runway left.
If nothing else, the price was right. Adding Cauley-Stein cost Dallas a second-round pick and rookie Isaiah Roby, who headed to Oklahoma City in exchange for Justin Patton, who was waived by the Mavs to open up a spot for Cauley-Stein. (As an aside, the Thunder love collecting toolsy defenders whose offensive skills range from nonexistent to questionable at best.) That Dallas swung this trade so quickly also gives them some time to examine Cauley-Stein’s fit and assess whether they need another addition before the deadline.
More broadly, the Mavs have done well to try and deal with this setback, as this group is owed a good honest effort at a playoff run. They’re probably ahead of schedule for even the most optimistic of prognosticators (Doncic is that good), and simply getting to the playoffs so quickly will be an accomplishment even as Dallas’ timeline accelerates. That the Mavs were able to find a stopgap solution who clocks in at a very affordable rate without sacrificing anything significant in terms of assets or future flexibility is crucial.
Nobody should be asking Cauley-Stein to completely replace Powell but if the Mavs can coax the best traits out of him, they may find themselves pleasantly surprised.