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Conversing with the enemy: A Sixers-Mavs preview with Iztok Franko

Getting a little insight about Friday’s opponent.

Philadelphia 76ers v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

Ahead of most games, Liberty Ballers conducts a question-and-answer session with someone possessing in-depth knowledge of the Philadelphia 76ers’ imminent opponent. Up next is Iztok Franko, who covers the Dallas Mavericks for D Magazine and Mavs Moneyball.

Dallas started off slowly, but has been great for a while. What keyed that turnaround?

There are several things at play here. First, Luka Doncic being in great shape and looking like a top-five player again helps a lot. Doncic is averaging 29.9 points, 10.2 rebounds and 8.7 assists in his last 32 games since he came back from injury and a COVID layoff at the beginning of the year.

The second reason is the defense. It took them a while to adjust to the system new head coach Jason Kidd and his defensive coordinator, Sean Sweany, designed, but the Mavericks are sixth in defense now, per Cleaning the Glass. That’s still hard to grasp for a team that never finished higher than 18th with almost the same cast of characters in the previous three seasons.

Lastly, it’s trading Kristaps Porzinigs for Spencer Dinwiddie and Davis Bertans. Kidd tried hard to motivate and built a system to keep The Unicorn engaged early on, which sometimes resulted in some awkward situations. Now, after the trade, the Mavericks have a clearer identity, both on offense and defense. Dinwiddie’s shot-making and clutch scoring have been amazing so far.

What allows Dallas’ defense to function at such an elite level, despite not having an obvious All-Defense candidate?

One part is the new defensive scheme I talked about earlier. Dallas is much more aggressive at shrinking the floor and protecting the paint. It often hedges or doubles on ball-screen actions and blitz to takes away its opponents’ first option. Players like Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber, Dwight Powell, and Reggie Bullock might not be elite defenders, but are all very solid ones. Kleber and Powell don’t scare anyone as post defenders, but are both mobile bigs that allow more aggressive defense and backline rotations. Dallas doesn’t necessarily have a lot of size up front, but none of the top eight or nine rotations players, besides Jalen Brunson, are shorter than 6’5”, which makes for a lot of lengthy lineups.

But even more than the scheme, it’s the complete buy-in that Kidd and his coaching staff managed to get from his players. Even Doncic, who is not perceived as a defensive stopper, is trying on defense most of the time, and they put him in a position where his size and strength are a plus.

How has the Kristaps Porzingis-Spencer Dinwiddie trade altered this team?

It was a significant change, and a sign that the Mavericks were done and ready to move on from the ‘Porzingis as the second star next to Doncic’ experiment. There were issues with fit, both on offense and defense. Although Porzinigs is probably a better player than Dinwiddie, the latter just fits better. Dinwiddie provides the team with the third player that can create shots for himself and others, and this team desperately needed that. Dallas started the season playing big with Porzingis at the power forward, but is now back to what works best to maximize Doncic’s skill-set. The Mavs spread the floor, and surround Doncic with shooting and other playmakers that can attack the gaps he creates.

How do you think they’ll go about defending Joel Embiid?

As I mentioned earlier, Dallas doesn’t have the size to deal with a player like Embiid, which is a problem. In the last matchup, Mavericks struggled to contain Joel early on. He had 18 points and shot 12 free throws in the first half, and Dallas trailed by 10. Then, in the second half, the Mavericks started to play a lot of zone and the Sixers struggled to adapt. So, I definitely expect them to be aggressive with early doubles or play lots of zone defense again.

In their previous game, a win against the Brooklyn Nets, the Mavs doubled Kevin Durant from the first possession and dared others players to beat them. Kidd has certainly proven to be a proactive coach when it comes to playing aggressive defense, especially against opposing superstars, so I think we’ll see more of that tonight. But I think the job gets a lot more difficult with James Harden now in the mix to take advantage of double-teams.

What’s one matchup you’re keeping tabs on for this game?

Apart from how Dallas deals with Embiid, I’m always looking forward to the Doncic-Thybulle matchup. Thybulle is such a unique defender that makes life for everybody, including Doncic, extremely hard. Their battles are always fun, going back to the Olympics this past summer. Doncic struggled with Matisse at the beginning of the last game, but eventually figured it out, attacking Embiid in drop coverage as the game progressed. He finished with 33 points, 15 assists and 13 rebounds. The key part will be how much Thybulle will be able to play. If he is not hitting his shots, the Mavs’ help or zone defense will definitely leave him open to load on Embiid.

Biggest pleasant surprise of the season?

For the Mavericks, it’s three things: defense, Jason Kidd’s coaching and the continuous growth of Jalen Brunson. Dinwiddie has also definitely been better than expected in his short stint so far in Dallas.

Biggest disappointment of the season?

There aren’t many now, as the Mavericks are rolling. Maybe, it’s Doncic’s slow start early on. Dallas also had terrible back-to-back losses against the Magic and the Thunder in January, which could cost them in the fight for home-court advantage. But interestingly, the turnaround started by winning its next game over the Sixers. Dallas has been on a roll since, winning 14 of its last 17 games.

What’s one thing Sixers fans should watch for in this one?

The obvious choice here is how Dallas deals with Embiid because it likes to play small. Powell and Kleber are the only two functional bigs, so it will be a long night for them. If the Mavs manage to play Thybulle off the floor by making him a non-factor offensively, that will be a huge win. I don’t think the Sixers have anybody else who can slow down Doncic.