“With Spencer [Dinwiddie] starting, our starting five is going to be big with JaVale [McGee] starting at center.”
Jason Kidd told ESPN he was going to field a bigger starting lineup, he meant it. With a theorized starting lineup of Luka Dončić, Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, Christian Wood and JaVale McGee. Dallas would tie for the tallest starting lineup in the league (for the second consecutive season).
Many Mavs fans were excited about signing the former Shaqtin-A-Fool regular. McGee is a rim-protector and a lob threat, and he returns to Dallas with a valuable championship pedigree he did not have on his first go-around.
Drawbacks to starting McGee
As much of an improvement as McGee is over Dwight Powell, some drawbacks to starting him should cause concern. While McGee provides better rim protection than Powell (7% lower field goal percentage allowed on two-pointers), the “switchability” amongst the starting lineup decreases. The positional fluidity led to the seventh-best defensive rating in the league.
Despite Powell’s faults, he could hedge and switch competently in pick-and-roll situations. While he was a replacement-level perimeter defender at best, McGee, as a traditional big, is worse. We’ve seen the type of damage elite-level guards can wreck when exploiting non-switchable centers in the playoffs (see Dončić against Rudy Gobert).
McGee alone subtracts from this defensive “switchability.” The lineup restructuring that will occur around him may do even more damage.
Impact of Bullock moving to the bench
Notably, the starting lineup might be missing one of the key cogs that vaulted the Mavs to the Western Conference Finals: Reggie Bullock.
Bullock materialized into the three-point sniper he was signed to be — shooting nearly 40% from three in the playoffs — and played elite defense on players ranging from Chris Paul to Draymond Green. With his presumed absence from the starting lineup, Finney-Smith would be the sole above-replacement-level perimeter defender on the court.
One of the main goals of this offseason, according to Dallas Mavericks’ General Manager Nico Harrison, was to surround Dončić with more “three-and-d” wings. This concept prompted Harrison to ignore signing always-future-Mav-but-never-current-Mav Goran Dragic to leave a roster spot open for a wing. Yet, this same thought process is abandoned when McGee is effectively replacing Bullock in the starting lineup. McGee, like Powell, is not a threat from the perimeter offensively. Powell was an effective starter because he was surrounded by four shooters to keep the defense honest when he rolled to the basket. Consequently, these rolls opened the floor for shooters to get open looks.
McGee would not have that same luxury. He is a high-level lob threat like Powell and thus needs space in the paint to capitalize on his skillset. Relegating Christian Wood to the three-point line, despite his career 38% three-point shooting, is not an option (lest we forget Kristaps Porziņģis in the 2020-2021 playoffs). Wood will need space to work in the paint, and McGee’s presence will undoubtedly limit that space.
History shows Mavs excel in small-ball lineups
We’ve seen this before, with Porziņģis and Powell in the same lineup at the start of last season, and we remember how that went.
Defenders did not respect Powell from the perimeter, allowing weak-side help to limit Porziņģis’ offensive options. When Dončić would drive, defenses would pack the paint as both Powell and Porzingis would be moving toward the basket to be potential lob or offensive rebound threats. This resulted in many low-quality shots for Dončić and a sputtering of what once was an elite offense. It is easy to envision Wood and McGee causing similar spacing problems.
This is not solely a criticism of McGee. He has been a key cog on multiple championship teams and has matured since his last stop in Dallas. He will mimic Powell’s verticality while also limiting the drives that gashed Dallas throughout last season’s playoff run. His 63% shooting is not a fluke, and he will feast on the looks Dončić provides him as he did with Chris Paul in Phoenix. But there is a reason why he last averaged more than 20 minutes per game back in 2018.
Maybe McGee is a “starter” in the capacity of winning the tip-off and then promptly sitting on the bench after seven minutes of each half. Maybe the Wood-McGee experiment only lasts half the season, much like the Powell-Porziņģis experiment.
Or maybe Jason Kidd knows what he’s doing.