Standin’ in the Rain

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 28, 2009 under Commentary, xOther | Read the First Comment

In the spirit of giving the season a full evaluation, I’ve decided to do an extended take on the point-counterpoint formula.  I’ve already done the plus side, so it’s time to get our hands dirty.

Let’s start with what we do know: the Mavs are not positioned to be contenders.  That was a well-known fact in ’08-’09, and the relatively hazy future of this franchise is perhaps equally established.  There is genuine talent in Dallas, a fact made all the more painful by the difficult-to-fill needs in the rotation.

Those needs are both significant and urgent, symbolizing the flaws of Mavs past, present, and future.  The most glaring of which: poor perimeter defense with no help to speak of.  Good defensive teams have either quick, skilled perimeter defenders to cut off penetration or an aware frontcourt to erase defensive mistakes.  Great defensive teams have both.  The Mavs aren’t so lucky.

Jason Kidd is the team’s best perimeter defender, but lacks the foot speed to stay with point guards and the height to contest shooting guards.  Jason Terry logs most of his minutes as the Mavs’ 2 guard, but shows an inability to defend either guard position particularly well.  Antoine Wright and Josh Howard, on the other hand, demonstrate some defensive aptitude, but haven’t been able to share the floor for significant stretches.  That said, neither is a lock-down defender capable of shackling the league’s elite wings.  J.J. Barea is shorter than you are, and though his heart is in the right place, that won’t buy him those glittery bell-bottom jeans in the window that will transform him into a star.  Put all of those defensive limitations in a blender, and you’ve got a stable of players that have trouble moving laterally and cutting off the driving lanes.  By golly, if that’s not a recipe for defensive excellence, then I don’t know what is.

Oh wait, yes I do: a complete lack of shot-blocking help defense.  As a defender, Dirk Nowitzki has improved by leaps and bounds since his early years in the league, but he is not, and can never be, an effective shot blocker.  Dirk simply doesn’t have the frame or athleticism to challenge shots effectively in the paint.  On top of that, the cheap fouls that shot blockers tend to chalk up could send Dirk to the bench and debilitate the Dallas offense.  As a result, the Mavs need to get help D out of the center position almost exclusively, and Erick Dampier isn’t too great at that.  Although Damp is undoubtedly the Mavs’ best on-ball defender in the post, his lack of mobility and vertical explosiveness limit his ability to swoop in for the block and the glory.  That’s why things get even uglier than one would expect; the Mavs’ key bigs are capable of fouling to prevent easy buckets, but aren’t likely candidates to soar across the lane with a play-saving block.  Rotating quickly to challenge the spot or coming over to challenge the shot — those are the staples of quality interior defense, and until the Mavs can find an excellent help defender to pair with Dirk, they’ll continue to suffer at the hands of quick point guards and penetrating wing players.

Out-scoring your opponents can work for a spell, but eventually you need to get some stops.  That’s where the Mavs failed with flying colors.  Let’s take a look at the numbers:

  • The Mavs were 15th in the league in defensive efficiency for the regular season.  That mark is peachy for a rebuilding team, but for would-be and should-be contenders?  Notsomuch.  Top-10 would be nice and Top-5 ideal, but it’s clear that a middle of the pack defense won’t be enough to cut it.
  • Going by PER, Mavs’ opponents play at a level well over the league average.  The Mavs allow opposing point guards to average a PER of 19.4, which is roughly on-par with Steve Nash.  Opposing wings are coming in around the 16.6 mark, which is in the ballpark of a Lamar Odom or a Rashard Lewis.  And opposing centers are  registering a PER of 17.4, which is near Utah’s Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur.  The rock bottom positional average for PER comes at the power forward slot, and even they play at the level of an average player (15.1).

As if the defensive shortcomings weren’t enough, the offense could use some polish.  The Mavs have already been quite productive on the more beloved side of the ball, but sorely lack the offensive versatility that made them so successful in the past.  The common gripe with the Mavs has been their lack of a post-up threat, but that line of thinking is misguided; true post scorers are difficult to come by and not entirely necessary.  More important is getting easy baskets through any means necessary, whether it’s in the post, through dribble penetration, or off of smooth, quick cuts and expert passes.  That, more than anything, is what’s missing from the Mavs’ attack.  The offense has become so unbelievably one-dimensional that it’s merely great when it could be spectacular.  Increasing the number of attempts closer to the basket would bump up efficiency (especially through free throw attempts), shift the burden off of Dirk’s shoulders, and give the mediocre defense some extra wiggle room.  The offense sure as hell ain’t broke, but that doesn’t mean it can’t use a bit of a fix.

The bench might be in for a similar fix.  I openly applaud the work of Brandon Bass and friends, but the two most productive bench players are only building on strengths.  Bass and J.J. Barea play the positions of the Mavs’ two best players, making Carlisle’s job difficult in terms of finding productive minutes for everyone.  We have Bass playing some center, Kidd playing some 2 guard, and none of it coming without some take to the give.  For all the production that Bass and Barea provide, they bring liabilities with their lack of size and defensive limitations.  Bass is a gentleman, a scholar, and frankly a beast, but he ends up giving four or five inches to opposing centers.  Barea is an underdog with a heart of gold, but he’s six feet tall in heels.  For all of their strengths, those limitations are not going away, and playing out of position places them under a microscope in front of a telescope under a comically large magnifying glass.  Even a Mavericks’ strength is essentially a weakness; the team is plagued by having productive players fight for minutes and effectiveness at the same positions.

  • Brian

    Good point about shot-blockers. I think we could live with Kidd at the point on defense — he is, after all, a pretty damn good defender, slowness notwithstanding — if we just had a guy in the lane that could make Tony Parker, Chris Paul, et al think twice instead of tossing in layup after layup. Great shot-blockers don’t have to block shots. They just have to alter shots.