Once More, With Feeling: The Rotation

Posted by Rob Mahoney on October 27, 2009 under Commentary, Previews | Be the First to Comment

This is a part of the multi-part season preview, Once More, With Feeling. To read an explanation, click here. To read Act I (the Network preview), click here. To read Act II (the Four Factors), click here. To read Act III (the Coach), click here.

Defining and maintaining a rotation is a bit of a delicate process for some folks, and a simple measure of brute strength for others; it’s either a continued exercise in tinkering and ego-stroking or a desperate attempt to jam fifteen square pegs into one giant round hole. As I discussed in the last segment, Rick Carlisle usually opts for the finesse approach.

But on top of the difficulties that come with appeasing the egos of professional athletes, Rick Carlisle also has the distinct privilege of fitting many multi-positional, versatile players into a series of coherent lineups. What is Josh Howard’s true position? Or Shawn Marion’s? Or Drew Gooden’s?

It doesn’t matter. The designation doesn’t matter so much as their contextual place within lineups and within the rotation. With a team that boasts such an atypical power forward and superstar, we shouldn’t expect each player to fall into neat little roles based on the expectations of their position. The reasons why Dirk Nowitzki is so brilliant are exactly because he’s not what you’d expect from a power forward. So when I say that Josh Howard will have no problem filling in as the starting shooting guard, I want you to grasp my full meaning. I don’t think that Josh Howard will be able to fulfill the ball handling and distributing responsibilities normally assigned to a 2 guard, but in my mind that doesn’t mean he can’t start alongside Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki, and either Drew Gooden or Erick Dampier.

Photo via ESPN.com.

The Maverick offense is fairly unique in that even though it’s come along way since the plodding isolations of the Avery Johnson era, wing players have rarely had a role of the playmaking part of the offense. Aside from Jason Terry’s two man game with Dirk, the 2 is a position of scoring through cuts and jumpshots. Wings still create shots in one-on-one situations or the additional drive and kick, but the majority offense goes through the expert management of Jason Kidd or the high post savvy of Dirk Nowitzki.

With that in mind, why would Josh Howard and Shawn Marion be unable to coexist peacefully on the perimeter? Each is able to both shoot and slash, but in ways complementary of the other; Josh would rather shoot than slash, and Shawn would rather slash than shoot. But both are (at least) passable from three point range and fine finishers around the basket, which offers the Mavs a plethora of options in the half-court offense. Rare are the teams with two capable perimeter defenders, meaning in most cases either Howard or Marion will have free rein to do what they do best.

The other big question for the Mavs comes on the inside. Carlisle has opted to go with Dampier and Gooden as “co-starters,” with matchups determining the starter at center. That, more than anything, is reflective of the underlying theme of this year’s Mavs: flexibility. Gooden and Damp not only afford the Mavs a versatile approach to the inside game, but their unique contracts (Gooden’s unguaranteed contract and Dampier’s virtually expiring contract) will ultimately dictate the Mavs’ roster changes over the next year.

But while they’re both in Dallas, Gooden and Dampier will give the Mavs two very different looks in the middle. We know what to expect from Dampier: rebounding, on-ball defense in the post, the occasional dunk. But Gooden is more or less a wild card. We know that he’s a more gifted offensive player than Damp, but how will Drew fare on the defensive end? Determining when Gooden is the appropriate matchup will be Rick Carlisle’s first big test of the season, and assessing his offensive contributions relative to his expected defensive limitations. I’m not convinced that Gooden will give up all that much at center, but only time will tell how he will function within the Mavs’ scheme.

Photo by Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty Images.

You have to love the depth that comes with the Mavs’ new additions. Shawn Marion will fill many of the minutes as the Mavs’ back-up power forward, particularly in the rumored small ball lineup featuring the top five players in the rotation (Dirk, Kidd, JET, Howard, Marion). Quinton Ross also gives the Mavs a defensive stopper on the wing, either to neutralize particular perimeter threats or possibly to fill in as a starter for the injured Howard. Kris Humphries is poised to build on his solid preseason by playing as either big, and James Singleton/Tim Thomas fill the role of utility big based on specific need. I’d be remiss not to mention the excellent J.J. Barea, who proved against the Spurs that he’s capable of being a big-time difference maker. Rodrigue Beaubois will get some burn as the third point guard and occasionally as an off-guard, but he won’t get enough minutes to appease the Roddy-hungry MFFLs. I’m already salivating while we wait for Beaubois to actualize his potential, but for now we should all take deep breaths and try to be comfortable with the idea of limited minutes and some DNP-CDs for Rodrigue. All of his hopefully translates for more opportunities to thrive for the big names in Dallas. It’s so much easier to succeed in the NBA when surrounded by a decent supporting cast, and Dirk, Kidd, JET, and Josh have quite the ensemble.

I’m interested to see just how reliant the 2009-’10 Mavs are on the small ball approach. Putting Dirk at center certainly has its perks, but he does give up a bit defensively. We won’t really know for sure until Josh Howard returns from injury, but if last year was any indication (where Brandon Bass was a part of the Mavs’ most effective lineups), it could be Dallas’ trump card.