An Ugly, Beautiful Butterfly

Posted by Rob Mahoney on November 3, 2009 under Commentary | 2 Comments to Read

If three games are any indication (and in all honesty, they’re not), our Mavs have grown up. We’re almost a week into the still-in-diapers 2009-’10 season, but the Mavs have taken a completely different approach to winning. Rather than hoping Dirk and JET can out-shoot opponents in half-court sets, the Mavs are 2-1 through their first three games solely because of their ability to do the unthinkable: get to the free throw line frequently and play aggressive defense.

The rest of the offense…well, it needs to catch up. But there’s time. Time afforded by a team that’s playing some terrific defense right now. This, cats and kittens, is what’s called the conventional approach. I’ve read about it once or twice in books, but from my primitive understanding it usually involves “centers,” power forwards that aren’t Dirk Nowitzki, and repetitive uses of the phrase “defense wins championships.”It’s widely rumored (but unconfirmed) that this approach was invented by L. Ron Hubbard.

Regardless of its possible genesis in fairy tales and the like, this method is supposedly effective for winning lots and lots of important basketball games. That’s something we can all appreciate, so I’m glad the Mavs decided to give this different approach a whirl. As a result, Dallas has been able to build upon its weaknesses. This is going far beyond the hypothetical, from the standard issue preseason company lines to regular season actualization. We know the Mavs have been putting in hours working on their defense, but is it possible that this year’s team will consistently walk the walk?

Again, it’s a tiny, tiny sample size, but it looks like they just might. Take a look at their offensive numbers compared to last season:

Four Factors (Offense)
Metric2008-'092009-'10
eFG%11th27th
TOV%3rd7th
ORB%16th17th
FT/FGA22nd6th

And their defensive numbers:

Four Factors (Defense)
Metric2008-'092009-'10
eFG%10th7th
TOV%25th6th
DRB%8th8th
FT/FGA10th4th

Four factors data from Basketball-Reference.com.

The defensive improvements make a bit of sense. D was clearly the focus of training camp, and the Mavs added Shawn Marion and Quinton Ross with this exact outcome in mind. But the fact that the Mavs have been able to perform so well defensively without Josh Howard is awfully impressive.

Also, consider this: the delicious defensive numbers you see displayed in the table are sandbagged by the Mavs’ miserable defensive showing against the Wizards. When Gilbert Arenas, Randy Foye, Andray Blatche, and Brandan Haywood went hog-wild to rain all over the Mavs’ opening night festivities. That night showed very much the other side of the coin, but in multiple respects: The Mavs are still capable of playing poorly on defense, and the Mavs have been so spectacular since then that their overall defensive numbers are still brilliant.

Especially notable is the incredible bump in opponents’ turnover percentage, an area which has historically been a problem for the Mavs. Dallas’ defense, even in its strongest incarnations, has never been a pressure defense. They’ve played relatively conservatively, tried to force tough shots, and secured the rebound. This season, they’ve been stealing at a higher rate, drawing offensive fouls, and forcing more turnovers than before. Credit the personnel, Coach Carlisle, or whoever you’d like, but two solid defensive outings (and wins!) have me psyched about this team’s defensive potential.

The offense really should give you no reason to worry. It’s understandable that when two of the Mavs’ leading shot-takers, Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry, are shooting a combined 38.8%, your offense is going to struggle. Thus far, the Mavs’ poor shooting has been a virtual non-factor, as a newfound commitment to attacking the basket has led to more shot attempts in the paint than ever before, and a sudden bump in free throw attempts for one of the best free throw shooting teams in the league.

Here’s a look at the Mavs’ shot distribution this season:

Now, compare those numbers with the distribution for last season:

Shot distribution data from HoopData.com.

Those subtle changes may not seem substantial on face, but the shift in shot attempts from the perimeter (where the Mavs have been horrible, percentage-wise) to the paint has been huge both in terms of direct scoring and FTAs. The Mavs have increased their shot attempts from within 10 feet by 6%. That’s about as radical a change in approach as you could ask of a team with the same coach and essentially the same core. More and more Maverick possessions are ending up with trips to the free throw line and shots in the paint, and though that’s not always as fulfilling as a silky jumper finding net, it’s putting points on the board while the Mavs’ opponents struggle to.

I’m not trying to tell you that these numbers are stable or valid, just that they are. As of right now, these are the 2009-2010 Dallas Mavericks. They’re undergoing a beautiful metamorphosis into something ugly yet refined, and though the shooting could certainly be better, one can only hope that these Mavs are here to stay.

  • Sean

    Great read, thx for the analysis! I’m hoping these Mavs are here to stay as well. DEEEEEEEEEFENSE!

  • Rhett

    Wow. Nicely done!