The Pains of Being Mediocre

Posted by Rob Mahoney on April 6, 2010 under Commentary | 7 Comments to Read

While the destruction of the class system in the Western Conference has created a particularly intriguing playoff scene, it doesn’t exactly bode well for the Mavs’ chance for postseason glory. I wish it were simple enough to say that the reasons for the Mavericks’ turmoil were all internal, but just as worrisome has been the meteoric rise of the West’s lower-seeded teams. Phoenix, Portland, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City are all playing tremendous basketball at the moment, and the while the volatility in the West hinges greatly on the struggles of teams like L.A., Denver, and Dallas, the non-traditional contenders in the conference introduce a rather unique competitive element.

As a result, Dallas should be wary of an early playoff exit. Not necessarily because they’re not playing well enough (though they’re not), but because their opponent may be; the power to decide the first round series won’t rest solely in the hands of higher seeded teams, even though the talent level of squads like the Lakers will give them some inherent advantages. Basically, the Mavs need to play well not only because they’re capable of doing so, but because their first round opponent in the playoffs surely will be.

That’s why it’s particularly painful to admit the truth that as of right now, Dallas is rather mediocre. Any magic the Mavs captured during their 13-game winning streak is now gone, and a review of the relevant statistics makes two things very apparent:

  1. The Dallas Mavericks are absolutely, positively worthy of being in the Western Conference playoffs.
  2. The Dallas Mavericks are, in many regards, quite average.

Let’s break this down in greater detail, using the four factors. All of the the Mavs’ stats are based on post-All-Star production only, while the rankings and league averages are based on the entire season thus far (or rather, the rankings represent how the post-trade Mavs stack up with the other teams’ full season numbers).

All statistics courtesy of HoopData.com.

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Shooting (eFG%, or effective field goal percentage):

.508 eFG% (10th, .499 league average)

.499 eFG% allowed (17th, .499 league average)

The Mavs’ tendency to follow their most torrid offensive performances with rather mundane ones has done a splendid job of making their effective field goal percentage a solid, but middling .508. This would never be an area in which I’d expect Dallas to excel; an offense predicated on shooting a ton of mid-range jumpers is never going to rank very well in terms of eFG%. When a team relies so heavily on the least efficient shot in basketball (even if they employ some of the best in the game at that particular shot), posting an elite effective field goal percentage will always be an uphill battle.

The defensive shooting numbers are a bit more troubling to me, if only because it means that the Mavs’ defensive success from early in the season has essentially evaporated. Bringing in Brendan Haywood and Caron Butler was supposed to drastically improve the defense, but the Mavs’ eFG% allowed has actually been worse since the trade by the tiniest of margins. The problem isn’t that the defense has gotten worse, it’s that it hasn’t gotten better.

Turnovers (TOr, or turnover rate):

.131 TOr (T-11th, .134 league average)

.146 opponent TOr (5th, .134 league average)

Ball protection has long been a staple of the Dallas Mavericks, and it’s even what allowed a 2006 team with historically low assist totals to make it all the way to the NBA Finals. Dallas may not shoot as many corner threes or shots in the paint as other teams, but they usually take care of the ball so well that they’re able to split the difference in efficiency.

That hasn’t been the case of late, and the Mavs have slipped from being an elite team when it comes to turnovers to a rather disappointing 12th. It’s not a case where you can point to one player as the cause. Instead, a number of players (Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Brendan Haywood, J.J. Barea) have each contributed a few extra turnovers to damage the Mavs’ previously impressive turnover rate. The slightest uptick on a team-wide scale is enough to make a team strength fall back into the pack.

Oddly enough, the Mavs have managed to hedge the drop-off in their own turnover struggles by forcing more turnovers on the defensive end. It’s a bit surprising given that this facet of defense has always seemed elude the Mavs prior to this season. Not since the All-Star break, and seeing improvement in this area of the Mavs’ D does give some reason for optimism…if only because it’s one of the few defensive bright spots.

Rebounding (ORR, or offensive rebounding rate)

.239 ORR (26th, .263 league average)

.266 opponent ORR/Mavs’ DRR) (12th, .263 league average)

Dallas has never been a good offensive rebounding team, though this number is admittedly weakened due to games missed by Erick Dampier and Brendan Haywood. The sample size for this data is so small since we’re only looking at post-All-Star values, making the combined 15 games that Damp and Haywood have missed since the break even more influential.

Still, look at both of those ranks. In terms of defensive rebounding — which you would think would be a strength on a team with Haywood, Dampier, Nowitzki, Marion, and Kidd — the Mavs are somehow a middle of the pack outfit. They’re a much better defensive rebounding team than they are an offensive rebounding one, but can a squad really survive a long playoff run with such poor rebounding numbers? I wouldn’t say that elite rebounding is absolutely essential (though it’s rather important that overall the Mavs are not a poor rebounding team), but given how Dallas stacks up in the other factors, this hurts.

Free Throws (FTA/FGA)

.255 FTA/FGA (27th, league average .301)

.277 opponents’ FTA/FGA (6th, league average .301)

Some things never change. Even with the additions of Butler, Haywood, and Beaubois to the rotation, the Mavs are as free throw-deprived as ever. Dirk Nowitzki’s ability to get to the line is still somewhat unheralded relative to his contemporaries. The bigger issue is that Jason Terry and Caron Butler, the next two Mavs in line to take a large amount of shots, both put up a ton of two-point jumpers and don’t shoot many free throws. Dirk can create contact and get himself to the line, but the rest of the Mavs aren’t really following suit.

Luckily Dallas doesn’t send their opponents to the line all that often, which helps to even things out. The FTR differential still goes to the opponents, which means that even though the rankings show this as a potential strength for the Mavs, any advantage is negated by how poorly Dallas measures up on the companion stat.

———-

To review, the Mavs offensive ranks: 10th, 11th, 26th, and 27th.

And their defensive ranks: 17th, 5th, 12th, and 6th.

When analysts and writers note the Mavs’ lack of identity, this is what they mean. What is it, aside from being pretty damn good at shooting two-point jumpers, that Dallas does well? They’re not a great defensive team, not a great rebounding team, don’t excel at getting to the line, and don’t boast impressive efficiency on either end of the court. They’re quite good at not turning the ball over, but even that strength seems oddly supplemental.

They rank 9th in offensive efficiency (107.1, league average 104.5) and 15th in defensive efficiency (105.0, league average 104.5) since the break. These are not ratings that should inspire confidence, and they’re reason enough to deny the Mavs contender status. This point is perhaps best articulated through efficiency differential (which is exactly what it sounds like: offensive efficiency – defensive efficiency).

In running down the leaders in efficiency differential, you run into the usual suspects: Orlando (+8.8), Cleveland (+8.3), and Los Angeles (+6.0). Those are to be expected, as each of those teams is considered a strong candidate for a spot in the NBA Finals. Continue down the list and you’ll find Utah (+5.3), Phoenix (+5.1), San Antonio (+4.9), and Boston (+4.9). The Jazz and Celtics’ ratings are a bit intuitive, but the Suns and Spurs, which may seem to be ranked surprisingly high at 5th and 6th respectively, have been on monstrous tears despite some struggles earlier in the season. Then comes Atlanta (+4.6), Denver (+4.4), Oklahoma City (+4.3), Portland (+4.1), Miami (+3.2), and finally, Dallas (+2.1). Ouch.

This differential is as literal as statistics come, and it directly represents the separation between the Mavs and their opponents. These measures remove pace as a factor and focus solely on two things: how efficiently Dallas is able to produce on a per-possession basis and how efficiently their opponents are able to produce on a per-possession basis. To see the Mavs fare so poorly is incredibly disconcerting, and the fact that they rank dead last among the Western Conference playoff teams especially so.

I don’t think that the Mavs are the worst team in the West playoff picture, nor do I think that their first round series will be decided by who has the higher efficiency differential. Every playoff series will be determined by specific match-ups, and as the Mavs found out in 2007, a remarkably high differential means little when the match-up isn’t in a team’s favor. These numbers do, however, speak volumes about how badly the Mavs have played at times since the All-Star break, a fact which was obscured by 13 straight wins, most of which came against significantly weaker opponents.

The second season is about to begin, and the climate of the playoffs is significantly different than that of the regular season. In fact, many of the intangibles that end up playing a role in the postseason (coaching, leadership, experience, clutch play, etc.) would seem to give Dallas some unquantifiable advantage. It would be utterly foolish to write the Mavericks’ eulogy now, because the fortunes of a team can literally change overnight (see Bogut, Andrew), and every prediction made now would likely be obsolete by the time the first round actually begins. But should the Mavs meet their unlikely demise against a first round foe, don’t pretend that the warning signs weren’t there. This team has struggled in a lot of ways over the past few months, and though the win streak and the 50-win mark are each worthy of celebration, they don’t signal any kind of grand redemption for a team plagued by its mediocrity.

  • long time follower

    I have read your page everyday for what seems like a lifetime; as long as you’ve been updating. But when I see a twitter update from Ben Rock that states:

    Ben Q. Rock: Good work by @RobMahoney on how depressingly average the Mavs are: bit.ly/dooaiu 33 minutes ago.

    and it leads me to this article of yours. You have now failed us as mav fans and started to join to propaganda mavs bashing mainstream media. I wish you luck.

    Sincerely,
    A long time fan of yours and MFFL

  • honker

    MFFL,

    after all those stats (at the very least),
    too bad.

    yours truly,
    honker

  • Robert

    >You have now failed us as mav fans and started to join to propaganda mavs bashing mainstream media.

    It doesn’t hurt to get some perspective to things. At least with Rob I know that he does not want to bash the Mavs. And the article is not even very subjective, it’s all stats. Sure, you can pick or leave out stats just to prove your point, but I don’t think Rob did that. Even without stats the last couple of games were just depressing.

    Let’s just hope that they get it together before the playoff start. If the Mavs are clicking they are a tough team to beat.

  • harry

    Hard to see this article as mavs bashing. I am becoming a little embarrassed of some Mav fans who seem to be turning into Laker quality fans. “The Mavs (or Kobe) are the greatest team (or player) ever. If you don’t agree you’re a hater!” You’d prefer your team get a reputation for having savy fans, not semi-delusional MFFLs who wear blinders.
    That said,this is an incredabily hard team to get a handle on. Are they more than the sum of the parts, or less? Who knows? These numbers do seem very middling – and how could we expect any different from a team that takes turns looking like the best/worst team in the league? Man handle the Lakers, blown out by the Knicks, Beat Orlando in Orlando, get mopped off the floor by them in Dallas.
    Seriously though, this season has been more fun to follow than any other in my recent memory. I’m looking forward to the playoffs, how they perform is going to be about the only true measure we have of them.

  • harry

    All of the the Mavs’ stats are based on post-All-Star production only, while the rankings and league averages are based on the entire season thus far (or rather, the rankings represent how the post-trade Mavs stack up with the other teams’ full season numbers).
    Kind of sad Rob had to put that in bold to stop the crazies from attacking.

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