Dig, Don’t Bury

Posted by Rob Mahoney on September 9, 2010 under Commentary | 4 Comments to Read

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The Mavericks waited. They waited by the phone for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Joe Johnson to return their calls, but those stars never did. Meanwhile, Erick Dampier sat, gift-wrapped in festive paper and topped with a bow, waiting for the bounty he would never fetch.

This wasn’t the way the summer was supposed to go. The return on Dampier’s instantly expiring contract wasn’t supposed to be Tyson Chandler, but it was and here we are. The Mavericks waited (as if they had any other option), and as a reward for that waiting, they scored a center that may not be any better than Erick Dampier at all. Chandler is quite useful, but so, too was Dampier. Both are likely best served as reserve centers, and with the Mavs, either would be. Their offensive skills are comparable, and their defensive competence similar.

I say all of this in light of Brett Hainline’s recent piece over at Queen City Hoops, which detailed how losing Chandler might impact the Charlotte Bobcats’ defense next season. Charlotte just so happened to boast the NBA’s top defense in ’09-’10, but expecting them to repeat in that capacity would be foolish. For one, the Cats lost Raymond Felton, a strong and relentless perimeter defender. Additionally, Charlotte has now lost Chandler, a move which Hainline argues could be catastrophic to the Bobcats’ defensive effectiveness.

However, that claim says more about the center crop in Charlotte than it does about Chandler’s ability to stand out on defense. The Bobcats will likely fall off defensively in the coming year, but that’s largely because Nazr Mohammed, Kwame Brown, and Boris Diaw will be forced to fill the minutes in the middle. Losing Chandler hurts, but filling his minutes with that crew hurts more.

In terms of defensive efficiency, Hainline found that the lineup featuring Tyson Chandler and the other starter mainstays (Felton, Stephen Jackson, Gerald Wallace, Diaw) performed 10 points per 100 possessions better than the same lineup but with Nazr Mohammed substituted for Chandler. Believe it. Mohammed is also plenty useful as a player, and he’s not a horrible defender. He just doesn’t operate with the same effectiveness in the Bobcats’ system.

However, though the Chandler-infused starting unit’s mark of 99.3 points allowed per 100 possessions is commendable, Dallas did one better, despite only having the 12th best defense overall last season. When Erick Dampier played with the Mavericks’ starters (Jason Kidd, Caron Butler, Shawn Marion, and Dirk Nowitzki), Dallas allowed just 89 points per 100 possessions. Then, with the Mavs’ other “starting” lineup (Kidd, Jason Terry, Marion, and Nowitzki) last season, Dallas allowed just 95 points per 100 possessions. Those are two exemplary defensive lineups that Dampier was able to anchor, and while the sample size for the former is a bit small (Butler only played in 27 regular season games for the Mavs last season, after all) the defensive numbers for the latter held through extended minutes (it was the Mavs’ most-played lineup last season).

If that’s the criterion by which we evaluate either player’s defensive success, Dampier was at least Chandler’s defensive equal. In fact, if we use Hainline’s player swap tool, his system puts the Mavs at 1.9 fewer Pythagorean wins with Chandler than with Dampier based on both players’ offensive and defensive impact from last season:

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However, a look into each player’s individual defense does reveal a few interesting discrepancies. Take a look at how Chandler, Dampier, and Brendan Haywood each performed last season in various defensive capacities (on a points allowed per possession basis), courtesy of Synergy Sports:

PlayerOverall Defense (PPP)Post-Up (PPP)PnR Roll Man (PPP)
Tyson Chandler0.850.800.52
Erick Dampier0.890.820.89
Brendan Haywood0.890.900.73

Data from Synergy Sports Technology.

By these measures, Chandler is actually a slight improvement over Dampier, and a far better pick-and-roll defender. In my initial analysis of the Dampier trade, I noted that although Chandler may not be supremely talented, there is value in variety. Brendan Haywood and Erick Dampier are similar defenders, while Chandler, empirically speaking, separates himself with his defense of the pick-and-roll. That’s why even though the Mavs didn’t make any significant personnel upgrades, their D could still improve in the coming season.

Or, if you’ve been watching Chandler’s defensive exploits (or is it exploitation?) with Team USA, you may think otherwise. Consider this: Chandler is moving better after recovering from injury, and that matters. His coverage of the pick-and-roll hasn’t been very good, and that matters too, but far less. You can’t expect the members of a team assembled in a matter of weeks with extremely limited practice time to execute quality pick-and-roll defense, especially against the experienced practitioners working the ball for other national teams. He’ll be fine when he returns to the more consistent NBA life, and Dallas should be better at defending ball screens.

My fear is that Chandler’s possible success in Dallas will somehow be viewed as one in the same with Dampier’s alleged failure. Damp’s contract has made him an easy scapegoat for Mavs fans over the years, and I’d be the first to tell you that he doesn’t deserve that many shekels. However, I draw that line at blaming Dampier for the Mavs’ defensive troubles. I’m not sure that Dampier is an ideal fit with this team any longer, but he’s still a good center who did what was asked of him. He set screens. He grabbed boards. He defended well in the post. That’s what the Mavericks (over)paid him to do, and should the team take any kind of step forward in ’10-’11, it won’t be because the team shed themselves of some Dampier-shaped burden. Acquiring Chandler is a touch of a stylistic shift, and that’s the change that gives Dallas the potential to improve.