Once More, With Feeling: The Rotation

Posted by Rob Mahoney on October 27, 2010 under Commentary, Previews | Be the First to Comment

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The regular season is just a few hours away, but it’s never too late to catch up with the Mavs’ rotation regulars. Some members of the rotation are continuing with business as usual, others have modified roles, and some are completely fresh to the Mavericks faithful. So let me introduce to you, the act you’ve known for all of these years, only new, hopefully improved, and ready to roll:

[Ed. note: If you're confused by the following positional designations, you've got some catching up to do.]

Dirk Nowitzki
Scorer/Rebounder — D4

Dirk Nowitzki’s fantastic production is trumped only by his remarkable consistency. The Mavs lean so heavily on Dirk’s ability to score in volume, and he yet he never disappoints. The sun rises, Nowitzki drops 25 and eight, the sun sets. This is the rhythm to which the Mavs have scored their success over the last decade, and the beat is as steady now as it ever has been. There will come a day when Dirk is no longer fit to be the focal point of an offense, but it’s not today, and the rest of the week looks clear, too.

Nowitzki played almost 38 minutes a night last season, and if Rick Carlisle could find some rest for his star, that would change. It won’t, and Dirk should continue to chug along at about 37 or 38 minutes a night because this team has no alternative. If the Mavs are going to work for a guaranteed playoff spot and an optimal seed, Nowitzki has to be on the court as much as possible. Dallas’ offense tends to crumble without Dirk present to moderate, and though that could potentially change if Caron Butler, Jason Tery, and Rodrigue Beaubois can provide stable scoring in Nowitzki’s absence, I’m inclined to base projections of the year to come off of the one past. That trio wasn’t able to accomplish that goal after the All-Star break last season, so any progress on that front, while welcome, would be a bit unexpected.

In those 38 minutes, we can expect the same Nowitzki. Dirk’s true-shooting percentage (.580) and effective field goal percentage (.498) were pretty much in line with his career averages, and the sum total of his scoring was also par for the course. Plus, as I mentioned in my season preview focusing on the four factors, Nowitzki’s lack of turnovers is positively remarkable. He’s truly elite in that regard, not only among his contemporaries, but for these and all times. For a guy who has control of the offense so often, Nowitzki should be coughing the ball up at a significantly higher rate. He doesn’t, and it’s godsend to the Maverick offense.

Nowitzki’s defensive role will always come secondary to his offensive importance, but I still retain the notion that Dirk gets a bit of an undeserved rap as a defender. In his first four seasons in the NBA or so, Nowitzki was a truly abysmal defender. Over time, as Dirk grew into his body and the NBA game, he’s developed a pretty decent set of defensive skills that don’t make him a plus on that end necessarily, but prevent him from being a liability. According to 82games, Nowitzki’s counterparts average a PER of 16.6, and while that’s above average, it’s an acceptable mark considering Nowitzki’s +9.3 edge in net PER.

Dirk still picks up his share of blocks and steals (in fact, his number of defensive plays per game puts him right in line with guys like Tim Duncan and Kendrick Perkins), but where he’s shown the most improvement is in his defensive awareness. I wouldn’t want Dirk anchoring my defense for a variety of reasons, but he’s not quite as poor of a defender as advertised these days.

Jason Kidd
Creator — D2/D1

Though I often mention the importance of Butler, Terry, and Beaubois’ scoring, it’s Kidd’s shot-creating talents that could end up being most crucial for the Mavs this season. The Spurs systematically eliminated the impacts of both Terry and Kidd in last year’s playoffs, and Dallas struggled to compensate. Even with Butler and Beaubois chipping in, it’s Kidd’s ability to create shots for players like Shawn Marion, Brendan Haywood, and Tyson Chandler (not to mention free up the likes of Terry and Butler for open looks) that currently fuels the Mavs’ secondary attack. Without Kidd setting up teammates that can’t create for themselves on a consistent basis, the Mavs’ offense becomes brutally simplistic and, ultimately, solvable.

The fast breaks matter. Kidd’s three-point shooting matter. But ultimately, it’s Kidd’s ability to do the same thing he’s always done — manufacture shots out of thin air in half-court sets — that will help the Mavs most this season. Everything else is just gravy.

Something that could make that gravy even more delicious, though, is a facet of Kidd’s game he’s supposedly been working on in the off-season: shooting off of screens. The reason why the Terry-Nowitzki two man game is so effective is because both players are essentially a threat to score at all times. Terry could shoot when tucked behind the screen, he could break toward the rim, pull-up on the way, or dish it to Dirk for another thousand options. When Kidd runs the two man game, it’s painfully obvious that he has no intent to score. Kidd’s a poor finisher around the rim, and to this point, has been awkward in his attempts to hit pull-up jumpers off the bounce. If he can again introduce a new element to his game this late in his career (a la the improve three-point stroke he unveiled upon arriving in Dallas), it could help the Mavs out tremendously. Having Kidd as a legitimate pick-and-roll option would open up a whole new world for the Dallas offense. Shining, shimmering, splendid.

Kidd’s still an impact player on the defensive end, but it’s probably best if we say that he’s between traditional positions. There are plenty of players that Kidd is effective in guarding, but to say that he always guards one position or another would be both misguided and terribly false. Dallas swings their defensive matchups with great regularity, particularly with scoring D1s (Terry, Beaubois, possibly Dominique Jones) sharing the court with Kidd. The important thing is that Kidd can defend someone, and though particular defensive assignments have given him trouble over the last few seasons, he’s still very capable of doing just that.

Caron Butler
Scorer — D3/D2

At Media Day, Caron Butler insisted that one of training camp’s primary benefits was the ability to make his mark on the team, to instill his personality and influence on a squad that will rely on him this season. That may seem backward to those with old-school, team-first sensibilities, but there’s definitely some logic in Butler’s perspective. Last season, he was thrown into the lineup mid-stride and asked to produce, which puts him in a natural position to accommodate. He still took plenty of shots and made an impact on the offense in both good ways and bad, but Caron was still sliding into an offense that was never designed for him.

This season, Butler will have a chance to make his mark, and to really be a part of this team from opening tip. Mid-season player integration is a tall order, but now all excuses are wiped clean, Butler is in a contract year, and it’s time to go to work.

Showing up in excellent shape is a start, but it’s going to take more than a few dropped pounds for Butler to live up to his role. Dallas needs Caron to provide consistent, efficient complementary scoring while holding his own defensively, and provided he accomplishes those two things, Dallas will be in a very good place come April. If not — if Butler is only the same player he was in the latter half of last season, for example — the Mavs’ offense on the whole will surely suffer the repercussions. Nowitzki is essential and Kidd principal, but Butler is pivotal. He has the potential to swing the Mavs’ offense into the future, leaving the days of middling offensive efficiency behind.

Shawn Marion
Rebounder — D3/D4/D2/D1

Shawn Marion is the Mavs’ best defender, and if any team’s best defender doesn’t put up daunting numbers, they’re bound to be undervalued. Such is the case with Marion, who has already become a bit of a scapegoat among Mavs fans after just one season with the team.

Nevermind the fact that Marion is still a premier perimeter defender that can swing to cover just bout anyone on the court. Nevermind that at his primary position, Marion held his defensive assignments to a 13.3 PER. Nevermind the fact that Marion draws the toughest defensive assignments on the perimeter night-in and night-out, and forced some of the league’s most potent scorers (LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant) into inefficient and unproductive nights last season.

His rebounding rate may not be what it once was, as is the case with his overall scoring production, but Marion is still an elite perimeter defender. His primary function on the team is to succeed in that capacity, while also chipping in on the boards and in the scoring column. Let’s not forget that for all of his the derision Marion received for his offensive contributions, he still scored 12 points a night while shooting .508 from the field. It’s not quite the 20+ Marion was gunning for during his Phoenix days, but considering how much of an afterthought he was in the Mavs’ offense, it’s not too shabby.

Don’t expect Marion to produce as a Maverick like he did as a Sun. He’s not being utilized in even remotely the same way, and to expect the same total production would be unspeakably foolish. Marion was certainly both more productive and more efficient as a member of a relentless, fast-breaking offense, but that’s not the way the Mavs roll these days and we should adjust our expectations accordingly. Defend, rebound, score when he can. Those are Marion’s marching orders, and so far he’s followed them intently.

Jason Terry
Scorer/Creator — D1

Terry used to be a rather divisive Maverick, but these days he’s mostly just reviled. Some of the criticism (his spotty scoring last season, his defensive ineptitude) is warranted, and some (exaggerated claims about his periodic shooting troubles, comments about his abilities as a supplementary playmaker) less so. Regardless, Terry is still a Maverick, and unless he experiences an incredible drop-off, still a valued part of the franchise and the offense.

You can trace a few minor regressions in Terry’s statistical profile if you’d like, but on paper he was essentially the same player that won the Sixth Man Award in 2008-2009. He was less efficient overall, but also using fewer possessions. His scoring dipped, but so did his shot attempts. Overall, Terry’s line looks like that of a player trying to accommodate the presence of new teammates (Butler, Marion, et al), and as a result, perhaps he wasn’t as effective in some spots as he could have been otherwise. Or maybe at 32, JET is seeing his own inevitable decline begin to unfold. If that’s the case, Dallas would do well with a repeat performance from Terry, who was still able to be an effective contributor to the offense.

Anything worse, and Dallas could be in serious trouble; Terry’s at a point in his career where he’ll be allocated certain minutes on previous production and reputation, and he’s unable to produce up to his previous levels in those opportunities, I wonder whether Rick Carlisle will fully hand JET’s role over to Rodrigue Beaubois mid-season.

Regardless, Terry’s tenure in Dallas may soon be coming to a close. The Mavs need him to produce this season, but it’s unclear whether he’ll be a Maverick beyond this year. The sentimentalist in me hopes he’ll be in Dallas for a bit. The pragmatist knows that Beaubois is essentially ready to take over Terry’s duties today, and that it could be in the franchise’s best interest to sent JET on his merry way. His performance this season will likely play a significant part in the decision regardless of where it leads.

Rodrigue Beaubois
Scorer/Hopefully a Creator — D1

You’ve heard of this guy, right? It’s almost unfathomable now that the Maverick who caught the interest of virtually the entire NBA world was essentially an unknown on draft night. He was French. He was athletic. Some invoked the name of Rajon Rondo. Now he’s a profile-worthy talent on his own merits and the Mavs’ great hope for both this season and those to come. Dirk, leaning forward slightly as he measures his opponent while in the triple threat, carries the franchise’s weight on his shoulders. Beaubois, it seems, may one day bear it, too, but for now, he’s just hitting the weight room.

Rick Carlisle was the biggest obstacle in Beaubois’ path last season. As a rookie, Rodrigue was second on the team in points per minute and PER, but 11th in minutes played. He was incredibly efficient with his shooting (also second among Mavericks in both eFG% and TS%), but it’s tough to get up shots when you’re sitting on the bench. Dissecting Beaubois’ lack of playing time in last year’s playoffs is so passe, but there’s truth to the claims of injustice. Basketball is supposed to be a meritocracy, and Beaubois, despite outplaying a number of his teammates, didn’t receive a role or playing time worthy of his merits.

That looks to be different this season. Beaubois will begin the year sidelined by a foot injury he sustained earlier in the summer, but upon his return, he may very well be a starter. At the very least, Beaubois is poised to be a rotation regular, as opposed to last year’s chain-pulling treatment.

Beaubois is the real deal as a scorer, but no one can say how his game will improve, flat-line, regress, or evolve in the coming season. There’s no use projecting. There’s no use assuming. Just watch, enjoy, and hopefully, embrace the future.

Brendan Haywood
Rebounder — D5

Tyson Chandler
Rebounder — D5/D4

Haywood and Chandler, together, provide the Mavs with a pretty impressive D5 front. In Haywood, the Mavs have a big skilled in defending the post, challenging cutters, and hitting the glass. With Chandler, Dallas now has a big capable of defending the pick-and-roll well, but also strong and athletic enough to compete on the boards, and fight opposing bigs down low. Both share a Stretch Armstrong physique that makes them valuable as both on-ball and help defenders.

No offense to Erick Dampier (and I mean that sincerely; I have more respect for Dampier’s game than just about anyone on his Christmas card mailing list), but this is the most talented center core Dallas has ever had. I don’t know how much that will matter considering the duo’s specific flaws and the other weaknesses on the roster, but the Mavs have two pretty talented centers that, with their powers combined, should improve the Mavs’ overall defense with their versatility.

Offensively, both are relative liabilities. Haywood’s hook may be slightly more reliable, but all things considered, the differences in their offensive games are negligible. Haywood and Chandler finish around the basket. They’ll get post-up opportunities every now and again, but for the most part they are marginal scorers. They’re on the floor to rebound, defend, and lurk around the rim to prevent their man from doubling or helping too aggressively. Haywood and Chandler are offensive fail-safes, and occasional lob targets. Not much more, at least in terms of actual scoring.

J.J. Barea
Scorer/Creator — D1

Barea marks the end of the consistent minute-getters, and even his status with the team could become questionable if Rodrigue Beaubois displays the aptitude to fuction as a consistent creator. That isn’t necessarily likely to happen this season, meaning that Barea should be pegged at around 15 minutes for the coming season.

J.J. is a scorer, but is able to make intelligent plays off of the foundation of his drives. His vision isn’t spectacular, and often he gets caught trying to do too much on the way to the basket. Still, he’s creative on the move, and is able to maneuver into the paint in a way few other Mavericks can. Kidd doesn’t drive. Terry doesn’t drive. It’s Barea, Beaubois, and Dominique Jones that can (and do) get deep into the paint consistently, and that makes him valuable, even if his overall production is far from elite.

As a reserve guard, it’s assumed that Barea has obvious weaknesses. His defense, particularly on the pick and roll, leaves something to be desired, though not due to lack of effort. His outside shooting, while solid, isn’t spectacular. His diminutive stature makes finishing at the basket a bit tricky. But take all of that, roll it in a bit of scoring and playmaking, and you’ve got something that doesn’t taste all that bad. He’s never going to be a starting-caliber player, but as far as reserves go, Barea’s pretty useful.