One of the more fascinating (and infuriating) aspects of basketball is just how reliant everything — from the performance of a certain player to the success of a particular set play to the effect of a coach — is on team context. Circumstance is almighty. It can turn effective offensive players into non-factors and defensive sieves into worthy contributors. It scores contracts for the otherwise underwhelming, or completely devalues the typically deserving.
It creates a world where Corey Brewer, a good perimeter defender and former lottery pick, is worthy of being waived one day and courted by half of the NBA the next. What’s more: team-specific circumstance makes it so that both the Knicks’ decision to cut Brewer loose and the Mavs’ decision to sign him make complete sense.
As I wrote on the New York Times‘ Off the Dribble blog, Brewer was an exceptionally poor fit for New York’s offense. Even following the Carmelo Anthony deal (which saw two big-minute wings leave for Denver), it made more sense for Mike D’Antoni to rely on New York mainstays like Bill Walker and Shawne Williams than attempt to integrate Brewer. There’s no question that Brewer is a better perimeter defender than any of the current Knicks, but outside shooting is so vital for wing players in D’Antoni’s offense, and Brewer doesn’t have much touch from outside; even Ian Mahinmi is a better shooter on long two-pointers this season than Brewer, and despite his considerable struggles from beyond the arc thus far, Rodrigue Beaubois has matched Brewer’s putrid .263 mark from three-point range.
Dallas, on the other hand, has an offensive template for Brewer already in place: Shawn Marion.
Marion, by design, does almost all of his offensive damage within 15 feet of the basket. He’s not a star, but he’s also not asked to be; Marion’s touches and shot attempts are that of a role player, and Brewer should see similar opportunities during his time on the court. Dallas has proven that having a non-shooter like Marion or Brewer in the lineup doesn’t put the team’s offense at too much of a disadvantage. The key to Brewer’s offensive efficiency will be an acceptance of a role as a pure slasher. He may lack Marion’s post-up ability, but Brewer should be able to score on a similar array of cuts to the basket, and benefit from Jason Kidd’s passing ability (as opposed to the point guard stylings of Jonny Flynn and Luke Ridnour) in the process. The fewer jumpers Brewer takes the better, and it’s to the Mavs’ advantage that they already have a rotation regular functioning with under that same guideline.
All of this is neglecting Brewer’s real utility, though. Brewer is definitely a plus defender, and a better perimeter option on that end than DeShawn Stevenson, Jason Kidd, or considered free agent Sasha Pavlovic. The smart money is also on Brewer to become even better defensively with the Mavs than he was with the Timberwolves; not only does Dallas have a better defensive system in place, but having Tyson Chandler on the back line allows Brewer to really attack his assigned man without worrying about the timing of the help behind him.
However, others would disagree with the assessment that Brewer is merely good on that end of the court. On TrueHoop, Henry Abbott wrote the following glowing description of Brewer’s defensive abilities:
Defensive statistics are among the least conclusive statistics in existence, so I’m not arguing to use those statistics to hand out contracts and roster spots. But I am arguing to use them as an early warning system, and to guide the video basketball decision-makers spend their precious time watching.
Smart teams, I’d wager, have been watching Corey Brewer for a long time for this exact reason.
And what they have been seeing is a defensive show. Once you clue in to the guy, it’s glaringly obvious that no one on the court is defending like him. He’s narrow, long, strong, quick and feisty — which is a perfect set of attributes to fight over a screen. He has great hands. He goads non-shooters into shooting, and keeps great shooters from making a catch. He talks constantly on defense — he’s not only in the right place, but he knows where everybody else is supposed to be, too.
The defensive metrics available are certainly kind to Brewer, and watching him in action confirms what the numbers suggest. However, the Bruce Bowen comparison (which Abbott makes earlier in his piece, and numerous other analysts have done as well) is where things get slightly out of hand. Bowen was a game-changing perimeter defender, and though there are certainly active players who fit that same description (Andre Iguodala comes to mind), I’m not sure Brewer is one of them. He’s a smart, hard-working defender who’s capable of guarding both ball-controlling threats (Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony) and off-ball cutters (Ray Allen, Kevin Durant), but trumpeting him as the next Bowen seems like a stretch.
For now, anyway. Brewer is just 25 years old, and according to Marc Stein, Dallas will secure his services for a three-year deal worth a little more than $7 million. The player the Mavs are acquiring isn’t a finished product; Brewer’s defense and troubling jumper are set to improve, if only as a natural product of his maturation as a player. The Mavs are short on young, growing pieces, and Brewer is one more in-house contributor with his prime still ahead of him.
At worst, Dallas added a good defensive player. At best, they inked an exceptional defender with an improving offensive game for a pretty minimal salary commitment. The cost here is quite low for the Mavs, and while Brewer isn’t going to leap headfirst into stardom, there’s nothing wrong with paying a bit for defensive potential. It may not have worked out for Brewer and the Knicks, but the Mavs were looking for a player with Brewer’s strengths and can afford to bear his weaknesses. Dallas is in a different place with a different system, and seems to have made a solid value signing thanks to a useful player’s incongruity with another team.