Ian Levy is the author of Hickory High, a contributor to Indy Cornrows, and a part of The Two Man Game family. He’ll be bringing his intelligent brand of — mostly quantitative — analysis here on a weekly basis. You can follow Ian on Twitter at @HickoryHigh.
This is my eleventh contribution to The Two Man Game, and the most difficult to construct. The challenge of recapping a basketball team’s season without knowing the ending is a significant challenge. How do you tell a story without knowing its conclusion? The simplest technique would be to explain how the Mavericks arrived at this point. The truth is I’m not entirely sure.
Over the past two days I’ve started and re-started this post trying and re-trying to find a theme to capture the structure of this season for the Mavs. Looking for said theme may be where my problems started. Have you ever flipped away from a TV show to avoid the commercials, and come back to that channel to find that you’ve missed two bewilderingly crucial minutes? All of a sudden you’re lost. You know all the characters, the setting remains the same, and yet you’re completely confused by the events unfolding. That’s how I feel about this year’s Mavericks; most of the elements are familiar, but the inciting moment of their season’s plot must have been revealed while I was flipping channels.
The only other team I write about on a consistent basis is the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers have been as schizophrenic as any team in the league, but have vacillated between bouts of inspiring dominance and soul-crushing decrepitude. The Mavericks have not seen fluctuations in performance quite like the Pacers, so much as a steady stream of shapeshifting. I wouldn’t even characterize it as metamorphosis. There have been no linear changes. Like The Master of Disguise, they have been assuming identities and casting them aside just as quickly. I look away for two minutes and come back to find a completely different team.
There were the 19-8 Mavericks with Caron Butler finding his place offensively and defensively. There was the mysterious 10 game stretch where Sasha Pavlovic masqueraded as a rotation player. There are the 2-7 Mavericks without Dirk Nowitzki. There was the 24-5 run to start the season. There was the 3-10 stretch to close 2010 and ring in the New Year, which was immediately followed by a 19-1 run. At times they couldn’t be scored on. At times you couldn’t stop them from scoring. Unfortunately, those two incarnations never seemed to align.
Through all the ups and downs; rights and lefts and wrongs, the regular season has to be considered a success. With 57 wins, the Mavericks have had their best regular season since the infamous 2007 campaign. If not for their 2-7 stretch without Nowtizki, they could have spent this final week fighting for the best record in the league. 57 wins gives them just two more than last season, but it feels like a much wider gap, mostly because preseason expectations seemed to be down.
Not many people thought this year’s roster would be an improvement over recent Mavericks’ squads. The Schoene Projection system used by Pro Basketball Prospectus predicted a 48 win season for the Mavericks. With their win over the Hornets last night, the Mavs have out paced that projection by 9 wins. They’ve also outpaced their Pythagorean win projection, based on their actual point differential, by 5 wins.
It’s tough to blame anyone for projecting this as a down year for the Mavericks. There is no disguising the fact that they have an older roster, and near the midpoint of the season it was the oldest in the league when weighted for minutes played. Their roster didn’t see much turnover from last year, as they returned 79% of their minutes played. The draft netted them Dominique Jones, who wasn’t expected to contribute this season. In addition, they lost two of their younger stars, Butler and Beaubois, to injury for significant portions of the season. Nowitzki has helped make them great (last week we looked at how much Nowitzki has meant to the Mavericks’ season), but his production isn’t that much different than what he provided last year.
That leaves just one cog unaccounted for: Tyson Chandler.
Chandler was expected to back up the newly re-signed Brendan Haywood. After two straight down and injury-plagued seasons, it appeared the peak of Chandler’s career may have already passed. Yet the Mavs got a far better return than expected. Chandler played in 74 games this season and logged over 2,000 minutes, milestones he hasn’t reached since the 2008 season. He hit career highs in FG%, FT%, PER and a career low in TOV%. The Mavericks’ Defense Rating was 3.95 points better when Chandler was on the floor. Surprisingly, given his small, well-defined skill set, their Offense Rating was much better (+3.23) with him on the floor as well. No Maverick except for Nowitzki had a better Unadjusted On Court/Off Court Rating for the Mavs this season.
The Mavericks’ Defensive Rating was 105.0 this season, the fourth best mark in franchise history, and the lowest since their 67 win team in 2007. As we discussed a few weeks ago, the biggest drops in their defensive efficiency seemed to occur when Chandler’s minutes were limited by fouls or injury. The Mavericks turned in their third best defensive rebounding season franchise history, and posted their highest DRB% since 2008. They center position has been manned admirably in Dallas by the likes of DeSagana Diop, Erick Dampier and Brendan Haywood. Each of those burly giants was a capable rebounder and could be effective challenging shots at the rim. Tyson Chandler has the athleticism to do those things as well as hedge effectively and recover on a pick-and-roll, or step out and cover a stretch big man. He made the Mavericks’ defense that much more efficient by adding versatility to a familiar formula.
The following assessment was written of Tyson Chandler before the season started, again from the tremendous Pro Basketball Prospectus:
A change of scenery failed to revitalize Tyson Chandler’s career like it did when he went from Chicago to New Orleans. He was limited by injuries and inconsistent on the floor during his final year with the Hornets, and the same was true of his lone season in Charlotte. Both Chandler’s rebounding and his two-point percentage have fallen dramatically the last two years, and SCHOENE isn’t optimistic about his chances to return to peak form. Chandler is only 28, but similar players were already starting to decline at the same age.
I will be upfront in saying that nothing in that paragraph seemed out of line to me when I read it in the middle of October (Of course, I also thought the Kings would win 44 games this season). Chandler’s resurgence has been remarkable, baffling, inexplicable and inspiring. The splendid Spurs and horrible Heat were the big surprises early in the season. The Bulls’ dominant shift into an even higher gear has been the shocker of the past month. Lost somewhere in the middle were the Dallas Mavericks (somewhat) quietly having one of the best seasons in franchise history. Buried even further in the void, is the fact that Tyson Chandler — after essentially being ruled irrelevant — has changed the fortunes of an actual NBA basketball team.