Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Posted by Rob Mahoney on August 24, 2011 under Commentary | 4 Comments to Read

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Regardless of the specific events that will unfold in the coming months, Rudy Fernandez’s Mavericks future was always to be dictated on his terms. Dallas would offer him a system that suited his strengths and the opportunity to play alongside other talented players who could make it easier to find that open three or spring backdoor for an alley-oop. Fernandez would play a season, and then free agency would offer him an out. He could take it or choose to stay with the Mavs, but regardless of his actual choice, the power would be his within a year’s time.

The lockout has apparently sped up that process, as Fernandez has reportedly agreed to a four-year deal with Real Madrid, one that would essentially guarantee that Fernandez will leave the Mavs at the conclusion of the 2011-2012 season. Reports vary as to whether the deal is indeed set in stone, but in a way the consummation of an actual contract is somewhat arbitrary; it appears Fernandez will be gone from Dallas one way or another at season’s end, whether on this reported deal or another one. The will to leave exists irrelevant of whether a handshake has been made or a name signed on the dotted line. Fernandez may end up playing games for the Mavs this season, but in effect, he’s already gone.

As such, it’s worth considering whether plugging him into the lineup as a starter (and committing the minutes that usually accompany such a role) is really a venture worthy of the team’s investment. Fernandez would provide a nice complement to the preexisting starting core in theory, but he’d have to be brought up to speed on the fly in what would almost certainly be an abbreviated season. Fernandez is talented, but would the Mavs feel comfortable with him in a prominent, starting role after 50 or so games without the benefit of off-season preparation or, likely, a training camp? Fernandez is a Maverick, and his skills should be utilized by the team to the fullest extent that they can be, but the role that would allow for such maximization remains in question, even if his positional disposition would seem to fill a very convenient SG-shaped hole in the starting five.

Maybe Fernandez as starter was just too easy; acquiring an experienced player that fits a positional need was a sensible move for Dallas, so much so that apparently something had to go wrong. The Mavs, however, are not without their fallback plans, even if the two most promising of which are reliant on free agency. Lockout life places greater value in the familiar, and though it would undoubtedly take some work (and some cash) to retain their wing FAs, the Mavs have all the reason in the world to look inward — as much as non-contracted, soon-to-be-free-agent personnel constitutes “inward” — to solve whatever problems exist with their SG rotation.

Re-signing DeShawn Stevenson remains an option, and one supported by Jason Terry and Donnie Nelson at that. Stevenson isn’t an ideal choice, but he is (1) an incredibly solid perimeter defender who is still somehow underrated despite his efforts on the league’s biggest stage against its biggest stars, (2) already familiar with Dallas’ system on both ends of the floor, and (3) likely to come at a reasonable price. That said, he also acted as a sandbag on the starting lineup during the 2011 postseason, despite his successes; according to BasketballValue, the Kidd-Stevenson-Marion-Nowitzki-Chandler lineup posted an adjusted plus-minus of -5.21 in the postseason. That should make Fernandez a preferred choice even as a mercenary, but there is some virtue in electing to roll with the three-point-shooting devil you know.

But the Mavs also have the benefit of knowing a far superior candidate to fill a chunk of minutes in the backcourt next season, despite the fact that he technically didn’t log a single minute at SG during the 2010-2011 campaign. Caron Butler is a very talented, effective wing player. He knows the Mavericks organization, knows Rick Carlisle’s system, and has shown that he can thrive as a part of both of those institutions. He’s an effective perimeter defender and a versatile offensive weapon. He’s also labeled a small forward, and also not under contract with the Mavs at present. Both of those problems can be remedied if the team wills it so, and if Dallas truly has designs to improve in the coming season, they’ll do just that.

Butler remains the Mavericks’ best opportunity for immediate improvement, and that doesn’t change because of some perceived positional hiccup. It’s true that he didn’t play any time at the 2 de jure, but the positional designations used by 82games.com (and other resources that offer lineup derived positional data) are often restricted to offensive lineups. From that perspective, what exactly did DeShawn Stevenson (or Terry, Beaubois, Sasha Pavlovic, or any other player who suited up for the Mavs at the 2) do last season that Butler could not? As a sold ball-handler, a 43 percent three-point shooter, and an effective slasher, there’s nothing that prevents Butler from fulfilling any offensive role given to him. Add on the fact that the wing positions in the Mavs’ offensive system allow for a wide range of skill sets (J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson both played the 2, Shawn Marion and Peja Stojakovic both played the 3), and it’s hard to find a logical reason for Butler to be pigeon-holed in one position or another.

As far as defense is concerned, all that’s required is a quick trip through Synergy’s play database to discount any claims of Butler’s positional limitations. Among those that Butler checked effectively: Manu Ginobili, Dwyane Wade, Chauncey Billups, Eric Gordon, Monta Ellis, O.J. Mayo, J.R. Smith, Arron Afflalo, John Salmons, Jason Richardson, J.J. Redick, Mike Miller, Wesley Matthews, the Mavs’ own Rudy Fernandez, Gary Neal, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Shane Battier, Thabo Sefolosha, Richard Hamilton, and Kyle Korver. Saying that 3s defend 3s in today’s NBA is a gross oversimplification; despite never playing a single minute as a 2-guard, Butler still managed to defend all of the aforementioned 2s and 1s as a product of defensive cross-matching and in-game switches. Nowhere are positional designations more arbitrary than on the wings, where pairs of similarly skilled players swing between slotted positions on a whim.

Reducing Butler (or any player) to a simple positional designation ignores the more specific reasoning underlying NBA compatibilities. Butler could work alongside Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion because their skill sets cover tons of ground without much overlap. The same wouldn’t necessarily be true of any other group of perimeter players, even if their traditional designations dictate it to be so. What matters — as has and will always be the case — are consistent skills and contributions. So long as a team can produce some total amalgamation of necessary skills (requisite shooters, shot creation, rebounding, etc.) and the defense can contort itself into some means of effectiveness, everything else is merely nomenclature for the sake of nomenclature.