The first two games of the Mavericks’ title defense have been ugly — like “Eric Stoltz in Mask” ugly. After two games the Mavericks have an Offensive Rating of 93.8 (26th in the league) and a Defensive Rating of 110.4 (23rd in the league). Both numbers are a huge disappointment, especially when viewed in the context of what was accomplished last season. For now, though, we’ll set aside defensive concerns and focus on efficient scoring.
Ball movement and offensive execution were the premium fuel that drove the Mavs through the playoffs last year. During the regular season, the Mavericks recorded an assist on 63.7 percent of their made baskets — the highest rate in the league. Through their first two losses, they’ve recorded 38 assists on 73 made baskets, good for just 52.1 percent. That mark would have ranked dead last in the league last season. But this is just a symptom, not the disease; the Mavericks are moving the ball, just not to the right spots. When the ball does end up in the right place, the movement of bodies has often ensured that an open shot no longer resides there.
On some level, early season difficulties are understandable. But some big questions remain: Why, with abbreviated training camp and new faces being the standard around the league, have the Mavericks’ struggles have seemed uniquely harsh? Are we watching kinks that can be worked out, or more worrisome and fundamental changes from the glorious contraption we witnessed last season?
Luckily, we have data from Synergy Sports to help us zoom in and identify some of the problems. The charts below are Spiderwebs and represent a blatant case of intellectual property theft, perpetrated by myself against Tim Donahue and the good people at Eight Points, Nine Seconds. The charts show the percentage of the Mavericks’ offense that was used in each possession type, compared to the relative efficiency, measured in points per possession.
The first graph covers last season.
The Mavericks offense last season was a juggernaut. Spot-up shooting was the primary weapon, with a balance of shots created in pick-and-rolls, post-ups, transition, and off-the-ball cuts fleshing out the attack. Efficiency was the theme, as the Mavericks ranked in 6th or higher in the league in points per possession on six of those eleven possession types.
Things look quite a bit different after the first two games this season.
Both the shape and efficiency of the Mavericks offense has changed. Fewer shots are coming from isolations and post-ups with spot-ups making up most of the difference. Efficiency has fallen across the board, and specifically, the Mavs had a difficult time in their first two games scoring in isolations, pick-and-rolls and on post-ups. Post-ups are a separate issue, but we can lay some of the isolation/pick-and-roll mess at the now absent feet of J.J. Barea and Tyson Chandler.
Last season, 1,894 of the Mavericks 10,360 offensive possessions, or 18.2%, were used by either the screener or ball handler in a pick-and-roll. This doesn’t include possessions that began with a pick-and-roll and ended in a spot-up jumpshot. On those 1,894 possessions they scored 1,706 points, for a grand total of 0.90 points per possession. Through two games this year the Mavericks have had 38 possessions used in a pick-and-roll situation, scoring 25 points, for an average of 0.66 points per possession. With roughly a fifth of their offense coming out of pick-and-rolls, seeing the efficiency of those sets cut by a third is a death blow.
Last season, Chandler finished 149 possessions as the screener in a pick-and-roll, averaging 1.39 points per possession, the 2nd best mark in the league. Barea finished 493 possessions as the ball handler in a pick-and-roll, averaging 0.94 points per possession, the 14th best mark in the league. The Mavericks have lost two of the best pick-and-roll players in the league, a duo that accounted for 33.8% of their pick-and-roll offense last season – struggles partially explained. Throw in the fact that Barea scored 1.01 points per possession on isolations, the 14th best mark in the league last season, and those offensive holes really start to take on the shapes of a lean, seven-foot behemoth and his elfin sidekick.
The good news is that the troubles seem to be of the temporary kink variety (I worked very hard there to not call them kinky). Although his numbers dropped off in Phoenix, Vince Carter was very good running pick-and-rolls and in isolation in Orlando last season. In fact, his 1.01 points per possession as the ball-handler in the pick and roll with the Magic was the best mark in 2010-2011. Lamar Odom has shown a similar strength in the pick-and-roll, averaging 0.93 points per possession last season, the 18th best mark in the league. Delonte West, too, is very effective conducting these mini-symphonies, although he has yet to show it in the Lone Star State.
Pick-and-roll success and the resulting wave of systemic efficiency should come. The horses are there. The holes that are being filled just aren’t quite the same shape as the pegs the Mavericks are cramming in. The 6’10″ Odom will obviously see things slightly differently in the pick-and-roll than the 5’11″ Barea. Different angles mean slightly different spacing requirements for everyone else. Give them the time to shave and shim those pegs and eventually the fit will be found. Here’s hoping that the Mavericks won’t be buried in the standings by the time construction is complete.