Roosting in Flight

Posted by Rob Mahoney on December 15, 2011 under Commentary | Be the First to Comment

Screen shot 2011-12-15 at 2.23.26 PM

Empirically, lockout-shortened NBA seasons have had a negative impact on the actual basketball product. The compressed schedule — and in particular, back-to-back-to-back scenarios — plays a huge role in that, as true rest becomes an incredible rarity. The Mavericks will play just 10 games this season on more than one day of rest, according to this scheduling breakdown by NBA Stuffer, and many other teams have it far worse. It’s going to be a brutal, brutal season, even for some of the world’s most impressive athletes.

Yet the potential for fatigue hides another unfortunate reality: While NBA players will be short on time for R&R, they’ll be even more short on legitimate practice. Shootarounds will largely be the default this season, with chances for intense drilling and legitimate instruction a growing rarity. That makes this training camp period even more essential for newly acquired players all around the league, and especially so for the Dallas Mavericks.

Rick Carlisle will already have to cope with the disappearance of the virtually irreplaceable Tyson Chandler, and though there is some stability in the team’s returning veteran core, he’ll need to get Lamar Odom, Vince Carter, and Delonte West acclimated rather quickly. It’s a tall order, but on Tuesday, Carter offered a reassuring message regarding the integration of that trio.

“Nope. I’ve got it already,” Carter replied, when asked if he had any trouble picking up the Mavs’ system. “I’ve been here. I couldn’t practice, but I was out here watching. When you’ve been around long enough, a lot of the sets that you see you’re [already] familiar with. Maybe the name’s different or the call’s different, but it’s pretty much the same thing.”

That’s all well and good, but what of the defensive principles handed down from Dwane Casey to assistant coach and new defensive czar Monte Mathis?

“Their philosophy is pretty much like Orlando,” Carter said. “So that’s an easy transition. A couple of things are different, but all in all it’s the same thing. I’m one of those guys who asks a lot of questions anyway, so I’ve probably got everybody nervous the last few days. But I like to know what’s going on, and it helps my transition because if I ask, [they] tell me, and then I see it. [Then] it all makes sense to me. So I figure I might as well ask.”

The fact that NBA systems are often highly derivative of one another is a point worthy of a frequent reminder. We put so much emphasis on scheme and system that we often forget players are the primary point of differentiation between teams. Important as it is for a coach to put his players in a position to succeed, it’s clearly no more so than the acquisition of quality, well-fitting talent to execute a plan. The system — or the talent — only take a team so far, but what separates the Mavs from the rest of the pack are the unique capabilities of the players executing a game plan that coalesces with their individual styles. Carter, Odom, and West should all fit into that mix beautifully this year, even as the Mavs look to adapt after losing such important pieces in free agency.

That said, there are clearly exceptions to Carter’s integrative rule. For example, his own effectiveness and importance plummeted following a mid-season trade from the Orlando Magic to the Phoenix Suns last season, a deal that clearly had put Carter out of sorts. Most scorers would move mountains for the opportunity to play with a point guard like Steve Nash, but Carter never seemed all that comfortable or enthusiastic about the chance to play in Phoenix.

“It was just one of those things when you get traded to a team,” Carter said. “I pride myself in knowing what’s going on, and it’s tough. It was just different — the way they run things is a little different from what I was accustomed to. That’s one of those things [where] you kind of need a couple of years to fit and mold yourself into the offense, so it was just unfortunate.”

Even for a thoughtful, inquisitive player like Carter, the mid-season transfer was a bit much to digest. We saw the same effect when the Mavs traded for Jason Kidd mid-stride in 2008, picked up Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood at the trade deadline in 2010, or even added Corey Brewer as a free agent last season. It’s tough to pick up an entire playbook on the fly, as even if all that’s necessary is a shift in approach and terminology, such education still requires intensive study and practice that the pace of the NBA season doesn’t often allow.

The Mavs have plenty to do before the end of training camp, and Rick Carlisle doesn’t want to risk overloading his newly acquired players by teaching too much too quickly. Yet experience can be a great facilitator in these instances, and hopefully the knowledge bases of Odom and West are roughly congruent that of Carter. But at the very least: Dallas can be thankful that their biggest additions this season are likely already behind them, reducing the burden of throwing a player into a foreign situation — just as Carter was in Phoenix — on a team fighting through the glut of competitive teams in the Western Conference.