No team with Dirk Nowitzki at its core will ever be wholly conventional, but the Dallas teams of the last half-decade have become strategically tamer than some of the outlandish groups pieced together under Don Nelson’s tenure. The Mavericks iterations of the last few seasons have all had their quirks, but Rick Carlisle has largely remained true to positional orthodoxy in his lineup machinations. Carlisle demonstrates a clear willingness to push buttons (as evidenced by masterful lineup control in last year’s playoffs), but the cogs in his machine were largely in line with positional expectation.
All of that is about to change, as the Mavs have revamped their roster by adding a ridiculous amount of versatility. Tyson Chandler is long gone, and while his departure may leave Dallas with few precious traditional centers, the Mavs have other, more ambitious plans in mind.
“We still have the prototypical starting center in Brendan [Haywood] that’s still the quote-unquote ‘aircraft carrier,’” Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson said. “But now we’ve got the flexibility to slide Dirk [Nowitzki] a little bit over there, slide Lamar [Odom] over there a little bit, which gives us a whole different wrinkle. These guys are three-point threats. It’s kind of a different way to attack a same problem.”
Nowitzki was no stranger to minutes as a makeshift center when Don Nelson was running the show, but those opportunities all but vanished once Avery Johnson — and later Carlisle — took the reins. Odom’s arrival, though, opens the door for some intriguing possibilities. The defensive aptitude of a lineup featuring, say, Nowitzki, Odom, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, and either Jason Terry or Vince Carter remains to be seen. But such a grouping would pack an astounding amount of offensive firepower and provide an incredible number of scoring avenues.
Nowitzki, Marion, Odom, Carter, and Kidd are all credible post players. Virtually every variation of the pick-and-roll would feature an effective duo. Nowitzki would be surrounded by shooters at every position, and would face less help-side trouble from opposing bigs tasked with guarding Odom. Every player on the floor would be able to handle the ball, shoot from range, and make the right pass. It’s an absurd combination that — even in spite of its defensive limitations — could be incredibly successful this season (Note: Dallas played very well in extremely limited minutes with Nowitzki acting as a center last season). Together, that lineup forms an amazing mesh of skills and abilities, capable of compensating for individual weaknesses with collective strength.
“It works nicely because you’ve got Shawn Marion — ‘Blondie’ over there — who was the number two rebounder at the small forward position last year,” Nelson said. “And Jason Kidd, who is perennially one of the great rebounders. So you don’t give up that much in terms of your front line, but you add all of this flexibility.”
This isn’t a fantasy. It’s not some fanciful combination of impossible parts concocted for the delight of NBA fanatics. It’s a vision. It’s a real basketball strategy to help the Dallas Mavericks win actual basketball games. It’s a credible option for a coach who’s willing to experiment — and experiment he will.
“Certainly we don’t do any of this stuff without Rick’s blessing,” Nelson said. “He understands the versatility of this team, and I think if anyone has an appreciation and an emphasis for shooting, it’s Rick. So now all of a sudden we can put five guys on the floor that can spread the court and all of them can make threes.”
Three-point shooting is important in itself for the offensive efficiency it provides, but loading the floor with shooters has the potential to completely neuter an opponent’s team defensive concept. Such rangy lineups don’t even require that much outside shooting, so long as the threat of said shooting remains. It’s much more difficult for bigs to rotate or hedge when even a few steps away from their man could result in a wide-open three-pointer, and even the slightest rotational hesitancy can throw an opposing defense off the rails.
That spacing not only opens up the paint for potential drives, but also frees up passing lanes and angles for Dallas’ numerous playmakers to swing the ball toward its appropriate end. The Mavs made their way to the Finals last season on the power of the simple pass, and in these configurations the Mavs will have more room than ever with which to execute them.
These lineups will only have limited application this season, but they present Carlisle with even more filling for his toolbox — a necessity as the team attempts to grapple with the departure of Tyson Chandler. It won’t be easy, but a little ingenuity and some fortunate timing have certainly made it easier. A roster with already remarkable depth and versatility was somehow upgraded further in both regards, providing a team of creative decision makers with the pieces they need to forge something very different and — in all likelihood — still incredibly effective.