Connor Huchton is a contributor to Hardwood Paroxysm and Rufus On Fire, and beginning today, he’ll be a semi-regular contributor here at The Two Man Game. You can follow Connor on Twitter at @ConnorHuchton.
A daunting problem faced the Dallas Mavericks on the eve of a new season, only months removed from a championship: how would a franchise now at the pinnacle of its existence replace a player that was the key to the team’s surprising 2010-2011 run? The organization had decided to let Tyson Chandler brave the overreaching free agent waters elsewhere, largely for long-term cap reasons, and now lacked assurance at the center position. How could the Mavericks hope to reach any semblance of their recent success without the keystone of a championship defense?
Possible answers presented themselves in various, (albeit less impressive) ways. The Mavericks signed Brandan Wright (a power forward capable of playing center) and Sean Williams to one-year deals as a play for both depth and potential, but made little progress in their other attempts to find a player outside the organization who could serve as a solution to their Chandler-less woes. This left a substantial burden of minutes on foul-prone Brendan Haywood and oft-unused young center Ian Mahinmi.
Prior to this season, Mahinmi struggled to find a place in a rotation — both in Dallas and elsewhere. Though his minutes per game have risen with every season (3.8, 6.3, and 8.7, respectively), he’s never been able to garner consistent minutes. The issue hasn’t been Mahinmi’s inability to produce – he was actually quite impressive on a per-minute basis in two seasons with the Spurs – but instead an inability to conquer depth as he developed in his first years in the league. After finally carving out a consistent role for himself last season (in his third year in the league) as the Mavericks’ third-string center, an opportunity for a bigger role and ample playing time presented itself to Mahinmi.
In the relatively short period since, Mahinmi has established himself as both a viable and impressive center option for a Mavericks team in desperate need of such a player. Despite a substantial jump in minutes per game, from 8.7 to 19.6, Mahinmi’s efficiency has risen significantly. These improvements aren’t generated from solely one positive change in Mahinmi’s game. Rather, a series of substantial enhancements have raised his PER from last season’s relatively average 13.7 to this season’s impressive 16.5.
The upgrades in Mahinmi’s play begin on the offensive end. The greatest change for Mahinmi has come at the rim, where his shots are most often generated. Mahinmi is making 78.4 percent of his attempts at the rim, up from 67.2 percent last season. Instead of resorting to simply flinging attempts skywards when under duress, Mahinmi appears more relaxed and controlled, and has been able to contort and finish with ease in difficult situations as a result. He’s also made strides a bit further away from the basket, as Mahinmi’s occasional mid-range jumpers have paid dividends against defenses that hardly expect him to be capable of making such a shot. Confidence isn’t unstoppable on its own, but it’s a valuable addition to an improved form and a year of basketball learning.
Though Mahinmi’s defensive improvements are both harder to recognize and less extensive than his offensive contributions, these slight changes can provide key value over the course of a long season. Mahinmi’s total rebounding rate and steal rate have increased by slight margins (along with a decreased foul rate), while his other attributes have remained relatively steady in increased minutes.The Mavericks’ defensive system relies on a strong interior defensive presence. Mahinmi’s increased offensive abilities have enabled him to stay on the court for longer periods of time, allowing him to provide this defensive presence, a quality essential to the Mavericks’ markedly improved scoring defense in recent games.
The Mavericks find themselves somewhat dependent on Mahinmi, and he has thus far risen to the team’s need. Though small sample size is an oft cry in early season evaluations, the consistency and wide-ranging nature of the beneficial changes in Mahinmi’s game leads one to believe that a full regression to the mean is certainly not imminent. Mahinmi is still a relatively young player, so these developments can hardly be considered unexpected. A “leap” from Mahinmi seemed important to continued Mavericks’ contention before the season began, and that leap has appeared prevalently in the season’s first 12 games. If Mahinmi’s current play proves itself sustainable, as most known measures validate, the Mavericks could find the team’s center play acceptable and the future, both long-term and short-term, brighter than expected.