Every NBA offense begins with the same purpose – put the ball in the basket, preferably repeatedly and in a manner that’s not too straining. The pieces and approaches that are chosen to strive for that goal take an infinite number of forms. Through 18 games, the Mavericks’ offensive form has shape-shifted through a variety of ghastly and ghoulish looks.
This season, the Mavericks have scored 100.3 points per 100 possessions — the league’s 22nd most efficient offense. That’s a drop of 9.4 points per 100 possessions from last season, when they scored 109.7 points per 100 and registered the eighth most efficient offense in the league. The offense has regressed, significantly, in almost every area:
Taking a look at the four factors, we see a team that’s getting to the line at roughly the same rate (still way below the league average), while shooting less accurately, turning the ball over more often and recovering fewer of their own missed shots. The fact that they’ve been able to start the season by winning 11 of 18 games is a testament to how much defensive compensation they’ve done.
That the Mavericks would be a different team this year was a given. That swapping out Caron Butler, J.J. Barea and Tyson Chandler for Vince Carter, Lamar Odom and Delonte West would turn the Mavericks into defensive juggernaut and offensive Mr. Bean has been surprising to say the least.
That final act of an offense, putting the ball in the basket, has been the most challenging. Jason Kidd has stopped making three-pointers. Jason Terry, Dirk Nowitzki and Odom are all shooting well below their career averages. Faith is not usually my arena, but due to one particular area of the Mavs’ offense that hasn’t regressed, I don’t at all believe that the team’s shooting will remain so dismal for the next 49 games.
Even as Dallas’ offense has struggled, the strong foundation of ball movement has remained. Through 18 games, the Mavericks have recorded an assist on 60.9 percent of their made field goals, the sixth highest mark in the NBA. Last season that mark was 63.7 percent — tops in the league. The year before that? It was 61.1 percent, the third best in the league. Unselfish passing has been a hallmark of Rick Carlisle’s time in Dallas, through championships and first-round exits alike.
Last week I wrote a piece at Hickory-High about the Sacramento Kings, and how their lack of assists indicated some troubling truths about their offensive foundation. As part of that piece, I created some graphs to show just how striking their lack of ball movement has been. The three graphs from that piece, looking at the Kings, Jazz and Nuggets are below. Each graph shows, for each player, how many assists they hand out per 40 minutes, and how many of their made baskets are assisted on per 40 minutes.
Now here are the same graphs for the Mavericks over the past two seasons.
I chose the Jazz and Nuggets as points of comparison for the Kings because they fell in the middle and at the top of the league respectively in Assist%. The point of the graphs is not so much the individual performance of each player, but the size of the distribution as a reflection of how much ball movement is involved in each team’s offense. Because of their high Assist%, the size of the Mavericks’ distributions are closer to that of the Nuggets. However, this season they’ve taken on a different shape. Individual struggles both shooting and otherwise, as well as small samples, have left gaping holes and jagged spikes. The distribution is not nearly as smooth and therefore, not as equitable.
However uneven, the distribution is still large and reflects a hopeful truth for the Mavs. To riff on an earlier theme: offenses take different paths to the same goal. Some offenses are guided only by that original intent of putting the ball in the basket, with very little conscious thought to the best strategic ways to score. Some offenses are guided by a system, a specific way of doing things, often dictated by personnel. The rare, transcendent offenses, the ones we remember long after the season is over, begin with principles and build a system based on both the personnel and those principles. Mike D’Antoni’s Suns built their offense on the principle that it’s easier to score when the defense isn’t set. Their seven-seconds-or-less, pell-mell, fastbreak, pick-and-roll mashup was an extension of that idea shaped by the players on the roster. Steve Nash made the whole thing go, but Goran Dragic was able to do a passable Nash impersonation because he was allowed the freedom to pursue the principle, not just run the system.
The Mavericks seem to have one of those offenses guided by principle, void of structure for the sake of structure. The foundation for everything they do on offense is the manipulation of empty space. When the ball comes up the floor in Dallas, there exist small pockets of absentia, never more than an arm’s reach from a defender. As the Mavericks begin to move in concert, those pockets are dragged and prodded around the floor, sometimes combined with others, sometimes separated, until they have reached a synthesis, whereby a player can move into that space and find himself unencumbered. The final piece of that puzzle is the delivery of the ball into the center of that empty space so a shot can be attempted.
It may seem that this is basketball 101, albeit described in overly dramatic form. But watch with an aesthetic eye and you’ll see many teams running offenses built on “getting our guy the ball in his favorite spots,” or “power in the post.” Those offenses are inflexible to the point of cracking when faced with injury or a difficult defensive matchup.
It may seem that the Mavericks offense is built on Nowitzki, but I argue vehemently that it’s not. Their system is built around him, and their principles transcend him. His talents simply provide the most effective structure to achieve their purpose, – not to score, but to score by manipulating space. It works not just because of Nowitzki, but because everyone on the team has a job to do offensively — more specifically, that every player has space to manipulate. The Mavs aren’t currently manipulating that space as often they have in the past, but their passing numbers indicate that they are still clinging to that unifying principle.
With Nowitzki out, and Terry and Odom struggling, the system will have to be adjusted. However, because their offensive is built from the extreme top-down, the Mavs have a flexibility that other offensively challenged teams like the Kings or the Knicks lack. They can accomodate for the loss of an offensive focal point as talented as Nowitzki. They can be patient as Lamar Odom readjusts his offensive thinking from ‘process for the sake of product’ to ‘process for the sake of process.’ They can make big dramatic changes without blowing up the roster, or banishing players to the end of the bench. These Mavs can become great again.