Signing a minimum contract affords one rare luxury for a newly signed player: low expectations. On good teams, most minimum contracts are given out simply for the purpose of creating depth. Yet Brandan Wright (along with teammate Delonte West) has filled out the depth chart and more, as he surpassed those minimal expectations and made the rare jump into importance this season. As the Mavericks look towards the impending playoffs, perhaps no player is more important to the team’s chances than Wright.
The NBA journey of Brandan Wright began as a story of disappointment. Wright was a highly regarded prospect coming out of college, good enough to be taken with the eighth pick by the Charlotte Bobcats and traded to the Golden State Warriors for Jason Richardson. But Wright never managed to live up to his high billing during his first few years in the league. He was plagued by injury through all three of his seasons with the Warriors, and when healthy, rarely managed to estabilish a significant role. When Wright, always an efficient player on offense, finally began to establish a role for himself in 08-09, he injured his shoulder and missed the entirety of the next season. After a regressive season with the New Jersey Nets last year, Wright found himself unattached with little free agent interest. It appeared possible that Wright would find himself out of the NBA entirely, a disappointing end to the story of an athletic finisher who couldn’t overcome injury and circumstance.
But with Tyson Chandler’s departure, the Mavericks were in need of depth at the center position. Wright was signed to a minimum contract, and opened the season as the Mavericks de facto third-string center and very occasional power forward.
It isn’t easy for a third-string center to climb into a significant role, but this time, circumstances were in Wright’s favor. Rick Carlisle is more willing to experiment with his rotations than most other NBA coaches, and the Mavericks’ center hierarchy was certainly not assured. When it became apparent that the Mavs’ biggest problem was offensive production, Wright’s niche began to appear. Brendan Haywood and Ian Mahinmi are both capable centers, but neither player is a particularly dexterous or boasts particular finesse. Wright’s first chance at significant minutes came 12 games into the season, and his full range of talents were put on display. He finished with 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting and blocked three shots in 25 minutes, but only recorded one rebound.
Wright’s greatest strength is his terrific offensive efficiency, a product of his overwhelming length, athleticism, and touch at the rim. Wright shoots 75 percent when at the rim on almost three attempts per game, and provides the Mavericks someone to find under the basket when Dirk Nowitzki can’t find position in the high post. The Mavericks have regressed this season in regards to at-the-rim shooting, relying too often on difficult jumpers to sustain offensive leads. Jason Kidd hardly ever touches the paint these days, Jason Terry’s love for pull-up jumpers has only increased, and Dirk is taking 0.4 less attempts per game at the rim compared to 2011, and making a slightly lower percentage of those attempts. This is where Wright can reverse the Mavericks’ trend, and the Mavericks guards have proven themselves capable of finding an open Wright, as 82.3 percent of his baskets are assisted. The Mavericks have had a below-average season largely due to their inability to create easy baskets, but with Wright playing 20 or more minutes in 10 of his last 16 games, the Mavericks’ offense has improved and scored 100 points or more in eight of those contests. Wright certainly isn’t the sole cause of this improvement (Dirk Nowitzki’s return to form should also be accounted for), but he allows the Mavericks some form of offensive diversity. Plus, Wright also generates something that few other Mavericks can: genuine and immediate excitement, in the form of alley-oops and transitional dunks.
But there are reasons that Wright has remained a situational player for the Mavericks. With Wright in the game, the Mavericks’ defense is capable of declining to almost the same extent that the offense improves. Wright is less strong than his positional counterparts, and often struggles to get back in weak side defensive situations. Wright is a much better defender against power forwards, where he can use his length alone to triumph in isolation situations, but with Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion on the team, opportunities are far more limited at that position. Wright is also less efficient on offense when playing power forward, adding a small caveat to his generally strong offensive production.
Lineup data reveals that the Mavericks are worse with Brandan Wright on the court (-0.52 net points per 100 possessions worse, via basketballvalue.com), and while that negative rating can be partially attributed to some of the sluggish bench units Wright has been a part of, it also indicates Wright’s defensive fallibility. If he’s simply subbed in as part of a normal rotation and not as part of a situational advantage, the Mavericks struggle to break even with Wright on the court and are often overwhelmed in the paint. Wright is a player whose talents the Mavericks are often in desperate need of utilizing, but also a player with weaknesses that make correct utilization of those talents paramount to team success.
While the regular season performance of the Mavericks has generally been a disappointment, Wright’s emergence has served as a source of optimism. As part of the Mavericks’ three-center rotation, Wright has been able to serve as a scoring punch and as a rare input of dynamic athleticism on an aging team. As the playoffs near, Wright could find himself at the forefront of the Mavericks’ rotation (in a matchup vs. the smaller-sized Clippers) or bereft of any playing time (against the unmistakable tallness of Andrew Bynum and the Lakers). It is in these situations where the creativity of Rick Carlisle’s lineup choices must shine through, and act as a propellant to both the Mavericks’ playoff chances and Wright’s rotational viability. He can be the series-changing player that the Mavericks seek, but it’s up to Wright, Carlisle, and the entire team to decide if he’ll find the hidden, electric expansions of his game that could make playoff lightning possible.