Joon Kim is the author of NBA Breakdown, and its subsidiaries, Spurs Motion Offense and The Triangle Offense — a tree of sites dedicated to analyzing the NBA’s structural elements. He’ll be contributing periodically to The Two Man Game with video-based breakdowns, illustrating particular aspects of the Mavericks’ performance. You can follow Joon on Twitter: @JoonKim00.
For the most part, every NBA team runs the same basic actions: screens, pick and rolls, and isolations. And why shouldn’t they? Basketball is ultimately a simple sport – one team puts the basketball in the hoop more than the other and that team wins. While this is true of most teams, the Dallas Mavericks lie beyond the rabbit hole — where basketball conventions are twisted and your expectations must be set aside.
Last May, the Mavericks found themselves going up against the irrepressible potential of a youthful Thunder squad. The Thunder found themselves facing a team that wasn’t measured by its potential, but the pain of past experience. Now the Mavs find themselves facing a surging championship contender filled with bitter experiences of their own. While the teams may be the same, it’s difficult to say where this Mavs team lies. Their resolve has been softened with a championship, and those championship pieces are playing (or or currently “auditioning”) for other teams.
Yet in a season full of inconsistency, the Mavericks have found the best of themselves when facing the Oklahoma City Thunder. Perhaps this isn’t such a surprise. The orthodox attack of the Thunder may be more susceptible than most when facing the unique methods the Mavs regularly employ. Though time passes and the pieces have changed, the Mavericks embracing of unconventional methods could be the key to holding the Thunder down for one more year.
The Mavericks are fairly well known for being one of the first teams to truly embrace the matchup 2-3 zone.
Even with the OKC playing a small lineup full of three-point shooters, the zone entices the Thunder into taking the most inefficient shot in the NBA: an off-the-dribble, 45-degree angle, 13-foot jumper from the left side of the court.
FREE FROM TRADITIONAL ROLES
While Westbrook may not be a traditional point guard, the rest of the Thunder play to conventional roles. The Mavericks cast aside those familiar roles long ago.
Here we see the small forward screen for the power forward to come out to the perimeter. Once there, the seven foot Dirk Nowitzki looks to feed the six-foot-six Vince Carter in the post. The power forward then spots up for three as the small forward goes to work.
The Mavericks constantly exploit expectations by using quick hitting decoys to deceive the defense.
In this clip, the primary action looks like an entry into Vince Carter that turns into a dribble hand-off. Usually this would lead to a side screen and roll, but the Mavs are decoying to set up the real action. As the hand-off occurs, Jason Terry fakes towards a back pick and Carter cuts across to the weak side. The dribble hand-off combined with the fake back pick allow Terry to freely catch the ball on the move off a screen set by Ian Mahinmi. The JET flys by the close-out of Kendrick Perkins for two off the goaltend.
Here the Mavericks show a spread pick and roll with Terry and Dirk looking to spot up on the weak side.
As the pick and roll occurs, Dirk and Terry don’t quite spot up at the three point line. Instead, Dirk faces the baseline to set up a down screen for Terry. With the Thunder defense temporarily out of position, Terry receives the ball and the original roles are reversed: Dirk and Terry go into a pick and pop, while Delonte West and Carter spot up on the weak side. Dirk gets the ball and drives hard to acquire deeper position below the elbow. He passes out for a repost and releases his patented one-legged-fadeaway-stepback jumper.
After getting the ball to Terry, JET looks at Dirk as Jason Kidd fakes a cut towards the baseline. Kidd steps back for the ball and Terry goes to set a down screen. Dirk comes off the screen towards Kidd then fakes cutting across the lane. Nowitzki quickly turns back to set a screen for Terry leaving Perkins out of help position. Terry can’t get to the basket but the ball is eventually swung to Dirk at the elbow (one of his preferred spots) with the whole left side cleared out. Dirk takes advantage of the space after a fake and (against the normal conventions) knocks down the most inefficient jump shot in the NBA.
Any attempt to buck basketball conventions begins and ends with the unique versatility of the Mavericks star power forward. Despite being a seven-footer, Dirk is a deadly three point shooter.
Being a 38-percent career three point shooter, the mere act of spotting up neutralizes the shot blocking threat of Serge Ibaka.
But Dirk doesn’t just affect the defense by being a simple spot-up shooter. He can screen both off and on the ball.
Dirk can also run the occasional pick and roll:
And like any superstar in the NBA, Dirk is expected to be able to create his own shot.
In one last clip, we see Dirk’s total versatility put to use:
The play begins with the Mavericks faking a cross screen for Dirk to go to the post. He step fakes the cross screen then heads up towards a waiting down screen set by Brendan Haywood. The down screen forces Perkins to switch; with the threat of Dirk’s catch and shoot ability in mind, Perkins aggressively denies Nowitzki. But this is no problem, Dirk uses Perkins aggression against him by simply setting a ball screen. During the screen, Dirk seals Perkins and acquires position in the free throw area. Despite the position, Dirk is patient and continues to move the ball. Kidd holds the ball long enough to momentarily draw Perkins to help position, allowing Dirk some new found space. Nowitzki takes it inside, and despite the blocked layup, Dirk gathers the miss and displays the asset that first made him truly unique: the soft shooting touch that began his hall of fame career.
The inconsistent play of the Mavericks has placed them in the narrative as a team in the role of underdogs. For a team in the middle of an inescapable transition, the Mavericks can win by doing what they’ve always done before: ignoring traditional conventions by taking comfort in their unique approach. As they say, the more things change…