If you smell smoke in the air around The American Airlines Center, relax. It’s not from a franchise slowly being engulfed in flames. It is the smoke of action, the by-product of clutches ridden and gears ground as the Mavericks frenetically worked to get themselves pointed in a new direction this summer. More than half of next season’s roster will be made up of new faces, and there are a lot of introductions to be made. My bigamous relationship with the Mavericks and Pacers means I have some familiarity with a few of the new Dallas transplants; here’s a little of what I know about Jim O’Brien, Dahntay Jones and Darren Collison.
The Candlestick Maker
Of the three, the addition likely to have the smallest on-court impact was the hiring of O’Brien as an assistant coach. O’Brien was not a popular choice when he was brought to Indianpolis to replace Head Coach Rick Carlisle after the 2006-2007 season, and being fired three and a half years later after having won just 41.7% of his games did little for his popularity. Although it may have had more to do with roster changes than his leadership, I did appreciate that the O’Brien Pacers played hard and with a surfeit of general professionalism that had been lacking in the recent past. However, the results on the court were always frustrating.
In terms of his coaching style, O’Brien reminded me of an art forger. I mean that without any illicit connotation, and certainly not as a comment on the validity of his coaching credentials. While the success of an artist is measured by their ability to find new and creative ways present their values, the success of an art forger is measured by their ability to replicate minute stylistic details without regard for context or meaning. I always felt that O’Brien had a very concrete idea of what a basketball victory was supposed to look like, and each night the players were tasked with imitating this ideal as closely as possible regardless of the opponent or the players’ collective and individual strengths and weaknesses. In other words, I don’t think versatility or adaptation were buzzwords of the O’Brien era. This created a team with a decided deficit of flexibility; a team that attacked all opponents in the same way regardless of weakness, and a team that fit players into defined roles based on size and position rather than their actual basketball skills.
On a personal note I still haven’t forgiven O’Brien for the enormous green light he gave Danny Granger. Arriving at a critical point in his development, the radiance of that green light seems to have partially blinded Granger to the characteristics of a quality shot even to this day.
What all of this has to do with the 2012-2013 Mavericks I honestly don’t know. The exact responsibilities, and subsequent effects, of most assistant coaches are largely a mystery to me. The most high profile assistants seem to be valued for talent in scheming and teaching offense or defense, connecting with and uniquely motivating players, or providing the individual scaffolding that young players need to take their games to the next level. I would argue that O’Brien’s coaching career reveals him as especially successful in none of those pursuits. However, the fact that he’s had three head coaching opportunities despite a decided lack of success suggests that there is something valuable, and less visible, in his coaching tool box. Carlisle has proven a master at getting the most out of diverse and difficult on-court talents and I would expect he has a plan for Jim O’Brien.
The Mavericks will have some serious wing depth this season. With 11 players on the roster who spend part or all of their time at guard or small forward, we’re talking about the craggy depths of Hell’s Canyon. Of those 11, the least exciting is probably Dahntay Jones. He doesn’t bring the career pedigree of a Vince Carter, the versatility of a Delonte West, the tantalizing potential of an O.J. Mayo, or even the nebulous mystery of a rookie like Jae Crowder. What Jones does bring is solid, consistent contributions in known quantities, something that should help him carve out a niche among the question marks and unsolved riddles around him.
Jones spent the last three seasons anchoring the Pacers’ second unit, which means you probably haven’t seen him play since the 2009 Western Conference Finals as a member of the Denver Nuggets, when his aggressive defense allowed him to take up permanent residence under Kobe Bryant’s skin. Most of Jones’ basketball value is still tied to his defense, but he has a a distinct, if limited, skill set on offense as well. He’s very aggressive with the basketball and although not a great ball-handler, he does an excellent job exploiting off-balance defenders and using his strength to get to the rim. Over his three seasons in Indianapolis, Jones accumulated a FTA/FGA ratio of 0.399. That puts him in the top 10% of NBA players and is about the same as the marks posted by Kevin Durant, Kyle Lowry, and Paul Pierce last season. That skill alone could be a huge benefit for a Mavericks team that finished 25th in FTA/FGA last season.
One other nice feature is the late-blooming quality of his outside shot. Jones attempted a career-high 77 three-pointers last season, and made a career-high 42.9 percent of those looks. Historically, he has not been a terrific outside shooter, but for most of his career he has exacerbated the problem with a pathological eagerness to take long-two pointers and an equally severe aversion to three-pointers. During his first two seasons with the Pacers his ratio of long two-pointers to three-pointers was 4.3 to 1. This past season he flip-flopped that dramatically, attempting just 0.75 long two-pointers for each three-pointer. The fact that 60 of his 77 three-pointers came from the corners is just further evidence that some of his new jumpshooting efficiency may be the product of a sustainable leap in his understanding of shot selection.
Just as important as his actual basketball skills, is the way Jones carries himself and approaches the game. He is not one of Bill Simmons’ “irrational confidence guys,” but is a unique and related breed. I call him a “rational-irrational confidence guy.” He is a very astute player and seems to know exactly, and realistically, where his skills and physical abilities place him on the spectrum of NBA talent. That he plays with a confidence and aggressiveness far larger than his talent tier is not a product of an irrational self-assessment, but of a rational decision-making process. It is a conscious choice and a coping mechanism, one which he shrewdly uses to level the playing field. I would wager Jones would quickly acknowledge that he’s not one of the ten best defenders in the league, but on the court he plays with the honest belief that he can stop LeBron James or Kevin Durant because that confidence elevates his abilities enough to actually make a dent.
Jones may not be the sexiest option for Carlisle next season, given the surplus of legacy and latency in the backcourt. However there will be times when his blend of agressiveness, both physical and mental, will be necessary. In those moments I think Mavs fans will find themselves pleasantly and repeatedly surprised,
With all due respect to O.J. Mayo and the antiquated anatomies of Elton Brand and Chris Kaman, Darren Collison may be the most important acquisition of the Mavericks’ offseason. What the Mavs will get from Brand and Kaman is uncertain, but their age and injury-reduced ceilings are absolutely known quantities. O.J. Mayo may have the greatest potential but that potential is still mysterious, lacking much in the way of definable qualities. Collison on the other hand has a ceiling, clearly definable, because for one glorious stretch during the 2009-2010 season he reached it, playing like one of the ten best point guards in the league. As a rookie he started 37 games in place of an injured Chris Paul, averaging 18.8 points, 9.1 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game, while shooting 48.5% from the field and 42.9% on three-pointers.
That player may have been a product of beignets and boozy jazz, because he never made his way to Indianapolis. He brought some of the efficiency with him, but his assertiveness and derring-do must have been lost by the baggage handlers. It would be easy to write off his rookie explosion as a product of circumstance. Collison and fellow rookie, Marcus Thornton, were both drafted by GM Jeff Bower, the same Jeff Bower who became the head coach when Byron Scott was fired after nine games. Watching the Hornets that season it was clear that Bower (clinging to both of his jobs) ran an offensive system called “Go Get Some Buckets.” Both Collison and Thornton thrived under the freedom and played at a level that they haven’t really hit since.
When Collison arrived in Indianapolis he was asked to turn in his sword and Zorro mask in exchange for the stars and stripes of an NBA floor general, with a none too subtle nudge from the coaching staff that he should tone down the aggressive play he demonstrated as a rookie in New Orleans and assume a more even basketball temperament, one that was more befitting a starting point guard in the National Basketball Association. Structure became restriction. Restriction became hesitation. Hesitation became indecision. Indecision became ineffectiveness. The defining image for me of Collison’s time as a Pacer will be him passing up an open mid-range jumpshot to pass the ball to a slightly less open teammate.
This is not to say Collison wasn’t valuable to the Pacers. But what he was asked to do took away some of the things that made him special. But just as the Indiana Collison was different from the New Orleans Collison, so too can Dallas find itself with a different iteration.
The foundation remains unchanged. There’s something undeniably pleasing in the dissonance of his basketball aesthetic. He is quick but not explosive. Serpentine and slithery, but decidedly lacking in smoothness. He’s a very accurate shooter, but his form is straight from the imagination of Hideo Nomo. Collison shot 36.2 percent on three-pointers last season and 44.0 percent on long two-pointers. Even more interesting – last season just 21 players in the league attempted 150 or more long two-pointers, and shot 44.0 percent or better. Collison was one of only four — with Steve Nash, Jose Calderon and Chris Paul — who was assisted on less than 30.0 percent of those long-two pointers. The cringe-worthy pull-up jumpshot is actually a very effective piece of his arsenal.
As a rookie he attempted 5.1 shots at the rim per 40 minutes. By last season that number had dropped to 3.3. He was also near the bottom of the league in the number of times he drove into the paint last season. These things are fixable, and they’re what the Mavericks will need to focus on to get the most out of Collison.
It will take a significant measure of creativity on both parts. Last season the Mavericks offense was focused on pick-and-rolls, slash and kick for spot-up jumpers and post-ups for Dirk Nowitzki. and Vince Carter. That mix is very similar to what Collison ran in Indiana last season and it did not play to his strengths. For all his experience running it, Collison has not been very effective in the pick-and-roll. The past two seasons he averaged 0.76 and 0.72 points per possession, finishing possessions as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll. He wasn’t much better passing out of those sets as the Pacers’ screeners averaged 0.92 points per possession in pick-and-rolls both of the past two seasons, finishing 20th and 26th in the league.
I love the idea of him filling the role J.J. Barea did two seasons ago, but I think the freedom Jason Terry played with may be a better slot. A place where he is more free to create offense for himself will be better for both Collison and the Mavericks. With Kaman, Brand and Nowitzki, Dallas has a trio of frontcourt players all capable of posting up or stepping out and knocking down a mid-range jumpshot. If Collison is allowed to work off them — cutting after entry passes, spotting up on the perimeter, weaving through traffic to the rim — instead of working for them, everyone will be much better off.
In the end Collison is an inexpensive asset, and he won’t have to give the Mavericks much to repay the cost of acquiring him. But I really believe his Indiana experience was just the tip of a dorsal fin and his potential’s portend.