Jonathan Tjarks is the managing editor of SB Nation Dallas. He writes about basketball and all that it implies at RealGM and SB Nation, and is a guest columnist here at The Two Man Game. Follow Jonathan on Twitter at @JonathanTjarks.
The Mavs, understandably, are in flux. Of their top 10 players in minutes played, Shawn Marion is the only one with more than a season in Dallas. Eddy Curry, their starting center on Opening Night, has already come and gone. As a result, Rick Carlisle has been throwing combinations of players against the wall and seeing what sticks; in their narrow win against Cleveland on Saturday, 11 different Mavs received significant minutes.
Carlisle’s ability to manipulate matchups and juggle his rotations was nearly flawless during the title run in 2011, but that doesn’t mean he is without blind spots as a coach. In his time in Dallas, he has generally given veterans the benefit of the doubt in terms of playing through bad stretches while holding younger players to a much stricter standard. This season, he’s taken that philosophy to its logical conclusion with his handling of Troy Murphy and Brandan Wright, leading to predictably disastrous results.
It’s hard to overstate how poorly Murphy has played in a Dallas uniform. In his first nine games, he averaged 19 minutes while putting up 5 points and 4 rebounds on 36% shooting from the field. He has a PER of 11.4 (up from 8.7 after a single respectable performance), a low number that even ignores many of his problems on the defensive end. According to 82games, Murphy’s per-48 minutes production is good for a +3.8 margin while his opponent’s per-48 production scores a +18.4 margin — ultimately giving Murphy a sterling net rating of -14.6, one of the worst marks in the entire league.
And if you look at his career trajectory, this is exactly how you would expect that he would play. Both Carlisle and assistant coach Jim O’Brien remember Murphy from their time with the Pacers, where he was one of the NBA’s more productive big men. But at the age of 30, his play fell off a cliff. His PER never dipped below 14 from the ages of 22-29, and yet it hasn’t gone above 10 in any of the past three seasons. Before the Mavs picked him up, he had played for three teams (Nets, Celtics and Lakers) in two years without ever holding down a rotation spot.
At 6-11, 245, he’s far too slow to defend 4’s away from the basket and he’s too weak to defend 5’s near the rim. He’s not capable of creating his own shot and he has no real chance of scoring inside: Murphy has taken only 11% of his shots in the paint this year with an effective field goal percentage of just 33% on those looks. If his three-point shot isn’t falling, he’s of absolutely no value. If a guy like that is going to be a permanent part of your rotation, he better have a Steve Novak-level outside shot.
To be fair, Murphy has needed to get his legs back from under him after missing training camp and the pre-season. However, the whole point of picking up a veteran familiar with Carlisle and O’Brien’s schemes was to shortcut the adjustment process. The good news is he will get better, if only because it wouldn’t be all that likely for a professional basketball player to give the Mavs less than what Murphy gave them them in his first nine games.
Murphy’s minutes, meanwhile, have come mainly at the expense of Wright and his team-high 22.5 PER. Wright is far from a perfect player; he’s prone to lapses in defensive awareness and he doesn’t always give great effort on the boards, a problem for a 6-10 stringbean. Rebounding has been the Mavs Achilles heel all season, so it’s understandable why Carlisle is fed up with a big man with an 11.1 total rebounding percentage.
But here’s where it gets ridiculous: Murphy has exactly the same flaws as Wright! Their rebounding percentages (11.7 vs. 11.1) are essentially identical. Wright may miss a few rotations on defense due to mental lapses, but there’s no way a perimeter-oriented big man as old and slow as Murphy can effectively rotate and defend in space either.
At the same time, the Mavs desperately need the things Wright does well and don’t have anyone else in their rotation who can provide them. Murphy’s inconsistent three-point shot just isn’t as valuable as Wright’s offensive efficiency and shot-blocking up front.
At his size and with a max vertical of 35 inches, Wright plays on a higher plane than most of the NBA. He has a soft touch around the rim and is nearly unstoppable when cutting to the basket, where most of his 9.3 points on 65% (!!) shooting comes from. He’s easily the most effective Dallas big man on the pick-and-roll, a play any team that struggles to create individual offense should run plenty.
The only other Dallas big man even remotely near Wright in terms of speed and athleticism is Bernard “Sarge” James. He’s a useful backup center, but not a guy who concerns defenses when rolling to the rim. On the other end of the floor, Wright’s individual defense isn’t ideal, but he’s a fantastic leaper with the second highest block percentage (3.9) on the team. In most of his minutes this year, Wright has been paired with Elton Brand; a combination of James and Wright, especially against opposing second units, might be very effective.
It’s hard to think there isn’t a double standard at play here. Can you imagine a scenario where Carlisle stuck with Wright if he had a 4.7 PER? Or benched Murphy if he had a 22.5? For that matter, how long can he afford to start Elton Brand and his 11.6? There just aren’t very many good options for Dallas at the 4 with Dirk out, so the fact he’s going so far out of his way not to play Wright is a bit baffling.
The Mavs have survived without Dirk, but that’s mainly been the result of an incredibly easy schedule. Four of their wins have come against the Bobcats, the Wizards (without John Wall and Nene), the Raptors (without Kyle Lowry) and the Cavs. Four of their losses have come to the Bobcats, the Pacers (without Danny Granger), the Warriors (without Andrew Bogut), and the Wolves (without six of their top seven players). They play the Knicks, Lakers, 76ers and Bulls in their next four games.
Carlisle has not been a coach very inclined to take chances on young players. Just look at how he’s handled Rodrigue Beaubois, whose career has pretty much disintegrated after a promising rookie season, or compare the way that the Mavs “develop” young talent to the Spurs and Celtics’ ability to integrate young players around Garnett and Duncan. This year, his preference for veterans is a luxury a Mavs team trying desperately to stay above water can no longer afford.