On paper, the numbers should look good. The Mavericks’ roster is comprised of equal parts veteran presence and young athleticism: Shawn Marion, Chris Kaman, Elton Brand, and Vince Carter to go with O.J. Mayo, Darren Collison, Jae Crowder and Brandan Wright. This was a Mavs roster that fans have long envisioned: one with potential. And honesty may be the best policy, but sometimes the truth hurts. The truth is that these Mavericks are a bad basketball team. I’m not even sure ‘right now’ is needed as a qualifier; excluding the momentary reprieve of playing Detroit and then not playing for 3 days, the Mavs have looked pretty terrible as of late, even counting Thursday’s win over Phoenix.
There seems to be some very un-Mavericks-like feast or famine going on with the squad. A big win versus a Detroit team doesn’t outshine the losses and single close win that have come in the past 10 days, unless the Mavericks are already plotting their way into a lottery selection. Poring over the box scores back to the Philly game reveals numerous areas of weakness with no one thing as a consistent fault. They say that bad teams find ways to lose, and for the first time in a long time, the Mavericks have been playing into that stereotype. Here are a few things that I’ve noted:
• Player consistency at any position and in any statistical category has been hard to come by. Even when a player appears to do have done well, sometimes the numbers tell a different story. After living in Rick Carlisle’s doghouse for a while, Wright finally got some playing time — and looked good — against Phoenix. He shot 66 percent from the field and finished with 16 points, four rebounds, two steals, two blocks, and zero turnovers in 23 minutes. And yet, the box score will tell you that he had the lowest plus/minus on the Mavericks during that particular game. Hard to know who to play when the players put up good numbers and the team does worse.
• It would be easy to look at the points in the paint from the Clippers game and blame the loss on that. Surely it contributed to the Mavs’ downfall (Dallas was doubled up on points in the paint 62-30 in that particular contest), and no team want to give up easy buckets. But the Mavericks actually lost by more points to Chicago, despite breaking even in points in the paint in that particular matchup.
• Chris Kaman consistently has a horrible plus/minus in these losses, worst of any non-rookie starter. At the same time, he’s the only option on offense that will consistently get a good look at the rim. He’s also a black hole on offense averaging only an assist per game on the season, down from his career average.
• When injury leads a team to start a rookie, that rookie is usually part of the problem. Crowder should fit that bill, but the numbers don’t back it up. He had the worst plus/minus in the Philly game, tied for best in the Bulls game for players with more than 10 minutes, and was right there with everybody else in the blowout loss to the Clippers (limited minutes probably mean he was pulled as things were getting bad). But Crowder’s plus/minus doesn’t seem to have any direct correlation to the overall outcome of any game.
• Over the last decade, there has always been a player who could pull the Mavs out of the doldrums or halt the momentum of an opposing team. Whether it was Steve Nash with a pull-up jumper in transition, Jason Terry with back-to-back contested threes, or a consistent feeding of Dirk Nowitzki’s improbable jumpers, the Mavericks manufactured ways to get back on track. The Derek Fisher pickup seems like an attempt to capture some of that same magic by way of the steady hand. But no matter what the Clippers game showed us, you can’t give Derek Fisher the keys and expect him to take over. He may be able to steady the ship, but he’s not the type of captain that can tack into the wind.
• Teams like the Mavericks and the Spurs have been winning for years and have carried with them the confidence that the winning will continue. The fundamental difference between those two franchises is that the Mavericks have very few players on their current roster that seem to remember that winning is the norm. Only Marion and the still-injured Nowitzki remain as major players from the championship team, and though Marion is an excellent individual defender and was a key piece to the title effort, he doesn’t have the leadership qualities to instill confidence in this mess of a team. That puts an even greater burden on Rick Carlisle, who must extract the best possible play out of the players on his roster.
• Carlisle has been known to tinker with his lineups endlessly, and because of that experimentation he has always been able to get the most out of his role players. This gentleman got a game-winning shot out of Ian Mahinmi and enabled DeShawn Stevenson to outscore LeBron James in an NBA Finals game. That being said, this time Carlisle’s lineup changes seem more desperate; even without Dirk, these Mavericks shouldn’t be eking out wins over the Suns or giving up great outings to Markieff Morris.
If the idea is that Dirk Nowitzki’s return will solve these issues, that’s a leap of faith I’m not willing to make. During this time, fundamental groundwork was to be laid that would allow the Mavericks to thrive upon Dirk’s return. Nowitzki being on the floor was to represent not a tidal change, but a surge — a swell in an already existing force. At present, that force does not exist. The Mavericks’ finest moment of the past 10 days was O.J. Mayo’s dismantling of the Pistons’ defense during the third quarter of Saturday’s game. It can neither be routinely expected of Mayo to outscore the opposition for a quarter, nor can it be expected of the opposition to acquiesce to Mayo doing so.
The game by game numbers don’t seem to make a lot of sense and I’m not sure there’s an easy way to fix this thing. At some point the lineup changes start preventing the squad from finding any consistency. I don’t know what’s going to add up to wins, but here’s to hoping that Rick Carlisle can come up with some new math.
Shay Christian Vance is a member of the Two Man Game family. Follow Shay on Twitter at @shayseph.