Brandan Wright began the season as a promising member of an overachieving roster, logging almost 25 minutes a game and posting the NBA’s second-highest effective field goal percentage to guide the Mavericks to a 4-1 start. The good times soon passed; after struggling in games against the Knicks and Bobcats, Wright’s minutes per game descended into single digits before he was ultimately exiled to the end of the bench, where he waited out half of the Mavs’ next 10 contests. Many 25 year olds would have lost confidence, but the resilient Wright stayed focused, telling Dwain Price of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: “You can’t zone out. If you zone out that’s when you lose it.”
Injuries prompted Wright’s recent return to the lineup and he has clearly been “zoned in.” His energy and production have prompted Tim McMahon of ESPN Dallas to raise his stock and The Two Man Game writers Kirk Henderson and Connor Hutchon to issue calls for more playing time.
In spite of his progress, Wright is plagued by persistent flaws and rightly attracts detractors. Carlisle has continually noted Wright’s inability to grab rebounds, a failure that has specifically prompted several DNP-CDs given Dallas’ roster-wide struggles on the boards. The Mavericks were 3-2 in those contests. Our own Shay Christian Vance argued that Wright’s plus-minus suggests an inherent tradeoff, even on his best nights. In extended play Monday against the Kings, a less challenging defensive opponent, Wright posted his second game of the season shooting below 50 percent from the field and was bested several times by DeMarcus Cousins.
With those facts in mind and Chris Kaman and Shawn Marion returning to action, Dallas faces a difficult decision: Should they continue to entrust playing time to Wright? Or again relegate him to the far end of the rotation Despite his flaws, it is in Dallas’ short and long-term interests to provide Wright with more opportunities on the floor. For the foreseeable future, Wright dramatically improves the Mavericks’ pick-and-roll offense. Looking forward, he represents a strong complement to Nowitzki and a rare value for a young big man.
The use of the pick-and-roll has been less frequent with Derek Fisher on the floor but it still represents a reliable strategy for optimizing the speed of Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo — the Mavs’ best scorers until Dirk returns. Wright possesses quickness that Kaman and Bernard James can’t match, and that benefits every aspect of his screening execution. When the defense does preempt Wright’s screen enough to defend it (as opposed to ceding an advantage to a Dallas ball-handler via a hard, unexpected pick), he has been just as effective in rolling to the basket, owing to both his ability to corral all kinds of passes his success in finishing with either hand. These skills guided Wright to the team’s best Player Efficiency Rating (PER) and its highest effective field goal percentage, a factor that is especially important for an offense that The Two Man Game Editor-in-Chief Rob Mahoney correctly deemed inefficient. Dallas will need every bit of this skill to nudge that offense toward an acceptable level team moving forward.
Carlisle’s decision-making in December has reflected careful preparation for Nowitzki’s return, demonstrated primarily by the decision to start Fisher over the more productive and promising Collison. After all, the goal of all Carlisle’s lineup experimentation is to find a set of ideal complementary players to arrange alongside Nowitzki. Wright’s game is a solid fit; his aforementioned effectiveness in the pick and roll will create a “pick your poison” choice for defenders when Nowitzki spots up opposite Wright, and puts opposing defense into a difficult position. If they follow Wright when he rolls off the screen, Nowitzki would undoubtedly cash in on some open looks from the perimeter — an especially attractive option as he attempts to regain form. If the defenders stay home on Dirk, the Mavs will need a big man to crash the lane and Wright represents their best choice. Even when Wright struggles to finish, as he did Monday night against Sacramento, he still instinctively charges to the basket and displays very controlled shot selection — an important factor for a Mavericks team that will soon be fully-loaded with perimeter shooters.
But preparing for Dirk’s return is only one aspect of Wright’s future value. Developing and retaining young talent continues to be the Mavericks’ Achilles Heel. Carlisle is perhaps the NBA’s best X’s and O’s coach in the NBA, but has been notoriously impatient with younger prospecets. Wright is a rare commodity in today’s NBA, in that he’s a young big man that demonstrates consistent improvement and impeccable shot selection. While Wright can’t shoot jumpers like Kaman can, Dallas has to wonder how many times it can reset its lineup with veteran free agents or attempted big-ticket signings before the strategy becomes unsustainable.
None of the above suggests Wright isn’t in need of improvement. His time on the bench did nothing to strengthen his stubbornly below-average rebounding skills. Shay Christian Vance, noted above, correctly observes that Wright often leaves his feet on defense and can appears lost when matching up against athletic big men. He, like every player on the Mavericks roster, is flawed. But Wright’s flaws don’t harm the team nearly as much as his overall game benefits it; empirical validation comes in the form of the lineup data from 82games.com, which shows Wright to be the only player featured in each of Dallas’ top 10 five-man floor units. With Wright on the floor, Dallas’ offensive and defensive ratings are appreciably higher and their turnover and foul rates are noticeably lower.
Yet with the lineup shifting to accomodate players returning from injury, the Mavericks frontcourt will only become more and more crowded. Despite that consideration, Carlisle’s penchant for veterans and the need for more rebounds, Wright deserves an enhanced role. The offensive wheels turn far more efficiently with Wright on the floor, a trend which will accelerate with Nowitzki as his running mate. Wright can’t shoot the ball like Kaman or rebound like James, but his presence and athleticism create better looks for other players and his productivity warrants a strong investment of playing time.
Brian Rubaie is a high school teacher, debate coach, and full-time Mavericks fan. Follow him on Twitter: @DirksRevenge.