Steady as He Goes

Posted by Brian Rubaie on December 6, 2012 under Commentary | Be the First to Comment


The decision to make space on the roster for Derek Fisher by cutting Troy Murphy was largely met with guarded (if very guarded) optimism. The choice to start Fisher over the promising Darren Collison, however, was a bit more controversial. Grantland’s Zach Lowe summarized this sentiment well on Twitter by stating simply: “I trust Rick Carlisle, but this is getting weird.”

Carlisle certainly isn’t infallible, but his decision to start Fisher is the right one — if only because the Mavs are preparing for Dirk Nowitzki’s return to the lineup and Fisher will make for a better fit than Collison. Dallas’ starting offense shows impressive flashes with Collison at the helm, but it their successes are subject to a wild inconsistency, attributable in part to Collison’s turnover rate. Collison has a bright future in Dallas or elsewhere, but he better fulfills Jason Terry’s old role than Jason Kidd’s.

Fisher obviously lacks Collison’s athleticism, quickness, and scoring ability, but he does possess a rare — if relatively intangible — skill: the ability to maximize the production of a superstar teammate. Fisher consistently displays that invaluable gift, as he operated seamlessly alongside gifted teammates with both the Los Angeles Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

While Collison can score points, he tends to create his own looks rather than reading and reacting to moves made by his teammates. Nowitzki needs to play opposite a point guard who can locate the best spot on the floor from which to capitalize on the inevitable double-teams — an area of the game in which Terry and Kidd had previously been quite successful.  Fisher can’t slash to the basket but his 37% career mark from behind the three-point arc makes him a more reliable spot-up option than Collison, who has shot just 33% from that range this season. The choice several years ago to trade Devin Harris for Jason Kidd demonstrates the general reasoning behind this approach; Harris was the superior prospect in many ways, but Dirk’s play benefited more from a steady hand than hot feet.

Fisher will slow the game down for the Mavericks’ first unit and make better decisions with the basketball. Though I initially marveled at Dallas’ breakneck pace, I now wonder if slowing down might help. Nowitzki was joking when he quipped during a recent Mavericks’ broadcast that he’ll “be running from three-point line to three-point line by the time [Collison] makes a layup,” there is some truth in that statement. The Mavericks will be a far better half-court offense with Nowitzki operating at his point guard’s pace, even if it lessens the fast-break points that have fueled Dallas to start the season.

After all, the downside to playing at an accelerated speed arrives through turnovers — which became enough of a problem that Carlisle benched Collison for the relatively green Dominique Jones. The depth chart shift initially seemed to steady Collison’s play, but that effect hasn’t endured, as he continues to turn the ball over with regularity. One might have predicted similar up-and-down results after Collison was benched in favor of Fisher, but Collison recorded only his third game of the season without a turnover in Fisher’s debut. As Collison works to improve his turnover marks, Fisher already has it mostly figured out, as he turned in an 11.6% turnover rate last season that is more than five percent lower than Collison’s season average of 16.8%.

The benefits of Fisher’s leadership also weren’t lost on the Mavericks starters. Bryan Gutierrez, in a selection of post-game interviews following the Detroit matchup, cited several starters marveling at Fisher’s veteran composure. Carlisle, unsurprisingly, touted the upside of Fisher’s experience. What was more shocking was the elated reaction of other Mavericks starters describing his introduction to the lineup. Elton Brand called Fisher’s first act “Very heady and very smart.”  O.J. Mayo remarked that Fisher has a “presence” in the locker room, despite only just arriving. For his part, Fisher did a great job of describing what he brings to the table, citing his attempts to locate “spots on the floor, where shots are going to come from, understanding time and score (and) who you’re out there on the floor with.” Fisher’s on and off the court awareness of his surroundings is something almost no twenty-five year old competitor can reasonably be expected to match.

As productive as Fisher’s addition to the starting lineup could be, Collison’s introduction to the second unit could pay even bigger dividends. The Mavericks bench has struggled to put points on the board throughout the season thus far, particularly with Wright locked up in Carlisle’s dog house. Vince Carter has tried to fill the reserve scoring void, but that need is so large that it compels Carter to over-exert himself by trying to create too many of his own looks. Collison, who has no difficulty setting up his own shots or scoring the basketball, could be just the complement that Carter needs. Collison is great when he plays as a scorer first and distributor second, and his shoot-first instincts won’t be nearly as disruptive when playing with the second unit, where he will match up against weaker defenders who can’t contain his speed or force him to cough up the ball. With Rodrigue Beaubois and Dominique Jones struggling, Collison’s production from the backup point guard slot is much-needed.

Those still longing for more playing time for Collison should also note that Fisher and Collison aren’t mutually exclusive options, particularly as Carlisle continues to experiment with different lineup possibilities. The two shared the floor well in their first experience together against Detroit. Carlisle, not one to heap false praise, reacted positively, noting (again, per Gutierrez): “I liked when (Fisher) and Collison were together. I thought that was a pretty productive lineup.” This lineup may see increased use when the Mavericks decide to play small against particular opponents.

Carlisle has often been criticized for privileging experience over youth but in this case he’s right to do so. Fisher isn’t the answer to every problem plaguing the Mavericks, but he provides an avenue for stability and balance throughout the rotation, both as a shooter to flank Nowitzki upon his return and as a buffer to shift Collison into a role as a super-sub.