For the first time in awhile, things are looking up in Dallas. Dirk Nowitzki is healthy, and the Mavericks are on a four game win streak. In their wins over Sacramento, Memphis, Minnesota and Houston, Dallas put up points at the scorching rate of 112.4 points per 100 possessions. This is a tremendous bump for what has been the 18th most efficient offense in the league this year and, at just 100.9 points per 100 possessions, the least efficient Mavericks’ offense of the past 13 seasons.
Offensive firepower of great variety has been the defining characteristic of Mavericks’ basketball for more than a decade, so watching the team struggle so mightily this season has been somewhat disconcerting. The absence of Dirk Nowitzki has certainly made things difficult, but the problems have been so systemic it’s hard to lay them all at the feet of one giant German. Across the entire season the Mavericks have wilted in each of the offensive Four Factors. They rank 8th in the league TO%, but 13th in eFG%, 16th in FTA Rate and 27th in ORB%.
The eFG% is especially troubling. Making shots is what Mavericks do, and under Rick Carlisle in particular, the team has shown a razor-sharp focus on the craft of creating quality open looks. This season however, their miraculous ability to manipulate and manufacture open space has largely fizzled. As dark as things have been, some fragrant Four-Factor-blossoms bloomed in their three most recent wins. They posted an eFG% of just 45.3% against Sacramento but pushed the bounds of offensive efficiency with just nine turnovers and 35 free throw attempts. Against Memphis and Minnesota, Dallas scorched the nets with eFG%s of 55.6% and 66.3% respectively. Against Houston, shooting was again a problem but 10 turnovers and 43 free throw attempts did the job. Those eFG% numbers are exciting to type; they feel like a thick, down sleeping bag with the potential to fend off the long winter weeks still to come. But I’m not sure they are truly a reflection of problems solved.
One of the reasons they Mavericks have struggled to score efficiently this season is that they’ve taken really difficult shots. At Hickory-High I’ve been working on a metric called Expected Points Per Shot (XPPS), which uses the average value of shots from different locations to measure the quality of a player or team‘s shot selection. The chart below shows where the Mavericks’ shot selection ranks this season. XPPS is graphed on the x-axis across the bottom, Actual Points Per Shot is graphed vertically on the y-axis.
*I use trips to the line for two free throws in my XPPS calculations. From here on out when I refer to shots attempts or shot selection, those shooting fouls are included.
As a team the Mavericks have an XPPS of 1.024 points per shot, well below the league average of 1.047. Only four teams, the Warriors, Magic, Sixers and Wizards, have had a less efficient shot-distribution this season. In terms of expected value, the shot locations rank in this order: Two Free Throws (1.511 PPS), Restricted Area (1.183), Corner Three-Pointer (1.157), Above The Break Three-Pointer (1.048), In The Paint Non-Restricted Area (0.793) and Mid-Range (0.788). The Mavericks’ XPPS works out so low because 42.2% of their shot attempts this season have come from those two least efficient areas. They also have a very inefficient ratio between Above The Break Three-Pointers and Corner Three-Pointers — more than 3 to 1 and one of the highest ratios in the league.
The difference between the Mavericks XPPS of 1.024 and the league average of 1.047 may not sound huge, but across an entire season it’s monumental. If we assume the Mavericks will attempt around 7539 shots this season (the league average from 2010-2011) that difference works out to 173 total points, or 2.1 per game. Again, I’m not talking about the Mavericks improving their accuracy to pick-up those 2.1 points per game. They could continue to makes shots at the exact same rates and pocket those extra points just by taking better shots. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m also not implying they need to do something extraordinary, merely sidle up alongside the league average.
This shot selection problem has certainly been exacerbated by players having to stretch both their usage and roles in Nowitzki’s absence. But the issues run deeper. Having missed out on Deron Williams and Dwight Howard, the Mavericks’ front office did an admirable job of maintaining flexibility while acquiring solid, professional basketball players. Unfortunately, the Mavericks have ended up with a roster with an incredible amount of duplication in both offensive abilities and tendencies. Simply look at the ten Mavericks’ who have attempted the most shots this season and what percentage of their attempts came from those two least efficient zones.
- Elton Brand – 73%
- Chris Kaman – 70%
- Dirk Nowitzki – 61%
- Brandan Wright – 57%
- Shawn Marion – 48%
- Dahntay Jones – 43%
- O.J. Mayo – 42%
- Darren Collison – 42%
- Vince Carter – 35%
- Jae Crowder – 25%
Circling back to the current win streak, in the two wins against Memphis and Minnesota, the Mavericks took 73 of their 157 (46.4%) of their shot attempts from those two least-efficient areas. They made an absolutely ludicrous 56.2% of those shots. In that small sample, the Mavericks have been scoring 1.121 points per shot on field goal attempts from zones where the league average is 0.791. They scored 82 points on those shots, where they should have expected to score about 58. That burst of offense was not because of a beautiful metamorphosis, but rather a likely unsustainable run of fortunate accuracy. Against Houston we saw reversion, with the Mavericks again taking 45.3% of those zones, but making just 35.9%. Expecting mid-range accuracy of the kind they displayed against Memphis and Minnesota to be the centerpiece of offensive improvement going forward is probably going to lead to frustration.
The solution really has two prongs. In Rick Carlisle’s hands is the potential to tweak the offensive playbook and the rotations to emphasize more efficient shot-distribution. On the player side is the opportunity to make their team better be simply passing up a few long jumpers for the sake of offensive re-initiation and the possibility of something greater. Shot-selection is a powerful tool because it doesn’t require talent or speed, strength or length, to be implemented. A better offense can be created with simple knowledge, awareness and better decision-making.
In addition to his work for The Two Man Game, Ian Levy is the author of Hickory High, and a contributor to Indy Cornrows, Hardwood Paroxysm, HoopChalk and ProBasketballDraft. You can follow Ian on Twitter at @HickoryHigh.