This has been an incredibly turbulent season for the Mavericks from a player personnel standpoint. They faced their first 27 games without Dirk Nowtizki, and with just five other returning players on the roster. An NBA roster has 15 slots, but the Mavericks have already used 19 different players this season, not including Delonte West — with whom the Mavericks parted ways before the season began. Each week it seems there is a new addition to be welcomed to the fold, bringing with them the warm tidings of hope.
Since he took over in Dallas, Rick Carlisle has proved repeatedly that managing personnel is one of his greatest coaching strengths. He has been innovative and progressive in managing his lineups and always seems to pull the most from each of his players. This season however, putting the pieces together has been a constant challenge. No matter how he arranges them, they don’t seem to fit together quite as uniformly as they have in the past, and the image never becomes totally clear. I’m personally of the opinion that it’s because these pieces don’t all come from the same puzzle, and that no matter what five-man unit Carlisle runs out onto the floor, some part of it will be a hasty Spackle job trying to hold back the rising tide of flood waters. However, I thought it might be interesting to look at the different lineup foundations he’s tried by examining his success (and lack thereof) with various two-man combinations.
The visualization below lets you look at all the different two-man combinations the Mavericks have used for at least 100 minutes this season. Unfortunately, to create all the combinations I had to place several players on both axes, which can make for a slightly confusing view. The size of each square represents the number of minutes that pairing played. The color represents that pairing’s Net Rating, or point differential per 100 possessions. If you hover over any of the squares you can also see that combination’s Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating. The filters below let you include or eliminate pairings based on any of those variables.
The three least efficient areas to shoot from are inside the paint (but not in the restricted area), from mid-range and straight ahead three-pointers. Altogether, 63.7% of this lineup’s shot attempts come from those three areas. Going back to my shot-selection metric from two weeks ago, the shot selection of this lineup gives them an XPPS of 0.988, where the league average is 1.047. They feature above-average mid-range shooters, but are using that weapon to a fault. Above-average ability isn’t manifesting in above-average success, and their Actual Points Per Shot is an even lower 0.936. From an outsider’s perspective, this group seems like they may be fundamentally incompatible offensively, even with Nowitzki’s eventual improvement taken into account.
Although you never like to see anyone injured, Kaman’s concussion offers the possibility for an interesting experiment. Kaman has had a solid individual season putting up 18.8 points per 36 minutes, the second highest of his career, on a TS% of 53.3, his highest since 2008-2009. However, his rebound percentage is the lowest since his rookie season and the Mavericks have generally struggled when he’s on the floor. Dallas’ defense is 3.6 points worse per 100 possessions with Kaman in the mix, a margin that’s ultimately not all that surprising. However, the Mavs’ offense is also 2.9 points worse per 100 possessions with Kaman involved. Turning back to the visualization above, we see that Kaman is featured in 12 different pairings, only two of which have outscored the opposition. Those two — with Brandan Wright and with Jae Crowder — have played a combined 343 minutes, 44 of which are overlapped.
Much of Carlisle’s rotation work this season has felt like tinkering around the edges. As long as they’ve been healthy, the foundational pieces of Kaman, Nowitzki, Mayo and Marion have been largely cemented in place. With Kaman out, Carlisle will be forced to manipulate his foundation, and there is an opportunity for Brandan Wright and Bernard James to find their way back into the regular rotation in a significant way. Both Wright and James have been featured in several successful (albeit scarcely used) pairings, and I can’t help but feel that they are under-utilized assets. Neither player is comfortable away from the basket on offense and each would give the Mavericks a very different look than with Brand or Kaman alongside Nowitzki. When we talk about spacing issues we are usually referring to a team with a lack of outside shooters, allowing the defense to clog the paint. In this case I think the Mavericks can actually improve their spacing by removing overly-willing outside shooters; the insertion of James or Wright will force the defense to expand their focus and defend more of the floor, more vigorously.
The visualization also makes it seem that there could be potential benefits in increased roles for Vince Carter and Jae Crowder. Carter has done tremendous work in keeping the second-unit offense afloat, but maybe it’s time to let him work long more court time with Nowitzki. His ability to work inside and out, particularly as a post-up threat, seems like it could also alleviate some of the one-dimensional reliance on the mid-range jumpshot. It would be a difficult pill to swallow, but perhaps Mayo would be better off swapping places with Carter. Moving to the bench might feel like a step backwards for Mayo and could have significant impacts on team chemistry, but at this point the Mavs’ current rotation isn’t doing much for the team’s present or future.
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.