The Dallas Mavericks are searching for answers with little room for error or time to spare. Optimists soothed early doubters by suggesting that incorporating Dirk Nowitzki, grooming O.J. Mayo and stepping up the defense would inevitably improve the team’s long-term outlook, even if it took time. The recent losing streak, however, has prompted demands for immediate results. Suggestions have ranged from the dramatic, such as Rick Carlisle’s recent talk of player suspensions and panicked calls from some fans to fire Carlisle, to the mundane, with moves like calling up Jared Cunningham from the D-League.
The best ways to make short-term improvements to the team are tactical. The Mavericks should put the ball in Collison’s hands and take it out of Mayo’s, play lineups that halt opponents’ second-chance opportunities and make good decisions with defensive assignments. None of these solutions is a cure-all, but all are necessary to cure what ails Dallas.
Most proposed short-term solutions emphasize rebounding and rounding O.J. Mayo and Dirk Nowitzki into form. Both of these overlook a more important variable: ball control. The Mavericks have twice grabbed 50 total rebounds but both times it came in a losing effort. More broadly, the number of total rebounds has a weak correlation with success for Dallas. Ball control, however, has a strong correlation with success, notably as it relates to preventing turnovers and keeping the ball in Collison’s hands. The focus on Mayo and Nowitzki, while important, does much much less to improve ball control than entrusting it more often to Collison. The Mavericks’ most promising point guard import has played more minutes than any other Maverick since Fisher’s departure and has posted an incredibly high usage rate. Love him or hate him, Collison’s presence in several different lineup configurations makes him the key in the short term.
Collison’s progress in reducing his own turnovers, a problem area for him earlier in the season, stands in stark contrast to Mayo’s regression. Despite this, Mayo still brings the ball up the court with regularity and initiates the half-court offense at key moments late in close games. While many rightly cite Mayo’s turnover rate as a key factor in the Mavericks decline, the key to correcting it in the short term is not to hope for an epiphany that completely reshapes Mayo’s decision-making but instead to absolve Mayo of the need to control the ball and entrust it to Collison in key possessions.
Collison is also better than Mayo at facilitating good looks for other Mavericks. Last night’s promising zero turnover effort from Mayo came in a game where Collison facilitated Mayo rather than vice-versa. It reflected the first time Mayo has posted a positive assists to turnover ratio in the past five games. In contrast, Collison has only once failed to post a positive assist to turnover over the same period, with an average turnover-assist ratio of 2.6-1. When Dallas moves the ball its offense appears formidable. According to data from Basketball Reference, Dallas is 6-1 when it posts 25 or more assists; when they record fewer than 18 they’re 1-6. Rebounding and star shooting will continue to attract attention but it is wise to focus on ball control to produce wins.
Rebounds are important but solutions to this issue require a narrowed area of emphasis. Dallas won’t improve its number of total rebounds, the measure which shows up on the box scores, overnight. It could, however, focus on keeping opponents off the boards. According to the aforementioned data from Basketball Reference, controlling strictly for opponents’ offensive rebounding exhibits a much stronger correlation for winning than total rebounding alone: Dallas is 1-7 (with many close losses) when it allows its opponent to grab more than 15 offensive rebounds.
Despite being the only Maverick to factor into every Dallas lineup with a positive defensive rebounding percentage, Chris Kaman’s usage in recent games has been inconsistent. That the Mavericks have experimented with different lineups around Dirk late in games makes sense, but Kaman needs to be a factor late in games going forward when lineups are finally set. Kaman is the only Maverick that displays zeal in keeping opponents off the offensive glass. Whatever other imperfections the Kaman-Nowitzki combination exhibits, it still represents the best chance of keeping opponents off the boards.
Another late-game error surfaces on the defensive end, where the Mavericks need to correct some of their counter-intuitive defensive matchup choices. Vince Carter, because he can produce his own shots, spot up for threes intelligently and reliably move the ball, is rightly trusted by Carlisle in late-game situations. These traits were on display last night against Washington in one of Carter’s best outings of the season. All of these advantages, however, come on the offensive side of the ball. Carter’s unshakable self-confidence and willingness to embrace any challenge, no matter how unrealistic, can be a huge defensive liability.
In the only recent loss that was close, against Oklahoma City, Carter, a subpar one-on-one defender, matched up with the league’s toughest one-on-one matchup, Kevin Durant, on three critical fourth quarter sequences. Durant made both field goals he shot when guarded by Carter during this stretch and was only deterred from scoring when he drew a foul on a lunging Carter. Meanwhile, ace defensive stopper Shawn Marion matched up elsewhere. Once the Mavericks woke up and switched Marion onto Durant, Durant went cold, missing his next three looks. That plan should not have required three failed attempts to materialize but the Mavericks sometimes let their heads get away from them late in games when setting matchups. This isn’t a failure of personnel or execution but one of basic strategy.
The search for answers has long focused on Dirk, Mayo and team defense but the better solutions in the short term are Collison, Kaman and better choices with lineups late in games. Ball control and the ability to keep opponents off the offensive glass dictate the outcome of games far more than any other individual factor. If the Mavericks can make small tweaks to their tactics it could yield big improvements. The result may not be a playoff finish but it would be a series of improvements that give the Mavericks a puncher’s chance without needing to resort to any dramatic personnel shifts.
Brian Rubaie is a high school teacher, debate coach, and full-time Mavericks fan. Follow him on Twitter: @DirksRevenge.