February has been kinder to the Dallas Mavericks than any other month this season. While they don’t appear to be playoff-bound, the Mavericks are finally playing playoff-quality team basketball. This month has seen Dallas soundly conquer the postseason-worthy Golden State Warriors, comfortably take care of business against lottery-bound opponents and keep it close in tough losses to the Thunder, Lakers and Hawks. A roster full of veterans and one-year signings hoping to become permanent fixtures in Dallas has summoned a sense of urgency that few other lottery teams can muster.
This determination, combined with improved team defense, a more cohesive roster and Dirk Nowitzki’s return to dominance, has produced a visibly-improved Mavericks squad. The most compelling factor in the recent reversal, however, has come from a far less visible element: the quelling of the turnover woes that haunted Dallas throughout much of their season.
According to data from Basketball-Reference.com, the Mavericks have posted fewer turnovers than their opponent in their past six contests and are -17 overall in the turnover category over the past month. Their season average of 14.0 turnovers per game entering February, a consistent trouble spot in close losses, has been reduced to an impressive 11.4 a night. This improvement has led the Mavericks to become proud owners of the NBA’s fifth lowest turnover percentage, the only advanced measurement on either side of the ball where Dallas currently rates above 14th in the league.
Dallas management will carefully review the roster at season’s end to try to assemble a team that can reproduce the recent run of quality play in order to maximize Dirk’s last few productive years as a Maverick. If Dallas wants to return to being a contender it should seriously consider how to make the kinds of roster moves that can replicate the team’s newly developed responsibility with the basketball.
One player who has demonstrated particular improvement in this category is budding point guard Darren Collison, who is making an increasingly compelling case to become Dallas’ point guard of the future. Collison’s improving ability to distribute the ball to perimeter shooters after crashing the lane has caused his previous season assist-turnover ratio of 5.2-2.3 to balloon to 6.7-1.9 over the last 8 contests. Collison has managed to turn his drives to the basket, possessions which once culminated in ill-fated jumpers or attempts to thread the needle in traffic, into opportunities to find high-quality looks for perimeter shooters like Dirk Nowitzki, O.J. Mayo and Vince Carter.
While Collison’s progress is clear, his future as a Maverick is not. Mark Cuban recently told our own Bryan Gutierrez that he had the goal of making Collison part of the “backcourt of the future,” but the team’s actions say much more about their plan going forward than Cuban’s public proclamations. Dallas reportedly considered acquiring Jose Calderon before last Thursday’s trade deadline, has flirted with the idea of making a run at Brandon Jennings, and may consider both options again after the season ends. Cuban’s words weren’t necessarily disingenuous, as he may truly envision a role for Collison as a backup going forward. It is very clear, however, that he isn’t sold on making Collison a starter.
Coach Rick Carlisle seems no more certain on starting Collison, repeatedly turning to veterans like Derek Fisher and Mike James throughout the season to provide a steady hand at the starting point guard position when Collison struggled. While Collison has responded professionally to each demotion, it seems highly unlikely that he’d be willing accept a role as a permanent backup while lesser talents earn starting roles elsewhere.
To be fair, Collison’s flaws during his time in Dallas have been troubling. His aforementioned inconsistency driving into the lane, inability to locate open players in transition, lackadaisical defense when guarding the pick-and-roll and trouble when guarding more powerful opponents all collude to make Collison an uncertain investment. Equally troubling, as noted by our own Kirk Henderson after the recent loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, is Collison’s difficulty producing synergy with Dirk Nowitzki. Collison sometimes seems to forget that he’s playing next to a former MVP and often misses an open Dirk at key moments, even as Dirk audibly calls for the ball.
Despite his flaws, Collison also possesses a set of skills that should make him a serious prospect for the starting role going forward. While Collison appeared lost at points earlier in the season, he now seems increasingly comfortable with the Dallas offense and aware of his own individual role within it. Perhaps Collison’s growing familiarity could make his recent success more of a norm going forward; it’s certainly not easy to be a point guard under Rick Carlisle at times, but Collison now seems to have the foundation that gives him a leg up on a replacement candidate.
Collison hasn’t always been a perfect complement to Dirk, but the two are slowly beginning to develop chemistry. Collison doesn’t deserve a pass in this category but he does deserve the slightest credit, as it certainly can’t be easy for a fourth-year point guard to join a new team, replace a future Hall-of-Famer, face demotion and adapt to a superstar’s slow return from injury without also experiencing a few bumps along the way. Collison has demonstrated an increased — if inconsistent — alertness to finding Dirk good looks. The best potentially available alternative, the Milwaukee Bucks’ Brandon Jennings, offers no corrective. Jennings is a shoot-first point guard that would demand a much bigger contract while taking many more ill-advised looks.
None of this is meant to suggest that Dallas should determine that Collison is their point guard of the future without seriously weighing every available alternative. Instead, the point is that the devil the Mavericks know may be a better value than the ones they don’t. Collison’s recent play offers a more complete account of his ability going forward that his early-season stumbles suggest. His inconsistency is common for a 25 year-old but his improvement, unselfishness, maturity and ability to withstand an evolving roster are not. Collison’s time in Dallas hasn’t been perfect but it has been more than enough to offer fans some comfort if Cuban does indeed decide to hand Collison the reins going forward.
Brian Rubaie is a high school teacher, debate coach, and full-time Mavericks fan. Follow him on Twitter: @DirksRevenge.