Pairings and Parables

Posted by Ian Levy on March 29, 2013 under Commentary | Be the First to Comment

And I would even settle for a twin cousin...

Several weeks ago I put together a post highlighting the incredible amount of turnover on the Mavericks’ roster and rotation this season, and looking specifically at the effectiveness of different player pairs. At that point, 19 different players had dressed in a Mavericks uniform during the 2012-2013 season, not including Delonte West who was released just before the regular season started. That number has now climbed to 21, despite the team’s slow march towards 0.500 and a potential playoff berth. The larger pieces of the rotation finally seemed to have fallen into place, which means Rick Carlisle can return to tinkering around the edges. Plenty of elements have been difficult to watch this season, but among the most challenging for me has been the trial-and-error…and error method Carlisle has needed to piece together the limited specialists on this roster into a consistently reliable attack. We’ve never seen so much of the error portion of his process in years past, and Carlisle’s previously masterful performance in managing rotations have raised expectations to obscene levels. As Dirk Nowitzki has returned to form and all the new parts have become more secure in understanding how they fit around him, the tumult has eased. It’s an incredible relief to feel that identifying useful player combinations is no longer such a daily battle.

Obviously, I’m still hung up on these player combinations, so I decided to take another look, again using a Tableau Visualization. The chart below shows each different player combination the Mavericks have used this season graphed by their minutes played. I divided the season into six-game segments so each mark displays the numbers for just the previous six games. The color of each line represents the effectiveness of the unit, as expressed by Net Rating; red is good, green is bad. You can use the search filter at the bottom to focus in on any pairing that strikes your fancy.

The overall graph, displaying every combination is an overwhelming amount of information. But in looking at the hornet’s nest as a whole, a few things should pop out. The first is how inconsistent the use of different pairings has been. Injuries have shuffled the cards at different points during the season, but the jagged peaks and valleys adorning most of those lines emphasize what a shifting surface the Mavericks’ rotation has been. The second point is how inconsistent performance has been. Six games is not a huge sample slice by which to be measuring these groups, but most of the pairs, especially those at the top, have been rocketing back and forth between terrific and terrible.

If we begin sifting through this wealth of information there are a few interesting trends that emerge. The first is how the center rotation has changed over the last 30+ games since Dirk returned. To save you the trouble of working through the filters on your own, I’ve pulled a screenshot of the visualization showing the changes I’m referring to.


The image above shows the three most common frontcourt pairings — Dirk and Chris Kaman, Dirk and Elton Brand, Dirk and Brandan Wright. The pairing with Kaman has been one of the most inconsistent this season, used regularly since Dirk’s return but posting six-game Net Ratings that alternate between reasonably positive and atrociously negative. The combination with Brand has been used at least as often, with results much more reliably consistent. Obviously though, the most intriguing trend here is from the combination of Dirk and Wright. As Zach Lowe pointed out in his Grantland piece yesterday, Carlisle has been leaning on this pairing much more often of late, to surprisingly terrific effect for the Mavericks. Over the last 24 games, the Mavericks have consistently outscored the opposition with those two on the floor together, often by a significant margin. Their minutes together have climbed to the point where they have surpassed either of the other frontcourt pairings. Kaman, Brand and Wright are all free agents this summer and early on it seemed doubtful that the front office would be enthusiastic about bringing any of them back. However, this Wright combination has shown enough potential that the Mavericks may have some serious interest in locking Wright up and continuing to explore his potential.


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This image shows the O.J. Mayo – Darren Collison pairing. Given their inconsistency together, it’s probably a healthy thing that their minutes have been declining. They’ve had four different, separate, six-game stretches this season with a Net Rating of +5.0 or better. They’ve also had five different, separate, six-game stretches this season with a Net Rating of -5.0 or worse. Clearly this is not the Mavericks backcourt of the future, but whether it’s driven by the rest of the teammates who play alongside them, or the quality and style of the competition, there is at least the potential there for productive coverage of some portion of the Mavericks’ backcourt minutes.


Carter Combos

This last image shows two different pairings featuring Vince Carter. He’s not getting much recognition for his contributions to the Mavericks resurgence, but Carter has been terrific over the last 20+ games. Setting statistics aside and reflecting instead on Carter’s intelligence, effort and commitment, I think you could make a legitimate argument that this is one of the best seasons of Carter’s career. His ability to work as an offensive fulcrum with the second unit has helped buoy the effectiveness of Collison. His ability to both support and facilitate alongside Dirk has helped smooth out some of the offensive rough edges with the starters as well. It’s one of the great tragedies of NBA biology that cognitive basketball growth usually results from declining athleticism. It would have been incredible to see Carter play this style of basketball with the physical tools that used to be at his disposal.

The playoffs are still within reach, and as the chase intensifies these productive pairings are rising to the surface. Even if the Mavericks’ season ends with opportunity lost and chins unshaven, it’s comforting to know that Carlisle’s masterful manipulations of the past few season were not a mirage of a veteran roster, and that although the current pieces don’t always fit smoothly, there are a few that could lock comfortably together for the future.

In addition to his work for The Two Man Game, Ian Levy is the author of Hickory High, and a contributor to Indy CornrowsHardwood ParoxysmHoopChalk and ProBasketballDraft. You can follow Ian on Twitter at @HickoryHigh.