“Greetings, men of Earth, I have been awaiting you.” — Galactus, Devourer of Worlds
Let’s start with a philosophical question: What’s the most important position on the court? Like all philosophical questions, it’s more of a thought experiment than something to directly answer—similar to “if a tree falls in a forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Obviously, in regards to the “most important position,” the answer is that it depends. It depends on the players the team has, the type of offense and defense the team runs, and the opponents they face. The discussion is more significant than the conclusion, because it reveals fundamental thoughts on how basketball operates as a team sport. I would suggest that the debate narrows down to the positions of point guard and center. The point guard is often the “floor general,” the person who controls the ball up the court, and sets the offense. The point guard has his hands on the ball, facilitating, more than any other player. The center is closest to the basket. In theory, he has the high percentage shot. He is also the defensive anchor, the last resistance for anyone driving to the basket. His very presence can alter the offense’s decision on whether or not to dare any closer to the rim.
This season for the Mavs, the point guard and center positions have been the most inconsistent and continually in flux.
At point guard, the departure of Jason Kidd may have hurt the Mavs more than they are willing to admit. Then there was the mysterious departure of Delonte West. Darren Collison hasn’t been able to make his case as the starting point guard or even deserving more minutes when coming off the bench. He has had moments of offensive production. But for someone so fast, he hasn’t been able to move particular well—especially on defense. I shudder every time I see Collison attempt a full-court press against another point guard. As he backpedals, playing his opponent close, I can count down the seconds, 5… 4… 3… 2… until a foul is called against Collison. To fill in the gaps of Collison’s gaffs, the Mavs have used Derek Fischer, Dominique Jones, Rodrigue Beaubois, and finally settled on Mike James. James, while not a perfect or even long-term fix, has surpassed expectations. Collison may eventually grow into his role as a starting point guard, but I’ll leave that discussion for another time.
At center, the Mavs have four players all vying for the same spot: Elton Brand, Chris Kaman, Bernard James, and Brandan Wright. Each of them have, at times, disappointed. Bernard James, although older than Brandan Wright, is a rookie. He’s the only one who gets a pass. Anything James can produce this season is a boon for the team. However, Brand, Kaman, and Wright are all free agents next season, and they need to be evaluated with more scrutiny.
As Mavs fans continually lament the loss of Tyson Chandler, the answer may not be a Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum, but just someone who can fit well in the Mavs system. Mentioned here in Ian Levy’s fascinating analysis for Two Man Game and Zach Lowe’s article “The Rise of the Mavericks,” Brandan Wright has paired better with Nowitzki than either Kaman or Brand. While Kaman and Brand are the bigger “name” players, Wright is due some respect.
Looking at advanced statistics provided by Basketball-Reference.com, this season, Brandan Wright has had a higher player efficiency rate at 21.3 than both Brand (15.6) and Kaman (16.2). Wright has a higher true shooting percentage at .621 than both Brand (.507) and Kaman (.531). Brand and Kaman have a better total rebounding percentage than Wright, but Wright’s turnover percentage is lower (7.3) than Brand (9.6) and significantly lower than Kaman (13.4)—and Wright’s defensive rating (105) is essentially equal to Brand and Kaman (102 and 105 respectively). One more stat: Wright has 3.6 win shares compared to Brand’s 3.5 and Kaman’s 1.4.
In the game against the Boston Celtics on March 22nd, Wright had 23 points (11-16 shooting), 8 rebounds. Carlisle said afterward, “It’s his kind of game because there are a lot of small guys out there. That was the reason we started him. He navigates well in an athletic game without a lot of bruisers in it. He played huge for us.” Carlisle’s assessment is simple. Wright needs to learn how to hang with tougher centers and forwards, the bruisers. It’s a gap, but it’s not hopelessly so.
Sometimes, the most significant stat is a player’s date of birth–the father time contingency, the main variable for potential. Wright is a young player, roughly the same age as Mayo and Collison. And like Mayo and Collison, he is young enough to be excused from some deficiencies, if (and only if) a case can be made that he’s still improving. In time, Wright might be able to bulk up, increase his conditioning and his weight. Or not. Either way, the Mavs have a great option off the bench. And I wouldn’t discount him as a potential starter some day. Actually, right now, he may be the best center on the team.
What’s the most important position on the team? The 1 and the 5, the beginning and the end, the point and the anchor, the actual and the potential. With the eighth playoff spot in sight, the Mavs need something reliable at center. Wright might be it, or it might be an imperfect philosophy for an imperfect season. Something to think about, at least.
David Hopkins is a freelance writer – a regular contributor to D Magazine and Smart Pop Books. David minored in philosophy during college. It has served him well. Follow David on Twitter at @davidhopkins.