The regular season is just a few hours away, but it’s never too late to catch up with the Mavs’ rotation regulars. Some members of the rotation are continuing with business as usual, others have modified roles, and some are completely fresh to the Mavericks faithful. So let me introduce to you, the act you’ve known for all of these years, only new, hopefully improved, and ready to roll:
Dirk Nowitzki’s fantastic production is trumped only by his remarkable consistency. The Mavs lean so heavily on Dirk’s ability to score in volume, and he yet he never disappoints. The sun rises, Nowitzki drops 25 and eight, the sun sets. This is the rhythm to which the Mavs have scored their success over the last decade, and the beat is as steady now as it ever has been. There will come a day when Dirk is no longer fit to be the focal point of an offense, but it’s not today, and the rest of the week looks clear, too.
Nowitzki played almost 38 minutes a night last season, and if Rick Carlisle could find some rest for his star, that would change. It won’t, and Dirk should continue to chug along at about 37 or 38 minutes a night because this team has no alternative. If the Mavs are going to work for a guaranteed playoff spot and an optimal seed, Nowitzki has to be on the court as much as possible. Dallas’ offense tends to crumble without Dirk present to moderate, and though that could potentially change if Caron Butler, Jason Tery, and Rodrigue Beaubois can provide stable scoring in Nowitzki’s absence, I’m inclined to base projections of the year to come off of the one past. That trio wasn’t able to accomplish that goal after the All-Star break last season, so any progress on that front, while welcome, would be a bit unexpected.
In those 38 minutes, we can expect the same Nowitzki. Dirk’s true-shooting percentage (.580) and effective field goal percentage (.498) were pretty much in line with his career averages, and the sum total of his scoring was also par for the course. Plus, as I mentioned in my season preview focusing on the four factors, Nowitzki’s lack of turnovers is positively remarkable. He’s truly elite in that regard, not only among his contemporaries, but for these and all times. For a guy who has control of the offense so often, Nowitzki should be coughing the ball up at a significantly higher rate. He doesn’t, and it’s godsend to the Maverick offense.
Nowitzki’s defensive role will always come secondary to his offensive importance, but I still retain the notion that Dirk gets a bit of an undeserved rap as a defender. In his first four seasons in the NBA or so, Nowitzki was a truly abysmal defender. Over time, as Dirk grew into his body and the NBA game, he’s developed a pretty decent set of defensive skills that don’t make him a plus on that end necessarily, but prevent him from being a liability. According to 82games, Nowitzki’s counterparts average a PER of 16.6, and while that’s above average, it’s an acceptable mark considering Nowitzki’s +9.3 edge in net PER.
Dirk still picks up his share of blocks and steals (in fact, his number of defensive plays per game puts him right in line with guys like Tim Duncan and Kendrick Perkins), but where he’s shown the most improvement is in his defensive awareness. I wouldn’t want Dirk anchoring my defense for a variety of reasons, but he’s not quite as poor of a defender as advertised these days.
Creator — D2/D1
Though I often mention the importance of Butler, Terry, and Beaubois’ scoring, it’s Kidd’s shot-creating talents that could end up being most crucial for the Mavs this season. The Spurs systematically eliminated the impacts of both Terry and Kidd in last year’s playoffs, and Dallas struggled to compensate. Even with Butler and Beaubois chipping in, it’s Kidd’s ability to create shots for players like Shawn Marion, Brendan Haywood, and Tyson Chandler (not to mention free up the likes of Terry and Butler for open looks) that currently fuels the Mavs’ secondary attack. Without Kidd setting up teammates that can’t create for themselves on a consistent basis, the Mavs’ offense becomes brutally simplistic and, ultimately, solvable.
The fast breaks matter. Kidd’s three-point shooting matter. But ultimately, it’s Kidd’s ability to do the same thing he’s always done — manufacture shots out of thin air in half-court sets — that will help the Mavs most this season. Everything else is just gravy.
Something that could make that gravy even more delicious, though, is a facet of Kidd’s game he’s supposedly been working on in the off-season: shooting off of screens. The reason why the Terry-Nowitzki two man game is so effective is because both players are essentially a threat to score at all times. Terry could shoot when tucked behind the screen, he could break toward the rim, pull-up on the way, or dish it to Dirk for another thousand options. When Kidd runs the two man game, it’s painfully obvious that he has no intent to score. Kidd’s a poor finisher around the rim, and to this point, has been awkward in his attempts to hit pull-up jumpers off the bounce. If he can again introduce a new element to his game this late in his career (a la the improve three-point stroke he unveiled upon arriving in Dallas), it could help the Mavs out tremendously. Having Kidd as a legitimate pick-and-roll option would open up a whole new world for the Dallas offense. Shining, shimmering, splendid.
Kidd’s still an impact player on the defensive end, but it’s probably best if we say that he’s between traditional positions. There are plenty of players that Kidd is effective in guarding, but to say that he always guards one position or another would be both misguided and terribly false. Dallas swings their defensive matchups with great regularity, particularly with scoring D1s (Terry, Beaubois, possibly Dominique Jones) sharing the court with Kidd. The important thing is that Kidd can defend someone, and though particular defensive assignments have given him trouble over the last few seasons, he’s still very capable of doing just that.
Scorer — D3/D2
At Media Day, Caron Butler insisted that one of training camp’s primary benefits was the ability to make his mark on the team, to instill his personality and influence on a squad that will rely on him this season. That may seem backward to those with old-school, team-first sensibilities, but there’s definitely some logic in Butler’s perspective. Last season, he was thrown into the lineup mid-stride and asked to produce, which puts him in a natural position to accommodate. He still took plenty of shots and made an impact on the offense in both good ways and bad, but Caron was still sliding into an offense that was never designed for him.
This season, Butler will have a chance to make his mark, and to really be a part of this team from opening tip. Mid-season player integration is a tall order, but now all excuses are wiped clean, Butler is in a contract year, and it’s time to go to work.
Showing up in excellent shape is a start, but it’s going to take more than a few dropped pounds for Butler to live up to his role. Dallas needs Caron to provide consistent, efficient complementary scoring while holding his own defensively, and provided he accomplishes those two things, Dallas will be in a very good place come April. If not — if Butler is only the same player he was in the latter half of last season, for example — the Mavs’ offense on the whole will surely suffer the repercussions. Nowitzki is essential and Kidd principal, but Butler is pivotal. He has the potential to swing the Mavs’ offense into the future, leaving the days of middling offensive efficiency behind.
Rebounder — D3/D4/D2/D1
Shawn Marion is the Mavs’ best defender, and if any team’s best defender doesn’t put up daunting numbers, they’re bound to be undervalued. Such is the case with Marion, who has already become a bit of a scapegoat among Mavs fans after just one season with the team.
Nevermind the fact that Marion is still a premier perimeter defender that can swing to cover just bout anyone on the court. Nevermind that at his primary position, Marion held his defensive assignments to a 13.3 PER. Nevermind the fact that Marion draws the toughest defensive assignments on the perimeter night-in and night-out, and forced some of the league’s most potent scorers (LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant) into inefficient and unproductive nights last season.
His rebounding rate may not be what it once was, as is the case with his overall scoring production, but Marion is still an elite perimeter defender. His primary function on the team is to succeed in that capacity, while also chipping in on the boards and in the scoring column. Let’s not forget that for all of his the derision Marion received for his offensive contributions, he still scored 12 points a night while shooting .508 from the field. It’s not quite the 20+ Marion was gunning for during his Phoenix days, but considering how much of an afterthought he was in the Mavs’ offense, it’s not too shabby.
Don’t expect Marion to produce as a Maverick like he did as a Sun. He’s not being utilized in even remotely the same way, and to expect the same total production would be unspeakably foolish. Marion was certainly both more productive and more efficient as a member of a relentless, fast-breaking offense, but that’s not the way the Mavs roll these days and we should adjust our expectations accordingly. Defend, rebound, score when he can. Those are Marion’s marching orders, and so far he’s followed them intently.
Scorer/Creator — D1
Terry used to be a rather divisive Maverick, but these days he’s mostly just reviled. Some of the criticism (his spotty scoring last season, his defensive ineptitude) is warranted, and some (exaggerated claims about his periodic shooting troubles, comments about his abilities as a supplementary playmaker) less so. Regardless, Terry is still a Maverick, and unless he experiences an incredible drop-off, still a valued part of the franchise and the offense.
You can trace a few minor regressions in Terry’s statistical profile if you’d like, but on paper he was essentially the same player that won the Sixth Man Award in 2008-2009. He was less efficient overall, but also using fewer possessions. His scoring dipped, but so did his shot attempts. Overall, Terry’s line looks like that of a player trying to accommodate the presence of new teammates (Butler, Marion, et al), and as a result, perhaps he wasn’t as effective in some spots as he could have been otherwise. Or maybe at 32, JET is seeing his own inevitable decline begin to unfold. If that’s the case, Dallas would do well with a repeat performance from Terry, who was still able to be an effective contributor to the offense.
Anything worse, and Dallas could be in serious trouble; Terry’s at a point in his career where he’ll be allocated certain minutes on previous production and reputation, and he’s unable to produce up to his previous levels in those opportunities, I wonder whether Rick Carlisle will fully hand JET’s role over to Rodrigue Beaubois mid-season.
Regardless, Terry’s tenure in Dallas may soon be coming to a close. The Mavs need him to produce this season, but it’s unclear whether he’ll be a Maverick beyond this year. The sentimentalist in me hopes he’ll be in Dallas for a bit. The pragmatist knows that Beaubois is essentially ready to take over Terry’s duties today, and that it could be in the franchise’s best interest to sent JET on his merry way. His performance this season will likely play a significant part in the decision regardless of where it leads.
Scorer/Hopefully a Creator — D1
You’ve heard of this guy, right? It’s almost unfathomable now that the Maverick who caught the interest of virtually the entire NBA world was essentially an unknown on draft night. He was French. He was athletic. Some invoked the name of Rajon Rondo. Now he’s a profile-worthy talent on his own merits and the Mavs’ great hope for both this season and those to come. Dirk, leaning forward slightly as he measures his opponent while in the triple threat, carries the franchise’s weight on his shoulders. Beaubois, it seems, may one day bear it, too, but for now, he’s just hitting the weight room.
Rick Carlisle was the biggest obstacle in Beaubois’ path last season. As a rookie, Rodrigue was second on the team in points per minute and PER, but 11th in minutes played. He was incredibly efficient with his shooting (also second among Mavericks in both eFG% and TS%), but it’s tough to get up shots when you’re sitting on the bench. Dissecting Beaubois’ lack of playing time in last year’s playoffs is so passe, but there’s truth to the claims of injustice. Basketball is supposed to be a meritocracy, and Beaubois, despite outplaying a number of his teammates, didn’t receive a role or playing time worthy of his merits.
That looks to be different this season. Beaubois will begin the year sidelined by a foot injury he sustained earlier in the summer, but upon his return, he may very well be a starter. At the very least, Beaubois is poised to be a rotation regular, as opposed to last year’s chain-pulling treatment.
Beaubois is the real deal as a scorer, but no one can say how his game will improve, flat-line, regress, or evolve in the coming season. There’s no use projecting. There’s no use assuming. Just watch, enjoy, and hopefully, embrace the future.
Rebounder — D5
Rebounder — D5/D4
Haywood and Chandler, together, provide the Mavs with a pretty impressive D5 front. In Haywood, the Mavs have a big skilled in defending the post, challenging cutters, and hitting the glass. With Chandler, Dallas now has a big capable of defending the pick-and-roll well, but also strong and athletic enough to compete on the boards, and fight opposing bigs down low. Both share a Stretch Armstrong physique that makes them valuable as both on-ball and help defenders.
No offense to Erick Dampier (and I mean that sincerely; I have more respect for Dampier’s game than just about anyone on his Christmas card mailing list), but this is the most talented center core Dallas has ever had. I don’t know how much that will matter considering the duo’s specific flaws and the other weaknesses on the roster, but the Mavs have two pretty talented centers that, with their powers combined, should improve the Mavs’ overall defense with their versatility.
Offensively, both are relative liabilities. Haywood’s hook may be slightly more reliable, but all things considered, the differences in their offensive games are negligible. Haywood and Chandler finish around the basket. They’ll get post-up opportunities every now and again, but for the most part they are marginal scorers. They’re on the floor to rebound, defend, and lurk around the rim to prevent their man from doubling or helping too aggressively. Haywood and Chandler are offensive fail-safes, and occasional lob targets. Not much more, at least in terms of actual scoring.
Scorer/Creator — D1
Barea marks the end of the consistent minute-getters, and even his status with the team could become questionable if Rodrigue Beaubois displays the aptitude to fuction as a consistent creator. That isn’t necessarily likely to happen this season, meaning that Barea should be pegged at around 15 minutes for the coming season.
J.J. is a scorer, but is able to make intelligent plays off of the foundation of his drives. His vision isn’t spectacular, and often he gets caught trying to do too much on the way to the basket. Still, he’s creative on the move, and is able to maneuver into the paint in a way few other Mavericks can. Kidd doesn’t drive. Terry doesn’t drive. It’s Barea, Beaubois, and Dominique Jones that can (and do) get deep into the paint consistently, and that makes him valuable, even if his overall production is far from elite.
As a reserve guard, it’s assumed that Barea has obvious weaknesses. His defense, particularly on the pick and roll, leaves something to be desired, though not due to lack of effort. His outside shooting, while solid, isn’t spectacular. His diminutive stature makes finishing at the basket a bit tricky. But take all of that, roll it in a bit of scoring and playmaking, and you’ve got something that doesn’t taste all that bad. He’s never going to be a starting-caliber player, but as far as reserves go, Barea’s pretty useful.
Dean Oliver, in his book Basketball on Paper, isolated four factors (by dissecting offensive and defensive rating) that determine success in the NBA:
That’s it. An entire game of nuance and complexities boiled down to four bullet points.
Of course it’s never quite that simple, as Oliver readily admits. Still, behind these four headings lies each team’s central offensive and defensive successes and failures. The four factors are a step beyond your run-of-the-mill counting statistics, but still a bit of a reach from your more advanced metric. These measures give tremendous insight into a squad’s particulars, and in my estimation, they’re essential to evaluating the performance of any team.
As measured by effective field goal percentage. Mavs’ 2009-2010 eFG%: .506 (13th in the league); ’09-’10 eFG% allowed: .495 (15th)
We think of the Mavericks as a team of shooters, mostly due to the sheer number of mid-range jumpers that the Mavs take and make. Dallas shot a better percentage from 16-23 feet than any team in the NBA last year, and hit at nearly two full percentage points better than the second ranked Raptors. Dirk Nowitzki, Caron Butler, and Jason Terry are mostly to both blame and praise for that success. The Mavericks are thus great at hitting the most inefficient shot in basketball, and considerably less effective (relative to their competition) as the shots get more and more efficient. Dallas just doesn’t have a lot of scorers tasked with taking efficient shots, and the result, while propped up as a Mavericks strength, makes for some inefficient shooting overall.
Dallas may shoot 43.2% on long two-pointers, but the Lakers made 44.0% of their shots in the 10-15 foot range, the Raptors shot 50.9% within 10 feet, and the Cavs converted 66.2% of their looks at the rim. It’s impressive that the Mavs shoot as well as they do on long twos, but shot selection continues to plague the Mavs’ overall offensive efficiency. Backing those same attempts to the three-point line or moving them in closer to the basket would drastically improve the Mavs’ overall shooting numbers, but alas, doing so would either require a significantly restructured offense or a pretty drastic change in personnel.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with Nowitzki, and both Butler and Terry are capable offensive sidekicks. The problem is that when all three are operating for the same team in the same space, the damage to the offense goes further than it would in similarly limited offenses. Put all of a team’s primary scorers in one range, and the team’s offense will struggle. Put all of those scorers in one range as far away from the basket as possible without giving them the added benefit of a three-point attempt, and it’s a testament to Nowitzki, Butler, and Terry that the Mavs aren’t even worse offensively.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem very likely to change. Those three players are still central to the Mavs’ offense, and even if Rodrigue Beaubois’ scoring talents become featured as anticipated, he isn’t reshaping the entire plan of attack on his own. He’ll help to boost the Mavs’ eFG% with drives to the rim and solid three-point shooting, but this is one area in which a healthy dose of Beaubois will only result in modest benefit.
The Mavs were equally unimpressive in their ability to contest high-percentage shots. It’s not that the Dallas defense was woeful in that regard — you’ll find that the Mavs a solid team across the board in many of these measures, but perhaps plagued by the fact that they’re merely solid — they just weren’t up to the elite caliber that those within the organization have targeted as a goal.
The Mavs ranked 13th in the league last season in FG% allowed at the rim, and 15th in FG% allowed within 10 feet. Both fine marks, really. Just not acceptable for a team that needs to be aiming a bit higher. Taking away as many high-percentage shots as possible is key for Dallas, particularly because their own offensive attack is lacking in those same attempts. They need to limit that discrepancy as much as possible, and to this point, they haven’t been able to do so to the degree necessary for extended defensive success.
Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler are both essential if the Mavs plan to improve their effective field goal percentage defense, but it’s also vital that Dallas’ perimeter defenders continue to play tight on opponents’ three-point shooters. The Mavs ranked 10th in the league last season in their opponents’ eFG% off of threes, and that kind of effort will again be necessary for Dallas to improve their overall shot defense. If Haywood and Chandler can perform better as a tandem than the combination of Dampier, Gooden, and Haywood did last season, Dallas’ opponents will not only have more of their quality attempts contested by the Mavs’ center duo, but will also be deterred from seeking out such shots in the first place. The Mavs need to keep their opponents’ out of the paint as much as possible, and the arrival of Chandler — a quality post defender and excellent defender of the pick-and-roll — to complement Haywood could provide Dallas with just the defensive boost they need.
The foundation is there for defensive improvement, but its up to Haywood, Chandler, and co. to build on it.
As measured by offensive rebounding rate (ORB%). Mavs’ 2009-2010 ORB%: .243 (26th); ’09-’10 ORB% allowed (roughly equivalent to DRB%): .263 (15)
The easiest way to diagnose the Mavs’ offensive rebounding troubles is to trace the line from system to production. The Dallas offense often pulls its second big (Nowitzki, Marion, Cardinal) far from the rim, forcing the rest of the lineup to either hit the offensive glass or retreat to defend a potential break. Having Jason Kidd helps out here, but the rest of the bunch? Jason Terry? Caron Butler? A post-Phoenix Shawn Marion? They’re not the proper group to make up for the deficit on the offensive glass.
Defensively, Dallas has a collection of solid rebounders but few impressive ones. Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler are both quality board men, but neither is a standout in that regard. Nowitzki collects his fair share of boards, but his rebounding rate has dropped bit by bit over the last few seasons. Marion has regressed into a nice rebounder rather than an elite one, and the Mavs’ tendency to play smaller lineups undoubtedly hurts their efforts on the glass. Putting good rebounders at every position has helped the Mavs get this far, but without a single proven rebounding machine on the roster, I’m not sure they’ll be able to climb much higher.
Tyson Chandler may provide an improvement on the offensive boards over Erick Dampier, but overall, Dallas is the same collection of effective but unspectacular rebounders they were a year ago. Plus, some of the best rebounders of last year’s bunch — Drew Gooden and Kris Humphries — have been shipped out in the last year, meaning the addition of Chandler and a year’s worth of Brendan Haywood will have to first off-set those losses in order to bring an improved regular season mark.
As measured by turnover rate (TOV%). Mavs’ 2009-2010 TOV%: .122 (3rd); ’09-’10 opponents’ TOV%: .138 (11th)
Here’s the thing: Jason Kidd turns the ball over as often as he ever has. 21.4% of his possessions end in a turnover. Yet Dallas still turned the ball over less often than all but two teams in the league. Kidd aside, the Mavs are unfathomably careful in their offense.
That starts with Nowitzki. His combination of high usage rate (28.8%) and low turnover rate (7.8%) are startling, even when cast against the league’s other elite players. Comb through the history books, and in only eight instances has a player (with an 800-minutes played prerequisite) posted a turnover rate lower than 8% and a usage rate higher than 28% over the course of a season. Three of those instances belong to Dirk. Two of them belong to Michael Jordan. This is a special, special place in the league pantheon that Nowitzki inhabits.
The Mavs’ correspondingly low turnover rate has a lot to do with Dirk having the ball in his hands more than any other player on the roster, but most of his higher-usage teammates are also impressively protective. Jason Terry, for example, had the seventh lowest turnover rate of all players who used more than 22% of their team’s possessions while on the floor last season. Caron Butler was also notable for his lack of turnovers, even if some of Butler’s other decisions with the ball are a bit confounding. Dallas puts the ball in the hands of players like Nowitzki, Butler, and Terry, while limiting the touches of turnover-prone bigs like Brendan Haywood, Erick Dampier, and this season, Tyson Chandler. The shots may not always be distributed in the most efficient manner possible, but the possessions are typically used by those least likely to senselessly give up the rock. The Mavs, as a result, are able to hedge some of their other offensive limitations by their quantity of attempts.
Considering that Dallas’ biggest offensive contributors will remain mostly the same (with the exception of the slightly turnover-happy Beaubois moving up in rank) from last year to this one, the Mavs should be pegged for a similar lack of turnovers in the coming season.
On D, the Mavs actually force quite a few turnovers considering how little they foul. Dallas ranked seventh in the league last season in defensive play rate (a per-possession measure of of steals, blocks, and drawn charges), and between Caron Butler, Jason Kidd, Rodrigue Beaubois, and Jason Terry, they have a number of perimeter players eager to jump passing lanes and strip driving players from behind. It’s not a full-on pressure defensive scheme, but the Mavericks do force their opponents to cough up the ball a fair bit. Not enough to make them an elite defensive outfit mind you, but enough to keep them afloat on their way to another successful season.
As measured by FTM/FGA. Mavs’ 2009-2010 FT/FGA: .226 (15th); opponents’ FTM/FGA: .206 (6th)
Two Mavericks posted excellent free throw rates last season: Brendan Haywood and Tyson Chandler. Naturally, those two Mavs have some of the lowest per-minute field goal attempt averages on the team, so their high free throw rates are rendered nearly irrelevant.
Luckily, Dirk Nowitzki isn’t too far behind, rate-wise, as he remains the Mavs’ primary source of free throw attempts. Take out Nowitzki, and Dallas has some serious problems getting to the line. Even Rodrigue Beaubois, Dallas’ great hope, has trouble getting to the line with regularity. Maybe that was a case of an unknown rookie guard getting calls relative to his reputation, but Beaubois nonetheless failed to match his otherwise impressive scoring style with a high frequency of free throw attempts.
Beaubois would need to make a concerted effort to drive more than ever if he were to boost the Mavs’ free throw rate single-handedly, though a shift in Caron Butler’s shot selection could also help the Mavs in this regard. I wouldn’t wait on Caron to give up his jab step-jab-step-pump-fake-pull-up-18-footer routine any time soon, though. Dominique Jones won’t be impacting the Mavs’ free throw rate much in his rookie year (how could any player do so with the limited playing time projected for Jones?) but he’s worth keeping an eye on. Jones’ ability to get to the line paid huge dividends for him in college, and if ever given consistent minutes, it seems likely that he could replicate that same free throw shooting regularity.
The Mavs don’t foul much. They pick their spots to apply defensive pressure, and they don’t send opponents to the line all that often. It’s obviously both a blessing and a curse, as the Mavs’ lack of aggressive defensive plays could be one of the reasons why they’re a middling defensive team, even if it prevents their opponents from taking freebies from the stripe. With that in mind, this is a defensive ranking that I’m sure Rick Carlisle and his staff wouldn’t mind seeing take a little dip. If the Mavs are fouling more often, it could be indicative of more effective defense overall. Then again, it could just mean that Dallas is handing out points to their opponents, putting them back at square one after trying to treat a symptom as a disease.
All in all, it’s probably not worth worrying too much about how often the Mavericks foul, so long as the rest of their defense holds course. It’s nice to have opponents shoot free throws infrequently, but it’s nicer to have a more oppressive defense that limits opponents’ shooting effectiveness and forces even more turnovers than the Mavs currently do.
Many thanks to Basketball-Reference and HoopData, both completely indispensable in the making of this post and in life as a follower of the NBA in any capacity.
A few more detailed looks at the Mavs’ upcoming season are on their way, but in honor of the CelticsBlog-hosted NBA preview circuit, I present to you a first look at the immediate future of the Dallas Mavericks:
Last Year’s Record: 55-27; best in the Southwest, second in the West.
Key Losses: Erick Dampier, screen-setter extraordinaire and instantly expiring contract, Eduardo Najera, a signed-and-released Tim Thomas, Matt Carroll, Rodrigue Beaubois’ preseason, and hope for a big name free agent.
Key Additions: Tyson Chandler, Ian Mahinmi, Dominique Jones, Alexis Ajinca, Rick Carlisle’s faith in Beaubois, the benefit of a full training camp.
1. What significant moves were made during the off-season?
Dirk Nowitzki was re-signed on a bargain deal relative to his current production. Brendan Haywood was inked to a long-term contract that has brought the Mavs a fair bit of criticism, though the partial guarantees written into the deal and the market this summer (not to mention the fact that re-signing Haywood was a flat-out necessity) make his deal fairly palatable. Erick Dampier was traded for Tyson Chandler, and the Mavs shed Matt Carroll and Eduardo Najera’s contracts while picking up an interesting young big in Alexis Ajinca. Mark Cuban shelled out $3 million for the chance to select South Florida’s Dominique Jones in the first round of the draft. Ian Mahinmi, a per-minute wonder with plenty of promise, was had for two years and minimal salary commitment.
Yet the biggest moves of Dallas’ off-season were the ones never made. The Mavs’ brass made pitches to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Joe Johnson in an effort to lure them to Dallas via sign-and-trade, but the former two had grander ideas and the latter his eye on a much larger paycheck. Erick Dampier’s instantly-expiring contract was a hell of a trade chip, but it sat unused while the most attractive free agents on the market committed to playing anywhere but Dallas.
The Mavs also made runs at two candidates for their mid-level exception. Al Harrington: miss. Udonis Haslem: miss. Dallas wasn’t sinking any battleships.
Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban then turned their attention to the trading block, where they found an eligible bachelor in Al Jefferson. His fit with the team may have been a bit awkward, but there’s no mistaking Jefferson’s talent. Reportedly, the Mavs were but Dampier’s contract and a few draft picks away from working out a deal with Minnesota, yet the Mavs balked. Maybe it was the luxury tax implication. Maybe Nelson and Cuban were hoping for an even better return on Dampier’s contract. Maybe it was concern over how Nowitzki and Jefferson would play together. Regardless, the Utah Jazz swooped in to collect Jefferson while giving up little more than cap space and a pair of first rounders in return, and the Mavs leave the summer in only a slightly better position than when they entered it.
2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?
Dirk Nowitzki. In an otherwise unremarkable offense, Nowitzki is one of the few unmistakable standouts. He still presents a match-up problem for every player in the league, and even at 32, Nowitzki’s offensive game is as potent as ever. His rebounding rate has dropped a bit. His defense is still lacking, though probably underrated on the whole. But Nowitzki is the player through which all things come and all things go for the Mavs.
Taking care of the ball. The Mavs had the 10th best offense in the league last season, but were ranked 13th in effective field goal percentage, 26th in offensive rebounding rate, and 15th in free throw rate. How? Dallas turns the ball over on just 12.2% of its possessions. Nowitzki is an absurdly efficient go-to scoring option in part because of how deliberately careful he is with the ball. Jason Kidd may pick up quite a few turnovers, but between Nowitzki and a few other high-usage, low-turnover players (Jason Terry, Caron Butler), Dallas puts up plenty of shots without giving up scoring opportunities.
Creating turnovers without fouling. Typically, successful NBA defenses fall into one of two general categories: a more conservative, field goal percentage-limiting style, or a more aggressive scheme based on forcing turnovers. Great defenses can sometimes manage to do both. Dallas manages to do neither, at least to the full extent of each defensive theme. Of the 10 teams that forced the most turnovers last season on a per possession basis (GSW, BOS, CHA, MIL, DET, UTA, OKC, MIA, PHI, and DEN), seven were also among the bottom 10 in opponents’ free throw rate. This is pretty intuitive; the more teams pressure ball-handlers and try to force turnovers, the more likely they are to be whistled for fouls.
Dallas, however, has managed to be fairly successful in creating turnovers (they ranked 11th in the league in that regard last season) without picking up all that many fouls (the Mavs were 3rd in the league in opponents’ free throw rate). It’s a strange balance, but thanks to anticipation on the wings and an overall conservative style (perhaps a bit too conservative at times), Dallas has made it work. Not well enough to do serious damage in the playoffs in the last few years, but well enough to remain in the West’s second tier in spite of other defensive shortcomings.
3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?
Shot creation. Nowitzki can manufacture a reasonably good shot attempt against almost any opponent when covered one-on-one, but aside from Dirk, Dallas doesn’t have many players that can create quality shots reliably. Rodrigue Beaubois is likely the team’s second best option in that regard, as Beaubois can use his speed to free himself up for an open look or execute relatively simple drive-and-kick sequences. Otherwise, Jason Terry’s shot-creating abilities looked stifled in last year’s playoffs, and Caron Butler is a decent isolation option…which might make a difference if decent isolation options were considered useful for offensive success.
Jason Kidd is, oddly enough, the question mark. Against San Antonio last season, he wasn’t able to create open looks for the likes of Terry, Butler, Shawn Marion, and Brendan Haywood, and the Mavs suffered. One of the reasons why Beaubois seemed so brilliant in that series was his stark contrast to Kidd; while the future Hall-of-Famer claimed to be troubled by illness and a bad back, Beaubois was slicing to the hoop in a way that no other Maverick can. If Kidd can stay healthy for the playoffs and redeem his performance against the Spurs, the Mavs’ offense could be pretty potent. It comes down to Dirk providing another year of solid production, Dallas recognizing the kind of shot-creating star it has in Beaubois, and Kidd finding a way to make the rest of the offense work. Without all three of hopes points coming to fruition, the Maverick offense will struggle at times.
A lack of elite production in any particular category. When people say that the Mavericks lack a team identity, they’re wrong. What they really mean to say is that Dallas isn’t really a top-level team in any particular statistical regard. The Mavs were a solid team in most capacities last season, but with the Lakers looming above and so many other team fighting for the no. 2 seed in the West, just being solid may not be good enough. The Mavericks were neither an elite offense nor an elite defense last year, and that’s troubling, particularly because their primary off-season acquisition was a back-up center that will replace the already steady Erick Dampier. Any improvement that will thrust Dallas into elite company will have to come internally, and that puts a lot of pressure on Rodrigue Beaubois, Caron Butler, and Brendan Haywood.
4. What are the goals for this team?
Win 50 games to extend the Mavs’ current 10-year streak, rest the veterans as much as possible, and make it to the conference finals. Any playoff series would be a step up from last season’s first round exit, but Dallas has enough talent to aim high. Not ‘up, up, away, and through the Lakers’ high, but high enough to be L.A.’s stepping stool on the way to the Finals.
Here are some developmental goals for some of the younger guys:
Rodrigue Beaubois needs to prove that the production from his fantastic rookie season is sustainable, while working to improve his ability to run the offense and defend opposing point guards.
Dominique Jones needs to find a way to crack the Mavs’ wing rotation, which is currently clogged with veteran talent. Jones’ on-ball defense and ability to get deep into the paint could be quite useful, but nothing will be given to Jones. He’ll have to pry every minute he gets from Terry, Butler, Beaubois, and J.J. Barea’s fingers.
Ian Mahinmi needs to continue to work on his face-up game, work the offensive glass as well as he did in the preseason, and focus on improving his ability to defend centers. There aren’t all that many minutes to be had behind Dirk, but if Mahinmi can grow into a capable defensive option in the middle, he could become a Maverick fixture.
Alexis Ajinca needs to outplay Ian Mahinmi and force the Mavs to give him a serious look. He’ll start the season at the back of the center rotation, but if Alexis can outplay Ian in practice and in his limited floor time this season (which won’t be the easiest thing to do considering Mahinmi’s gaudy per-minute numbers), he’ll have a chance to feast on the Mavs’ center minute scraps. Other than that, Ajinca needs to continue honing his hook shot, and improve his defensive positioning.
J.J. Barea needs to be a bit more choosy with his shots in the paint, and really hone in on his coverage of the pick-and-roll. All things considered, he’s not a bad backup, but it’s his D on screens that really gets him in trouble.
5. Do you have a video of Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash playing guitar that could take us back to the simpler times, when defensive inadequacies were just a cute little quirk of our beloved Mavs?
It’s that time again. Jeff Clark of CelticsBlog has organized bloggers from all across the way to chant out their season previews in unison. We’ve already been through the Atlantic division, and next up is the Pacific: