Rumor Mongering: Flawed Defenses

Posted by Rob Mahoney on June 30, 2010 under Commentary, Rumors | 2 Comments to Read

Another day, another rumor, this time less of the free agent variety. From Jeff Caplan of ESPN Dallas:

The Dallas Mavericks’ search for help to support star forward Dirk Nowitzki included inquiries about Minnesota Timberwolves center Al Jefferson prior to last week’s NBA draft, according to sources close to the situation. Sources with knowledge of the Mavericks’ thinking, however, told that Jefferson is a “down the list” target for the team who is unlikely to be pursued further until after Dallas makes a series of sign-and-trade bids for top free agents.

Two sources said the initial round of Mavs-Wolves discussions never got beyond the preliminary stage. Minnesota still wants more than mere salary relief for Jefferson, and Dallas is not willing to part with any of its prime trade assets — such as Erick Dampier’s $13 million non-guaranteed contract — to acquire a player with proven low-post scoring skills but a troubled injury history. Sources with knowledge of Minnesota’s thinking told’s Marc Stein that the Wolves are determined to move Jefferson before the start of next season, seeing Kevin Love as a better (and more cost effective) fit.

Al Jefferson has long been a popular solution for armchair GMs who diagnose the center position as the Mavs’ most glaring weakness. That it may be, but acquiring a scoring 5 without considerable defensive abilities could be a mistake that would lock-up Dallas’ long-term options. I know the Mavs are in win-now mode, but it’s important that they don’t disregard their evaluation of skills in their acquisition of talent. Jefferson is a terrific back-up plan, and the fact that the Mavs have him somewhere down the list of their preferred targets is an encouraging sign.

At this point, the inner-workings of a Mavs trade are fairly well established: Dampier’s contract would be the centerpiece, with complementary talent or picks thrown in to sweeten the pot. With Jefferson, a line would need to be drawn: if a trade would include Rodrigue Beaubois or multiple first rounders, the Mavs would be wise to walk away. If not, aiming for Jefferson is worthy of consideration.

Al is a fine scorer, and one of the better face-up post threats in the game. Yet his defense could end up holding the Mavs back from truly progressing. It’s no secret that Dirk Nowitzki’s defensive abilities are a bit lacking, and even though he’s worked on that part of his game and become a decent (if unimpressive) defender, he needs a center beside him that can not only guard the most imposing big the opponent has to offer, but also protect the rim from penetrating guards and wings. Jefferson just doesn’t do that. He’s improved his defensive fundamentals since his early days in the league, but at best he’s a passable one-on-one defender in the post. At worst, he’s slow on his rotations, biting on fakes, and failing to use his size to his advantage.

The Mavs can’t afford that. Kidd is too slow, Terry too unreliable, Beaubois too green. The Mavs’ perimeter defenders need a safety net behind them, and Jefferson is talented enough to demand big minutes without providing it. That’s the problem with Al; he’s too good to leave off the floor and not a good enough defender to substantially improve the Mavs while on it. Plus, if Dallas acquired Jefferson, it’s highly unlikely that Brendan Haywood would re-sign with the team, regardless of the offer.

The question then becomes whether or not Dallas could be a dominant enough offensive outfit to make up for their other deficiencies. Without seeing how a Dirk-Al tandem would operate, it’s impossible to say for sure. While I’m confident that the two could coexist (Nowitzki and Jefferson are simply too versatile not to), additions such as these are hardly quantifiable. The Mavs would definitely be a better offensive team, but the trade talks haven’t developed enough to warrant a serious and specific analysis.

Dallas Mavericks 125, Minnesota Timberwolves 112

Posted by Rob Mahoney on March 9, 2010 under Recaps | 3 Comments to Read

Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images.

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Safety is something that happens between your ears, not something you hold in your hands.
-Jeff Cooper

See, it doesn’t have to be so difficult.

The Timberwolves have inexplicably matched up quite well with the Mavericks this season, taking one of their two prior meetings this season (in Dallas, no less) and nearly taking another despite not having Al Jefferson in the lineup. That’s more than a bit odd considering each team’s relative standing, particularly the fact that despite the fact that Minny has twice the wins of the New Jersey Nets, they could very well be the worst team in the league. The Wolves’ talent is far less balanced and cohesive than what the Nets have to work with, and though Jefferson and Kevin Love are terrific players, their individual brilliance is often diminished by the odd collection of talent David Kahn has assembled.

In short: the Wolves aren’t very good. The Mavs will inevitably struggle against some inferior teams. That doesn’t mean that Minnesota should be capable of challenging Dallas on a regular basis, particularly because on paper, the Wolves don’t seem to have any clear match-up advantages ripe for exploitation. Jefferson and Love against the Mavs’ bigs isn’t exactly Dwyane Wade v. Adrian Griffin.

So in a fit of irony, the one occasion in which Minnesota would appear to have a clear advantage (with the absence of Erick Dampier and Brendan Haywood due to injury) comes on the same night as the Mavs’ first double-digit win since February 19th and the Mavs’ most convincing win against the Wolves (hey, small victories are still victories, right?) this season.

For once, Dallas wasn’t battling Minnesota to the game’s final seconds. Not that Jefferson (36 points, 15-21 FG, 13 rebounds) didn’t fight the good fight, but Love (six points, 1-7 FG, six rebounds, three turnovers) could do little more than rebound in his 12 minutes on the floor…which was a pretty poor showing from both Love (despite the prodigious rebounding rate) and Kurt Rambis. Darko Milicic played more minutes. Sasha Pavlovic played more minutes. Ryan Hollins played over double the minutes. I don’t care how badly Kevin Love is playing, there really isn’t an excuse to run that kind of rotation barring Love snapping his femur in half. No one on the Timberwolves (save Al) is good enough to displace Love, which tells me one of two things:

  1. Kurt Rambis has gone completely batty.
  2. Kurt Rambis has visions of ping pong balls dancing in his head.

At this point, neither would surprise me.

But Jefferson went wild, the Wolves put up 112 points. Not bad, except that in such a fast-paced game, the Mavs put up a whopping 125 on 50% shooting. Without anything resembling a traditional center (Dirk and Eddie Najera filled in at the 5 for the Mavs), the Mavs pushed the ball with abandon…and still only turned the ball over eight times. That’s Jason Kidd (12 points, 10 assists, three turnovers, three steals) doing his job and doing it well. That’s J.J. Barea (nine points, nine assists, two turnovers) and Rodrigue Beaubois (11 points, five rebounds, four assists) taking care of the ball and not trying to do too much. That’s just tremendous efficiency in the passing game for the Mavs’ guards, and the team-wide ball protection (Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, and Caron Butler, the Mavs’ leaders in FGAs, combined for just one turnover) was just phenomenal. Dallas played reasonable defense considering the circumstances, but they earned the W on the offensive end last night.

That’s where Shawn Marion (29 points, 14 rebounds, three steals) had an unexpected explosion. Dirk Nowitzki (24 points, 8-15 FG, six rebounds, three assists) picked up his second foul just a minute and a half into the game. That would seem incredibly troublesome, especially when considering that Jason Terry is still out recovering from surgery. But Marion and Caron Butler (23 points, 9-19 FG, three rebounds, three assists) keyed a tide-turning 19-2 run for Dallas that flipped an eight-point deficit and then some and secured a lead that the Mavs would never relinquish. Hot starts have been pivotal for the Wolves in their last two games against the Mavs, and the first five minutes were no different. But once Marion, Caron, and surprisingly, Jason Kidd started piling on the points, it was all downhill from there.

You’ve heard me say it a dozen times about just as many spectacular performances this season: don’t expect it every night. Marion is capable of scoring in volume if given the chance, and he can do more with the ball than he’s been able to this season (include hit the mid-range J, which he wasn’t as reluctant to pull the trigger on yesterday), but that’s not his role on this team. Nowitzki, Terry, and Butler are going to get the shots. Marion knows that, and he’s comfortable with it. But don’t think for a second that he didn’t like showing off for a night, and don’t think for a second that he didn’t enjoy every one of those 25 field goal attempts.

Closing thoughts:

  • Aren’t the Mavs on a winning streak or something?
  • The reason the Mavs were able to hold down the fort defensively without Haywood or Damp: the zone defense. It absolutely killed the Wolves, who lack consistent outside shooting (they finished 4-of-22 from behind the arc). Once Dallas decided to zone up, the Wolves became tentative, they took bad shots, and the turned the ball over. A ton. But they also finished with 15 offensive rebounds, which is about what you’d expect given the lineup and the defensive scheme. Any strategy change comes with a give and a take, and while the Mavs took away plenty of opportunities by zoning up, they also gave quite a few back.
  • Ramon Sessions (11 points, 5-5 FG, two assists, two turnovers) gets an absurd number of crazy and ones against Dallas. What’s more: they’re usually on fouled runners and jumpers. These are shots with some decent range where Sessions absorbs a bit of contact and finishes over Kidd, Barea, or Beaubois some eight or 10 feet from the basket.
  • Beaubois had another highlight reel block, although one of the foul-ish variety. Jonny Flynn had what looked to be a breakaway dunk to close the first half, but Roddy stopped him at the cup by swatting the ball and plenty of Flynn’s hand. No blood, no foul, right?
  • I was very impressed with Jefferson’s passing. Not a big assist night for him, and he’s not a big assist player, really. But both of his dimes came off perfect, no-look dishes to backdoor cutters. That’s about as sexy as it gets for passing bigs.
  • Tough luck: J.J. Barea rolled his ankle in the game’s closing minutes, and he could end up missing some time. He was able to limp off the court, but he looked to be in quite a bit of pain.
  • Matt Carroll (four points, 1-2 FG)saw seven and a half minutes of actual playing time, and connected on a shot to boot. Great for him, and it would certainly be nice if, in Tim Thomas’ absence, Carroll could crack the rotation once in awhile.
  • Ryan Hollins is always hyped up, and particularly so when he plays against Dallas. That energy helped him to a near double-double with 13 points and nine rebounds, but his tight winding was also the impetus that caused him to hit two Mavs, DeShawn Stevenson and Dirk Nowitzki, in the face. He’s a bit out of control to say the least, and while his smack on DeShawn’s cheek wasn’t even whistled as a foul (though Stevenson was assessed a technical for yelling at a referee about it), the swipe that connected with Dirk’s noggin earned Hollins a flagrant two and an automatic ejection.
  • Caron Butler is showing the range. He had made exactly one three in his first nine games with the Mavs, but three in each of the last two games (on an average of five attempts per). Najera got in the act as well, and he’s hit four out of his nine attempts in the last two contests.

No Game Is an Island: Better Off Alone

Posted by Rob Mahoney on March 3, 2010 under Previews | 3 Comments to Read

The Minnesota Timberwolves are a very, very bad basketball team…albeit one that completely embarrassed the Mavs right before the All-Star break.

But despite how limited Minny’s roster is, things don’t have to be quite so bleak. Ryan Hollins (or in tonight’s case, Darko Milicic) doesn’t have to start at center, general manager David Kahn doesn’t have to do what David Kahn does, and perhaps most importantly, the team’s two best players shouldn’t be forced into a system that needlessly keeps them from producing and evolving. Kurt Rambis is a disciple of Phil Jackson and Tex Winter, and as such, is installing the famed triangle offense. The only problem is that the triangle buster — the player in the vein of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant that holds the liberty to work around the system — is Jonny Flynn, the best players on the team don’t fit with the triangle or its objectives, and the rest of the roster isn’t talented enough to make up for it. Gee whiz.

In theory, they should be one of the most fearsome pairs of bigs in the league. But they’re not. They’re nice and fluffy. They’re a cute distraction, but hardly a team. They don’t reinforce each other’s strengths, but counter them while magnifying each other’s weaknesses. They are Kevin Love and Al Jefferson, and despite the fact that they’re both immensely talented and incredibly productive, they will never, ever work as a pairing.

Okay, they might. In fact, they probably will at some point, provided they’re kept together. But at this point in their careers, it seems like they’re both forces that while unstoppable, are slowing and hindering one another, despite their best efforts not to.

It’s one of those cases that has oh so little to do with personality, and everything to do with style and system. Despite the particular strengths and versatility of Love and Jefferson’s games, the overlap is such that they haven’t quite figured out how to best play alongside one another. Or rather, Kurt Rambis hasn’t best figured out how his two best players can be effective on the court at the same time, which is not a good thing. The triangle is an effective system if given the right personnel with the right mindset. But when the squad has such strength in its low post game, is the triple post really necessary? Especially when you just drafted Jonny Flynn and Ricky Rubio? Is that the type of core that you construct the triangle offense around? Really? Really, Kahn?

You can read my full piece on the problems between the Wolves personnel and coaching/management at HP.

The Minnesota Timberwolves visit the Dallas Mavericks:
7:30 CST