Ian Levy is the author of Hickory High, a contributor to Indy Cornrows, and a part of The Two Man Game family. He’ll be bringing his intelligent brand of — mostly quantitative — analysis here on a weekly basis. You can follow Ian on Twitter at @HickoryHigh.
A major storyline early in the season was the defensive performance of the Dallas Mavericks. Through November they were solidly in the top five in Defensive Rating. Since then, Dallas has slowly regressed to a Defensive Rating of 106.2, which ranks 12th in the league. The Mavs have been able to maintain their winning ways by becoming more efficient offensively and edging out their opponents in close games with terrific clutch performance, but playing up to their potential at the defensive end of the floor will obviously give Dallas the best chance of playoff success.
Earlier this week I got caught up looking at Ed Kupfer’s rolling averages charts and lost a significant chunk of an afternoon. In particular, I was intrigued by the way his graphics illustrated the steady decline in the Mavericks’ Defensive Rating. I set about to see if I could recreate his data and then identify some trends or events which might be contributing to their defensive inconsistency.
The chart below shows my version of the five game rolling averages for the Mavericks’ Defensive Rating. (A rolling average looks at the most recent data points to illustrate a trend. In this case each data point on the graph represents the average of the previous five games.)
The Mavericks’ defense peaked around their 19th game this season, a 93-81 victory on December 3rd against the Utah Jazz. Starting with their 34th game, an 84-81 victory on January 4th against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Mavericks’ Defensive Rating has gone through a dramatic series of peaks and valleys.
There are myriad factors which influenced the Mavericks’ strong defensive showing to open the season, as well as their subsequent roller coaster ride. Today we are going to focus in on just two of those factors. The table below again shows the five game rolling averages for the Mavericks’ Defensive Rating. You’ll notice that I’ve added a marker at the 29th game.
The 29th game which I marked was the last one Caron Butler played before suffering a season-ending knee injury. The contrast between the team’s defense before his injury and after his injury is pretty sharp on the graph. It shows up in the statistics as well.
When Butler suffered his (likely) season-ending injury, the Mavericks had posted a Defensive Rating of 103.6 to that point. Since then, the Mavericks’ Defensive Rating has swelled to 109.8. With Butler out of the lineup, the small forward minutes have been filled by a combination of DeShawn Stevenson, Sasha Pavlovic, Shawn Marion, Peja Stojakavic and most recently, Corey Brewer. Brewer has played limited minutes since joining the team and his defensive prowess hasn’t really materialized in any significant way. Shawn Marion is a solid defender but is slowing with age. The Mavericks are actually allowing more points with Marion on the floor this season then when he’s on the bench. Pavlovic, Stojakavic and Stevenson will never be confused with lockdown defenders. This is not exactly an ideal list of defensive replacement players.
The interesting thing is that despite having a reputation as a strong perimeter defender, Butler hasn’t done much to justify it in recent years. For the first four seasons of his career, Butler averaged an Individual Defensive Rating of 105.0. Of forwards who played at least 10,000 minutes over that stretch, Butler has the 15th best Defensive Rating and the 7th best Defensive Rating among forwards who spend at least some time defending perimeter players. From the 2006-2010 stretch of his career his Individual Defensive Rating grew to a worrisome 109.0, the 28th best mark among forwards with at least 10,000 minutes played.
In keeping with that theme: Butler was not very effective defensively with the Washington Wizards last season, giving up 0.92 points per possession overall, per Synergy Sports Technology. (Ed. note: Butler’s defensive numbers for the part of last season he spent with Dallas aren’t available through Synergy at the moment) However, his defensive numbers to start this season were terrific. Before his injury, Synergy Sports had tracked 237 individual defensive possessions for Caron Butler. Over those 237 he had allowed just 0.78 points per possession, the 42nd best mark in the league this season. The table below shows some of his numbers for each of those individual possession categories.
% of Total Possessions
Points per Possession
Pick-and-Roll Ball Handler
According to 82games, opposing small forwards were posting an eFG% of 46.3% against Butler and a PER of just 10.6 this year. As a team, the Mavericks have allowed opposing small forwards an eFG% of 48.1% and a PER of 13.2. Butler was statistically the team’s best perimeter defender, and the data confirms the observable improvement on that end that was so evident in Butler’s play. When Butler went down, the Mavs didn’t just lose a scorer — they lost a significant defensive weapon.
The second factor I wanted to look at was the impact Tyson Chandler. It didn’t even take the entire preseason for Chandler to win the starting center job from Brendan Haywood and his brand new 42 million dollar contract. Chandler quickly became the team’s interior anchor and was one of the reasons they got off to such a hot start at the defensive end of the floor.
Chandler has continued to have a strong defensive impact, but he’s struggled to stay on the floor at times due to a combination of injuries and foul trouble. The table below combines the five game rolling average for Defensive Rating we looked at above with the five game rolling average for Chandler’s minutes per game. I included games he missed in these calculations, counting them as zero minutes played.
For the most part, a decrease in Chandler’s minutes per game average has corresponded with a spike in the team’s Defensive Rating. When Chandler has been on the floor, the Mavs have posted a Defensive Rating of 104.1, which would rank 7th in the league. When he’s off the floor their Defensive Rating jumps to 107.6, just slightly above the league average. Simply put: Chandler’s presence takes Dallas from being a merely average defensive team to a very good one.
One of the areas in which Chandler has made a significant difference is on the defensive glass. According to 82games, the Mavericks have a DRB% of 73.1% when Chandler is on the floor and just 71.9% when he’s not in the game. His personal DRB% this season is 26.4%, the 15th best mark in the league. Chandler is the first major Mavericks’ contributor in the last 5 years with a DRB% over 25.0%.
For the first third of the season, Dallas was a formidable defensive squad, featuring the impact tandem of Tyson Chandler and Caron Butler controlling the paint and the perimeter. Since then, the team has vacillated between being average and terrible defensively. Butler won’t be returning, but the Mavericks still have hopes that Corey Brewer will be able to provide some of what Butler was giving them to start the year. The Mavericks are a top 10 team in terms of offensive efficiency but seven of the other top 10 offensive teams are potential playoff opponents in the Western Conference. For dreams of a deep playoff run to materialize, the Mavs will have to find a way to keep Tyson Chandler on the floor, slow down dominant perimeter scorers, and once again become a defensive dynamo.
You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.
The Minnesota Timberwolves made it clear early in this game that they came to play, but as has been the case with that team so many times this season, even their most honorable intentions culminated in a chaotic mess. Kevin Love (23 points, 7-14 FG, 17 rebounds, five assists) had another exemplary game, but most everything else for Minnesota was just a shade below what was needed; Michael Beasley turned the ball over too often, Darko Milicic was a non-factor on the glass, Luke Ridnour’s shooting was off, and Brian Cardinal — Dallas’ best three-point shooter this season — wasn’t given the respect he deserves on the perimeter. Those developments aren’t damning on their own, but collectively they collapsed an otherwise commendable effort from the Wolves. The Mavs got away with a game they likely should have lost, but there was certainly an element of predictability here: the team of stable vets out-executed a crew that has made a routine out of fourth quarter implosions.
Dirk Nowitzki (25 points, 7-12 FG, 10-10 FT, six rebounds), Jason Terry (11 points, 3-11 FG, four assists, four turnovers), and J.J. Barea (eight points, 3-7 FG, five assists) combined for 25 points in the final frame, which matched Minnesota’s total scoring output for the quarter. Otherwise though, the Maverick offense hardly went according to plan. If not for Cardinal’s flurry of three-point makes and Jason Kidd’s (13 points, 4-8 FG, nine assists, four steals) play, Dallas would have faced a considerable deficit going into the fourth — and likely failed in their efforts to salvage the game. This team misses Tyson Chandler, and if that wasn’t made clear by some of the uncontested buckets surrendered around the rim, it should be obvious in the way the Mavs’ offensive efficiency dips in his absence. There are a lot of places to point the finger — the team as a whole for not getting Nowitzki more touches, Terry and Shawn Marion (nine points, 10 rebounds, four assists) for failing to convert their opportunities, etc. — but there’s a profound difference between the influence of Chandler and Brendan Haywood (eight points, 10 rebounds, three turnovers) on the Mavs’ offensive flow. Haywood had a very solid game, but even if the quantifiable elements of his performance are respectable, they don’t come paired with Chandler’s knack for creating open looks for his teammates via screens and hard rolls to the rim.
Corey Brewer has yet to have the kind of performance that will win over Mavs fans, but he did play pretty effective defense on Michael Beasley during some of his six minutes of action, and threw in this fantastic two-way sequence:
That said, it was Marion who acted as the Mavs’ defensive stopper on Beasley during the second half, not Brewer. Beas dropped nine points on eight shots in the first quarter as he victimized both Nowitzki and Peja Stojakovic, but Marion blanketed Beasley in the second half, when the Wolves forward shot just 3-of-12 from the field.
One of the more fascinating (and infuriating) aspects of basketball is just how reliant everything — from the performance of a certain player to the success of a particular set play to the effect of a coach — is on team context. Circumstance is almighty. It can turn effective offensive players into non-factors and defensive sieves into worthy contributors. It scores contracts for the otherwise underwhelming, or completely devalues the typically deserving.
It creates a world where Corey Brewer, a good perimeter defender and former lottery pick, is worthy of being waived one day and courted by half of the NBA the next. What’s more: team-specific circumstance makes it so that both the Knicks’ decision to cut Brewer loose and the Mavs’ decision to sign him make complete sense.
As I wrote on the New York Times‘ Off the Dribble blog, Brewer was an exceptionally poor fit for New York’s offense. Even following the Carmelo Anthony deal (which saw two big-minute wings leave for Denver), it made more sense for Mike D’Antoni to rely on New York mainstays like Bill Walker and Shawne Williams than attempt to integrate Brewer. There’s no question that Brewer is a better perimeter defender than any of the current Knicks, but outside shooting is so vital for wing players in D’Antoni’s offense, and Brewer doesn’t have much touch from outside; even Ian Mahinmi is a better shooter on long two-pointers this season than Brewer, and despite his considerable struggles from beyond the arc thus far, Rodrigue Beaubois has matched Brewer’s putrid .263 mark from three-point range.
Dallas, on the other hand, has an offensive template for Brewer already in place: Shawn Marion.
Marion, by design, does almost all of his offensive damage within 15 feet of the basket. He’s not a star, but he’s also not asked to be; Marion’s touches and shot attempts are that of a role player, and Brewer should see similar opportunities during his time on the court. Dallas has proven that having a non-shooter like Marion or Brewer in the lineup doesn’t put the team’s offense at too much of a disadvantage. The key to Brewer’s offensive efficiency will be an acceptance of a role as a pure slasher. He may lack Marion’s post-up ability, but Brewer should be able to score on a similar array of cuts to the basket, and benefit from Jason Kidd’s passing ability (as opposed to the point guard stylings of Jonny Flynn and Luke Ridnour) in the process. The fewer jumpers Brewer takes the better, and it’s to the Mavs’ advantage that they already have a rotation regular functioning with under that same guideline.
All of this is neglecting Brewer’s real utility, though. Brewer is definitely a plus defender, and a better perimeter option on that end than DeShawn Stevenson, Jason Kidd, or considered free agent Sasha Pavlovic. The smart money is also on Brewer to become even better defensively with the Mavs than he was with the Timberwolves; not only does Dallas have a better defensive system in place, but having Tyson Chandler on the back line allows Brewer to really attack his assigned man without worrying about the timing of the help behind him.
Defensive statistics are among the least conclusive statistics in existence, so I’m not arguing to use those statistics to hand out contracts and roster spots. But I am arguing to use them as an early warning system, and to guide the video basketball decision-makers spend their precious time watching.
Smart teams, I’d wager, have been watching Corey Brewer for a long time for this exact reason.
And what they have been seeing is a defensive show. Once you clue in to the guy, it’s glaringly obvious that no one on the court is defending like him. He’s narrow, long, strong, quick and feisty — which is a perfect set of attributes to fight over a screen. He has great hands. He goads non-shooters into shooting, and keeps great shooters from making a catch. He talks constantly on defense — he’s not only in the right place, but he knows where everybody else is supposed to be, too.
The defensive metrics available are certainly kind to Brewer, and watching him in action confirms what the numbers suggest. However, the Bruce Bowen comparison (which Abbott makes earlier in his piece, and numerous other analysts have done as well) is where things get slightly out of hand. Bowen was a game-changing perimeter defender, and though there are certainly active players who fit that same description (Andre Iguodala comes to mind), I’m not sure Brewer is one of them. He’s a smart, hard-working defender who’s capable of guarding both ball-controlling threats (Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony) and off-ball cutters (Ray Allen, Kevin Durant), but trumpeting him as the next Bowen seems like a stretch.
For now, anyway. Brewer is just 25 years old, and according to Marc Stein, Dallas will secure his services for a three-year deal worth a little more than $7 million. The player the Mavs are acquiring isn’t a finished product; Brewer’s defense and troubling jumper are set to improve, if only as a natural product of his maturation as a player. The Mavs are short on young, growing pieces, and Brewer is one more in-house contributor with his prime still ahead of him.
At worst, Dallas added a good defensive player. At best, they inked an exceptional defender with an improving offensive game for a pretty minimal salary commitment. The cost here is quite low for the Mavs, and while Brewer isn’t going to leap headfirst into stardom, there’s nothing wrong with paying a bit for defensive potential. It may not have worked out for Brewer and the Knicks, but the Mavs were looking for a player with Brewer’s strengths and can afford to bear his weaknesses. Dallas is in a different place with a different system, and seems to have made a solid value signing thanks to a useful player’s incongruity with another team.
“It’s not what I do, but the way I do it. It’s not what I say, but the way I say it.”
I know that a win is a win is a win, but the Mavs sure love to make games like this so much more difficult than they have to be. First of all, these are the Minnesota Timberwolves. Second of all, these are the Timberwolves without Al Jefferson. And third…these are the Minnesota Timberwolves. I don’t expect every contending team to go about their usual business night-in and night-out, but the Mavs’ inability to put away lesser teams missing their top players is at least a bit troubling.
In some cases, it’s tolerable. The Miami Heat performed admirably against the Mavs because Jermaine O’Neal and Daequan Cook hit tough shot after tough shot, despite some pretty decent defense. But last night’s near-miss against the Wolves represents a bit of a darker side. The Mavs were absolutely miserable in defending the fast break for most of the game, and though their defensive execution late in the fourth quarter was enough to pull out the win, it doesn’t excuse the layup line. The transition opportunities came entirely too easily for Minnesota in the second half, and what should have been an easy win (even without Jason Kidd) was a drag-out affair that was competitive until the final buzzer.
Nobody needs to be called out or pulled aside, but the Mavs could certainly stand to play better defense. They could stand to box out a bit more, and not surrender a 19-rebound advantage to Minny. Or a 6-offensive rebound advantage that helped to offset the Wolves’ bevy of turnovers. You expect Kevin Love to pull in some serious boards, but Ryan Hollins grabbing five on the offensive end alone? Corey Brewer and Ryan Gomes with seven each? Not cool, Mavs. Not when you’ve got Dirk Nowitzki, Brendan Haywood, and Shawn Marion playing some serious minutes. Minnesota is actually a superior rebounding team by the numbers, but I expect the Mavs to perform better on the glass without Jefferson in the lineup. A slight disadvantage is something you can work with. But 19 rebounds is a bit much.
That said, let’s not let the game’s overall complexion completely blot out the night’s positives. Rodrigue Beaubois may not have been named the starter in place of Kidd (that honor went to J.J. Barea), but he might as well have been; Roddy played over 28 minutes, mostly at the point, and closed the game for the Mavs at the 1. He put up a season-high 17 points while shooting 3-of-5 from three and 6-of-9 overall along with four assists. I don’t know that this is anything of a coming out party for Beaubois, who has typically been dynamic and effective when given substantial playing time this season, but it was a terrific chance for Roddy to do more than succeed on an individual level. That he did. Though the Mavs didn’t exactly pull away in the fourth, Beaubois combined his usual flair and exciting plays with a calming effect on the offense. Nothing went quite as smoothly as it does with Jason Kidd at the helm (he sat out of the game strictly for rest), but the more experience Beaubois can get at point guard, the better. A pressure situation to boot? Gravy.
Jason Terry (26 points, 9-18 FG, five assists) continues to impress, and continued his penchant for fourth quarter heroics in keying the Dallas offense late. We’ve seen JET step back into the role he was born for: provide balance to the offense, hit big shots, posture for the crowd. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Terry is the heart of the Mavs, and though he may not be the first player you think of when it comes to Dallas’ leadership, he’s very much the emotional leader of this team. And as important as Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood have been to the Mavs’ current win streak, Terry has been equally pivotal. When JET is hitting his shots, this team can go places. But without that scoring, the Mavs are likely to struggle against the league’s better squads.
That Dirk Nowitzki guy (22 points, five rebounds, three assists) was alright, but looked pretty mortal. Just not as crisp as you’d like, though when an “off” player still drops 22 points on just 14 shots…well, it’s something. No one will remember this performance months from now much less years form now, but a quiet 22 is still 22. You can’t disregard Dirk’s 10 free throw attempts, despite the fact that the team wasn’t carried by his jump shot.
Quite a night for Shawn Marion. 17 points is pretty notable output for him these days, especially without Kidd in the mix. He was creating in the half-court, hit his second three of the season (!), and is getting more and more reliable finishing around the basket. Plus, when he gets up, he gets up. Marion may not have the ridiculous hangtime that was his trademark earlier in his career, but his finishes can still be every bit of the staccato brilliance that they were five years ago.
The Mavs are good. Very good. So good that even wins like these can appear a bit discolored, if only because we know that they’re capable of doing much, much better. The streak rolls on.
For as well as Beaubois played, J.J. Barea (eight points, 4-8 FG, three assists, one turnover) wasn’t all that bad. The Mavs struggled with Barea at the point early in the first, but score six straight for Dallas in the third when nothing else was going right for the offense. And at this point, he’s still more of a sure thing than Beaubois, who for all of his strengths, still has moments where it’s clear that he’s a rookie. That’s just what happens when a first year player is handling the ball so much, and while the Mavs’ offense isn’t a drive-and-kick scheme and even the two man game rarely goes through Beaubois when he’s on the floor, upping his usage rate is, in some cases, asking for trouble. Roddy is a terrific contributor and a mesmerizing player, and as long as the Mavs can live with his occasional turnovers (which are not absurd in volume by any means, don’t misunderstand my meaning here), he should be playing as much point guard as possible. But that’s just it. Sometimes the Mavs do need to buckle down, and while Barea may not be the prototypical conservative point guard, he’s familiar enough with this team that he still has clear value. More to come on this later.
Caron Butler (14 points, 6-15 FG, five rebounds, four assists, two steals) and Brendan Haywood were both relatively nondescript. Not a terrific night for either by any means, though to Caron’s credit, he did put up a decent, well-rounded line. His shot selection can be a bit iffy (a double-teamed, long, mid-range jumper from the corner when Dirk stands more or less unguarded comes to mind), and in that way he’s almost the opposite of Haywood; Butler’s damage comes when he’s making his presence felt a bit too much, while Haywood’s comes when he’s more or less invisible.
Kevin Love (14 points, 5-9 FG, 14 rebounds, four turnovers) is a very good basketballer. So when Al Jefferson is out, naturally, Kurt Rambis starts Dark Milicic. Everything is becoming clear.
Corey Brewer (24 points, 6-16 FG, seven rebounds, four assists, six turnovers) is a very infuriating basketballer. He can’t shoot, but he can shoot. He can’t score, but he can score. He turns the ball over a lot, but…well, he does turn the ball over a lot. But Brewer is such a confusing player these days, not because everything I thought I knew about him was proven false, but because it’s all still true. And yet he accomplishes things I never thought he would as an NBA player, and he’s a more important part of this Wolves team, for better or worse, than many will give him credit for.