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.
This is my eleventh contribution to The Two Man Game, and the most difficult to construct. The challenge of recapping a basketball team’s season without knowing the ending is a significant challenge. How do you tell a story without knowing its conclusion? The simplest technique would be to explain how the Mavericks arrived at this point. The truth is I’m not entirely sure.
Over the past two days I’ve started and re-started this post trying and re-trying to find a theme to capture the structure of this season for the Mavs. Looking for said theme may be where my problems started. Have you ever flipped away from a TV show to avoid the commercials, and come back to that channel to find that you’ve missed two bewilderingly crucial minutes? All of a sudden you’re lost. You know all the characters, the setting remains the same, and yet you’re completely confused by the events unfolding. That’s how I feel about this year’s Mavericks; most of the elements are familiar, but the inciting moment of their season’s plot must have been revealed while I was flipping channels.
The only other team I write about on a consistent basis is the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers have been as schizophrenic as any team in the league, but have vacillated between bouts of inspiring dominance and soul-crushing decrepitude. The Mavericks have not seen fluctuations in performance quite like the Pacers, so much as a steady stream of shapeshifting. I wouldn’t even characterize it as metamorphosis. There have been no linear changes. Like The Master of Disguise, they have been assuming identities and casting them aside just as quickly. I look away for two minutes and come back to find a completely different team.
There were the 19-8 Mavericks with Caron Butler finding his place offensively and defensively. There was the mysterious 10 game stretch where Sasha Pavlovic masqueraded as a rotation player. There are the 2-7 Mavericks without Dirk Nowitzki. There was the 24-5 run to start the season. There was the 3-10 stretch to close 2010 and ring in the New Year, which was immediately followed by a 19-1 run. At times they couldn’t be scored on. At times you couldn’t stop them from scoring. Unfortunately, those two incarnations never seemed to align.
Through all the ups and downs; rights and lefts and wrongs, the regular season has to be considered a success. With 57 wins, the Mavericks have had their best regular season since the infamous 2007 campaign. If not for their 2-7 stretch without Nowtizki, they could have spent this final week fighting for the best record in the league. 57 wins gives them just two more than last season, but it feels like a much wider gap, mostly because preseason expectations seemed to be down.
Not many people thought this year’s roster would be an improvement over recent Mavericks’ squads. The Schoene Projection system used by Pro Basketball Prospectus predicted a 48 win season for the Mavericks. With their win over the Hornets last night, the Mavs have out paced that projection by 9 wins. They’ve also outpaced their Pythagorean win projection, based on their actual point differential, by 5 wins.
It’s tough to blame anyone for projecting this as a down year for the Mavericks. There is no disguising the fact that they have an older roster, and near the midpoint of the season it was the oldest in the league when weighted for minutes played. Their roster didn’t see much turnover from last year, as they returned 79% of their minutes played. The draft netted them Dominique Jones, who wasn’t expected to contribute this season. In addition, they lost two of their younger stars, Butler and Beaubois, to injury for significant portions of the season. Nowitzki has helped make them great (last week we looked at how much Nowitzki has meant to the Mavericks’ season), but his production isn’t that much different than what he provided last year.
That leaves just one cog unaccounted for: Tyson Chandler.
Chandler was expected to back up the newly re-signed Brendan Haywood. After two straight down and injury-plagued seasons, it appeared the peak of Chandler’s career may have already passed. Yet the Mavs got a far better return than expected. Chandler played in 74 games this season and logged over 2,000 minutes, milestones he hasn’t reached since the 2008 season. He hit career highs in FG%, FT%, PER and a career low in TOV%. The Mavericks’ Defense Rating was 3.95 points better when Chandler was on the floor. Surprisingly, given his small, well-defined skill set, their Offense Rating was much better (+3.23) with him on the floor as well. No Maverick except for Nowitzki had a better Unadjusted On Court/Off Court Rating for the Mavs this season.
The Mavericks’ Defensive Rating was 105.0 this season, the fourth best mark in franchise history, and the lowest since their 67 win team in 2007. As we discussed a few weeks ago, the biggest drops in their defensive efficiency seemed to occur when Chandler’s minutes were limited by fouls or injury. The Mavericks turned in their third best defensive rebounding season franchise history, and posted their highest DRB% since 2008. They center position has been manned admirably in Dallas by the likes of DeSagana Diop, Erick Dampier and Brendan Haywood. Each of those burly giants was a capable rebounder and could be effective challenging shots at the rim. Tyson Chandler has the athleticism to do those things as well as hedge effectively and recover on a pick-and-roll, or step out and cover a stretch big man. He made the Mavericks’ defense that much more efficient by adding versatility to a familiar formula.
The following assessment was written of Tyson Chandler before the season started, again from the tremendous Pro Basketball Prospectus:
A change of scenery failed to revitalize Tyson Chandler’s career like it did when he went from Chicago to New Orleans. He was limited by injuries and inconsistent on the floor during his final year with the Hornets, and the same was true of his lone season in Charlotte. Both Chandler’s rebounding and his two-point percentage have fallen dramatically the last two years, and SCHOENE isn’t optimistic about his chances to return to peak form. Chandler is only 28, but similar players were already starting to decline at the same age.
I will be upfront in saying that nothing in that paragraph seemed out of line to me when I read it in the middle of October (Of course, I also thought the Kings would win 44 games this season). Chandler’s resurgence has been remarkable, baffling, inexplicable and inspiring. The splendid Spurs and horrible Heat were the big surprises early in the season. The Bulls’ dominant shift into an even higher gear has been the shocker of the past month. Lost somewhere in the middle were the Dallas Mavericks (somewhat) quietly having one of the best seasons in franchise history. Buried even further in the void, is the fact that Tyson Chandler — after essentially being ruled irrelevant — has changed the fortunes of an actual NBA basketball team.
The Miami Heat concluded the game with an extended team meeting; James and Wade eventually fielded questions, but not until at least 45 minutes after the game had wrapped. This team is entitled and this team is frustrated.
Dallas wins, but the defense doesn’t. We should in no way confuse this victory for some validation of the Mavs’ defensive performance, as this was actually one of their lesser efforts on the season overall. The Heat helped the Mavs along with poor shot selection, and had they not, it would have been interesting to see how the Dallas offense would have really held up under fire. However, Miami’s unfavorable shot chart is far from a one-time problem; LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and their compatriots have a bad habit of batting their eyelashes at Caron Butler-esque shots.
The declaration of the total defense’s shortcomings is going to make this next sentence sound a bit odd: Tyson Chandler was the indisputable player of the game. Chandler is playing on the most talented team he’s seen in his entire career, and he’s responding in every way possible. He’s a shot-blocker, but more importantly, he’s a sound positional defender. Chandler is able to change shots without sacrificing his ground and he’s mobile enough to cover the entire paint with ease. Individually, he had a terrific defensive performance. Not flawless, but for all intents and intensive purposes, as damn well close to being so as anyone could reasonably expect. And just for fun, Chandler dropped in 14 points of his own, while wiping our memories clean of Brendan Haywood.
Dirk Nowitzki shot 9-of-23 from the field, but would anyone know that based on observation alone? Nowitzki definitely took and missed his fair share of shot attempts, but the eye test didn’t sting quite as badly as 39% shooting does. Nowitzki’s 22 points — as well as his four assists and three steals — were still quite valuable, but this wasn’t the Dirk-and-only-Dirk approach Mavs fans are painfully familiar with.
With that in mind, here’s a note from ESPN Stats and Info: “The Mavericks outscored the Heat 95-67 in the 34 minutes and 48 seconds that Nowitzki was on the floor. It was the second straight game in which Nowitzki made such an impact. In a win over Charlotte on Wednesday, Nowitzki was plus-27. The difference is that in that game, three other Dallas starters posted similar plus-minus totals. In Saturday’s win, Nowitzki was significantly better than any of his teammates.”
The Heat grabbed the offensive board on 44.4% of their misses in the first quarter, which is a perfectly dreadful number as far as the Mavs are concerned. But how about this: Miami’s final offensive rebounding rate was a palatable 23.3%. That’s a hell of a turnaround over the final three quarters.
Miami’s offense was a painful watch for long stretches of this game, and the effect that their union has had on LeBron James and Dwyane Wade is inexplicable. James still has stretches where he seems himself, but even at Wade’s most aggressive, he’s a tinted portrait of his former self. Sometimes he floats, sometimes he drives, sometimes he defers, but he’s always affected by some unseen humor. Last season’s Wade was one of the best players on the planet, but this year’s model isn’t worthy of fear, and worthy of respect primarily due to his reputation.
J.J. Barea was fantastic. Against San Antonio, we saw Barea at his playmaking finest; he didn’t force shots, and willingly and skilfully set up his teammates with open looks. In tonight’s game, Barea had his eyes locked on the rim. He still picked up two assists, but Barea’s 13 points on seven shots came through a pitch-perfect approach. Barea sliced and diced Miami’s perimeter defenders, and got right to the basket when the Heat bigs were characteristically slow to rotate. Your teammates miss you, Udonis Haslem.
Erick Dampier made his first appearance as a member of the Miami Heat, and promptly committed a personal foul. He played eight minutes in total and grabbed one rebound. Regular readers should know that I’m one of Dampier’s few remaining advocates, and that should make my stance on Damp’s addition to the Heat roster somewhat obvious: he’s an obviously beneficial addition for this team, and though he won’t solve all of their problems, he’s a definite upgrade on D and the glass.
The Mavs didn’t seem to respect the three-point attempts of any Heat player not named James Jones or Eddie House. The rest were left to do their worst, and while 2-of-10 from three may not be the worst, it’s pretty awful.
I touched on this the other night, but it needs to be repeated in light of Shawn Marion’s 14-point, 6-of-12 night: Dallas may not have a second scoring option etched in stone, but they have enough reliable contributors to find help from somewhere. JET has taken a turn for the inefficient (12 points, 3-of-12 shooting, three turnovers), but Marion, Caron Butler (23 points, 9-15 FG, 3-3 3FG, zero turnovers), Barea, and Chandler have all made vital contributions to the scoring column. Dallas can’t expect the roster to click from top to bottom, but all of these guys are can walk and chew bubblegum.
John Schuhmann of NBA.com, on which teams could challenge the Lakers this season: “In the East, you have the same three contenders as you had going in: Boston, Miami and Orlando. In the West, I really like what I’ve seen from Dallas. Defensively, I think they’ve taken a step forward with Tyson Chandler replacing Erick Dampier. If their offense can come around, they’ll be a stronger foe than we thought the Lakers would have in their conference.”
Chris Mannix of SI.com: “Bottom line, to get out of this Groundhog Day-like loop, Dallas needs to make a change beyond what it’s already done. Since February 2008, the Mavs have acquired Kidd, Marion, Butler, Haywood, DeShawn Stevenson and Chandler to revamp their roster. Mark Cuban committed $80 million to Nowitzki last summer and signed Kidd to a three-year, $25 million extension in 2009 because Kidd, even at 37, is still better than most point guards in the league. Cuban didn’t sit on the sideline when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were being courted. He just didn’t have enough to get them. But to avoid history repeating itself again, the Mavericks may need to take even more risks. They have movable assets like Butler ($10.5 million expiring contract) and Stevenson ($4.2 million expiring contract). James, Wade and Bosh are no longer available, but there could be a few potential difference-makers who are.” Mannix goes on to suggest Gilbert Arenas and Andre Iguodala as possible trade returns for Caron Butler. One of those suggestions is tremendous and would be quite helpful, and the other could end up crippling the franchise for a decade. I’m not sure we’re at the stage where Butler has to go or the Mavs have to make a move just yet, but if that day comes, here’s to hoping the Mavs stay away from the guillotine.
It was rumored at one point that Greg Ostertag may be trying to make a comeback (or start his coaching career) with the Texas Legends, but no longer. According to Marc Stein, Ostertag will stay retired for now, citing “family reasons.” Bummer.
Jeff Caplan of ESPN Dallas: “His 84 field-goal attempts rank third on the team, just 12 shots behind Jason Terry — in one less game – who has made 20 more shots. Marion has made three fewer baskets on 25 fewer attempts. Jason Kidd is the only rotation player shooting a lower percentage (34.7), but Kidd has put half as many attempts and isn’t needed to score in bulk as is Butler. But, that doesn’t mean Marion is the more logical choice to start. Marion has handled the move to the bench with grace and a team-first attitude when at least some outsiders viewed it with trepidation. There’s no reason to stir things up by asking Butler to now come off the bench, a move he probably wouldn’t welcome. During an ESPNDallas.com chat prior to the start of training camp, Butler was asked if the team had plans to bring him off the bench. Butler stated that he’s not at a point in his career where that move makes sense. Plus, the Mavs want Butler on the floor and performing well, not only to accomplish team goals, but to elevate Butler’s value in the case his $10.8-million expiring contract can be flipped in a beneficial trade.”
Now that the Mavs’ defense has begun to regress to the expected mean (though the case is hardly closed; Dallas is still a top-five defensive outfit, and that ranking will either be affirmed or negated in the coming weeks), we turn our attention to something even more distressing: turnover rate. Dallas has long been among the best teams in the league in protecting the ball, but a single off-season has dismissed their discretion. A team that once passed and drove carefully is now playing a bit too loose, and while the Mavs have been getting better looks on offense as a result, the Mavs’ O isn’t prolific enough to overcome such a substantial setback in the turnover column.
This is where the Mavs’ defense becomes more relevant than ever. Even when we try to look though to Dallas’ other weaknesses, the defense inevitably rears its moderately-and-hopefully-not-deceptively-attractive head. The D influences everything, and in this case, the Mavs’ possible saving grace — their ability to force turnovers to balance their own — turned out to be a dud. Overall, the Mavs have gone from fifth in the league in turnover rate differential last season to having the fourth worst differential this season. The Mavs have, for the most part, been forcing their opponents into tough looks, but the lack of an aggressive defense has made the turnover battle a futile affair.
With no defense to hedge the Mavs’ sudden turnover woes, the increases in turnover rate up and down the roster have been rather damning. Last season, Erick Dampier was the only Maverick with a turnover rate higher than 14.0. This season, there are four Mavs who exceed that mark: Tyson Chandler (26.44), Brendan Haywood (26.65), Dominique Jones (19.04), and the most troublesome, J.J. Barea (19.75). The impact of Chandler, Haywood, and Jones’ turnover rates are limited by low usage rates and/or minutes played, but Barea is playing almost 18 minutes a night and using 22.32% of Dallas’ possessions when on the court. Both Barea’s usage and turnover rates are substantially higher than last season, and the result has been a dreadfully inefficient second-team offense. Jason Kidd has been excellent this year, but his value to the Mavs peaks when Barea is turning the ball over so frequently.
The Mavs’ turnover problems don’t all rest with J.J., though. Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, and Caron Butler are all turning the ball over at a notably higher rate this season. Brendan Haywood is committing turnovers more than twice as often as he did last year. Tyson Chandler is (and has always been) far less careful with the ball than Erick Dampier was. Shawn Marion is the lone Maverick contributor that isn’t turning the ball over more often, which suggests something that can’t all be lumped in Barea’s lap.
There could be something systemic to blame for all of this, to which I have a simple and direct response: be patient.
Dallas obviously has added some new elements to their offense, and I’m sure they are partially to blame. The Mavs are also a tad rusty, and while that hasn’t made a huge impact on their shooting numbers, it’s bound to show in other areas. The season is young and the numbers available are current trends rather than predictive tools. Dallas has turned the ball over plenty in the past two weeks. It’s lost them some games and only hindered their winning efforts in others. But without strong anecdotal evidence — and as far as I’m concerned, all we’ve seen is a team struggling with fixable errors, and ones they’ve proven able to fix in the past, at that — the numbers aren’t indicative of something we should worry about; they simply point us in the direction of a potential area of concern. If Dallas is this turnover-prone throughout the season, that struggle is worthy of a more detailed causal analysis. For now, it just is.
This year’s Mavericks are turning the ball over at an inexplicably high rate. Here’s to hoping that problem solves itself, if not for the team’s sake, then only to ease the burden on our neurotic, overly analytical minds.
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?
Erick Dampier is making his list and checking it twice. Certain to be considered: Miami and Houston. A possible surprise: Atlanta. I’ve heard Utah may be interested as well, but I haven’t the faintest idea if there’s any reciprocation.
Josh Howard, on why the Wizards “took a gamble” on him for the coming season, and how the Wizards stack up with Howard’s former teams in terms of talent (via HoopsHype): “[The Wizards] see a natural-born leader. They got a guy that loves to win games, loves to play, has a total enjoyment for the game… I appreciate that they gave me the chance and I will take advantage of it...Oh, talent-wise the sky is the limit for this team. It’s a young team. Blatche, McGee, Nick Young, No. 1 pick John Wall and a host of other guys. These guys have tremendous upside. If we stay focused and stay dedicated to the game, the sky is the limit for them. I think that’s one other reason they brought me in here – to be a leader. I think I can take those guys on the right path.”
Here, you can cast your vote for the top Mavs of all time at each traditional position, but the race has long been decided: Steve Nash, Rolando Blackman, Mark Aguirre, Dirk Nowitzki, and Roy Tarpley should win-out easily. There are other good candidates — Michael Finley, Derek Harper, and Jason Kidd among them, but those five were clear favorites from the tip. (EDIT: I stand corrected. Finley has surged to take the lead at SG. I love Fin, and I’m still shocked.)
For a journey down the other path, Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Insider, a fellow contributor at Hardwood Paroxysm, and one of the invaluable minds at HoopData, has identified the five worst statistical tenures for players of each and every team. Dallas’ bottom five: Devean George (’07-’09), Scott Lloyd (’81-’83), Darrell Armstrong (’05-’06), Bill Wennington (’86-’90), and Elston Turner (’82-’84). My initial reaction: isn’t there any way we could come up with a harsher distinction than “worst Maverick ever” for George? My secondary reaction: Armstrong doesn’t deserve to be on this list at all, if for no other reason than the role he played in the Mavs’ comeback, overtime win against the Toronto Raptors in February of 2006.
According to a report by Sport97, Jessie Begarin, a Guadaloupean and participant in Rodrigue Beaubois’ camp, was invited to tryout with the Texas Legends and his since been invited to Mavericks training camp. If this report is indeed true, you could be looking at a future Legend (capital L, y’all). (via DOH at Mavs Moneyball) EDIT: According to Mike Fisher of DallasBasketball.com, the Mavs/Legends don’t have any plans for Begarin after all.
Akis Yerocostas conducted an interesting exercise at his blog, Pick and Scroll, in which he launched a hypothetical expansion draft. I was consulted as an unofficial representative of the Mavs, in order to choose which players to “protect” for the purposes of the draft. See who I selected and who he ended up drafting here.
Tim Thomas, on his wife’s health (via Earl K. Sneed): “She’s healthy, she’s getting better. I don’t want people to think that she’s on her deathbed. I just want everybody to know we’re doing fine. She’s doing better. Who knows, if she gets better then maybe I’ll give it another try.”
This commercial for NBA 2k11 has nothing to do with the Mavs whatsoever, but is glorious nonetheless. Plus, the 2k series makes a mean game, to boot.
Rodrigue Beaubois goes shopping…at the MavGear headquarters.
The Mavericks waited. They waited by the phone for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Joe Johnson to return their calls, but those stars never did. Meanwhile, Erick Dampier sat, gift-wrapped in festive paper and topped with a bow, waiting for the bounty he would never fetch.
This wasn’t the way the summer was supposed to go. The return on Dampier’s instantly expiring contract wasn’t supposed to be Tyson Chandler, but it was and here we are. The Mavericks waited (as if they had any other option), and as a reward for that waiting, they scored a center that may not be any better than Erick Dampier at all. Chandler is quite useful, but so, too was Dampier. Both are likely best served as reserve centers, and with the Mavs, either would be. Their offensive skills are comparable, and their defensive competence similar.
I say all of this in light of Brett Hainline’s recent piece over at Queen City Hoops, which detailed how losing Chandler might impact the Charlotte Bobcats’ defense next season. Charlotte just so happened to boast the NBA’s top defense in ’09-’10, but expecting them to repeat in that capacity would be foolish. For one, the Cats lost Raymond Felton, a strong and relentless perimeter defender. Additionally, Charlotte has now lost Chandler, a move which Hainline argues could be catastrophic to the Bobcats’ defensive effectiveness.
However, that claim says more about the center crop in Charlotte than it does about Chandler’s ability to stand out on defense. The Bobcats will likely fall off defensively in the coming year, but that’s largely because Nazr Mohammed, Kwame Brown, and Boris Diaw will be forced to fill the minutes in the middle. Losing Chandler hurts, but filling his minutes with that crew hurts more.
In terms of defensive efficiency, Hainline found that the lineup featuring Tyson Chandler and the other starter mainstays (Felton, Stephen Jackson, Gerald Wallace, Diaw) performed 10 points per 100 possessions better than the same lineup but with Nazr Mohammed substituted for Chandler. Believe it. Mohammed is also plenty useful as a player, and he’s not a horrible defender. He just doesn’t operate with the same effectiveness in the Bobcats’ system.
However, though the Chandler-infused starting unit’s mark of 99.3 points allowed per 100 possessions is commendable, Dallas did one better, despite only having the 12th best defense overall last season. When Erick Dampier played with the Mavericks’ starters (Jason Kidd, Caron Butler, Shawn Marion, and Dirk Nowitzki), Dallas allowed just 89 points per 100 possessions. Then, with the Mavs’ other “starting” lineup (Kidd, Jason Terry, Marion, and Nowitzki) last season, Dallas allowed just 95 points per 100 possessions. Those are two exemplary defensive lineups that Dampier was able to anchor, and while the sample size for the former is a bit small (Butler only played in 27 regular season games for the Mavs last season, after all) the defensive numbers for the latter held through extended minutes (it was the Mavs’ most-played lineup last season).
If that’s the criterion by which we evaluate either player’s defensive success, Dampier was at least Chandler’s defensive equal. In fact, if we use Hainline’s player swap tool, his system puts the Mavs at 1.9 fewer Pythagorean wins with Chandler than with Dampier based on both players’ offensive and defensive impact from last season:
However, a look into each player’s individual defense does reveal a few interesting discrepancies. Take a look at how Chandler, Dampier, and Brendan Haywood each performed last season in various defensive capacities (on a points allowed per possession basis), courtesy of Synergy Sports:
By these measures, Chandler is actually a slight improvement over Dampier, and a far better pick-and-roll defender. In my initial analysis of the Dampier trade, I noted that although Chandler may not be supremely talented, there is value in variety. Brendan Haywood and Erick Dampier are similar defenders, while Chandler, empirically speaking, separates himself with his defense of the pick-and-roll. That’s why even though the Mavs didn’t make any significant personnel upgrades, their D could still improve in the coming season.
Or, if you’ve been watching Chandler’s defensive exploits (or is it exploitation?) with Team USA, you may think otherwise. Consider this: Chandler is moving better after recovering from injury, and that matters. His coverage of the pick-and-roll hasn’t been very good, and that matters too, but far less. You can’t expect the members of a team assembled in a matter of weeks with extremely limited practice time to execute quality pick-and-roll defense, especially against the experienced practitioners working the ball for other national teams. He’ll be fine when he returns to the more consistent NBA life, and Dallas should be better at defending ball screens.
My fear is that Chandler’s possible success in Dallas will somehow be viewed as one in the same with Dampier’s alleged failure. Damp’s contract has made him an easy scapegoat for Mavs fans over the years, and I’d be the first to tell you that he doesn’t deserve that many shekels. However, I draw that line at blaming Dampier for the Mavs’ defensive troubles. I’m not sure that Dampier is an ideal fit with this team any longer, but he’s still a good center who did what was asked of him. He set screens. He grabbed boards. He defended well in the post. That’s what the Mavericks (over)paid him to do, and should the team take any kind of step forward in ’10-’11, it won’t be because the team shed themselves of some Dampier-shaped burden. Acquiring Chandler is a touch of a stylistic shift, and that’s the change that gives Dallas the potential to improve.
Kelly Dwyer ranks Dirk Nowitzki as the fourth best power forward in the game, behind Pau Gasol, Tim Duncan, and Amar’e Stoudemire. Feel free to be angry, if that’s how you feel about these things. I will say this: when you get to the top of a positional ranking, you’re often going apples to oranges. Gasol, Duncan, Nowitzki, and Stoudemire are all great players. I happen to think Nowitzki will best Stoudemire in the upcoming season, New York’s offensive freedom be damned, but then again, I’m more of a citrus fan than most.
And because we can never get enough rankings, Dwyer also sorted out the top 30 centers in the NBA next season. Erick Dampier ranked 30th, Tyson Chandler 24th, and Brendan Haywood 19th. Chandler’s ranking I can understand, but Dampier and Haywood’s seem a bit harsh. Then you look at those listed above Haywood (Or below? Rank orientation always confuses me.), and it’s hard to find some unthinkable error.
Statistically speaking, defense does win championships. A certain Celtics dynasty skews the results a bit, but even exempting that team (and all teams prior to 1976) from the statistical sample yields a significant result in favor of prominent defensive squads.
Dirk officially signed his new contract with the Mavs yesterday, and here are the yearly values, according to Eddie Sefko: $17,278,618/$19,092,873/$20,907,128/$22,721,381.
Congrats to Dominique Jones, who made the All-Summer League Team in Vegas. At the beginning of Summer League, we all figured Rodrigue Beaubois would be in thie position, but Jones’ offensive efficiency and defensive excellence weren’t necessarily surprising, but they’re definitely welcome.
Omar Samhan on his decision to play professionally in Lithuania next season (via Jeff Caplan): “I didn’t have any offers for guaranteed money [in the NBA]. A lot of people wanted me to come to training camp, but they couldn’t guarantee anything. And, if I did make a team, I wouldn’t get playing time, I wouldn’t get a chance to develop a ton…So, it’s going to give me a chance to go over there for a year or two and really develop as a player. I plan on coming back and being an NBA player for the next 10 years.”