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.
The Boston Celtics received plenty of attention earlier this season when their team FG% was sitting above 50%. This focus was certainly deserved; in the last 20 years, only 10 teams have finished a season shooting better than 50% from the field. Only two teams have done so in the last decade. Unfortunately, the Celtics’ shooting has fallen off slightly since that point, and now sits below the threshold at 49.3%. That percentage is impressive even it falls short of a nice, round benchmark, but even Boston’s strong shooting shouldn’t overshadow another remarkable shooting performance by the Dallas Mavericks.
The Mavericks are second in the NBA — trailing only the Celtics — with a FG% of 47.6%. That puts Dallas 1.7 percentage points behind Boston. If we look at eFG%, which factors in the extra point scored on a three-pointer, the gap between the two teams closes to just 0.2 percentage points. The thing that separates the two teams (and ultimately puts Dallas in front) is the difficulty of their shots.
Hoopdata calculates a field goal percentage measure called “expected field goal percentage,” or XeFG%. Shots from different locations have different difficulties: the league average FG% on a shot at the rim this season is 64.0%, the average FG% on shots from 16-23ft. is 39.5%, etc. XeFG% uses the league average FG% from each shot location and a team’s own average shot selection to calculate the field goal percentage the team would be expected to shoot. My own work on Expected Scoring at Hickory-High is an extension of this idea.
For example, the Charlotte Bobcats have an eFG% of 47.86% this season. The Minnesota Timberwolves have an eFG% of 48.00%. Only 0.14 of a percent separate the two. However, Charlotte’s XeFG% is 50.8%, two full percentage points higher than Minnesota’s 48.8%. Charlotte’s XeFG% is much higher than Minnesota’s because they take 10% more of their shots at the rim then Minnesota does. Although their eFG% is almost the same, looking at the XeFG% shows us that Charlotte is having a much worse shooting season than Minnesota because they are taking easier shots and should therefore be making more of them.
Hoopdata also expresses this idea of “more or less than they should” by calculating a simple ratio, eFG% divided by XeFG%. Here’s where we return to Dallas. When we look at this Offensive Ratio (eFG%/XeFG%) the Mavericks are leading the league at 1.07, Boston’s ratio is 1.05. Hoopdata has this same statistic available for the previous four seasons and over that stretch I could only find four other teams with an Offensive Ratio of 1.07 or higher. I’ll give you hint: It was the same team each season and they play within a four-hour drive of the Grand Canyon. If you guessed the Portland Trailblazers then you need to look at a map.
The thing I found most interesting is how Dallas has been able to accomplish this elite shooting performance on an very different shot distribution from the Phoenix Suns. The table below shows the percentage of each team’s shots which came from each location.
% At the Rim
The Phoenix Suns made this list each season by making a ton of the shots everyone expects to make: three-pointers and layups. Dallas has made this list with an incredible shooting performance on mid-range jumpers. 47.5% of the Mavericks’ shots this season are coming from the space between 3ft. and 23ft. away from the basket. The closest Phoenix came to that was in 2007-2008 when 42.7% of their shots were neither at the rim or from behind the three-point line.
When you think of the Mavericks excelling in the mid-range game, Dirk Nowitzki quickly comes to mind. Although he’s an exceptional mid-range shooter, he doesn’t deserve all the credit for the team’s shooting performance this season.
Rodrigue Beaubois, Ian Mahinmi, Peja Stojakavic, Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion are all shooting better than the league average on shots from 3-9ft.
Dirk Nowitzki, J.J. Barea, Jason Terry, Ian Mahinmi, Rodrigue Beaubois and Tyson Chandler are all shooting better than the league average on shots from 10-15ft.
Dirk Nowitzki, Peja Stojakavic, DeShawn Stevenson, Tyson Chandler, Jason Terry, Dominique Jones and Ian Mahinmi are all shooting better than the league average on shots from 16-23ft. Sasha Pavlovic and Caron Butler were also above the league average before they left the Mavericks due to ineptitude and injury respectively.
Altogether the Mavericks attempt 39.1 shots per game from that 3-23ft. space. 28.5, or 72.9% of them are coming from players who are above average shooters from that location. The quantity of players who are shooting well is striking but so is the variety. The list of names above includes players who fill significant minutes at all five positions. The ability to have nearly anyone on the floor knock down a mid-range jumper gives the Mavericks a tremendous amount of offensive flexibility.
I usually make an effort to abstain from unsupportable hyperbole, but I can’t help myself. This may be one of the best jump-shooting teams in history. 17 of the top 40 players in NBA history in terms of three-point field goals made are still active. Jason Williams, Baron Davis and Jamal Crawford all make the list, which takes some of the shine off this discussion. Still, 4 of those 17 who are still active play for the Dallas Mavericks, including three of the top 10. As I mentioned Hoopdata, only has shot location numbers available for the last few seasons so it’s tough to make a statistical argument on the mid-range abilities of teams predating that cut-off. Regardless, the numbers tell me the Mavericks have shooters everywhere and my eyes tell me those shots are going in like never before.
“Enthusiasm is excitement with inspiration, motivation, and a pinch of creativity.“
That’s two huge wins this week, each arguably the greatest of the season. But while the win over L.A. on Wednesday was notable for the quality of the opponent and the in-conference ramifications, this victory goes down as not only the most spectacular Mavs win of the season, but a true candidate for game of the season.
Jason Kidd’s (19 points, 16 rebounds, 17 assists) performance was dominant. It’s rare that we get to see Kidd put on a show of such direct magnificence, but his fingerprints were all over just about every big play Dallas made in the fourth quarter and in overtime. It wasn’t just a perfectly placed feed to Dirk in the post; Kidd flooded the endgame with highlight reel assists, clutch shooting, and incredible work on the glass. The shocking thing: the numbers look good, but it’s possible that the tape looks even better. He was that good.
Then again, the numbers are rather impressive. Not only were Kidd’s box score totals impressive in their own right, but they’re even more so if you dig a bit deeper. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Kidd was responsible for 56 of the Mavs’ 111 total points, and 27 of 34 in the fourth quarter. Nice.
For some historical perspective: only three players in the three-point era have put up a 15-point, 15-rebound, 15-assist game? Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Jason Kidd. Kidd was actually the last to accomplish the feat, as he put up a 21-16-16 game with Dallas in 1996. Tonight’s 19-16-17 game makes Kidd only the second player to do it twice, with Magic being the other. And FYI, Shaquille O’Neal once completed the 15+ trifecta, although by registering over 15 points, 15 rebounds, and 15 blocks. Or more specifically, 24 points, 28 rebounds, and 15 blocks. Not bad, right? (Hat tip to Tyler for hitting the record books.)
This game was quite the roller coaster, with each team going on some pretty significant runs to completely change the outlook of the game. The Mavs started out strong, but the Hawks took the lead behind a 6-0 run. Then Dallas opened up a 16-0 run to close the first quarter behind some hot shooting and great defense. Atlanta rattled off two separate 9-0 runs to pull within striking range in the second, before Dallas closed 7-0 to take back the lead. The Hawks owned the third quarter, outscoring the Mavs 26-15, largely behind the power of a mid-quarter 13-2 run. The Mavs trailed by as many as 15 points in the fourth, but outscored the Hawks 28-13 over the final eight minutes of regulation. And then they went into overtime.
The play of the game has to be Jason Kidd’s incredibly bizarre decision to draw a technical foul…on Hawks head coach Mike Woodson.
Strange to be sure, but it was quite the heady play and something that most players (Kidd included, in most scenarios) would never think to do. If Woodson’s on the court, he’s fair game — especially when the opposing team is pushing the ball in a transition situation. Now, was Woodson on the court? I’ll leave that debate up to you guys. He definitely made an attempt to slide past the sideline to avoid Kidd, but Jason’s path was still blocked (thanks to an extended left arm) by Woodson. Either way, Woodson was assessed a technical foul, and what was a two-point deficit with 1:37 left in regulation was cut in half. The game eventually went into overtime; you shouldn’t need me to tell you how huge that one point was.
There was a near-footnote in yesterday’s game preview about the Hawks’ ability to switch on every pick. In some situations it makes a ton of sense; Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Al Horford, Marvin Williams, Jamal Crawford, and Maurice Evans are all capable, mobile defenders that can cover a variety of positions. But the Mavs’ late-game strategy was a direct exploitation of that philosophy. Dallas ran the two man game with Dirk and whichever guard was matched up with Mike Bibby. Once Bibby was switched onto Dirk, the Mavs isolated him at the top of the key — a move which necessitates an Atlanta double-team. If the double came slowly or not at all, Dirk got a great look from one of his most comfortable spots on the floor. If the double did come (the double man was typically Josh Smith, who was originally matched up with Dirk), Nowitzki quickly passed the ball out to the open guard on the perimeter, who was met with a wide open three or an assist opportunity to the shooter in the corner. It worked like a charm, and the Hawks refused to adjust.
Dirk (37 points, 15-26 FG, nine rebounds, four assists) had a terrific night, and won’t get the credit he deserves because of the way Kidd stole the show. But it was Nowitzki’s shooting that jump-started the Mavs in the first, his play that facilitated the offense in the fourth, and his points that iced the game in overtime. How sick is it that Nowitzki can put up 37 and still not make the headlines? Part of that is Kidd playing at an out-of-this-world level, but it’s also because this is what we expect from Dirk. Maybe not 37 night-in and night-out, but that level of efficiency, and those types of plays. This is a truly phenomenal player that we have the privilege of watching on almost a nightly basis.
J.J. Barea also deserves a bit of praise, despite the fact that he didn’t contribute much in terms of scoring. But Barea’s presence on the court skewed the match-ups in favor of the Mavs, as Rick Carlisle leaned heavily on the three-guard lineup. Kidd, Barea, Terry, Nowitzki, and Haywood played the games final 13:22. Barea only had four points on 2-of-5 shooting over that span, but he had three assists to just one turnover (despite Jason Kidd having seven assists in the same stretch) and played wonderful defense on Joe Johnson. Yes, I said J.J. Barea on Joe Johnson.
Barea on Johnson is very, very far from an ideal match-up, and would never be Carlisle’s first choice in normal man-to-man situations. But when he decided to close the fourth quarter using the zone, Rick was clearly willing to embrace the possibility that J.J. would be exploited defensively (something we saw Golden State do against Barea in the zone earlier in the season). To his credit, Barea not only contested Joe Johnson’s shot attempts without fouling, but bodied him up and made Johnson’s life quite difficult. Joe had zero points in the fourth quarter and in overtime, despite scoring 27 in the first three quarters.
The zone was effective on pretty much every front, though. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Atlanta shot just 1-for-9 from the field against Dallas’ zone. That might have something to do with how effectively Dallas played to finish regulation.
More great all-around play from Brendan Haywood (11 points, 5-6 FG, 11 rebounds, four assists, three blocks), who can pretty much do no wrong at this point. Haywood had five offensive rebounds to boot, and made two huge buckets during the Mavs’ comeback rally. At this point, he can essentially do no wrong.
Josh Smith’s line also goes down in the “Incredibly awesome, but completely obscured by Jason Kidd” category: 18 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, seven steals. Crazy good.
In the battle of Sixth Man of the Year candidates (not quite the same as an MVP match-up, eh?), Jason Terry scored 17 points on 50% shooting with six assists and Jamal Crawford scored 18 points on 31.3% shooting with four assists. The two are certainly comparable, and though Crawford is having a nice season in the perfect role for his ability and skill set, the numbers between the two are strikingly similar.
Shawn Marion’s first quarter deserves mention, mostly because he went 5-for-5 in the frame and was finishing with some serious authority. The Mavs were great in transition throughout the game, and Marion’s ability to convert layups and throw down some huge dunks was a big part of that.
That’s six wins in a row, which is the Mavs’ longest winning streak of the season and the longest active streak in the NBA. Boosh.
The Atlanta Hawks are one of the most watchable teams in the league not because of one must-watch player (a la LeBron or Wade), but precisely because they don’t have such a player. They’re a quality team on the verge of true contention (and share that standing with the Mavs, in some regard), and they’ve done so with a team-wide embrace of on-court versatility. Mike Bibby may be penciled in as the point guard, but I’m not sure he’s a point guard. Joe Johnson may be penciled in as the shooting guard, but I’m not sure he’s the shooting guard (although the guy certainly does love to shoot). Josh Smith may be penciled in as the power forward, but I’m not entirely unconvinced that Smith isn’t a futuristic warrior from the year 2183 to prove to us how futile the notion of gravity really is. The personnel in Atlanta allows for such a system to thrive, and the best Hawks team of all time is not a product of individual dominance, but of incredible parity:
With just about every competitive squad in the league, you can isolate a player that stands at the heart of everything the team hopes to accomplish. More often than not, that player is simply the team’s most talented (Chris Paul, LeBron James, Brandon Roy), but in some cases, it’s a secondary star who compensates for shear production with massive on-court influence (Chauncey Billups, Brandon Jennings, one of the Boston Celtics).
Or, in slightly less frequent and more bizarre circumstances, a team is left with no focus at all, depending on a balance of power, production, and personality to turn what could be a tornado into a whirling dervish neatly dressed in a tuxedo and a bow tie. The Atlanta Hawks are a team without a singular focus, without an anchor. That type of situation could be a cause of trouble for any number of rosters throughout the league, but somehow, someway, Atlanta makes parity look easy.
You can read my full piece on the Hawks here at HP.