The Butterfly Effects, Pt. II: Remaining Chains

Posted by Rob Mahoney on November 29, 2011 under Commentary | Read the First Comment

With the unofficial, metaphorical ink on the tentative CBA structure beginning to dry, we’ll take to look at how the new agreement impacts the Dallas Mavericks teams of today and tomorrow.

The NBA’s owners entered collective bargaining with several specific goals in mind. Among them: to limit the flexibility of taxpaying teams as much as possible, creating a systemic conflict between high payrolls and roster freedom. As a part of that objective, the new agreement includes a completely remodeled set of salary cap exceptions that reward teams for staying under the tax line, and restrict the free agent involvement of spend-happy clubs like the Mavericks. Dallas will likely be a luxury taxpayer again next season; so the franchise has been for the last six-plus years, and so they may be for the next several. Such is the price of keeping this particular contending core in place. Mark Cuban will be mindful of the wrath of the repeater tax, but that likely won’t stop him from keeping his team in tax territory for the first two seasons of the new collective bargaining agreement, during which he’ll only face a $1-for-$1 luxury tax penalty akin to that of the previous CBA. Cuban has shown a willingness to foot the bill on that tax, but would be understandably reluctant to pay according to the exorbitant demands of the more demanding luxury tax rules that will become active for the 2013-2014 season. But the Mavs’ taxpaying status will still affect their offseason plans on a more immediate timeline. According to a memo detailing the tentative agreement between the players and owners (via SI.com), taxpaying teams will no longer have access to the league’s mid-level exception (a salary cap exception used to sign free agents for up to around $5 million per season); instead, they’ll be forced to make do with the “taxpayer mid-level exception,” a provision that allows for the signing of a free agent to a deal up to three years in length (rather than four) starting at a mere $3 million. Read more of this article »

Champions at Long Last

Posted by Rob Mahoney on November 2, 2011 under xOther | Be the First to Comment

Now that we’re crossing off days and games from the formerly official NBA schedule, lockout remorse becomes a bit more concrete. Gone is the sense of dread, but in its place, one of actual loss.

With that in mind, Jesse Blanchard of 48 Minutes of Hell added some levity. Last night would have marked the Mavericks’ first ever ring ceremony and the illustrious raising of a championship banner…but apparently Mark Cuban had to settle for a smaller, more private ceremony:

Opening a Window

Posted by Rob Mahoney on September 27, 2011 under Commentary | 2 Comments to Read

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Good intentions between player and team are wonderful and all, but J.J. Barea’s NBA future is entirely fluid. His ability to stilt opposing defenses with his dribble penetration gave Dallas’ playoff offense a valuable dimension; his stock skyrocketed with each high pick-and-roll and every improbable layup. Never has the basketball world thought more of this particular undersized scoring point guard than in the months fresh off of his team’s triumph, and though Barea Fever has dimmed slightly since he sliced through the Lakers’ defense in May, he’s still a valued commodity.

Barea is not just a quaint little player. He’s an NBA champion, and on some unknown timeline, an NBA free agent. He’s available for any team that’s interested, so long as they can convince him that he can find the same success with their club as he did in Dallas. The Mavericks are the handicapped favorites to retain J.J.’s services, but Barea is free to explore his options, and ultimately, to leave the Mavericks without any semblance of creation off the dribble in their regular rotation. Neither Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, nor any of the Mavs’ spot-up shooters did much to overtly attack the defense from the perimeter last season by way of their own creation. Terry and Kidd can run basic two-man action with Dirk Nowitzki or another Maverick big, but neither is a consistent threat to get into the lane and score.

Should Barea go, the Mavs would be at a bit of a loss in terms of replacing his contributions with the players in last season’s rotation. Which isn’t, however, to say that they would be completely without the means to replace such skills and production internally. What Barea offers the Mavs is not terribly unique, even if it may seem so in the context of the Mavericks’ regular 2010-2011 backcourt. Other players are theoretically capable of replacing him, and one such player happens to already be in a Maverick uniform, even if he rarely saw the court during Dallas’ title season.

Before we continue, let’s dispel one notion immediately: Rodrigue Beaubois, in the varied forms we’ve seen thus far, is not such a player. Beaubois may be the Maverick most likely to remind of Barea’s footspeed, but he lacks the basic drive-and-kick sensibilities that would make him immediately suited for such a role. Barea is a scorer first and passer second, but he still has a sense of how to use his own drives to set up his teammates. His vision isn’t remarkable, but Barea’s able to execute the kind of basic offense necessary to overcome his other limitations. The lanes and shots won’t always be there for Barea, but he generally — and there are certainly exceptions — has the good judgment to dig himself out of trouble with a kick to the corner.

Discretion isn’t exactly the backbone of Barea’s game, but he does have enough of it to thrive in his role for the Mavericks. If Beaubois were asked to fulfill a similar one, I worry about his ability to create for others. We know that a healthy Beaubois can hit from outside and drive to the rim. What we haven’t seen from him is a successful evolution of his passing game — even to Barea’s level. Beaubois’ basketball instincts guide the ball through the net, but only with his fingertips acting as the direct vehicle; his playmaking demonstrations have been rough up to this point, and unless he’s spending the off-season by drastically improving his passing and re-crafting his playing sensibilities, Beaubois would remain ill-suited to act as a Barea replacement for the immediate future.

Dominique Jones, on the other hand, could be up for the task. Jones’ cameo last season wasn’t exactly a resounding success, but his college career and NBA trial give plenty of reason to have more faith in his ability to create than Beaubois’. Jones would struggle in the NBA as a primary playmaker, but he’s more than capable of executing the same basic reads that made Barea a dual scoring/passing threat. The contrast would come in style more than substance; rather than darting around or between defenders, Jones combines bursts of speed with a solid frame and great positional strength. Not only can he finish after contact (or, could he finish after contact — the NBA learning curve made completing his drives a bit more difficult than it should have been last season, a flaw I anticipate will be corrected), but also effectively bull through defenders and draw in the entire defense’s attention. Jones would definitely bring a different approach to the same role, and unlike Beaubois, currently has all of the tools to pull it off.

This isn’t to say that Jones’ integration would be easy; retaining Barea provides the simplest way to preserve this type of overt offensive weapon, and throwing a second-year player into the fire so soon — particularly after playing so little during his rookie season — always comes with implicit risk. But should Barea leave, Jones would be the most natural internal replacement, and possibly even the most sensible one when cast alongside potentially pricey free agent alternatives.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Posted by Rob Mahoney on August 24, 2011 under Commentary | 4 Comments to Read

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Regardless of the specific events that will unfold in the coming months, Rudy Fernandez’s Mavericks future was always to be dictated on his terms. Dallas would offer him a system that suited his strengths and the opportunity to play alongside other talented players who could make it easier to find that open three or spring backdoor for an alley-oop. Fernandez would play a season, and then free agency would offer him an out. He could take it or choose to stay with the Mavs, but regardless of his actual choice, the power would be his within a year’s time.

The lockout has apparently sped up that process, as Fernandez has reportedly agreed to a four-year deal with Real Madrid, one that would essentially guarantee that Fernandez will leave the Mavs at the conclusion of the 2011-2012 season. Reports vary as to whether the deal is indeed set in stone, but in a way the consummation of an actual contract is somewhat arbitrary; it appears Fernandez will be gone from Dallas one way or another at season’s end, whether on this reported deal or another one. The will to leave exists irrelevant of whether a handshake has been made or a name signed on the dotted line. Fernandez may end up playing games for the Mavs this season, but in effect, he’s already gone.

As such, it’s worth considering whether plugging him into the lineup as a starter (and committing the minutes that usually accompany such a role) is really a venture worthy of the team’s investment. Fernandez would provide a nice complement to the preexisting starting core in theory, but he’d have to be brought up to speed on the fly in what would almost certainly be an abbreviated season. Fernandez is talented, but would the Mavs feel comfortable with him in a prominent, starting role after 50 or so games without the benefit of off-season preparation or, likely, a training camp? Fernandez is a Maverick, and his skills should be utilized by the team to the fullest extent that they can be, but the role that would allow for such maximization remains in question, even if his positional disposition would seem to fill a very convenient SG-shaped hole in the starting five.

Maybe Fernandez as starter was just too easy; acquiring an experienced player that fits a positional need was a sensible move for Dallas, so much so that apparently something had to go wrong. The Mavs, however, are not without their fallback plans, even if the two most promising of which are reliant on free agency. Lockout life places greater value in the familiar, and though it would undoubtedly take some work (and some cash) to retain their wing FAs, the Mavs have all the reason in the world to look inward — as much as non-contracted, soon-to-be-free-agent personnel constitutes “inward” — to solve whatever problems exist with their SG rotation.

Re-signing DeShawn Stevenson remains an option, and one supported by Jason Terry and Donnie Nelson at that. Stevenson isn’t an ideal choice, but he is (1) an incredibly solid perimeter defender who is still somehow underrated despite his efforts on the league’s biggest stage against its biggest stars, (2) already familiar with Dallas’ system on both ends of the floor, and (3) likely to come at a reasonable price. That said, he also acted as a sandbag on the starting lineup during the 2011 postseason, despite his successes; according to BasketballValue, the Kidd-Stevenson-Marion-Nowitzki-Chandler lineup posted an adjusted plus-minus of -5.21 in the postseason. That should make Fernandez a preferred choice even as a mercenary, but there is some virtue in electing to roll with the three-point-shooting devil you know.

But the Mavs also have the benefit of knowing a far superior candidate to fill a chunk of minutes in the backcourt next season, despite the fact that he technically didn’t log a single minute at SG during the 2010-2011 campaign. Caron Butler is a very talented, effective wing player. He knows the Mavericks organization, knows Rick Carlisle’s system, and has shown that he can thrive as a part of both of those institutions. He’s an effective perimeter defender and a versatile offensive weapon. He’s also labeled a small forward, and also not under contract with the Mavs at present. Both of those problems can be remedied if the team wills it so, and if Dallas truly has designs to improve in the coming season, they’ll do just that.

Butler remains the Mavericks’ best opportunity for immediate improvement, and that doesn’t change because of some perceived positional hiccup. It’s true that he didn’t play any time at the 2 de jure, but the positional designations used by 82games.com (and other resources that offer lineup derived positional data) are often restricted to offensive lineups. From that perspective, what exactly did DeShawn Stevenson (or Terry, Beaubois, Sasha Pavlovic, or any other player who suited up for the Mavs at the 2) do last season that Butler could not? As a sold ball-handler, a 43 percent three-point shooter, and an effective slasher, there’s nothing that prevents Butler from fulfilling any offensive role given to him. Add on the fact that the wing positions in the Mavs’ offensive system allow for a wide range of skill sets (J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson both played the 2, Shawn Marion and Peja Stojakovic both played the 3), and it’s hard to find a logical reason for Butler to be pigeon-holed in one position or another.

As far as defense is concerned, all that’s required is a quick trip through Synergy’s play database to discount any claims of Butler’s positional limitations. Among those that Butler checked effectively: Manu Ginobili, Dwyane Wade, Chauncey Billups, Eric Gordon, Monta Ellis, O.J. Mayo, J.R. Smith, Arron Afflalo, John Salmons, Jason Richardson, J.J. Redick, Mike Miller, Wesley Matthews, the Mavs’ own Rudy Fernandez, Gary Neal, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Shane Battier, Thabo Sefolosha, Richard Hamilton, and Kyle Korver. Saying that 3s defend 3s in today’s NBA is a gross oversimplification; despite never playing a single minute as a 2-guard, Butler still managed to defend all of the aforementioned 2s and 1s as a product of defensive cross-matching and in-game switches. Nowhere are positional designations more arbitrary than on the wings, where pairs of similarly skilled players swing between slotted positions on a whim.

Reducing Butler (or any player) to a simple positional designation ignores the more specific reasoning underlying NBA compatibilities. Butler could work alongside Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion because their skill sets cover tons of ground without much overlap. The same wouldn’t necessarily be true of any other group of perimeter players, even if their traditional designations dictate it to be so. What matters — as has and will always be the case — are consistent skills and contributions. So long as a team can produce some total amalgamation of necessary skills (requisite shooters, shot creation, rebounding, etc.) and the defense can contort itself into some means of effectiveness, everything else is merely nomenclature for the sake of nomenclature.

Reflections of a Champion

Posted by Rob Mahoney on June 17, 2011 under Previews, xOther | 7 Comments to Read

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Apropos of nothing, here are four vignettes of your NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks, some borrowed (and modified), some original. They may or may not have anything to do with basketball.

X: THE END

It’s hard to think three moves ahead as the entire planet collapses, but against a landscape of fire and brimstone, Rick plotted. He had never been the best, but he was always very good, and very much committed to his craft. He didn’t play chess. He was a chess player. The difference is even more profound than it would be with many other hobbies or occupations, if only because Rick’s endless obsession with the game within the game within the game within the game had made chess anything but a game.

He was not alone in that obsession; Rick wasn’t the only chess player. But he was always very good, and very much committed to his craft.

That commitment never wavered, but his relative status eventually did. Rick had honed his chess playing with careful study, long hours, and perfect practice. And then, as can occasionally be the case in all things, he went on a run. Every pawn he touched turned to a knight, as his already impressive army somehow transformed into an embarrassment of versatile riches. Sometimes a man can do no wrong, and for whatever reason — some cosmic return on all of his hard work, or maybe just flat-out luck — Rick’s sometimes came at a moment most opportune. He was the best, last; no matter how he might stack up to the great strategists of his time or all times, Rick had the talent and fortune to be the best chess player on the planet as Earth’s countdown neared zero.

E6. Portland crumbled under the weight of pounds upon pounds of volcanic lava. Bb4. The entire state of California drifted into the ocean. Bc5. The American Heartland was ripped to shreds. Qh4. Florida sank.

Qxf2.

This is the way the world ends: not with a bang, but a checkmate.

[Mahoney]

———-

11: INDUSTRY

Bee, my bee,
Your day and night
And your patience-industry
Have no respite.
Hard you endeavour
To bring the ball
To the hoop amidst the trees.
You always don
The robe of fruitful victory.

[Chinmoy]

———-

41: THE WINNING JOKE

It was his. After what seemed like an eternity, it was finally his. Dirk Nowitzki clutched the Larry O’Brien trophy in his hands. And against his chest. And rested it against his forehead. The cool metal offered relief to a weary warrior, though no more than simply holding that image of ultimate accomplishment ever could.

Dwyane Wade had put on a hell of a show, but it didn’t matter. This was Nowitzki’s day, and Nowitzki’s trophy. Doubt was no longer relevant; all of the trials and incredible comebacks were simply dramatic points leading up to the Finals’ ultimate conclusion. Nowitzki and the Mavs were NBA champions, even if they were crowned on the strength of a number of improbable victories. The Mavericks weren’t dominant, but they managed to stay alive. They milked their playoff lives for all they were worth, and took advantage of every point and every second and every step.

It was his. It was his champagne; Nowitzki didn’t drink during the season, but the taste of victory would dance on his tongue. It was his parade; the city of Dallas would scream his name as he floated by in exaltation. It was his moment; the criticism of his game wasn’t quite as intense as it had been earlier in his career, but there was nonetheless a satisfaction in silencing the endless questioning. It was his off-season in triumph; he was due an endless line of photo ops and high fives, and his phone would explode with texts from old friends. It was his trip to the White House; he and his teammates would head to D.C. to — fittingly — meet with a Texan president. It was his dream fulfilled; after all of these years, Dirk –

– found happiness…if only until he once again found consciousness. Nowitzki lay in bed, his eyes dried by the restless, blinkless hours. He wasn’t possessed by lost possessions, but driven to the very brink by the prize he had lost. Those summer months weren’t merely depressing, but tormented; Nowitzki lost himself in those sleepless nights, and lost what had tethered him to the world outside. All he had were the shadows on the cave walls of his mind, those visions of a remarkable victory, those false images of a title that was his. Nowitzki’s head was cocked to the side every so slightly, as he held the same twitching smile for hours upon end. He laughed. Slightly at first but then almost maniacally, as the little moisture left in those tortured eyes welled and then fell.

2011 couldn’t come fast enough.

[Mahoney]

———-

2.31: A CLEAN, WELL LIGHTED PLACE

“No,” the player who was in a hurry said, rising from pulling down the metal shutters. He adjusted his headband, his armband, his six pairs of layered socks. “I have confidence. I am all confidence.”

“You have youth, confidence, and a job,” the older player said. “You have everything.”

“And what do you lack?”

“Everything but work.”

“You have everything I have.”

“No. I have never had confidence and I am not young.”

“Come on. Stop talking nonsense and lock up.”

“I am of those who like to stay late at the gym,” the older player said. “With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.”

“I want to go home and into bed.”

“We are of two different kinds,” the older player said. He was now dressed to go home. “It is not only a question of youth and confidence although those things are very beautiful. Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the gym.”

“Hombre, there are bodegas open all night long.”

“You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant court. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves.”

“Good night,” said the younger player.

“Good night,” the other said. Turning off the electric light he continued the conversation with himself, It was the light of course but it is necessary that the place be clean and pleasant. You do not want music. Certainly you do not want music. What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread, It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada…

He smiled and stood at the free throw line.

“What are you working on?” asked a different player shooting at a different basket in a different gym than before.

“Nada.”

“Otro loco mas,” said the player and turned away.

“Just a few more shots,” said the old player.

He took them.

“The light is very bright and pleasant but the floor is unpolished,” the old player said.

The other player looked at him but did not answer. It was too late at night for conversation.

“You gonna hang around?” the player asked.

“No, thank you,” said the old player and went out. He disliked gyms such as those. A clean, well-lighted court was a very different thing. Now, without thinking further, he would go home to his room. He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it’s probably only insomnia. Many must have it.

[Hemingway]

A Beautiful Construction

Posted by Ian Levy on June 15, 2011 under Commentary | 5 Comments to Read

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Ian Levy is the author of Hickory High, a contributor to Indy Cornrows, and a part of The Two Man Game family. You can follow Ian on Twitter at @HickoryHigh.

Even with two days to process the end of the NBA Finals, I’m still in amazement. I’m amazed at what happened and how it happened. Most of all, I’m amazed at the composure displayed by the Mavericks’ throughout the series. At no point did they allow the circumstances to change what they intended to do or how they intended to do it. Inserting J.J. Barea into the starting lineup was not a rash decision or a frantic pushing of buttons. It was a calculated move that changed nothing except when certain player combinations were utilized. In a moment of weakness, I told my wife before Game 6 that I thought Dirk Nowitzki would need to score 40 for the Mavericks to win. Even after all I had watched the Mavericks accomplish this season, by constantly moving the ball until an open shot materialized, I still felt that at some point said formula would fizzle out, that it wouldn’t be enough to push them to their ultimate goal. The Mavericks were able to win, because for several stretches, Dirk Nowitzki was clearly the best player on the floor, and accomplished it without dominating the ball. I kept waiting for the “Dirk needs to touch the ball on every possession” offense, but it never happened. The Mavericks’ attack never wavered from their template, and they consistently got the job done.

Equal to my amazement at what the Mavericks were able to accomplish, has been my frustration at how the series is being described by many in the media. I was particularly infuriated by a post-game discussion between Magic Johnson and Mike Wilbon; both described the Mavericks’ victory as 10 players beating 3. Even as a Mavericks’ fan, I find that characterization incredibly offensive. In the most literal sense, this was a case of 11 beating 10, the actual number of players used by each team. To describe the Heat as a three-man team is unbelievably demeaning to the efforts of their entire roster. It’s true that their team is constructed so that the majority of their offensive production will come from LeBron, Wade and Bosh. It’s true that the Mavericks received greater contributions from a larger variety of players. But there is more — much more — to the Miami Heat than just those three players. Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem both had strong performances across the Finals. The Mavericks victory was an example of one team beating another. Every player, on both teams, had a hand in pushing their team to the NBA Finals.

The thing I think is most important to understand, is that this is true, independent of the outcome. Even if Miami had won the series, it still would have been a case of one team beating another, not a case of three star players overwhelming a patchwork arrangement of very good players. The Heat and the Mavericks were each built in different ways, but they are both teams, with five players on the floor at a time and seven reserves on the bench. The Mavericks’ victory is a victory for their players, organization and fans, not a victory for a template of roster assembly. They won because, for six games, they were the better team; not that their methods or motivations were more pure or virtuous.

Before the Finals started I wrote that this series represented a chance at redemption for several Mavericks players, ones who had no personal involvement with the letdown in 2006. Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and Peja Stojakovic each achieved a goal they’ve been chasing for years. I hope that this championship was made sweeter for each by the way the playoffs unfolded and the title was earned. A championship on a player’s resume is often viewed as tainted if it was won in mercenary style by an aging veteran. Kidd, Marion and Stojakovic each earned their jewelry; they didn’t sign with a team only to provide vocal support from the end of the bench. They may have had to change teams (in some cases several times) to win their first championship, but they didn’t tag along or catch a ride on anyone’s coattails. The Mavericks simply aren’t in the Finals, let along raising the Larry O’Brien Trophy, without the contributions of those three.

Most of my contributions to The Two Man Game this seen have been statistical in focus and flavor. I’ll leave you with a few statistical nuggets to chew on over the summer.

  • DeShawn Stevenson was absolutely lights out in the Finals, making 13 of 23, or 56.6% of his three-pointers. Who could have possible seen that coming? Oh, that’s right. I did.
  • Brendan Haywood’s injury opened up a hole in the Mavericks’ frontcourt rotation — a hole that was filled admirably by Brian Cardinal. He gave Dallas 30.3 minutes in the series, over which they outscored the Heat 71-68.
  • Tyson Chandler has received plenty of well-deserved praise for his efforts in the Finals. His performance, particularly on the offensive glass, was remarkable. When he was out of the game Dallas rebounded just 18.6% of their own misses. When Chandler was on the floor that number jumped to 27.0%.
  • One of John Hollinger’s Finals recaps mentioned that one of the reasons the Mavericks pursued Rick Carlisle was that statistical studies showed he had a tendency to give the most minutes to the most effective lineups. Seems like an obvious idea, perhaps one someone should have shared with Jim O’Brien. I wanted to see if that held true for the Finals. The easiest way to do this was to a run a correlation between the Net Rating for each unit and the number of minutes they played together. However, this creates some sample size problems for units that only played together briefly. To weight the totals I just multiplied the Net Rating for each unit by the minutes played, then ran a correlation between that total and the minutes played. The Mavericks had a 0.692 correlation between the effectiveness of the unit and their minutes played. For the Heat it was a -0.177. Saying Carlisle managed his rotations well is a huge understatement.

On a personal note, it’s been a pleasure to write about the Dallas Mavericks this season at The Two Man Game. I’m a Pacers’ fan at heart, and adopting the Mavericks with Rob’s invitation to start contributing here, felt strangely unnatural. However, watching a team on a nightly basis gives you an appreciation and attachment that can be gained no other way. I’m thrilled for the Mavericks organization. They earned everything they’ve accomplished this season, and it was a joy to watch. I’m also thrilled for Mavericks’ fans, a group of which I am proud to be a part of.

The Difference: Dallas Mavericks 112, Miami Heat 103

Posted by Rob Mahoney on June 10, 2011 under Recaps | 5 Comments to Read

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Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas86.0130.265.930.412.912.8
Miami119.858.630.029.018.6

You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.

  • One more. That’s all that stands between Dallas and the prize the Dallas Mavericks were never supposed to win, between Dirk Nowitzki and the validation that players like him supposedly didn’t have in them to secure. The Mavs’ insane shooting performance was an outlier, but one that has changed the series and can never be reversed. One could yap all day about sustainability, but nothing in that chatter can reverse what has been stone, or push Dallas from the brink of the title. There’s still so much left to be accomplished — stealing another game in Miami will be no easy feat — but Dallas’ versatility should give them reason for optimism. This was the first game in the Finals when the Mavericks actually shot well, and though plenty of that shooting was against good defensive coverage, there is value in the fact that two wins were earned without consistently competent offense. The Mavs can’t again afford the defensive breakdowns they suffered in Game 5, but they likely won’t have to. Dallas will tweak and adjust. Rick Carlisle will have them ready to roll, and iron out the wrinkles. They haven’t won their championship yet, but they’ll be ready to close in Miami, and the defense will undoubtedly execute at the level we’ve come to expect.
  • The Mavs’ pick-and-roll defense will have to improve. Miami finally started hitting the roll man in the fourth quarter — either directly or through a preliminary pass to the other big — and Dallas really struggled to contest that action with such heavy pressure being committed to Miami’s ball-handlers. The Mavs have the right idea in walling off Dwyane Wade and LeBron James as they come around screens, but that kind of coverage naturally leaves the roll man open as a release. Dallas has been great about covering that roll man and the other big simultaneously, but that pick-and-roll action broke through for Miami in a big way down the stretch. Dirk Nowitzki, who has quietly had a tremendous defensive series, really struggled in that regard. Tyson Chandler does a fantastic job of hedging Wade and James away from drives, but Nowitzki has to be able to cover the back line when he does so.
  • J.J. Barea continued the playoff run of his life, albeit after a few hiccups. Say what you will about his height, but when Barea is able to tuck behind screens and connect on his threes, he’s an insanely tough cover. Once that shot starts to go, the middle of the floor tends to open up even more for Barea, and in Game 5 he was able to penetrate and create great looks time and time again. Barea very nearly usurped Jason Terry’s sacred role as a closer, but was pulled, and Terry went on to hit several big shots down the stretch. I guess J.J. will have to settle for merely being the unstoppable force that pushed the Mavs to the brink of the NBA title with his ability to create off the dribble, his fantastic shooting, and his smart decision making.
  • Dwyane Wade is injured, but on that matter I share an opinion with Jason Terry; when Wade is on the floor, he’s a threat. Period. He may be ailing, but he’s still plenty capable of torching the Mavs, and he scored 10 points on 3-of-6 shooting in the fourth quarter to prove it. I’m sure that whatever Wade is experiencing with his hip isn’t pleasant, but basketball fans should know the terrors that Wade can bring for opposing teams. The Heat have their backs against the wall, Wade will have time for treatment and recovery, and Dwyane Wade is still Dwyane Wade. His offensive performance in this game was nothing to scoff at, and Game 6 will only bring more drives, more shots, and more defense to contend with.
  • Brendan Haywood was again inactive, and Tyson Chandler again managed to stay on the floor and function as one of the Mavs’ best players. Chandler only scored two points in the second half, but he finished with 11 overall, a product of his aggressive rolls to the rim and ability to make himself into a big, accessible target. Chandler’s teammates fully understand just how much of an offensive weapon he can be, and though Miami attacked Dallas’ pick-and-roll action effectively in the second half, I shouldn’t need to preach the value of that forced adjustment. Chandler’s success opened up more room for Nowitzki, Barea, and Terry, and conveniently exemplified Chandler’s underrated offensive impact. The fact that Dallas consistently performs better offensively with Chandler on the floor is no coincidence; he may not be a threat to go to work from the low block, but Chandler creates legitimate opportunities just by setting hard screens and rolling to the rim.
  • Much has been (and will forever be) made of LeBron James’ alleged disappearance in this series, but I thought he had a rather decent performance in Game 5. The Finals just aren’t a stage conducive to decent performances, and with a player of James’ standout caliber, we expect better. It’s not absurd to expect James to be the best player on the floor, and from that perspective — the one he’s created by being the best in most every other setting but this one — James has surely disappointed. Still, let’s not lump James’ Game 5 performance with Game 4; he was hardly transcendent on Thursday night, but he was much more focused offensively than in his infamous Game 4 letdown.
  • On a related note: James was right in his post-game assessment of the Heat’s performance. Miami played well enough to win this game, they just didn’t have a means to counter Dallas’ incredible shooting. The Heat’s defense was unquestionably their weaker link; though LeBron’s numbers may not be as gaudy as we like, it was the defensive breakdowns that led to Chandler dunks, wide open three-pointers, Barea drives, and some oddly open opportunities for Nowitzki. The Mavs’ accuracy — even in the face of good defensive pressure — may have put them over the top, but it was those breakdowns in coverage that led to shots around the rim that really doomed the Heat.
  • Almost 18 combined minutes for Ian Mahinmi and Brian Cardinal, but Dallas survived. Neither of those players is a preferred member of the regular rotation, but the circumstances of the series have dictated that they play. So they play. Mahinmi does his best to function as a substitute Haywood, and Cardinal takes his open shots and tries to get in a position to draw charges. Neither was tremendously successful in Game 5, but they also didn’t kill the Mavs — an underrated value for any situational player. Mahinmi and Cardinal can’t be expected to produce like regulars because they flat-out aren’t regulars; they don’t have the skill nor the experience at this stage to produce as Haywood or Stojakovic potentially could, but they’re the most sensible options with Haywood ruled out and Peja burned out.
  • By the way, Dirk Nowitzki had 29 points on 18 shots. Just thought I’d sneak that in there.

The Difference: Dallas Mavericks 86, Miami Heat 83

Posted by Rob Mahoney on June 8, 2011 under Recaps | 10 Comments to Read

Screen shot 2011-06-08 at 11.20.15 AM

Box Score — Play-by-Play — Shot Chart — GameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas82.0104.942.532.929.313.4
Miami101.244.022.734.115.9

You know the drill. The Difference is a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin.

  • Rick Carlisle tweaked his rotation, and the three Mavs involved — J.J. Barea (eight points, 3-9 FG, four assists), DeShawn Stevenson (11 points, 3-7 3FG), and Shawn Marion (16 points, 7-12 FG, four rebounds) — each had their best games of the series as a result. Not only has Carlisle done a great job of balancing a micro-managing style with the release of control (when he lets the Mavs “just play basketball,” or execute their “flow game,”), but he’s pressed the right buttons in every damn series thus far. Starting Barea as a means to eliminate Peja Stojakovic from the rotation while still keeping Brian Cardinal’s minutes down was actually rather inspired, and though Barea hadn’t really played well in the first three games of the Finals, he was able to accomplish some good things in Game 4 — even as he shot just 3-of-9 from the field. If Carlisle was given the option for Barea to get the same looks and same penetration again in Game 5, I think he’d take it in a heartbeat; Barea worked to create quality shots, but makes just weren’t in the cards this time. Stevenson played an effective game, too, so long as we forget about his horrible, bone-headed foul on Chris Bosh. His 11 points and ability to space the floor were invaluable considering Dirk Nowitzki’s limitations, and Stevenson was an active participant in the zone defense that shut Miami down in the fourth quarter. And then we come to Marion, who had his third game in the series with 16 or more points, and accomplished that much in just 26 minutes — by far his lowest minute total for the Finals. Dallas had leaned too heavily on Marion in the first three games of the series, and while 26 minutes will hardly be the norm from here on out, we should expect more reasonable levels of playing time than the 41+ minutes Marion played in Games 2 and 3.
  • Dallas continued in their remarkable defense against LeBron James (eight points, 3-11 FG, nine rebounds, seven assists, four turnovers), but what of Dwyane Wade ()? There’s only so much one can do to curtail scorers in isolation, especially those with the handle, speed, and vision that Wade almost unfairly possesses. He can get himself out of trouble so quickly that overt doubling presents serious problems, and yet the Mavs’ man defense can only do so much to contain him. I don’t feel like Marion, Stevenson, and Kidd did a poor job against Wade in Game 4; in many cases they played him well, and Tyson Chandler was there with the help. Wade is just too damn good at what he does, and he torched the Mavs to the tune of 32 points on 20 shots. Wade very nearly deflected some of the ill will aimed at LeBron for his horribly underwhelming performance, but a loss is a loss, and when the Heat are downed it’s often James that’s left to answer for it. I’d be very interested to see how the shift in the narrative had Wade made a single free throw or made a few more buckets, but Dallas winning with clutch execution while Wade shorts a freebie comes with its own narrative power.
  • Tyson Chandler (13 points, 16 rebounds, nine offensive boards) was a monster, and while plenty will praise him for his relentlessness, I’ve come to praise him for his restraint. Dallas has only remained competitive in this series because of Chandler, and more specifically, because Chandler has avoided foul trouble. The offensive rebounds and put-backs are fantastic, but they’re products of Chandler being on the floor in the first place, something which should in no way be assumed. Carlisle will play Chandler if he can, but foul trouble placed an artificial limit on Chandler’s minutes all season long, and was expected to play a role in one playoff series or another. It hasn’t. Whether defending LaMarcus Aldridge, Andrew Bynum, or Pau Gasol — or somehow protecting the rim from the likes of Wade and James while guarding Bosh — Chandler has kept his fouls down and stayed in the game. Chandler played 43 minutes of fully charged basketball on Tuesday night, and though his motor deserves unending praise, I’m more impressed than ever with Chandler’s ability to cut down on those tempting cheap fouls that got him in trouble so often.

Scene Stealing

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 27, 2011 under Commentary | Read the First Comment

Over at The New York Times’ Off the Dribble blog, I took a closer look at three “minor” matchups that could make a significant difference in shaping the Finals. Take a peek:

J.J. Barea vs. Joel Anthony/Udonis Haslem/Chris Bosh

Miami has amazing elasticity in defending the high screen-and-roll; bigs like Anthony, Haslem, and Bosh are so mobile and so active that they’re able to hedge and recover quickly, so much so that according to Synergy Sports Technology, the Heat held the Bulls to a crippling 0.27 points per possession on pick-and-rolls in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and have held opponents to just .70 points per possession on pick-and-rolls in the playoffs overall. Derrick Rose was thwarted in his attempts to use his pet screens at the top of the key, and the Heat defense limited the league’s most valuable player to an inefficient and ineffective offensive series thanks to their mobility up front.

Those bigs are likely to be assets in the Finals as well, as J.J. Barea -– the Mavericks’ lightning quick backup point guard -– has diced every defense he’s seen in these playoffs by milking high screen-and-roll action for all it’s worth.

Yet before we immediately assume that the Heat will handcuff Barea, consider this: Dirk Nowitzki is Barea’s most common pick-and-roll partner, and he’s a deadlier threat in space than any of the screening bigs Miami has contended with so far. Recovering quickly may not be enough; the combination of Barea’s quickness (and cleverness) and Nowitzki’s ability to score from anywhere on the floor could still open up all kinds of opportunities, and it’s up to the vaunted Heat defense to close off those options.

Head on over to Off the Dribble to check out the other highlighted matchups.

All the Difference

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 26, 2011 under Commentary | 20 Comments to Read

Screen shot 2011-05-26 at 10.50.57 AM

You know the drill. The Difference is, under most normal circumstances, a reflection on the game that was, with one bullet for every point in the final margin. These are not normal circumstances.

Jason Terry is holding court in the Mavericks’ locker room, just as he always does, but the swath of reporters that typically surrounds him is not a swath. It’s a sea. It feeds endlessly into waves of cameras and recorders. Ian Mahinmi can be seen across the room, clad in only a towel, holding his arms up above it all as he attempts to pass through — literally wading through the gulf that now stands between him and his own locker.

It’s not surprising that such a contingent has flooded around Terry. He’s become a mouthpiece of sorts for the organization, a quotable commodity that has become even more valuable to soundbite-seekers with Mark Cuban uncharacteristically silent. JET’s statements come pre-packaged for journalistic use, with just the right amount of bravado, insight, and cliché. He’s a talker. This is just what he does. The regulars that follow the team know it, and apparently so do all of the other reporters and cameramen who have seemingly come up through the woodwork. Terry sits, fielding question after question after question, and responding with the punch of a veteran politician. Or maybe just a veteran ballplayer, but with all of the noncommittal responses, who can tell the difference?

Terry, J.J. Barea, and Brendan Haywood comprise the first wave of available Mavs. Barea draws his own sizable crowd of English and Spanish-speaking media, but one media member can be heard telling her cameraman partner to get in position for “Barrera.” Picking apart defenses en route to the NBA Finals may have earned Barea nation-wide respect (or detest, depending on your point of view, I suppose), but it does not, apparently, ensure the correct pronunciation of his name. This might be the first time he’s been called “Barrera,” since being crowned a Western Conference champion, but it’s only a precursor for the frequent pronuncial butcherings to come.

Oddly, Brendan Haywood doesn’t have all that much going on around his locker, despite the fact that he’s perhaps every bit as quotable as Terry. The distinction may lie in the fact that Haywood is more truth-teller than politician; his words draw interest when they’re seen as having the potential to incite conflict, but otherwise, he’s just a back-up center doing what he can to dissect and explain the world around him.

Haywood has been characterized by perceived sulking or brooding over his last season and a half in Dallas, but he’s understandably easy in moments like this one. He talks about wanting to be the back-up center on a team headed to the Finals rather than relishing in a role with more playing time or more touches. He jokes candidly about his words being taken out of their original context prior to Game 5, words which he notes as being more light-hearted than they appeared in text. He’s not just a flagrant fouling machine, but an interesting — if occasionally abrasive, for better and worse — voice within the team. He’s just buried beneath Terry’s charisma, Dirk Nowitzki’s quiet charm, and Jason Kidd’s veneration. Haywood may not always give some writers exactly what they want to hear for their pre-penned stories, but if you ask the right questions and listen closely, Haywood has a lot to offer.

But his smaller scrum naturally drifts into a group waiting for Tyson Chandler — the bigger star, the bigger name, the bigger personality. Haywood waits in his chair to answer the questions of the stragglers, but what may have once belonged to him now belongs to Chandler. Dozens of media members wait around Chandler’s empty locker, chattering amongst themselves in lieu of chatting with Haywood, or DeShawn Stevenson — who stands shirtless at his locker speaking with media members, wearing a scowl of sorts until the word “Finals” lets escape a slight smile — or Brian Cardinal — who dresses in front of his locker undisturbed save one man with no recorder — or Peja Stojakovic — who has a smirk plastered to his face, perhaps making him as one-dimensional in the locker room as he is on the court. The boxing out around the locker of a prominent player isn’t so different from what goes on in the regular season, but it’s all a bit more deliberate; rather than float aimlessly in the vicinity of a particular locker, now the camps are set. Ladders are deployed and cameras are at the ready, all positioned around an empty locker.

Shawn Marion field questions while wearing shades with orange lenses, and talks of the Mavs’ stomachs being “three-fourths full.” Whether he knows it or not, LeBron James is already in and on his mind, even as he goes on to mention that he doesn’t care who Dallas will face in the series to come. Regardless, Marion sees a world in warm tones and unintentionally borrowed analogies.

He politely answers the same question, posed repeatedly with only slightly altered structure. One would think that there are only so many ways to ask Marion about the significance of the Mavs’ experience, but a few tweaked words apparently qualifies as an entirely new question to some. Marion tries his best to make each answer unique, but all of his words begin to bleed together. Even a character like Marion is made a bit repetitive by way of an absurd, redundant media presence.

Marion lifts his glasses as he talks about the Mavs’ belief in themselves, a trust in a system and team that he says has never wavered. He doesn’t stare into space as he dispenses canned confidence, but looks at virtually each media member directly. He wants you to know this. He wants you to know that the Mavs believed, through the regular season and Caron Butler’s injury, through the sprints and slogs, through the first and second rounds that they weren’t supposed to win. The shades will eventually come back down, but Marion’s insistence on that belief does not.

Nothing has changed…in a sense. Dallas believes in their championship hopes as much now as they did on Media Day. Yet to ignore the fundamental difference in the atmosphere both on the floor and within the belly of the American Airlines Center is foolish. There is a discernible difference, even if it exists most obviously in the cosmetics of media prevalence. The players don’t just talk of big games, but have lived them. We all dispense of hypotheticals, because in a most improbable scenario, the Dallas Mavericks are the first team in the NBA Finals. Things aren’t the same. They can’t be, and never will be again. There is a fundamental difference between today and yesterday, between the playoffs and the regular season, between this Mavericks team and the one we saw over 82 games. It may not be drastic, but this is more than just a step in a process for those same Mavs that started the season so full of hope.

Jason Terry still fields questions roughly a half-hour later, and the ocean across the locker room remains. But Dirk dresses quietly — the space around his locker is perhaps the only few feet without a recording device or probing reporter. He prepares for his press conference facing his locker, and more poetically, facing the picture of the Larry O’Brien trophy that hangs within it. Terry, Nowitzki’s locker room neighbor, has the same picture hanging in his, undoubtedly as a reminder of what was nearly theirs, and now what nearly is again.

Haywood remarks about Dirk’s black shirt — “Johnny Cash!” — and then Nowitzki departs to a walk of waves and nods on his way to the interview room, which is naturally full to the brim with even more cameras and recorders and media members. What came from the sea has returned to the sea.

At the stand, Nowitzki rambles a bit, launching into the exhaustive answers that have practically become his trademark. Nowitzki is many things to many people, but after games he is hardly pithy. The hyper-efficient Dirk and the one sitting, leaned back and clutching the mic as he stares through the table and rattles off answers, are somehow one in the same.

With his press conference duties fulfilled, Nowitzki finally escapes…to one more set of media members, though this group speaking his native tongue. Nowitzki and his counterpart walk the halls of the AAC, as Dirk pushes the hair behind his ears. He probably tugged at the upper left side of his imaginary jersey, too, completing the routine for this one last free throw. I imagine it’s hard to keep gait with toes pointed inward and knees bent ever so slightly, but there’s no question that Dirk’s eyes are focused on completing this one final task before he can breathe easy.

Dirk finally makes his way toward the garage, where only he and his police escort will go. His walk is slow, but not heavy; there’s no lightness, but only deliberation. He marches, but somehow does so without the slightest rigidity. As they trail off down the hall, talking and laughing along the way, Nowitzki finally finds respite. In that moment, he offers himself the slightest concession. To this point, nothing in Nowitzki’s actions or words has suggested celebration. He answered questions with the same standard tone, acknowledged fans with the same humility, and even escaped before the presentation of the Western Conference Championship trophy had fully concluded. Yet as he and the officer round the corner into the garage, Nowitzki indulges in a single and final celebratory act: a subtle high five, a prize worthy of a conference champion looking to accomplish so much more.