The Difference: Dallas Mavericks 98, Los Angeles Lakers 92

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 7, 2011 under Recaps | 10 Comments to Read

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Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas82.0119.555.235.825.014.6
Los Angeles112.249.413.429.512.2

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

  • I did not even remotely anticipate having to tell Mavs fans to take deep breaths for all of the best reasons after the first three games in this series, but here we are. Inhale. Exhale. Never underestimate the heart of a chicken before it hatches in the cart before the horse, and all that. Dallas is in a great, great place — a greater place than one could possibly have imagined coming into this series — but just for the sake of finality, let’s see what happens in the remainder of this series before we start looking forward to who the Mavs may potentially meet in later rounds. Celebrate the first three wins and praise the Mavs for this incredible accomplishment, but be patient and be mindful of the opponent at hand. Dallas has certainly been the better team in this series, but L.A. isn’t quite finished yet.
  • It’s adorable to watch the entire country appreciate Dirk Nowitzki (32 points, 12-19 FG, 4-5 3FG, nine rebounds) as if he were a great novelty rather than an established wonder. Yes, he’s that good. Yes, pretty much all the time. It’s terrific that Dirk’s public narrative is being rewritten with every big shot and every heady play, but really, it never should have come to that. The degree of diametric star-praising and star-targeting that goes on by NBA analysts is absurd. There is room for shades of gray; every Maverick loss isn’t an indictment of Nowitzki’s heart or toughness or ability, just as every win isn’t necessarily an affirmation (though due to just how fantastic Dirk is, this is largely the case). There’s plenty more nuance to the game than the goings on in the superstar strata, and while I’d be the first to tell you that Nowitzki is a truly phenomenal player, I’d also be the first to remind that playoff success is inherently a team accomplishment. We use rings and playoff wins to gauge the careers of individual players against each other, but the Mavericks’ shortcomings over the years have not been part and parcel to Dirk’s. He’s had some bad games now and again. Perhaps he struggled in this series or that. Yet overall, Nowitzki is one of the top playoff performers of the modern era and of all time, and while I’m happy to see the narrative turn, the root of the problem that bizarrely diminished the postseason repute of one of the game’s top performers still exists. Think for yourselves and evaluate for yourselves — stories from the ether are great, but the best antidote for over-the-top narrative exaggeration is our own capacity to reason.
  • From ESPN Stats and Information: “Dirk Nowitzki finished with 32 points on 12-for-19 shooting from the floor as he notched his 10th straight playoff game with 20 or more points. Nowitzki feasted on Pau Gasol offensively as 27 of his 32 points came while being guarded by Gasol. This is not a huge surprise as Nowitzki is 19-of-25 from the floor for 45 points against Gasol this series.” On the flip side, Nowitzki has done a tremendous job of defending Gasol in this series. Dirk held a clear matchup advantage, but I had assumed there would naturally be a little more give to balance Dirk’s take. Hasn’t been the case so far, and as much as we can blame Gasol’s complacency on offense and whatnot, Nowitzki has been there, denying post position, battling on the back-down, challenging everything, and finishing the play with a box out.
  • L.A. benefited from a great performance by Andrew Bynum, a more efficient night from Kobe, and Lamar Odom’s best showing in the series thus far — and still lost by a 7.3 efficiency differential. The Laker offense performed well — perhaps even well enough to win — but no one in this series can even attempt to guard Dirk Nowitzki effectively, nor defend the Mavs on the whole. Dallas has executed relentlessly on offense in this series. All of the blown pick-and-roll coverage, the inability to cover the corner man after a swing pass, the confusion in rotation? That’s all coming because the Mavs are pressing precisely the right buttons to make the Laker defense squirm. Dallas has the personnel and the ball movement necessary to really create problems for L.A.’s D, independent of the Lakers’ effort or execution. Dallas’ offense is just rolling right now because the ball-handlers continue to make smart decisions and those moving off the ball are cutting hard. The Lakers are a step behind, rotating late and getting stuck in coverage, and frankly incapable of keeping up with the extra pass at this point. That final swing, kick-out, or dump-down is what has broken the Lakers’ backs in this series, and it should offer Rick Carlisle such sweet relief to see his team working and working and working through every possession while the opponents share looks of exasperation.
  • Peja Stojakovic (15 points, 5-11 FG, 3-7 3FG) is everything the Mavs had hoped he would be, and while his outside shooting was great, his defense was just as important. Stojakovic refused to be exploited; whether guarding Kobe off the dribble or Odom in the post, he did a terrific job of challenging shots to the best of his ability. Had Peja’s defense not held, today could look very different for both teams; Shawn Marion (two points, 1-7 FG, eight rebounds) wasn’t exactly on the top of his game, and Stojakovic was able to act as a key cog in Dallas’ perimeter attack because his defense allowed him to stay on the floor. Peja nailed so many big shots in this game, but he was only able to because of the big stops he earned on the other.
  • As of right now, Jason Terry is averaging a 21.0 PER for this year’s playoffs, the highest mark of his career. He’s dropping 16.8 points per game (with the sandbagging pace of the Portland series keeping the numbers reasonable) on 49.1 percent shooting. He’s posting his highest playoff true shooting percentage since 2005. It’s not quite right to say that this is the Jason Terry of old, because honestly, this version is better. As fantastic as it is to see JET’s jumper falling again, what has impressed me even more (in both this series and the previous one) has been Terry’s unwillingness to settle. He’s driving to the hoop more often and more effectively than he has at any point during his career, and it’s those baseline drives and runners in the paint that have taken his efficiency to new heights…along with the fact that, yeah, he’s just hitting more shots more often. Bravo on both counts, JET.

Summit Push

Posted by Ian Levy on May 6, 2011 under Commentary | Be the First to Comment

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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. 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 story of the Mavericks-Lakers series has already undergone a significant rewrite. In Game 1, the Mavericks applied white-out with surgical precision, erasing a seven-point deficit in the fourth quarter to steal a win. They continued their editing in Game 2 using broad strokes of liquid-paper, and erased presumed Laker advantages in propelling themselves to a convincing 12-point win on the road. Both teams will be looking to retake control of the narrative in Game 3 tonight. Even with the next two games being played in Dallas, one would be a fool to not anticipate a tightening of the series. The series should be expected to be closer the rest of the way…but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for Dallas.

The Mavericks were 18-9 this season in games decided by five points or less. We’ve looked at their performance in the clutch this season at least once before; they were simply one of the best in the league at making the plays needed to pull out a win in hard fought contests. Obviously the Mavs would prefer not to play the Lakers down to the wire, but have to feel confident about their ability to win in such situations should they arise.

The Lakers are in a slightly different situation. Their performance in crunch time has been a persistent topic of discussion this season, specifically due to L.A.’s reliance on Kobe Bryant. Observation and precedent tell us he’s a crunch time all-star and one of the best closers the game has ever seen. Statistics tell a slightly different story. Kobe scores a lot in crunch time situations, but not very efficiently. He averages more assists, but only because he uses more possessions. Relative to shot attempts and turnovers, Kobe isn’t any more likely to share the ball at the end of the game as he is at any other point.

Los Angeles has just two players who have been very efficient in clutch situations this season, and neither is Kobe Bryant. Lamar Odom shot 61.5% in the clutch, Pau Gasol 46.3%. Luckily for the Mavericks, those two players averaged a combined 26.7 FGA/48 in the clutch, while Kobe alone shot 40.2% and averaged 38.8 FGA/48. When you factor in a combined 22.2 FGA/48 in the clutch for Ron Artest and Derek Fisher — who shot 30.8% and 31.3% respectively in such situations — the Mavericks have to feel pretty confident about their ability to outscore the Lakers in late-game scenarios.

I’m sure many of you are sick of this the ongoing debate over Kobe’s clutch performance, but my apologies — I’m not quite done with it. I’m certainly not the first to point this out, but shot selection is a huge factor in his inefficiency. The table below shows the percentage of Kobe’s shots which have come from each location over the past five seasons.

SeasonAt the Rim<10ft.10-15ft.16-23ft.3PTFTA/FGA
200722.4%6.8%10.9%36.7%22.7%0.437
200824.8%7.2%10.2%32.0%24.6%0.439
200920.9%10.5%15.2%33.4%19.6%0.329
201022.6%10.8%18.6%28.0%19.2%0.345
201117.4%15.4%15.9%29.6%21.7%0.356

Kobe is taking roughly the same percentage of his shots from inside of 10 feet. The difference is that a much smaller percentage of them are coming right at the rim; Bryant is more and more reliant on his jumpshooting, which makes him much easier to defend effectively late in games. What makes Kobe so theoretically dangerous is the sheer number of ways that he can punish defenders, but 48,235 career minutes played over 14 seasons have taken some of those options away.

In late-game situations, Kobe’s shot distribution becomes even more rigid. This second table shows his shot breakdown in clutch situations for this regular season, and the small sample from this year’s playoffs:

At the Rim<10ft.10-15ft.16-23ft.3PTFTA/FGA
Regular Season14.0%13.4%14.6%29.9%28.0%0.476
Playoffs15.4%7.7%30.8%15.4%30.8%0.154

He’s certainly confident in his ability to win games with mid-range jumpers. Still, that patter of decision making has made the job of the defense that much easier. Many have credited Bryant’s supreme confidence as the key to his perceived success in the clutch, but oddly enough, the only way for Bryant to break a cycle of inefficiency is to relinquish his ultimate alpha status. Does anyone think that’s a realistic possibility right now? It may be in the future, but I have to imagine it would take significant failure to prepare him for that mental transition.

Despite Kobe’s relative inefficiency in clutch situations, the formula has continued to work for the Lakers, a fact no APBRmetrician can argue with. But it won’t work forever. With the inevitable age-related decline of his athletic abilities, there’s not much Kobe can do to change his shot distribution and maintain a semblance of efficiency. We know where Kobe’s story is going because frankly, the nature of aging doesn’t allow for it to unfold any other way. Bryant’s ability to push the Lakers to victory with contested crunch time jumpers can’t persist forever, and though the critical turning point in L.A.’s late-game performance may still be a ways off, it feels closer than ever.

All It Took

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 4, 2011 under Commentary | 2 Comments to Read

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I remain utterly convinced that no single factor — not Dirk Nowitzki in all of his clutch glory, not Jason Terry’s offensive contributions, not Corey Brewer’s stint as a difference-maker, or any other — made more of a profound impact on the result of Game 1 than the defensive play of Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood.

Chandler’s negation of Andrew Bynum was a tremendous accomplishment in itself. After all, rebuking a potential double-double does a lot for Dallas’ bottom line, and the efficiency with which Bynum typically operates would have tipped the scales considerably in L.A.’s favor. But more important than any direct impact that Chandler (and Haywood, to give credit where credit’s due) could provide was a subtle nudge.

The Lakers are never lacking in ability. They have production on all fronts, a fully functional defense, leadership, strong coaching, bench production, size, length, the whole shebang. L.A. very much has it all, and their two straight titles did not come by coincidence. Yet along with their considerable ability comes a bit of pride and a bit of laziness, and though it’s difficult for opposing teams to harness those weaknesses against the Lakers on a whim, it’s more than a bit helpful when L.A. does manage to turn against itself. It’s hard to say that the Lakers were their own worst enemy or somesuch in Game 1, but at times, they certainly worked to their own disadvantage. Once Chandler managed to defend Bynum successfully in the post and Gasol floated outward a bit, the Laker guards didn’t make the continued effort to establish an offensive rhythm through the two true conduits of the triangle. Having a post-centered offense requires much more diligence than most understand, and Game 1 was a perfect example of what can happen when a fully capable team shifts away from its very design.

L.A. still competed. They nearly won, too, because frankly, they have the talent to do so. Kobe Bryant played some sensational basketball, and connected on jumper after jumper with Maverick defenders in his face. He also showcased his abilities as a short-term fix when the Lakers needed a long-term solution; Bryant can keep the offense afloat all on his own, but without Bynum and Gasol attacking the interior, drawing fouls, and luring double teams, the Lakers are imminently beatable. Sometimes all it takes is the slightest nudge — a few stops or a few turnovers — to force Bryant and his teammates into a misread. Kobe becomes a bit too focal in the Laker offense, the player movement begins to stagnate, and the activity on the offensive glass comes to a halt. It’s as much Bryant’s fault as it is any other Laker’s, but L.A.’s occasional stagnation is a real, recurring problem. In Game 1, that problem was triggered by Tyson Chandler’s defense.

The Lakers will return tonight with attempts to run their offense as usual, and things will almost certainly be different than they were in Game 1. Still, L.A. remains vulnerable to the very same nudge. Perhaps Chandler can repeat his performance and lock down the low post. Maybe the Mavs will continue to release off of Ron Artest at times, and attempt to disrupt the Laker offense through him. Maybe Shawn Marion can force Bryant into not only missing, but taking tough shots that throw the Lakers out of their desired rhythm.

Then again, perhaps even with a successful push from the triangle, Kobe will bounce back to drop 40 and completely demolish everything that the Mavs could even hope to accomplish. All remain possibilities, but none should change the priority of testing the Lakers’ patience.

The Difference: Dallas Mavericks 96, Los Angeles Lakers 94

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 3, 2011 under Recaps | 9 Comments to Read

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Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas89.0107.955.111.413.212.4
Los Angeles105.645.820.223.912.4

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

  • The lines that separate outcomes — and naturally, the perception, reaction, and emotion that accompany them — are so very, very thin. It’s appropriate to say that Dallas “stole” or “escaped with” Game 1. There was so much potential for success and failure in that 48 minutes; the bounce of a ball and the sound of a whistle swayed the very existence of two entire basketball teams, two entire franchises, two entire fan bases. It’s after games like these that we’re compelled to look at singular plays to determine where things went right and where they went wrong, but the slim margin of victory gives even more of a reason than ever to look for that which brought sustained success. Don’t over-analyze Dirk Nowitzki’s drawn foul to give Dallas their go-ahead points, but the way he maneuvered in space throughout the game to create passing lanes and shooting angles. Don’t get too excited about Jason Kidd’s defensive disruption in the clutch, but embrace the strong interior defense that somehow made Andrew Bynum a non-factor. The Mavs didn’t win Game 1 because they hit big shots or made big stops. They won because of consistent execution. They won because of patience. They won because even when the passes were errant and the shots were drawing iron, they continued to run their sets and cut hard and work toward quality shots. They won because Kobe Bryant, while brilliant, attempted 29 shots without attempting a single layup or dunk. Every play matters, but strings of plays simply matter more. Those trends in play that matter more than any single element of the game ever could, even though the inherent anxiety of an endgame situation lends it a bloated importance.
  • It’s safe to say that neither team has played its best game, but the Mavs developed an incredible offensive rhythm. The overall ball movement was spectacular; ball-handlers were only bottled late into the shot clock on a few occasions, and the otherwise crisp passing got the ball into the hands of a well-positioned scorer. The stagnation that leads to a completely Dirk-reliant offense was nowhere to be found, and while Nowitzki’s 28 points provided the foundation for Dallas’ offensive success, the Mavs’ flow didn’t rely on him to create every time down the floor. The Lakers had defensive breakdowns, but credit the Mavs for instigating them; those kinds of flaws are only evident if the offensive team creates situations to exploit them, and Dallas’ passing forced L.A. to adjust in ways that — on this night, anyway — they simply weren’t able. That the Mavs shot .450 from beyond the arc against one of the best three-point percentage defenses in the league isn’t indicative of some aberration, merely the fact that the Mavs worked to create open shot attempts and made an effort to establish their three-point shooters. The Lakers didn’t cover well, and nearly got away with it. Stay frosty. Dirk Nowitzki was unguardable, Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood played fantastic defense in the post, Shawn Marion and Jason Terry were engaged offensively, Corey Brewer played meaningful minutes, Jason Kidd made the right plays — and the Mavs won by a single bucket. A lot went right for Dallas in Game 1, which makes me curious to see how they function in the coming games when things aren’t going so smoothly. The Mavs weathered runs on Monday night, but I’m interested in seeing how they weather entire games; the micro-level in-game adjustments are fascinating, but only inevitable loss will bring an accurate measure of this team’s constitution and adaptability.

The Science of Zion

Posted by Ian Levy on May 1, 2011 under Commentary, Previews | Be the First to Comment

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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. 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 first task has been completed. Despite faltering for a few days, the Mavericks were able to regain focus and close out the Trail Blazers on the road in Portland.

In the end, the promise of the Blazers’ versatility fizzled. Only two of the 11 Blazers’ lineups that played more than 5 minutes finished the series with a positive Net Rating. One was The Longs, which never appeared again together after Game 2. The other was the Miller-Roy-Matthews-Wallace-Aldridge configuration. That lineup consistently hurt Dallas, but for some reason only saw 18 minutes of floor time over the course of the entire series.

The Mavericks can now turn their attention to what should be an epic duel with the Los Angeles Lakers. As has been pointed out literally everywhere (even NPR might be in on this one) this is the first playoff meeting between the Lakers and Mavericks since 1988. Two of the decade’s defining players, Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant, will finally square off when the stakes are the highest.

The Mavericks have tasted playoff success for the first time in years, and confidence will be high after dispatching a solid Trailblazers team in fairly convincing fashion. Still, the Lakers will be favored, as well they should be; L.A. took two out of three from Dallas in the regular season, winning the most recent pair of games by a combined 33 points.

Areas for Concern

At The Point Forward, Zach Lowe highlighted some of the heading into this series. At the top of his list: How does Dallas handle Kobe Bryant? Lowe is right that Kobe creates some problems for the Mavs; the only player in the rotation even remotely equipped to handle Kobe is Shawn Marion, and that matchup is still less than ideal. As Lowe points out, the answer may be finding some minutes for Corey Brewer, a solution which creates another set of problems at the offensive end.

I know this is sacrilege in some circles, but from a Maverick perspective, Kobe should perhaps invoke less fear than Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom. Going back to 2008, the Lakers are 50-23 in the playoffs, for a win percentage of 0.648. Over that same stretch, Kobe has attempted 25 or more shots in a game 23 times. The Lakers are 14-9 in those games, for a win percentage of 0.608. He shot 44.4% from the field and 34.7% on three-pointers in those games — good but not great numbers. The Lakers are at their best, and Kobe at his most efficient, when the offense is balanced. I would be fine with Kobe in hero-mode, taking 35 shots a game. But if the big men are involved, engaged and energetic on offense, opening the floor for Kobe and the rest of the perimeter players, things could get ugly for the Mavericks.

The value of Tyson Chandler on both ends of the floor as has been discussed in some detail in this space, and suffice it to say that Chandler’s defense and rebounding will be crucial to keeping Gasol, Bynum and Odom from running roughshod in the paint. In the regular season, opposing centers averaged 5.6 personal fouls per 48 minutes against the Lakers, as they tried desperately to stymie Gasol and Bynum. Chandler’s average was just 4.1 against the Lakers, a very promising sign. However, his longest streak of 30+ minute games this season was just five. He will probably need to replicate that in this series for the Mavericks to have a chance.

How Dallas shoots from beyond the arc is also going to play a significant role in determining the outcome of this series. The Mavericks made 36.5% of their three-pointers in the regular season, and shot 38.0% in their six games against the Trail Blazers. In their three games against the Lakers they shot just 32.4%. They made 11 of 18 from the corners, but went 11 of 50 from everywhere else behind the three-point line. They don’t need to hit 15 a game , but when left open, DeShawn Stevenson, Peja Stojakavic, Jason Terry and J.J. Barea have to knock down open threes.

Reasons for Optimism

The worst kept secret in the NBA is that the Lakers are vulnerable defensively at the point guard position. The table below shows the individual statistics the Lakers have allowed their opponents, broken down by position.

Lakers' Opponent Production by Position

PositioneFG%FGA/48Pts/48Ast/48PER
PG49.8%17.520.79.217.4
SG44.3%18.419.54.111.4
SF49.2%17.319.93.414.2
PF47.6%16.719.02.815.6
C48.0%14.016.32.715.8

Point guards score more and more efficiently against the Lakers than any other position. This presents both an opportunity and a challenge for the Mavericks.  Like everyone else, the Mavericks’ point guards were very effective against the Lakers in the regular season. Barea and Kidd posted an eFG% of 60.7% in the three regular season matchups. However, they combined for just 18.4 points per game because they averaged only 14 field goal attempts per contest. The Mavericks point guards are not aggressive scorers by nature, but if they can find some aspect of that assertion deep within themselves, they can take advantage of a rather large hole in the Lakers’ defensive front.

Rodrigue Beaubois played two games against the Lakers this season, and struggled mightily — going 3 of 15 from the field with 2 assists and 2 turnovers in just under 30 minutes of play. Recovering from a sprained foot, Beaubois missed all six games against in the first round, but is nearing a return to game action. He may not be 100%, and Rick Carlisle seems pretty confident with his guard rotation as is, so minutes may be scarce at first. Still, if Beaubois is healthy, he has the potential to create serious problems for L.A.; the Lakers simply can’t defend his speed and athleticism on a one-on-one basis.

Finally, if the Mavericks can keep the games close, they’ll always have a chance to steal one at the end with their crunch-time execution. According to 82games.com, Chandler, Marion and Terry all shoot 50.0% or better from the field in clutch situations. Kidd and Nowitzki shoot a modest 45.8% each in the clutch. Dallas played 27 games this season that were decided by 5 points or less, and won 18 of them (a win percentage of 0.667). Dallas has found ways to pull out close games all season, and while they’d prefer not to rely on their closing ability, but it’s not a bad fall-back plan.

Heard It Through the Grapevine

Posted by Rob Mahoney on April 30, 2011 under xOther | Be the First to Comment

Johnny Ludden, Yahoo Sports: In a lot of ways, Nowitzki is not unlike David Robinson before Tim Duncan joined his side. Robinson waded through the same torrent of criticism each year the Spurs went out early in the playoffs. Many times, it should have been an indictment on the supporting cast around him rather than his own shortcomings. The soft label has never really fit Nowitzki, no matter how many times someone tries to hang it on him. He plays tough. He plays clutch. This series offered more evidence. In three of the Mavs’ four victories, Nowitzki scored 18, 14 and 14 points in the fourth quarters. On Thursday, the Blazers’ Chris Johnson raked Nowitzki across the face, a flagrant foul that left Nowitzki sprawled on his back. After a few moments, Nowitzki picked himself, made both free throws then promptly stuck a step-back jump shot. The next time down the floor, he drove for a reverse layup. ‘Toughness doesn’t always mean throwing a punch back,” Chandler said. “It means getting up and going at ‘em even tougher. … Dirk got up. Instead of getting in some dumb altercation, he said, ‘All right, I’m going to punish you.’’”

Eddie Sefko, Dallas Morning News: “As the Mavericks were leaving the court after ending Portland’s season, some of the Blazer fans were understandably yelling at them. But the message wasn’t one of anger. ‘They were great,’ Dirk Nowitzki said of the fans. ‘When we won and were walking off the court, a lot of them were yelling ‘go beat LA.” The Mavericks will give that their best shot, of course, but they understand that it will not be easy. They went 1-2 against the Lakers in the regular season and everybody knows that beating the two-time defending champions is going to be a huge challenge.”

The Brothers Kamenetzky, Land O’ Lakers: “Zone Defense. The Mavs play a ton of it, and with a great deal of success and, unlike many other squads, a great deal of pride. Rick Carlisle has used it to take advantage of their frontcourt length and protect his smaller lineup, too, all with positive results. Dallas finished the season just behind the Lakers in defensive efficiency (102.3 points allowed per 100 possessions), and while they don’t dominate in any particular statistical category, the Mavs are a top 10 bunch in opponent’s field goal percentage, three point percentage, free throws allowed, and defensive rebounding percentage. The Lakers, a mediocre jump shooting team often too easily seduced into taking them, will need to show discipline offensively in attacking it.”

Read more of this article »

The Most _________ Player Award

Posted by Ian Levy on April 8, 2011 under Commentary | 2 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. 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 MVP debate has heated up with detailed defenses offered for several players, as well as plenty of commentary on the amorphous, shifting, and individualistic parameters used to define this award. Earlier this week, I shared my opinion on the MVP race at Hickory-High; my thought is that, with no consensus on the criteria for determining an MVP, there can be no definitive right or wrong answer. The discussion itself is then the crux of this whole affair. People from all sides seem to be wailing at the heavens over potential injustices yet to be meted out, instead of enjoying an opportunity for a rich and passionate exchange of ideas.

Towards the end of my piece, I admitted that I’m still not sure who I would vote for, were I lucky enough to be a part of the official process:

I don’t have a problem with Rose winning MVP. I’m not entirely convinced he’s the best choice, but it’s certainly not a travesty if he wins. I do have a problem with the vocal minority who have been arguing it’s a travesty if he doesn’t win. There is a reasonable argument to be made for Rose. I think there is also a reasonable argument to be made for Dirk, LeBron and Howard.

Argue your belief, passionately and completely. However, acknowledge that someone else may do the same and reach a perfectly reasonable, albeit different conclusion from your own. Enjoy the discourse and exchange of ideas. There is no wrong answer in this discussion. Except, of course, for Kobe Bryant. That guy is terrible.

Putting my money where my mouth is, I’m going to shamelessly pander to this audience and argue the case for Dirk Nowitzki. Respecting the spirit of my previous statements, I’m not here to say he is THE Most Valuable Player, rather that he is one of many valuable players with a legitimate claim at being the Most. I’ll lay out his case, and you can decide for yourself.

MVP profiles seem to fall into one of three categories, or occasionally, an amalgamation of some of the three. The first is a player with an overwhelming statistical profile (Think Shaquille O’Neal’s 29.7 PPG, 13.6 RPG, 3.8 APG, 3.0 BPG campaign in 2000). The second is a player who represents the defining storyline of the season, (Think Steve Nash and the “Seven Seconds or Less Suns” of 2005). The third is a player who, in apparent single-handed fashion, drags a collection of sub-par teammates to a spot among the league’s elite. The best recent example of this third type of candidate would be Allen Iverson in 2001.

Nowitzki’s season definitely doesn’t fit into the first category. The table below shows his per game averages from this season compared to the averages for the last 20 MVPs:

Pts/GReb/GAst/GStl/GBlk/GFG%FT%
Average MVP 1991-201026.68.75.41.51.350.6%79.2%
Dirk Nowitzki 201123.07.02.50.50.651.8%88.9%

Looking at these numbers, Nowitzki gets his foot in the door, but just barely. Clearly his MVP claim can’t be based on individual statistical achievements alone.

Nowitzki also isn’t going to win the award this season for sentimental reasons, or the nature of his narrative. Voters hungry for compelling storylines will find more sustenance with LeBron James struggling to overcome the negative backlash of his move to Miami, Derrick Rose pushing his game and his team to new heights and Dwight Howard holding the Magic together through a merry-go round of roster and lineup changes. I’d even wager that, a decade from now, more fans will remember what Kevin Love accomplished this season than the play of Dirk Nowitzki.

Nowitzki’s claim then, is based on the way he has pushed the Mavericks to achieve this season. In this regard, he is, at worst, on par with any other player in the league. The most commonly quoted statistic accompanying any mention of Nowitzki as an MVP is the team’s 2-7 record in the nine games he’s missed this season. Preferring instead to look at things in a positive light, I’ll rephrase that statistic and point out that the Mavericks have gone 51-17 with Nowitzki on the floor. That’s a win percentage of 75% — the highest win percentage of any of the MVP candidates’ teams in games they’ve played in.

  • Dirk Nowitzki – 75.0%
  • Kobe Bryant – 72.7%
  • Derrick Rose – 72.3%
  • LeBron James – 72.0%
  • Dwight Howard – 65.3%
  • Chris Paul – 57.3%

Every one of those players makes a huge impact for their team, but by win percentage, Nowitzki’s impact would seem to be the largest.

That’s not the only statistic that shows him as the most valuable to his team’s success, out of that group of players. The Mavericks have outperformed their Pythagorean Win projection by 5 games this season. The Spurs are the only other team in the league to outpace their Pythagorean Projection by at least 5 games. This fact is a testament, in part, to Nowitzki’s ability to make plays when they matter most. If I may indulge in an incomprehensible arrangement of words, Nowitzki’s performance in clutch situations has helped the Mavericks outperform their performance.

Nowitzki also has the second best Unadjusted On/Off Net Rating (the difference between the team’s Net Rating (ORtg-DRtg) when Nowitzki is on the floor vs. when he’s off the floor) in the league this season. In this category, he trails only Paul Pierce, but has a significant edge on each of the players we mentioned above.

  • Dirk Nowitzki: +16.00
  • Chris Paul: +12.77
  • LeBron James: +10.62
  • Dwight Howard: +7.87
  • Kobe Bryant: +5.62
  • Derrick Rose: +1.90

This statistic is certainly influenced by the quality of competition and the abilities of teammates and backups. Nowitzki is a starter and plays the majority of crunch-time minutes, so a bias based on quality of competition is a non-issue. The matter of the his teammates’ contributions actually seems like it helps Nowitzki’s case. The common argument against this type of measure is that a player’s numbers can be inflated by the play of inferior teammates. However, if Nowitzki’s numbers are inflated, it should only serve to decrease our opinion of his supporting cast — and make what Nowitzki has done this season that much more remarkable. Helping the Mavericks accomplish what they have with less than ideal help from teammates should increase our opinion of Nowitzki’s importance.

The arguments against Nowitzki are fairly obvious; people who favor individual statistical achievements or compelling storylines in their MVP evaluations will dismiss Nowitzki out of hand for not fitting into either. Additionally, those who disagree with Nowitzki’s candidacy (even based purely on impact) will argue that almost all of his damage is done at the offensive end of the floor. It’s a common refrain. It’s also wrong, and a bit irrelevant. Nowitzki wouldn’t be the first MVP — nor the last — whose contributions come primarily at one end of the floor. Plus, Nowitzki’s offensive contributions are among the most valuable in the league, and the idea that he is a non-factor at the defensive end is raking an extremely narrow view.

There are 13 players with a usage rate of at least 28% this season. Among them, Nowitzki has the lowest turnover rate, a full percentage point below Kevin Durant, at 9.2%. This means a greater portion of his possessions are used on scoring opportunities than anyone else in this group. That’s a good thing for the Mavericks, because he also leads this group in true shooting percentage (TS%) at 61.4%. In fact, Nowitzki is the most efficient offensive player of this group overall. I used the totals from Basketball-Reference to calculate the points per possession average for each player. The table below shows that information alongside each player’s usage and TS%:

MVP Offensive Efficiencies

PlayerUsg%TS%PPP
Kobe Bryant34.9%54.7%0.98
Derrick Rose32.9%54.4%0.96
Carmelo Anthony32.0%55.6%1.00
Dwyane Wade31.8%57.9%1.03
Russell Westbrook31.6%53.4%0.91
LeBron James31.4%59.4%1.04
Amare Stoudemire30.9%56.8%1.00
Kevin Durant30.5%58.7%1.07
Kevin Martin29.6%60.4%1.10
Monta Ellis28.2%53.7%0.95
Dirk Nowitzki28.2%61.4%1.13
Michael Beasley28.1%50.7%0.97
Andrea Bargnani28.1%53.3%0.90

Nowitzki has turned in an elite offensive campaign, possibly the league’s best this season. That alone has been good enough, in some years, to lock up an MVP.

I also find this idea that Nowitzki’s contributions are one-sided completely absurd. Dirk is obviously no Dwight Howard, but he’s also not a Bargnani-like sieve. The Mavericks’ defensive rating is 6.23 points better with Nowitzki on the floor. He doesn’t offer much in the way of blocks or steals, but he still has the 17th best DRB% among forwards who have played at least 2,000 minutes despite some age-related decline. I’m willing to accept that Nowitzki doesn’t provide a ton of help at the defensive end, but we also need to acknowledge that the Mavericks’ have built a scheme around him, where his shortcomings don’t hurt them all that much either. His length, experience, and understanding of the system hamper the opponent’s ability to score, even if he isn’t swatting shots into the twentieth row. Perhaps, instead of thinking of Nowitzki as a one-way player, it’s most fitting to think of him as a one-and-a-half-way player.

The one other unavoidable piece of this discussion is the fact that Nowitzki has already won an MVP. He took home the award in 2007 and I’ll save Mavs fans the reminder of how exactly that particular season ended. Suffice it to say that events which took place four seasons ago have a bearing on his chances this year. There are certainly people who have allowed Nowitzki’s — and the Mavericks’ — performance in the playoffs that season to color their opinion of his regular season accomplishments. This strikes me as unsavory for two reasons, both of which  revolve around the one piece of this MVP debate that does seem to be defined by the league. The MVP award covers the accomplishments of one, and only one, regular season. This is hardly the first time the entirety of a player’s career has bled into the MVP voting, but the Mavericks’ prior failings seem to be the one piece which clearly has no place in this discussion. It likely won’t get this far, but should it come to it, I feel confident in saying that what happened in 2007 would act as a final barrier, preventing Nowitzki from winning this season.

Like each player under consideration, Nowitzki’s case for MVP has strengths and weaknesses. As I noted above, the glory of this discussion is that each individual gets to decide their own definition of the words “Most Valuable,” and specify the optimal technique for measuring that definition. If your definition includes an elite offensive player, who has done as much as anyone in the league to push their team to exceed its limitations, then Dirk Nowitzki just might be your man.

The Difference: Los Angeles Lakers 96, Dallas Mavericks 91

Posted by Rob Mahoney on March 13, 2011 under Recaps | 2 Comments to Read

Screen shot 2011-03-13 at 12.44.15 AM

Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas89.0102.245.315.132.614.6
Los Angeles107.947.620.526.710.1

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

  • Dallas had a tough time converting the good shot attempts they snuck by L.A.’s defense, and certainly didn’t help their chances with a handful of cringe-worthy defensive breakdowns. Yet at every turn the Mavs stayed within a competitive range. The Mavs could certainly do far worse than stay with the best team in the league step-for-step, even if the scoreboard was less than favorable by the final buzzer. The effort was there and the execution was solid, but the Mavs aren’t going to win many games against this good of an opponent when their top four guards shoot a combined 11-of-34 from the field. The Lakers played some excellent D, but they weren’t responsible for Rodrigue Beaubois’ missed jumpers, Jason Terry’s blown opportunities, or Jason Kidd’s unfruitful three-point attempts. This was a very winnable game for the Mavs, and their proximity to victory stands for reasons more legitimate than their slim scoring deficit.
  • This is the second game in a row where Shawn Marion (25 points, 11-20 FG, 12 rebounds, seven offensive rebounds, two blocks) has been the best player in a Maverick uniform. On Thursday, Marion did a phenomenal job of defending Carmelo Anthony (who shot 5-of-15 on the night) while dropping 22 and 8, and Marion followed up that performance by reprising his role as a defensive virtuoso (against Kobe Bryant, who finished 6-of-20 from the field) and thoroughly dominating the offensive glass. Dallas went to Marion in the post repeatedly against Bryant, Ron Artest, and others, and Marion was able to score from the block regardless of opponent. On the occasions when the initial hook didn’t fall, Marion followed his shot for a tip-in. Marion shot 20 field goal attempts on the night, and on 15 of those attempts he either made the shot or followed it up with an offensive board. Just incredible work.
  • Unfortunately, Marion’s efforts were countered and then some by the work of the Lakers’ frontline, primarily due to a stellar game from Andrew Bynum (22 points, 9-12 FG, 15 rebounds). He may not be the most consistent interior threat, but Bynum thrived as both a primary post option (against sizable opposition in Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood, no less) and on mop-up duty. Pau Gasol (18 points, 6-14 FG, five rebounds) offered some nice support inside with his usual array of sweeping hooks, and Ron Artest (12 points, 5-8 FG, eight rebounds) added rebounding and efficient low-volume scoring. L.A. won this thing in the paint, and Bynum’s ridiculous effectiveness was the primary reason why.
  • All of which diminishes the impact of Dirk Nowitzki (25 points, 10-19 FG, 10 rebounds, six assists), perhaps unfairly. Nowitzki played a fantastic game, but Marion was more impressive and Bynum more dominant, which puts Dallas’ star in the odd position of being the other big playing effective ball. Still, Nowitzki’s all-around offensive game was, as usual, something to behold. He dropped his trademarked mid-range fadeaways, but also acted as a drive-and-kick player at times; twice Nowitzki drove past smaller defenders and passed out to an open three-point shooter after drawing in the defense, and both of those sequences ended with a make from a corner shooter. Nowitzki was outmatched at times defensively when forced to cover Bynum on a switch, but it’s hard to argue with elite offensive production at such an efficient clip.
  • It’s certainly worth noting that Kobe Bryant suffered a hell of an ankle sprain around the two-minute mark in the third quarter. Bryant was stripped by Marion as he launched upward for a jumper, and came down very awkwardly — and painfully — on his left ankle upon returning to the floor. Bryant called a timeout and left for the locker room, clearly hobbled. He would later return, but it was a heavy moment; according to Marc Stein of ESPN.com, Bryant initially worried that his ankle injury was a season-ender and said he was “scared s***-less.” That didn’t stop Bryant from making some critical plays for the Lakers in the fourth quarter, but if the swelling doesn’t come down it could significantly limit him in the coming weeks.

The Difference: Dallas Mavericks 109, Los Angeles Lakers 100

Posted by Rob Mahoney on January 20, 2011 under Recaps | 2 Comments to Read

Screen shot 2011-01-20 at 1.25.21 PM

Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas93.0131.363.511.320.67.2
Los Angeles120.558.07.322.212.0

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

  • Before we all get too riled up about last night’s events, let’s go over one thing, first: the Lakers played pretty poor defense. Good on the Mavs to capitalize, but the story of last night wasn’t Dallas overcoming a titan, but claiming victory over a powerhouse that was a bit off their game. The Mavs deserve credit for their defense in the third quarter, but it’s best not to get carried away with praise for their overall defensive execution, either. Both teams shot and scored well, and the Mavs shot and scored more. A valiant and much-needed win, but no one should be giddy over allowing 120.3 points per 100 possessions. Dallas won against an excellent team, and that’s fantastic. But the defense needs to be better.
  • And it will be. As Dirk Nowitzki continues to work himself back into game shape and be more and more comfortable on that wobbly knee, his defense will improve. When Tyson Chandler is playing a full game with a clean bill of health (he battled flu-like symptoms last night, and sat out for a portion of the second quarter), the back-line rotations will be crisper. When the team (sans Caron) is back into a rhythm, the elite defense will resurface. These are the kinds of lulls that happen to every team in the regular season, only the Mavs’ recent injuries have acted as a catalyst for their defensive troubles.
  • Jasons Kidd and Terry combined for 43 points (on 17-of-27 shooting, and 9-of-14 from three, no less) and 17 assists (with just one turnover). L.A. seemed content to leave Kidd open from three, and for the first time in a millennium, he drained his open looks. Terry was more forceful; he curled away from Derek Fisher, sprung for threes in transition, and triggered his trademarked pull-up game. Sustainability always comes to mind when anyone but Dirk springs for a huge scoring night, and this is hardly the kind of production to which Mavs fans should grow accustomed. That said, it was exceptionally well-timed and hopefully acts as a precursor to a progression toward the mean for Kidd and Terry both.
  • Rick Carlisle elected to have Shawn Marion reprise his role coming off the bench, which left an opening in the starting lineup on the wing. He had tried Terry in that slot in the past, with mixed results. J.J. Barea isn’t an option because he needs to run the point for the second unit. Dominique Jones should be in the running, but Carlisle apparently wasn’t too pleased with his play in the wake of Caron Butler’s injury, and has relegated him to mop-up duty. So naturally, the newest Maverick — Sasha Pavlovic, on the last day of his 10-day contract — was thrown into the starting lineup. Crazier, still: it worked. Pavlovic looks good. He defends well, and last night he mad five of his seven shots from the field to finish with 11 points. He doesn’t have any explosive potential, but Pavlovic is a steady, low-usage vet that the Mavs would be wise to keep around.
  • As heavily as Carlisle has leaned on Alexis Ajinca and Ian Mahinmi this season, he clearly isn’t ready to give either burn against such a productive front line. DNP-CDs for both of the bench bigs.
  • Though, as I mentioned before, I think the Mavs deserve credit for their third-quarter run, the substantial turnaround wouldn’t have been possible without Shannon Brown (two points, 1-4 FG, one turnover) and Luke Walton (zero points, 0-5 FG, one turnover). Both players kept the ball away from more capable scorers, and took shots that the Dallas defense was more than willing to give them.
  • Shawn Marion (22 points, 10-13 FG, four rebounds) played a fantastic game, but he was more reliant on the Lakers’ lax defense than anyone. Marion exploited the Lakers’ interior D with cuts and post-ups off of switches, and while he should still be able to do the same on most nights against typical opponents, a finely tuned defense can take away those looks far more easily than Terry’s pull-up game or Kidd’s three-pointers. Marion’s presence is still important; defense will be forced to account for him when he dives into the lane or sets up on the block against a smaller opponent. This kind of box score production isn’t Marion’s regular, but his intangible impact can be just as profound on a nightly basis.
  • A bit of an oddity: both teams shot so well from the field (62.5 eFG% and 58 eFG% for the Mavs and Lakers respectively) that neither got to the line all that much. Contrary to popular belief, L.A. doesn’t attempt a lion’s share off free throws (they’re a below average team in free throw rate). Still, they get the free throw line about three times as often as they did last night. Defense, officiating, whatever the cause — a bit strange.
  • Kidd, Pavlovic, and DeShawn Stevenson (as well as Jason Terry on some zone possessions) all did an admirable job on Kobe Bryant, but it doesn’t matter. He shoots over you, he drives around you, and he finds his teammates. Then he finishes the night with 21 points on 18 shots along with 10 assists, and probably has nightmares about those eight shots he missed and his few giveaways. You don’t need me to tell you, but the man is damn good at what he does.

The Difference: Dallas Mavericks 103, Utah Jazz 97

Posted by Rob Mahoney on December 12, 2010 under Recaps | 7 Comments to Read

Screen shot 2010-12-12 at 12.17.25 AM

Box ScorePlay-By-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas88.0117.060.634.823.520.5
Utah110.247.524.725.612.5

  • There’s probably something distressing to be written about the way the Dallas allowed Utah to stay in this game after a torrential first quarter, but frankly, the entertainment value of tonight’s affair was far too high to warrant such a negative initial reaction. The Mavs flat-lined at times between the first and the fourth, but Dirk Nowitzki (31 points, 10-12 FG, 3-4 3FG, 15 rebounds, four assists) and Deron Williams’ (34 points, 12-22 FG, six assists) collective brilliance, both teams’ alternating spells of dominant basketball, and hell, the sheer number of and-ones made for a phenomenal watch. Not a game of the year candidate or even the most significant win during the Mavs’ incredible streak, but just a great show from start to finish.
  • Nowitzki deserves all of the bullet points I could ever write for him and then some. He was assertive when he needed to be, deferred when the time was right, and again erased the line between volume and efficiency. No player should be able to do what Dirk does, but he pours in the points without putting the offense on tilt, and dominates wholly and completely. The cherry on top is this bit from Andrew Tobolowsky (@andytobo): “Dirk [is] 18-22 for 52 [points in the] last two games. Try that, Kobe. Also, whoever, I guess.”
  • The first five minutes of the first quarter were possibly the most efficient stretch of Maverick basketball — or possibly any basketball — I’ve ever seen. Not only did the Mavs make eight of their first nine field goal attempts en route to an early 21-2 lead, but five of those eight field goals were three-pointers. That’s a rate of 210 points per 100 possessions, and somehow even more impressively (!), Dallas managed an effective field goal percentage of 116.7% over that stretch. That’s not a miscalculation. The Mavs’ shooting was impossibly good.
  • Dallas’ bench was awful. The starters (with the possible exception of Jason Kidd, who had not one, but two airballed three-pointers) played magnificently, but aside from successful fourth-quarter stints by Jason Terry and Brendan Haywood, the reserves’ presence on the court was a disaster. The bench combined to shoot 8-for-27 from the field, grab just seven boards, and turn the ball over seven times. Yuck.
  • Oddly enough, the Jazz’s third-quarter zone seemed to give the Mavs a bit of trouble. You’d think that if any team in the league knew how to attack a zone it would be Dallas, and yet the Mavs could only stumble their way through offensive possessions.
  • The Mavs fell for Deron Williams’ pump fake time and time again, and Williams did a tremendous job of finishing after contact. What’s more: I don’t blame Kidd, Terry, Stevenson, and the like for biting on Williams’ fakes. He’s that good, and for significant chunks of this game, he was the only productive member of the Jazz. Williams poured it in, and while he wasn’t as efficient as Nowitzki, he gave the Mavs no choice but to respect every potential attempt. Leaving your feet is never sound defensive strategy, but it’s hard to blame the Mavs’ defenders for trying to make a play against such an effective scorer.