The Difference: Miami Heat 92, Dallas Mavericks 84

Posted by Rob Mahoney on June 1, 2011 under Recaps | 6 Comments to Read

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Box ScorePlay-by-PlayShot ChartGameFlow

TeamPaceOff. Eff.eFG%FT/FGORB%TOR
Dallas84.0100.044.037.316.713.1
Miami109.545.623.834.811.9

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

  • To those struggling to find the fine line between the acknowledgment of Miami’s excellence and the hope provided in the Dallas’ missed opportunities, I empathize. Game 1 has to be viewed in terms of all that the Heat accomplished, but I can’t shed the thought of Dirk Nowitzki’s missed layups, J.J. Barea’s botched runners, Jason Terry’s poor decisions. Credit Miami’s D for their impressive contests — and even for the impact of their potential contests, which clearly had Barea shaking in his boots — but the Mavs can play much better…as long as the Heat defense doesn’t improve yet. We knew this would be a competitive series, but I’m not sure anyone quite expected such an odd start. To credit the Mavs’ offensive failures or the Heat’s defensive successes would be a terrible oversimplification, and yet somewhere in that relationship is the dynamic that could decide the series.
  • The Dallas zone had its moments, I suppose, but its start to the series was anything but exemplary. Mario Chalmers was able to burn the Mavs with a pair of wide open threes from the corners, but it was the play of Chris Bosh that made things particularly painful for Dallas when in their zone coverage. Bosh finished with five offensive boards in capitalizing on the displacement of the Mavs’ defenders, and his passing from the high post provided a terribly effective counter to the Mavs’ zone look. Rick Carlisle didn’t seem too distressed about the zone’s performance, so I’m curious as to what he saw in Dallas’ Game 1 zone execution that we didn’t; how much zone the Mavs run in Game 2 should provide a more authentic appraisal than anything Carlisle said postgame.
  • Udonis Haslem and the Heat’s double teamers did a credible job defending Dirk Nowitzki (27 points, 7-18 FG, eight rebounds) by playing passing lanes and limiting Dirk’s attempts. In terms of challenging, the Heat defenders can only do so much; Haslem and Joel Anthony just don’t have the height or length to really alter Nowitzki’s shot, which leaves their means of defending him a bit more reliant on prevention. Anthony couldn’t quite pull that off, but Haslem — with help from Mike Miller and others — was able to put enough pressure on Nowitzki to make him pass out of doubles and rush through many of his possessions against single coverage. Nowitzki needs to get settled in, but Erik Spoelstra is too good of a coach to maintain a static approach against Dirk; he may see the same basic defensive look in Game 2, but the specifics of its implementations (the timing of the double, etc.) will likely change. Nowitzki was able to adjust and attack, but he may have to start that process all over again in Game 2.
  • Shawn Marion and DeShawn Stevenson were able to have some success in man-to-man coverage against LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but then the Mavs shifted into zone, the zone failed, and the final product was flawed man-to-man execution that allowed the Heat do do as they willed. James and Wade didn’t have their most aggressive driving games, but they were certainly assertive scorers; the two stars combined to shoot 6-of-9 from three-point range, and several of those attempts came against pretty good defense. The prospect of defending Wade and James is always predicated on concession in some form. Teams often cede long jumpers — both twos and threes — to both James and Wade in the hopes that it lures two of the league’s best creators off the dribble into taking decidedly less efficient shots and stalling their team’s offense in the process. That’s still a semi-effective strategy against Wade (particularly due to his poor shooting from three-point range), but James has somehow become even more unguardable by hitting threes with consistency. Defending against either player is a miserable assignment, defending against both at the same time is just brutal, and defending against both at the same time when they’re hitting 67 percent of their three-point attempts is something I’m not sure the basketball world is — or will ever be — quite ready for.
  • Nowitzki tore a tendon in his left hand (or on his middle finger, to be more precise) while trying to strip the ball from Bosh on a drive. Had the tear been in his right hand, we’d be looking at a series ender; Dallas needs Dirk producing at an elite level to compete in this series, and a legitimate injury to his shooting hand would be a painful blow. However, the fact that Dirk injured his left hand isn’t exactly irrelevant, consider how crucial his handle and driving ability are to his overall game. It’s no secret that Nowitzki prefers to drive left, and considering how many driving lanes he had in Game 1, a limitation on his handle and finishing ability strikes me as rather significant.
  • Mike Bibby played 14 minutes, which was probably 14 minutes too long. Mario Chalmers wasn’t perfect, but he was far more productive than Bibby, and the Heat’s no-PG lineups even better than those involving Chalmers. I doubt there will be much of a change in Spoelstra’s rotation at this point in the playoffs, so Dallas needs to take advantage of the time that Bibby sees on a nightly basis.
  • James actually defended JET to close the game, a matchup that, while stifling and impressively creative, opens up an interesting opportunity. Marion had a fantastic offensive game, but could have been even more involved in the fourth quarter offense by going to work against Miller in the post. Any time that Marion can shed James, he’ll have an offensive advantage on the low block, and while he was able to create from the post a few times throughout the game, I think Marion can be used as an instigator of change. If Marion can be efficient enough in the post against Miller, Spoelstra could be forced to give up on assigning LeBron to chase JET and disrupt the Mavs’ two-man game, which would ultimately open up one effective offense by way of another.
  • Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood aren’t deserving of scapegoat status, but they have to be better on the glass. Their job (of anchoring the defense, challenging the shots of stretch bigs like Bosh and Haslem, and still hitting the boards) isn’t ideal, but it’s the task placed in front of them. I don’t see how the Mavs win this series without Chandler and Haywood pulling off something of a minor miracle in that regard. Best of luck to ‘em.

All The King’s Men – A Preview In Two Parts

Posted by Ian Levy on May 31, 2011 under Commentary, Previews | 7 Comments to Read

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I.

As a Finals matchup between the Mavericks and the Heat appeared possible, then probable, then certain, the story of a chance at redemption rose to the surface. The Heat’s victory over the Mavericks in 2006 has been The Elephant in The American Airlines Center the past five seasons, and a Finals rematch against the Heat would seem to give the Mavericks a chance to atone for previous shortcomings. If this redemption becomes reality, it will mostly be at the organizational level; only four players from that 2006 series — Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem — will be returning for their original teams. The legacy of each has continued to build on the foundation of the 2006 Finals, and will be, in large part, determined by what happens in this year’s Finals. However, the later chapters of several other NBA stories will be written in this series, stories that have little or nothing to do with the initial Finals matchup between the Mavericks and Heat.

Caron Butler is unlikely to play in this series after recovering from a gruesome knee injury. Tat injury seemed cruel at the time, but as the season has unfolded, that cruelty has taken on an entirely new meaning; Butler served as a crucial contributor in each of the Mavs’ regular season wins against the Heat, and yet a single bad fall has robbed him of the ability to participate in this series. Butler’s defensive presence will be particularly missed against LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on the wing, and his absence puts a lot of pressure on DeShawn Stevenson, Shawn Marion, and Jason Kidd to hold their defensive ground.

In addition, Butler has a personal history with Wade and the Heat. He was drafted by the Heat in 2002, and spent two seasons with the team. His second season was Wade’s rookie year and saw the team win 42 games and a playoff series against the New Orleans Hornets. Committed to Wade as the team’s centerpiece, the Heat saw Caron Butler as an inadequate complimentary piece. He was traded the following summer in the deal that brought Shaquille O’Neal — and ultimately, the 2006 title — to Miami. For someone who didn’t participate in the 2006 Finals, his fate is still greatly intertwined in those events.

Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson came to Dallas by way of the Washington Wizards, and while neither player has any particular history with the Heat, both have had their share of conflict with Miami’s shiniest new toy, LeBron James. In both 2007 and 2008, the Wizards were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by LeBron and the Cavaliers. Both series were heavy on trash talk and technicals, and featured some heated one-on-one matchups between LeBron and Stevenson. I have to believe that each relishes the opportunity to go through LeBron in their pursuit of this title, even as they publicly say otherwise.

Dallas also has a veritable who’s-who of “Close, but no cigar,” guys. There are 34 active players who have played at least 80 playoff games. 14 of those 34 have never won a championship. 4 of those 14 play for the Dallas Mavericks. In addition to Nowitzki, we find Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and Peja Stojakovic on that list. It’s worth noting that in LeBron, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Mike Bibby, the Heat have three players on that list as well.

Kidd is finishing his 17th season in the NBA. Among his other remarkable achievements, Kidd has played in 136 playoff games. 10 of those 136 games were played in the NBA Finals, over two separate trips with the Nets. The results are a disappointing 2-8 record. Marion has played 86 playoff games but never participated in an NBA Finals. He lost twice in the Western Conference Finals with the Suns. Stojakovic has played in 91 playoff games. That includes a crushing loss in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.

The Mavericks are a stunning collection of the league’s disenfranchised and overlooked. This series offers many chances for redemption, not just for missed opportunities in the 2006 Finals. A victory over the Heat could provide closure for heartbreaking trades and soul-crushing playoff exits, for years of dominance by the Lakers and Spurs, for odiferous officiating, and for a body slam and a three-pointer from Robert Horry. The ghosts of this playoff series won’t just be wearing the uniforms of the Mavericks and Heat.

II.

Five different Mavericks’ lineups have played at least 30 minutes together in the playoffs. Of those, the most effective has been the Kidd-Terry-Marion-Nowitzki-Chandler combination. In just under 100 minutes, this group has posted an Offensive Rating of 122.51 and a Defensive Rating of 89.56, for an absurd Net Rating of +32.95. They’ve outscored their playoff opponents by 71 points in 96 minutes, meaning they’ve added a point to the Mavericks lead, on average, every 81 seconds.

This has been one of the Mavericks’ strongest and most consistent units all season. Unfortunately, it’s one that may be difficult to keep on the floor for extended periods of time against the Heat. To use this lineup against any Heat unit with both LeBron and Wad means that either Terry or Kidd will likely have to guard Wade. Obviously, this is a less than ideal defensive matchup. Using their zone is an option, but committing to using it consistently with this lineup will make them very predictable. To deal with these matchup problem, the Mavericks may need to rely a little more heavily on a lineup that has been generally ineffective in the playoffs this far: their starters.

Dallas’ starting lineup (Kidd-Stevenson-Marion-Nowitkzi-Chandler) has played the most minutes of any of their five man units in the playoffs. It’s also the only unit they’ve used for more than 25 minutes which has a negative Net Rating. Kidd, Marion, Nowitzki, and Chandler have all played well in other units, and most of the struggles with the starting lineup can be traced to Stevenson. Make no mistake, Stevenson has been bad in these playoffs. He’s shooting 27.1%, and his PER his fallen all the way to 2.2 (with 15.0 being indicative of league average production). Still, I think he the chance to be an impact player in this matchup against the Heat.

When we look at the lineups used by the Mavericks in their two regular season matchups with the Heat, we see they struggled mightily with Terry and Wade on the floor together. The Mavericks had an Offensive Rating of 108.24 and a Defensive Rating of 124.71 in the 44 minutes they were both in at shooting guard. However, in the 29 minutes Stevenson was matched up with Wade at shooting guard the Mavericks posted an Offensive Rating of 126.16 and a Defensive Rating of 71.93. As this was early in the season, and both teams are in a much different place then they were the last time they met, those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt.

But Stevenson does have some things working in his favor. Unless Rick Carlisle is interested in finding minutes for Corey Brewer, Stevenson is the one Maverick with the size and mobility to challenge Wade. His offense is mostly of the one-dimensional spot-up shooting variety, and that single dimension has mostly abandoned him in the playoffs. Still he’s a much better shooter then what he has shown the past few weeks. At some point you would expect his percentages to rebound, moving closer to his averages. As I mentioned above, Stevenson has a history with LeBron, and by association, the Miami Heat. He’s always been a player who thrived on an emotional challenge, and perhaps that connection with James provides just such a challenge. There is a path cleared for him to step up and make a difference in these Finals. It will be up to him to walk it.

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.

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.

Three’s Company Two

Posted by Ian Levy on March 3, 2011 under Commentary | 4 Comments to Read

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Ian Levy is the author of Hickory High, a contributor to Indy Cornrows, and is now 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.

On Tuesday night, Jason Kidd recorded his 107th career triple-double. He currently sits third on the all-time list behind only Oscar Robertson (181) and Magic Johnson (138). From 1987 on, no one even approaches Kidd’s mark. The most by an active player other than Kidd is LeBron James with 31. These triple doubles are just one statistical bullet point on Jason Kidd’s Hall of Fame résumé, but for some reason I find them especially captivating.

Even the minutiae are fascinating. These 107 remarkable games have covered 17 seasons and three different teams. 21 of them have come in his two separate stints with the Dallas Mavericks. 61 came with the New Jersey Nets; 25 with the Phoenix Suns. Kidd’s win percentage in triple-double games is 0.707. He even once recorded a quadruple-double…by racking up 14 turnovers in a game against the Knicks in November of 2000.

A triple-double is an example of a player raising his game in three key statistical areas. For Kidd, it’s an example of him raising his game in almost every area. The table below shows Kidd’s per game statistics for the 107 games in which he recorded a triple double.

MPGPts.Reb.Ast.Stl.TOFG%FT%3PT%
40.117.511.412.22.13.541.6%80.3%38.6%

Despite the fact that Kidd has not been a very accurate shooter over the course of his career, in these triple-double games, he shoots a higher percentage from the floor, free throw line and three point line while also averaging more steals. He’s playing more minutes in those games as well, but that factor doesn’t exactly boost his shooting percentages.

The other thing I find amazing is how far in front he is of every other current player in this particular category. The only reasonable candidate to surpass Kidd’s mark for the modern era is LeBron. The table below is meant to give an idea of LeBron’s chances of catching Kidd. It shows the percentage of their games played where they reached double figure points, rebounds, assists or all three.

Total Games PlayedGames with >10 Reb.% of Games with >10 Reb.Games with >10 Ast.% of Games with >10 Ast.Games with >10 Pts.% of Games with >10 Pts.Triple Doubles% of Games with a Triple Double
LeBron James60611919.6%10216.8%59898.7%315.1%
Jason Kidd124721317.1%55944.8%85868.8%1078.6%

LeBron is much more likely then Kidd to reach double figure point or rebounds, but Kidd has the edge with regards to assists and our focus here, triple-doubles. Over Kidd’s career he has recorded a triple double in 8.6% of his games played. This works out to roughly 1 out of every 12 games. LeBron’s average is closer to 1 out of every 20 games he plays.

Let’s assume Jason Kidd never racks up another triple-double before retiring. Now, this is extremely unlikely considering that Kidd has another 22 games left this season and isn’t exactly staring down retirement. Yet as unlikely as that scenario is, we’ll use it to go easy on LeBron in our imaginary scenario. At his current pace of a triple double in 5.1% of his games, LeBron would need to play another 1,486 games to pass Kidd. In case you don’t have a calculator in front of you, that’s a little over 18 full seasons. All of a sudden his chances don’t seem quite as reasonable.

At his current pace, Jason Kidd would need another 362 games (with production relatively consistent to his career numbers) to pass Magic Johnson. This is pretty much outside the realm of possibility, so it looks likely he’ll finish his career where he currently sits, 3rd on the all-time list. However, when you consider the historical context, Kidd’s achievement is at least as impressive as what Robertson and Magic accomplished.

The average league pace over Kidd’s career has been 91.3 possessions per game. In only 1 of his 17 seasons was the league pace above 93.0. The average league pace over Magic’s career was 100.9 possessions per game. In only 3 of his 17 seasons was the average league pace below 100.0. Because turnovers weren’t tracked in his era, we don’t have pace numbers for Robertson, but with teams averaging well over 110.0 points per game during his time in the NBA, I feel comfortable saying he played in a significantly more up-tempo league.

I’m hoping the significance of the faster pace is obvious. Just in case it’s not: a faster pace means more possessions; more possessions means more opportunities in each game to accrue points, rebounds and assists. Playing in a different era, Kidd may very well have been the NBA’s all-time leader in triple-doubles.

There is something elegantly simple about the way a triple-double signals a player’s impact on the game. For Jason Kidd it states that over the past 17 seasons his versatility has impacted basketball games as much as anyone’s.

The Difference: Dallas Beats Miami

Posted by Rob Mahoney on November 28, 2010 under Recaps | 10 Comments to Read

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

Dallas Mavericks 106, Miami Heat 95

  • The Miami Heat concluded the game with an extended team meeting; James and Wade eventually fielded questions, but not until at least 45 minutes after the game had wrapped. This team is entitled and this team is frustrated.
  • Dallas wins, but the defense doesn’t. We should in no way confuse this victory for some validation of the Mavs’ defensive performance, as this was actually one of their lesser efforts on the season overall. The Heat helped the Mavs along with poor shot selection, and had they not, it would have been interesting to see how the Dallas offense would have really held up under fire. However, Miami’s unfavorable shot chart is far from a one-time problem; LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and their compatriots have a bad habit of batting their eyelashes at Caron Butler-esque shots.
  • The declaration of the total defense’s shortcomings is going to make this next sentence sound a bit odd: Tyson Chandler was the indisputable player of the game. Chandler is playing on the most talented team he’s seen in his entire career, and he’s responding in every way possible. He’s a shot-blocker, but more importantly, he’s a sound positional defender. Chandler is able to change shots without sacrificing his ground and he’s mobile enough to cover the entire paint with ease. Individually, he had a terrific defensive performance. Not flawless, but for all intents and intensive purposes, as damn well close to being so as anyone could reasonably expect. And just for fun, Chandler dropped in 14 points of his own, while wiping our memories clean of Brendan Haywood.
  • Dirk Nowitzki shot 9-of-23 from the field, but would anyone know that based on observation alone? Nowitzki definitely took and missed his fair share of shot attempts, but the eye test didn’t sting quite as badly as 39% shooting does. Nowitzki’s 22 points — as well as his four assists and three steals — were still quite valuable, but this wasn’t the Dirk-and-only-Dirk approach Mavs fans are painfully familiar with.
  • With that in mind, here’s a note from ESPN Stats and Info: “The Mavericks outscored the Heat 95-67 in the 34 minutes and 48 seconds that Nowitzki was on the floor. It was the second straight game in which Nowitzki made such an impact. In a win over Charlotte on Wednesday, Nowitzki was plus-27. The difference is that in that game, three other Dallas starters posted similar plus-minus totals. In Saturday’s win, Nowitzki was significantly better than any of his teammates.”
  • The Heat grabbed the offensive board on 44.4% of their misses in the first quarter, which is a perfectly dreadful number as far as the Mavs are concerned. But how about this: Miami’s final offensive rebounding rate was a palatable 23.3%. That’s a hell of a turnaround over the final three quarters.
  • Miami’s offense was a painful watch for long stretches of this game, and the effect that their union has had on LeBron James and Dwyane Wade is inexplicable. James still has stretches where he seems himself, but even at Wade’s most aggressive, he’s a tinted portrait of his former self. Sometimes he floats, sometimes he drives, sometimes he defers, but he’s always affected by some unseen humor. Last season’s Wade was one of the best players on the planet, but this year’s model isn’t worthy of fear, and worthy of respect primarily due to his reputation.
  • J.J. Barea was fantastic. Against San Antonio, we saw Barea at his playmaking finest; he didn’t force shots, and willingly and skilfully set up his teammates with open looks. In tonight’s game, Barea had his eyes locked on the rim. He still picked up two assists, but Barea’s 13 points on seven shots came through a pitch-perfect approach. Barea sliced and diced Miami’s perimeter defenders, and got right to the basket when the Heat bigs were characteristically slow to rotate. Your teammates miss you, Udonis Haslem.
  • Erick Dampier made his first appearance as a member of the Miami Heat, and promptly committed a personal foul. He played eight minutes in total and grabbed one rebound. Regular readers should know that I’m one of Dampier’s few remaining advocates, and that should make my stance on Damp’s addition to the Heat roster somewhat obvious: he’s an obviously beneficial addition for this team, and though he won’t solve all of their problems, he’s a definite upgrade on D and the glass.
  • The Mavs didn’t seem to respect the three-point attempts of any Heat player not named James Jones or Eddie House. The rest were left to do their worst, and while 2-of-10 from three may not be the worst, it’s pretty awful.
  • I touched on this the other night, but it needs to be repeated in light of Shawn Marion’s 14-point, 6-of-12 night: Dallas may not have a second scoring option etched in stone, but they have enough reliable contributors to find help from somewhere. JET has taken a turn for the inefficient (12 points, 3-of-12 shooting, three turnovers), but Marion, Caron Butler (23 points, 9-15 FG, 3-3 3FG, zero turnovers), Barea, and Chandler have all made vital contributions to the scoring column. Dallas can’t expect the roster to click from top to bottom, but all of these guys are can walk and chew bubblegum.

Heard It Through the Grapevine

Posted by Rob Mahoney on November 11, 2010 under xOther | 2 Comments to Read

  • John Schuhmann of NBA.com, on which teams could challenge the Lakers this season: “In the East, you have the same three contenders as you had going in: Boston, Miami and Orlando. In the West, I really like what I’ve seen from Dallas. Defensively, I think they’ve taken a step forward with Tyson Chandler replacing Erick Dampier. If their offense can come around, they’ll be a stronger foe than we thought the Lakers would have in their conference.”
  • Mavs’ Summer Leaguer DeShawn Sims started the season in Greece, but now he may be headed to the D-League.
  • Chris Mannix of SI.com: “Bottom line, to get out of this Groundhog Day-like loop, Dallas needs to make a change beyond what it’s already done. Since February 2008, the Mavs have acquired Kidd, Marion, Butler, Haywood, DeShawn Stevenson and Chandler to revamp their roster. Mark Cuban committed $80 million to Nowitzki last summer and signed Kidd to a three-year, $25 million extension in 2009 because Kidd, even at 37, is still better than most point guards in the league. Cuban didn’t sit on the sideline when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were being courted. He just didn’t have enough to get them. But to avoid history repeating itself again, the Mavericks may need to take even more risks. They have movable assets like Butler ($10.5 million expiring contract) and Stevenson ($4.2 million expiring contract). James, Wade and Bosh are no longer available, but there could be a few potential difference-makers who are.” Mannix goes on to suggest Gilbert Arenas and Andre Iguodala as possible trade returns for Caron Butler. One of those suggestions is tremendous and would be quite helpful, and the other could end up crippling the franchise for a decade. I’m not sure we’re at the stage where Butler has to go or the Mavs have to make a move just yet, but if that day comes, here’s to hoping the Mavs stay away from the guillotine.
  • Skeets and Tas debate the merits of the Mavs’ success on the latest episode of The Basketball Jones.
  • It was rumored at one point that Greg Ostertag may be trying to make a comeback (or start his coaching career) with the Texas Legends, but no longer. According to Marc Stein, Ostertag will stay retired for now, citing “family reasons.” Bummer.
  • Why doesn’t Erick Dampier have a job?
  • Jeff Caplan of ESPN Dallas: “His 84 field-goal attempts rank third on the team, just 12 shots behind Jason Terry — in one less game – who has made 20 more shots. Marion has made three fewer baskets on 25 fewer attempts. Jason Kidd is the only rotation player shooting a lower percentage (34.7), but Kidd has put half as many attempts and isn’t needed to score in bulk as is Butler. But, that doesn’t mean Marion is the more logical choice to start. Marion has handled the move to the bench with grace and a team-first attitude when at least some outsiders viewed it with trepidation. There’s no reason to stir things up by asking Butler to now come off the bench, a move he probably wouldn’t welcome. During an ESPNDallas.com chat prior to the start of training camp, Butler was asked if the team had plans to bring him off the bench. Butler stated that he’s not at a point in his career where that move makes sense. Plus, the Mavs want Butler on the floor and performing well, not only to accomplish team goals, but to elevate Butler’s value in the case his $10.8-million expiring contract can be flipped in a beneficial trade.”
  • A list of the best NBA players making less than $3 million this year, featuring Al Thornton, Matt Barnes, Taj Gibson…and not Rodrigue Beaubois. I try not to harp on list exclusions, but this one speaks to just how far out of the NBA consciousness a foot injury puts you.

Once More, With Feeling: The Formula

Posted by Rob Mahoney on October 20, 2010 under Commentary, Previews | 11 Comments to Read

shrinking-city-100914-02

A few more detailed looks at the Mavs’ upcoming season are on their way, but in honor of the CelticsBlog-hosted NBA preview circuit, I present to you a first look at the immediate future of the Dallas Mavericks:

Last Year’s Record: 55-27; best in the Southwest, second in the West.

Key Losses: Erick Dampier, screen-setter extraordinaire and instantly expiring contract, Eduardo Najera, a signed-and-released Tim Thomas, Matt Carroll, Rodrigue Beaubois’ preseason, and hope for a big name free agent.

Key Additions: Tyson Chandler, Ian Mahinmi, Dominique Jones, Alexis Ajinca, Rick Carlisle’s faith in Beaubois, the benefit of a full training camp.

1. What significant moves were made during the off-season?

Dirk Nowitzki was re-signed on a bargain deal relative to his current production. Brendan Haywood was inked to a long-term contract that has brought the Mavs a fair bit of criticism, though the partial guarantees written into the deal and the market this summer (not to mention the fact that re-signing Haywood was a flat-out necessity) make his deal fairly palatable. Erick Dampier was traded for Tyson Chandler, and the Mavs shed Matt Carroll and Eduardo Najera’s contracts while picking up an interesting young big in Alexis Ajinca. Mark Cuban shelled out $3 million for the chance to select South Florida’s Dominique Jones in the first round of the draft. Ian Mahinmi, a per-minute wonder with plenty of promise, was had for two years and minimal salary commitment.

Yet the biggest moves of Dallas’ off-season were the ones never made. The Mavs’ brass made pitches to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Joe Johnson in an effort to lure them to Dallas via sign-and-trade, but the former two had grander ideas and the latter his eye on a much larger paycheck. Erick Dampier’s instantly-expiring contract was a hell of a trade chip, but it sat unused while the most attractive free agents on the market committed to playing anywhere but Dallas.

The Mavs also made runs at two candidates for their mid-level exception. Al Harrington: miss. Udonis Haslem: miss. Dallas wasn’t sinking any battleships.

Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban then turned their attention to the trading block, where they found an eligible bachelor in Al Jefferson. His fit with the team may have been a bit awkward, but there’s no mistaking Jefferson’s talent. Reportedly, the Mavs were but Dampier’s contract and a few draft picks away from working out a deal with Minnesota, yet the Mavs balked. Maybe it was the luxury tax implication. Maybe Nelson and Cuban were hoping for an even better return on Dampier’s contract. Maybe it was concern over how Nowitzki and Jefferson would play together. Regardless, the Utah Jazz swooped in to collect Jefferson while giving up little more than cap space and a pair of first rounders in return, and the Mavs leave the summer in only a slightly better position than when they entered it.

2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?

Dirk Nowitzki. In an otherwise unremarkable offense, Nowitzki is one of the few unmistakable standouts. He still presents a match-up problem for every player in the league, and even at 32, Nowitzki’s offensive game is as potent as ever. His rebounding rate has dropped a bit. His defense is still lacking, though probably underrated on the whole. But Nowitzki is the player through which all things come and all things go for the Mavs.

Taking care of the ball. The Mavs had the 10th best offense in the league last season, but were ranked 13th in effective field goal percentage, 26th in offensive rebounding rate, and 15th in free throw rate. How? Dallas turns the ball over on just 12.2% of its possessions. Nowitzki is an absurdly efficient go-to scoring option in part because of how deliberately careful he is with the ball. Jason Kidd may pick up quite a few turnovers, but between Nowitzki and a few other high-usage, low-turnover players (Jason Terry, Caron Butler), Dallas puts up plenty of shots without giving up scoring opportunities.

Creating turnovers without fouling. Typically, successful NBA defenses fall into one of two general categories: a more conservative, field goal percentage-limiting style, or a more aggressive scheme based on forcing turnovers. Great defenses can sometimes manage to do both. Dallas manages to do neither, at least to the full extent of each defensive theme. Of the 10 teams that forced the most turnovers last season on a per possession basis (GSW, BOS, CHA, MIL, DET, UTA, OKC, MIA, PHI, and DEN), seven were also among the bottom 10 in opponents’ free throw rate. This is pretty intuitive; the more teams pressure ball-handlers and try to force turnovers, the more likely they are to be whistled for fouls.

Dallas, however, has managed to be fairly successful in creating turnovers (they ranked 11th in the league in that regard last season) without picking up all that many fouls (the Mavs were 3rd in the league in opponents’ free throw rate). It’s a strange balance, but thanks to anticipation on the wings and an overall conservative style (perhaps a bit too conservative at times), Dallas has made it work. Not well enough to do serious damage in the playoffs in the last few years, but well enough to remain in the West’s second tier in spite of other defensive shortcomings.

3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?

Shot creation. Nowitzki can manufacture a reasonably good shot attempt against almost any opponent when covered one-on-one, but aside from Dirk, Dallas doesn’t have many players that can create quality shots reliably. Rodrigue Beaubois is likely the team’s second best option in that regard, as Beaubois can use his speed to free himself up for an open look or execute relatively simple drive-and-kick sequences. Otherwise, Jason Terry’s shot-creating abilities looked stifled in last year’s playoffs, and Caron Butler is a decent isolation option…which might make a difference if decent isolation options were considered useful for offensive success.

Jason Kidd is, oddly enough, the question mark. Against San Antonio last season, he wasn’t able to create open looks for the likes of Terry, Butler, Shawn Marion, and Brendan Haywood, and the Mavs suffered. One of the reasons why Beaubois seemed so brilliant in that series was his stark contrast to Kidd; while the future Hall-of-Famer claimed to be troubled by illness and a bad back, Beaubois was slicing to the hoop in a way that no other Maverick can. If Kidd can stay healthy for the playoffs and redeem his performance against the Spurs, the Mavs’ offense could be pretty potent. It comes down to Dirk providing another year of solid production, Dallas recognizing the kind of shot-creating star it has in Beaubois, and Kidd finding a way to make the rest of the offense work. Without all three of hopes points coming to fruition, the Maverick offense will struggle at times.

A lack of elite production in any particular category. When people say that the Mavericks lack a team identity, they’re wrong. What they really mean to say is that Dallas isn’t really a top-level team in any particular statistical regard. The Mavs were a solid team in most capacities last season, but with the Lakers looming above and so many other team fighting for the no. 2 seed in the West, just being solid may not be good enough. The Mavericks were neither an elite offense nor an elite defense last year, and that’s troubling, particularly because their primary off-season acquisition was a back-up center that will replace the already steady Erick Dampier. Any improvement that will thrust Dallas into elite company will have to come internally, and that puts a lot of pressure on Rodrigue Beaubois, Caron Butler, and Brendan Haywood.

4. What are the goals for this team?

Win 50 games to extend the Mavs’ current 10-year streak, rest the veterans as much as possible, and make it to the conference finals. Any playoff series would be a step up from last season’s first round exit, but Dallas has enough talent to aim high. Not ‘up, up, away, and through the Lakers’ high, but high enough to be L.A.’s stepping stool on the way to the Finals.

Here are some developmental goals for some of the younger guys:

  • Rodrigue Beaubois needs to prove that the production from his fantastic rookie season is sustainable, while working to improve his ability to run the offense and defend opposing point guards.
  • Dominique Jones needs to find a way to crack the Mavs’ wing rotation, which is currently clogged with veteran talent. Jones’ on-ball defense and ability to get deep into the paint could be quite useful, but nothing will be given to Jones. He’ll have to pry every minute he gets from Terry, Butler, Beaubois, and J.J. Barea’s fingers.
  • Ian Mahinmi needs to continue to work on his face-up game, work the offensive glass as well as he did in the preseason, and focus on improving his ability to defend centers. There aren’t all that many minutes to be had behind Dirk, but if Mahinmi can grow into a capable defensive option in the middle, he could become a Maverick fixture.
  • Alexis Ajinca needs to outplay Ian Mahinmi and force the Mavs to give him a serious look. He’ll start the season at the back of the center rotation, but if Alexis can outplay Ian in practice and in his limited floor time this season (which won’t be the easiest thing to do considering Mahinmi’s gaudy per-minute numbers), he’ll have a chance to feast on the Mavs’ center minute scraps. Other than that, Ajinca needs to continue honing his hook shot, and improve his defensive positioning.
  • J.J. Barea needs to be a bit more choosy with his shots in the paint, and really hone in on his coverage of the pick-and-roll. All things considered, he’s not a bad backup, but it’s his D on screens that really gets him in trouble.

Bonus Question!

5. Do you have a video of Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash playing guitar that could take us back to the simpler times, when defensive inadequacies were just a cute little quirk of our beloved Mavs?

I thought you’d never ask.

Predicted Record: 53-29.

You can also head over to ProBasketballTalk to read more of my thoughts on the Mavs this season, if you’re antsy.

Worry Dolls

Posted by Rob Mahoney on September 29, 2010 under Commentary | Read the First Comment

worry_dolls

Jason Kidd smiled. More than Media Day positivity, it was as if Kidd were laughing to himself over a joke that was never told. “Nah, I slept well this summer,” Kidd said, still grinning, now chuckling. “I wasn’t worried about Dirk.”

Dirk Nowitzki’s free agent flirtations didn’t cost Kidd a wink. The same could likely be said of many Mavs fans, who considered the star’s return a virtual certainty. Yet that sound you heard when Nowitzki agreed to a new four-year deal with Dallas this summer?

One giant collective sigh of relief.

Kidd may not have been worried. Mavs fans may not have been worried. Even Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson may not have been worried. But don’t think that all of those parties, confident or not, were oblivious to the magnitude of Nowitzki’s decision. Had some team caught Dirk’s eye, everything — the 50 win seasons, the quasi-contention, the well-paid roster built to compliment his talents — would have come crashing down. It didn’t. Dallas may not have the same bright hope for the coming season that Los Angeles and Miami bask in, but they certainly have that.

“I looked around,” Nowitzki said, “but this is where my heart was. It wouldn’t have felt right to put another uniform on. The fans, and everybody here, and Mark, obviously, and Donnie have been so loyal to me over the last 12 years that it would’ve felt like running away a little bit in a way.”

Still, Nowitzki wasn’t so swayed by his loyalty as to dismiss reason. There are valid justifications for “running away,” and one of them was put before him at Media Day: What if LeBron James and Dwyane Wade had called Nowitzki up to present him with the basketball opportunity of a lifetime? What if, instead of Chris Bosh, it could be Dirk Nowitzki playing with two top-five players?

“It would’ve been tough,” Nowitzki said. “That would’ve been something I would have had to think about very hard. My goal is a championship, and that would obviously have been a nice option to have. But it’s something that never happened so I never really had to think about it.”

In terms of NBA stars, Nowitzki is as reliable as they come. His production is rock steady, and his keel absurdly even. He’s grounded. He’s loyal. He’s a walking, talking 25 and eight, and his absurdly dependable production and efficiency can be written on the stat sheet in pen before the season even begins. Let Nowitzki’s comment serve as a reminder, though, that his trademark statistical exploits didn’t have to come with him in a Maverick uniform. Sometimes even the most consistent of stars on the most consistent of teams can be prey to mere falling dominoes. They never fell Dirk’s way. He never got that phone call, and Nowitzki is every bit the Maverick he’s always been.

Smile. You were never worried.

Heard It Through the Grapevine

Posted by Rob Mahoney on August 18, 2010 under xOther | Be the First to Comment

  • Kurt Helin, my fellow ProBasketballTalk-er, had a chance to interview Caron Butler. Here are Butler’s thoughts regarding what the Mavs’ areas for improvement in the coming year: “Controlling the glass, focusing on defense. Because we can score with the best of them. We have a great player, we have a Hall of Fame point guard and whole bunch of other guys that want to get it done and are willing to sacrifice whatever to win. We’ve just got to put it all together and we will.” Butler also noted that he’s been working with the needs-no-introduction Tim Grover.
  • Kevin Arnovitz has a great interview with Texas Legends’ coach Nancy Lieberman, who is getting serious mileage out of her catchphrase (which you may remember from my interview with Lieberman earlier this summer): “Making the irregular regular.” Here’s Lieberman on her voice as a coach, and what the voice will mean to men who haven’t had all that many female basketball mentors: “I think the end message will be similar, but the methods and how they get the information could be different. I’m excited about it because I’m not going to be in practice f-bombing people. That won’t be me. I’ll be firm and I’ll be fair. We won’t tell people what to do. We’ll explain what we’d like them to do. We’ll show them what we want to do. Then, they’ll do it. I will work their tails off. Trust me. I’m not as nice as I’m faking it on this conversation. I will work them really hard, but I’ll love them on the other side. And they need to know they’re loved and cared for. But that doesn’t mean you can walk over me, through me. That won’t happen. But look, I’m going to kill my guys so I might as well be nice to them. I have high expectations. I haven’t made it in a man’s world for 35 years by being soft, scared or insecure.”
  • Mike Krzyzewski on Tyson Chandler’s play for Team USA, via Chris Tomasson of FanHouse: “Tyson has been outstanding. We have a relationship from the 2007 qualifying team (and in 2008 when Chandler came close to making the Olympic team) … He doesn’t need the ball. He’s stronger. I bet he’s at least probably 15 pounds heavier and stronger than he was in 2007. He feels healthy.”
  • Have $25 burning a hole in your wallet? Then do I have the deal for you. (H/T: Scott Schroeder)
  • Josh Howard, infused with Devean George’s trade veto power.
  • Caron Butler thinks the Heat could make it to 73 wins. The Bulls’ sacred 72-win mark is seemingly unbeatable, but next year’s Miami Heat have definite advantages those Bulls were never afforded. The ’95-’96 Bulls are certainly one of the best teams to ever lace them up, but is Caron wrong? Isn’t the combination of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade — with Chris Bosh and a hell of a supporting cast — enough to at least bring the Heat into the discussion?
  • Andre Miller and Chauncey Billups are two big, strong point guards that have made the most of their size by posting up smaller opposing guards. The Mavs have dabbled with using Jason Kidd in a similar capacity, but he just doesn’t have the scoring chops for it. Regardless, Sebastian Pruiti of NBA Playbook breaks down what it is that makes Miller and Billups so effective in the post.
  • Kelly Dwyer is ranking the top 30 players in each of the five conventional positions, beginning with point guards. You can see the first installment (30-21) here, and the second (20-11) here. Jason Kidd comes in at #12, which may seem a bit harsh, but consider the 11 PGs likely to top Kidd in Dwyer’s rankings (in no particular order): Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Jameer Nelson (already confirmed as #11), Rajon Rondo, Chauncey Billups, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Devin Harris, Tony Parker, and Tyreke Evans. Of those 11, which would you pick Kidd to best in the coming season?
  • Jeff Fox of Hoops Manifesto takes a stab at listing the top 10 Mavericks of all-time.
  • Rodrigue Beaubois’ surgery was successful.
  • From Caron Butler’s blog on HoopsHype: “Aside from the Tyson Chandler trade, my team has had a pretty quiet offseason. I’m not surprised. We had a great roster already. The management looked at the team and thought change wasn’t needed.” Well…that’s certainly one interpretation of the summer’s events.

Revisions, Pt. I

Posted by Rob Mahoney on August 10, 2010 under Commentary | 27 Comments to Read

evolution

Last week’s foray into the positional revolution was a good start, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. As I noted previously, Drew Cannon’s positional system isn’t coming out of the internet womb fully-formed; a lot of adjustments and tweaks are necessary for the model to become viable. Still, Cannon’s design offers a welcome starting point for both discourse regarding positional fluidity and, hopefully, some eventual long-term change in the way we think about and define positions.

There is no end to this process. Even if we successfully shed the five traditional positions in favor of some other system, players and their roles will continue to evolve. It’s critical that we’re constantly challenging the limits of positionality to match with the on-court product. Note that those limits aren’t being tested without reason. It’s important that positional rhetoric remains descriptivist in nature. We’re not saying “this is the way that position X should play,” but rather “this is the way that position X does play.”

With those things in mind, any model proposed here needs to be poked and prodded. Finding the leaks is an important step in the process. I’ll be the first to concede that no positional model will ever be perfect, but tinkering with the system’s imperfections is the the path that will bring us all closer to that flawless standard.

~~~~~

Thus far, Cannon’s defensive positions seem to be the source of the most controversy. While there is some confusion over what Cannon’s designations do and should mean, the most glaring problem was captured perfectly by Tom Ziller:

The problem with the way this new development is framed is that it still relies on demonstrably imprecise labels. If Rodrigue Beaubois is a “D1″ — meaning he guards point guards despite often playing shooting guard next to Jason Kidd or J.J. Barea — then you’re assuming there are “1s” for him to guard, which is just the type of assumption the Positional Revolution aims to destroy.

The point of a new nomenclature is to do a better job describing what players actually do, and do well. If “1s” no longer exist, in favor of the Cannon/Mahoney use of “scorer” or “creator” for offensive roles, what does a “D1″ do? And is that by necessity (due to size or athleticism) or ability? Is calling Beaubois a “D1 Scorer” any different from calling him a “guard”? A more useful classification might be something like “DPick-and-RollA+” or “DPostC-”.

In their original context, defensive designations like D1, etc. are actually very counterproductive. If the hope is to move away from traditional positions, it makes little sense to lean so heavily on them.

Yet Ziller’s suggested variant, while useful, is both highly subjective and goes well beyond what position is thought to bring to the NBA discussion. There are some skill valuations inherent to positional delineation, but in my eyes (and this point is certainly up for debate), it’s important that positions describe and group without necessarily assessing how well a certain player executes their role. Those types of appraisals require far more nuance, and using them to define players via position sacrifices the accessibility of those classifications.

In addition, the wide variety of defensive abilities each NBA player is asked to display makes it difficult to pin down a primary role via skill set. For purposes of convenience, the defensive positions should be as short as possible, so saying that Dwight Howard is a “DPick-and-RollB+/DPostA/DHelpA+/DHelpPostB/DRebounderA+,” while descriptive, is probably a bit silly. Yet, if we’re going to classify players by their skill (and skill level, in this scenario), Howard’s post defense is no more important than any of those other facets. How would one accurately and succinctly convey all of that information in a usable (and more importantly, re-usable) manner?

I think the key is to step away from skill descriptors, particularly at such depth. While it makes sense to describe a player’s offensive role as a “scorer” or “rebounder,” defense functions much differently. A player’s defensive position (not utility, position) hinges on, again, not how well a player defends, but what purpose they serve. Or, for simplicity’s sake, what types of players they’re able to defend.

Who a given player is able to defend certainly ties into the respective skills of both the defender and their offensive counterpart. At a more basic level though, a player’s defensive range is determined by the various heights and speeds he’s able to counter. I’m not talking about the height and speed of the defender, but rather, the ranges of those two variables that a defender is physically able to contest.

Thus, I offer the following modification of Cannon’s defensive positions:

New Positionality Redux

We’ll use the original D1, D2, D3, etc. designations, but with each describing a certain range of relative size and speed. D1 no longer represents a player’s ability to defend point guards per se, but their ability to defend shorter, quicker opponents. Likewise, a D5 would indicate one’s ability to defend bigger, slower players, regardless of one’s own size and speed (Chuck Hayes, for example, is 6’6”, but would be a D5 because of his ability to guard taller, stronger players).

A few notes:

  • With this system, we eliminate the idea that there are 1s or 2s to guard, and instead simply assume that there will be players of different sizes on the court. Someone will need to guard them. Teams don’t have to match small with small, but they do need to match a small opponent with a D1 (even if that D1 would be a shooting guard or small forward by most conventional standards).
  • It’s important that the boundaries between the size/speed of D1 vs. D2, D2 vs. D3, etc. are nonspecific. This is not meant to be measurable, as creating the necessary framework would involve drawing far too many arbitrary brightlines.
  • Positions are meant to be convenient. As such, we really do need to sacrifice some depth for the sake of easier use and better understanding. The point isn’t to create some undecipherable code that no other NBA fans can solve, but to create a relatively uniform system that’s a bit more descriptive and accurate than the current one.
  • These positions are different from traditional ones, particularly because they account for defensive versatility and cross-matching. For a basic example, let’s take Rodrigue Beaubois. He may start at shooting guard this year, but in the Allen Iverson mold, will mostly be cross-matched on opposing point guards. So from a positional standpoint, it makes far more sense to call him a “Scorer, Creator/Handler, D1″ than it does a shooting guard. It gives us a bit of insight into what kind of players Beaubois will be guarding, as well as his offensive responsibilities.
  • For a more complicated example, look at LeBron James. He’ll be listed as a small forward, but we know his offensive role is more far-reaching than the limits of a traditional wing. Additionally, LeBron has become such a useful defender that he can guard all kinds of positions. Thanks to his incredible combination or size, speed, and strength, one could make a legitimate argument that James is actually one of the few players capable of defending all five traditional positions. His ‘SF’ label has never done him justice on offense, and now it’s just as constricting defensively.
  • There’s still something to be said about how a player defends that’s completely unaccounted for. It’s distinct enough from the question of ‘How well?’ that it could technically be incorporated, but I see no simple way to incorporate it. Something to put on the wish list, for sure, but at this stage those distinctions seem a bit too complex.
  • Another concern is addressing players who can’t really defend anybody. Regardless of where we put the bounds of a positional system, there are going to be exceptions. There will always be someone who doesn’t fit neatly into the given categories. Tentatively, these players will be addressed as ‘D0,’ but it’s certainly an idea worth revisiting.
  • Please, leave questions and concerns over this system or propositions for other defensive positional models in the comments. Feedback is a crucial part of this process, and every reader is an invaluable part of the refinement of this system.

Special thanks to M. Haubs, Matt Moore, and Zach Harper for spiritual guidance.