This is it. This is the moment that everyone has been waiting for. As it was apparent that the Mavs weren’t going to make the first time in over a decade, everyone circled July 1st on their calendar. They waited to see if the Mavs could really make progress on improving their team.
Some are waiting to say “I told you so” and that dismantling the championship team was a mistake. Over the weekend, I’ve looked over that roster again and the results and I still stand by my belief that that captured lightning in a bottle and Dirk Nowitzki had one of the greatest playoff runs the league has ever seen. As the Miami Heat celebrate their second championship, Dirk and those Mavs will know that they “got ‘em.”
History may or may not remember the 2011 Mavs for what they did and mainly remember what the Heat didn’t do, but there’s no way to erase the fact that Nowitzki was the baddest man on a basketball court that summer.
Last season was a disappointing one as the Mavs wandered through the wilderness of mediocrity. Nowitzki’s injury derailed the season from the get-go. Despite that, the Mavs were able to find a way to stay playoff relevant until the final week of the season. That shows that Dirk and a cast of characters can be a playoff team, but the front office must now make their move and secure more reliable weapons for their star. “We’re trying to accumulate high quality, high character, high energy, high motor, skilled players to put around Dirk Nowitzki,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said after the draft. “He’s still one of the greatest players in the game and we’ve got to enhance his ability to do what he does.
“We’ve got to enhance the opportunity to keep him playing as long as possible because he loves to play and he’s great. To do that effectively, we’ve got to get the best guys possible around him. That’s a priority and it’ll continue to be one this summer.”
Now is the time. Let’s look at everything under the free agency microscope.
Read more of this article »
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.
It’s been just over three weeks since Corey Brewer signed with the Dallas Mavericks. Brewer is young, athletic and by all accounts, an extremely hard worker. However, the chief attraction for the Mavericks was his reputation as an excellent wing defender. So far he’s had trouble carving out a place for himself in Rick Carlisle’s rotation, averaging just 8.9 minutes per game over seven games. It’s difficult to draw conclusions with such a small sample size, but he hasn’t yet done anything to stand out at the defensive end.
What exactly is his defensive reputation based on? Watching him play we see a long and bouncy sliver of a forward. He competes on every defensive possession; he battles through screens, moves his feet on the perimeter, and displays a knack for using his length to contest shots. Defensive impact is notoriously hard to measure statistically, but is there any numeric evidence that his excellent tools and motor translate to an effect on an opposing team’s offense?
There are plenty of defensive statistics available. The issue is that none are accepted as a completely accurate metric, with opinions varying wildly on the value of each. Today we’re going to take a tour through some of these available statistics, examining Corey Brewer along the way and trying to pin down the quantity and quality of his defensive contributions. Since he’s spent such a short time with the Mavericks, most of the stats we look at will cover his entire season or just his games with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Box Score Statistics
These are the basics that everyone is familiar with: steals, blocks and rebounds. When we look at these stats per 40 minutes we find Brewer averaging 2.6 steals, 0.4 blocks and 4.5 rebounds. Compared to the league average for swingmen, Brewer is sub-par with regards to rebounds and blocks. However, he steals the ball at a rate nearly twice the league average.
Another way to look at these basic statistics is as a percentage of their opportunities. Steal Percentage, Block Percentage and Rebound Percentage (Ed. note: These measures have also been referred to as “rebounding rate,” etc. on this blog. The terms are completely synonymous.) are all statistics available from a variety of sources, including Hoopdata.com and Basketball-Reference.com. Stl% is calculated as the percentage of the opposing team’s offensive possessions on which a player records a steal. Blk% is calculated as the percentage of the opposing team’s shot attempts which are blocked by the player. Reb% is calculated as the percentage of available rebounds which a player grabs. Reb% is available as a total number, but can also be split into Offensive and Defensive Reb%.
Brewer’s total Reb% of 6.2% and his Blk% of 0.8% are both below average. Again, where he really shines is stealing the basketball. This season, Brewer ranks 4th in the league in Stl%, at 3.2%. He trails only Tony Allen, Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul. Over the past four seasons, Brewer has the 17th best Stl% in the league, at 2.5%. Forcing turnovers is something the Mavericks have struggled with all season. They are currently 24th in the league, with an Opponent’s TOV% of 12.4%, well below the league average of 13.5%. Having Brewer on the floor to wreak havoc in the passing lanes could be a real asset in the playoffs.
On Court/Off Court Statistics
The premise with On Court/Off Court statistics is simple: look at how a team’s defense performs when a player is on the floor and compare that with how it performs when they’re off the floor. Theoretically, the player should be responsible for much of that difference. The problem is that these statistics have a lot of inherent “noise” in them. Since this model is essentially about comparison, trading minutes with a horrible defender can make someone look much better than they are. By the same token, a back-up may look much better than they are because they’re matched up against the opponent’s back-ups.
These statistics are available in a lot of different formats. 82games.com tracks several categories for On Court/Off Court, including Defensive Rating, eFG% allowed, Blk%, Reb%, Turnovers and Free Throw Attempts allowed. BasketballValue.com allows you to look at the On Court/Off Court Defensive Rating for a player overall, and broken down by the different five-man units the player was a part of.
Looking at these stats for Corey Brewer incorporates a lot of the “noise” we mentioned above. Brewer’s place in the Timberwolves’ rotation varied quite a bit. He started just under half of the 56 games he played with them. In 11 of those games he played fewer than 20 minutes. He played over 30 minutes 9 times. The Timberwolves are also ranked 26th this season in Defensive Rating, meaning Brewer played alongside some less than ideal defensive teammates, in a less than ideal defensive system.
To try and limit the influence of some of those factors in the statistics I isolated some five-man units Brewer was a part of to look at the On Court/Off Court Defensive Ratings. I started with the 6 units Brewer spent the most minutes playing with. For comparison, I pulled out any units that had the same four teammates but a replacement for Brewer. The table below shows the Defensive Ratings for each of those units.
In three of those lineups the team’s Defensive Rating was better with Brewer on the floor, in the other three it was worse. Inconclusive to say the least. I went over these lineups several times and couldn’t identify any common patterns, such as Wesley Johnson replacing Brewer making the defense significantly better. For the purposes of our discussion, it’s convenient that this case is a perfect illustration of some of the problems with On Court/Off Court statistics.
These metrics come directly from analysis of play-by-play data. The three I see utilize the most often are Individual Defensive Rating from Basketball-Reference.com, counterpart statistics from 82games.com, and possession category data from Synergy Sports Technology.
Individual Defensive Rating is a metric that was introduced by Dean Oliver in his book, Basketball on Paper. It’s based on the same principle as team Defensive Rating: how many points are allowed per 100 possessions. It’s calculated by using play-by-play data to figure out how many points the opposing player creates while the defensive player is on the floor.
Extensions of this data can be unreliable because it often assumes match-ups based on listed position, which is not always the case. Teams like the Mavs have a lot of positional interplay on both offense and defense, so some of the metrics derived from play-by-play data can be a bit problematic.
Brewer’s Individual Defensive Rating has only been below 110 once in his career: this season, where his time in Minnesota and Dallas have worked out too a rating of 109. The league average this season is 107.1. Granted, he’s played on some bad defensive teams in Minnesota, but this statistic theoretically captures just the points created by the opponent he’s guarding. Even when accounting for the defensive deficiencies of his teammates, Brewer does not look impressive by this metric.
Counterpart statisics are just an extension of Individual Defensive Rating. They’re also culled from play-by-play data, and show the eFG%, FTA/48, Reb/48, Ast/48, Pts/48 and PER for the opposing player while the defensive player is on the floor. Being calculated in the same way as Individual Defensive Rating, they can be unreliable for some of the same reasons. 82games displays these statistics broken down by the position that the defender was playing. The table below shows the counterpart statistics for Brewer’s time in Minnesota this season.
Keeping in mind the shortcomings of these stats, we still don’t see much evidence of defensive impact. Brewer seems to be more potent defending shooting guards but still allows fairly healthy production. I would guess that shooting guards are a better matchup for him because his height creates an advantage and his lack of strength is less likely to be exploited. These numbers also reinforce his strength in creating turnovers. However, Brewer sends opposing players to the free throw line at a fairly high rate, which indicates that his aggressiveness may be hurting nearly as much as it helps.
The possession statistics from Synergy Sports Technology are a little different in that they come from video analysis. Each play from each game is reviewed on video and than categorized by the type of possession (post-up, transition, etc.). The fact that the data comes from video analysis solves some of the defensive cross-matching problems that the other play-by-play statistics have. The table below shows Brewer’s defensive possession statistics from his time in Minnesota.
|Possession||% of Possessions||Points per Possession||Rank||FG%||SF%||TO%
|Pick-and-Roll Ball Handler||20.5%||0.88||143||39.7%||10.9%||15.8%
Shoddy team defense certainly affects Brewer’s numbers here, but again there is very little to indicate we’re looking at an elite wing defender. He’s solid against the pick-and-roll, does a good job closing out on spot-up shooters, and creates a lot of turnovers. But he’s not in the top 50 in any category, and on several possession types, particularly isolations, is nearly as likely to commit a shooting foul as to force a turnover.
After all looking at all these numbers we end up right about where we started. Our eyes tell us that Brewer’s physical tools and motor make him a terrific defender. The statistics say he generates a lot of steals, but plenty of fouls as well, and for all his tools doesn’t seem to make a huge impact defensively, either individually or at the team level.
Both sides of this equation could change over the next three seasons in Dallas. Perhaps playing alongside better defensive teammates and in a more cohesive system will allow the statistics to catch up with what we see when we watch Brewer play. Or perhaps playing alongside more effective defenders will expose him as spastic in the Hansbroughnian style, not always able to control and channel his effort and energy into positive outcomes. The good news for Mavs fans is that, barring injury, I can’t envision any reasonable scenario where his defense would get worse.
Brewer is a perfect microcosm of the debate between old-school and new-school methods of player evaluation. Fans who gravitate towards observation for player evaluation will likely find some reasons why the numbers don’t fully capture his performance. Fans who gravitate towards statistics for player evaluation will likely find some reasons why our eyes can’t discern his true defensive impact. The truth probably lies somewhere in between, illustrating there’s still a wide gap between what we think we see and what we think we’ve measured.
Box Score — Play-by-Play — Shot Chart — GameFlow
“A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”
Defense is predicated on calculated risk, and when properly executed, this is what those risks look like. Lots of long two-pointers (Boston shot 31 shots between 16-23 feet and made just 12 of them). Rotations that expose the defense temporarily, but are balanced by a strong presence at the rim. A huge, potentially game-winning shot, put in Rajon Rondo’s hands some 24 feet from the basket. Even the best defense can’t stop everything, but if a team focuses on what’s important and cedes the rest, they can debilitate opposing offenses enough to win games like this one.
The Mavs weren’t flawless in their execution, but we focus primarily on the defense, this is precisely what the Mavs should hope to achieve on a nightly basis. If all goes according to plan, this defensive performance — though fine on its own merits — should be completely unremarkable. This needs to be the regular for Dallas. This needs to be a trademark. This needs to be the schoolwork proudly displayed on the fridge for a day until a new assignment takes its place, rather than some mantle piece riddled with dust. The Mavs have the potential to be this good defensively if they execute properly, and on this night they did just that.
The Mavs also have the potential to rival the league’s elite if they execute properly on offense as well, yet on this night they did anything but. Dallas committed 19 turnovers in a 91-possession game, which might be borderline impressive if it weren’t so maddening. The Mavs can’t expect to win these kinds of games with regularity if their turnover rate is hovering around last night’s mark of 20.9. Dallas’ hot shooting this season has managed to balance out their turnovers, but the shots won’t always fall. This team can’t always hang its hat on high-percentage shot-making, even if they’re working to create more high-percentage looks than ever. The turnovers need to come down, even if it’s hard to peg any specific reasons for the unexpected bump. As I mentioned yesterday, the symptoms are obvious, but if anyone has a proper diagnosis for these sudden turnover concerns, I’m all ears.
Luckily, Dirk Nowitzki (25 points, 9-16 FG, seven rebounds, four turnovers) was relentless in his drives to the rim, Jason Terry (17 points, 5-11 FG, four assists) was patient and fought for open looks in the half-court offense, and Tyson Chandler (12 points, 5-5 FG, 13 rebounds, two blocks, zero turnovers) introduced the alley-oop as an item of cultural relevance in the Dallas metro area, and J.J. Barea (12 points, 4-7 FG, three assists, three turnovers) scored just enough, even if he overstepped his bounds a bit.
The Celtics have a number of excuses/justifications if they choose to play those cards. Maybe they were looking ahead to a game against the Miami Heat. Maybe they were physically or mentally exhausted in playing the second night of a back-to-back. Regardless, Dallas was the superior squad last night. They executed more effectively, shot more efficiently, hustled more consistently, and attacked more strategically. The Mavs were ready for this game, and they earned a win. That’s important. That’s what you can take away to keep in your back pocket. Whatever goes on in Boston’s camp is their problem, but Dallas came in with a well-constructed plan and enacted it properly.
- Tyson Chandler was fantastic. Nowitzki’s offense was obviously instrumental, but Chandler (Gold Star spoiler alert) was obviously the Mavs’ most effective player. He didn’t create any of his offense on his own, but by relying on his teammates to feed him the ball at the proper moments, Chandler was always in the right spot offensively. He finished each of his opportunities, and demanded that the Celtics’ defense account for him, praise that hasn’t been applicable to a Mavericks’ center, well, ever. On defense, Chandler didn’t re-write the rules of help defense, but he recited them from memory to perfection. He stepped up and challenged any Celtic who dared attack the basket, and even recovered fully to challenge his own man at the basket in some cases. He never stopped. Chandler clearly understands that a defensive possession is only finished after his team secures the rebound, and he worked tirelessly to challenge as many shots and potential shots as possible before concluding each and every possession. Books aren’t written about those who do exactly what they’re supposed to, but for his efforts on this night alone, I vote Chandler worthy of a memoir.
- DeShawn Stevenson started in place of Jason Terry, as Rick Carlisle opted to redistribute the Mavs’ strongest scorers. He answered by hitting a pair of three-pointers and chasing Ray Allen around for 14 minutes, and that’s an unquestionable success. I’m not sure it makes a world of difference to have Terry starting or coming off the bench, as both designations can be balanced by his usage in particular lineups. However, if Stevenson can hit reliably from distance and put in that kind of defensive effort nightly, I’d have no problem with him assuming the starting job until Rodrigue Beaubois’ return.
- Caron Butler knows that the season has started, right?
- The Mavericks have absolutely no respect for Rajon Rondo’s jumper. So much so that J.J. Barea once forgot that Nate Robinson had subbed in for Rondo, and gave up a wide open three-pointer without even pretending to contest.
- I’m not sure who this Brendan Haywood is, but I wouldn’t mind seeing the old one come back. Haywood had a nice contested slam and grabbed a few boards, but he had a lot of trouble defending Kevin Garnett, Semih Erden, and Glen Davis. I know the matchup wasn’t favorable; Haywood would have been far more useful had we seen more of either O’Neal, but Jermaine played limited minutes and Shaquille sat this one out. I understand that puts Haywood in an awkward position, but he has to do better. He has to provide better help, he can’t let Erden beat him to rebounds, and he can’t give up points on the low block so easily. There’s no problem being patient with Haywood given what he’s capable of, but if this is par for the season’s course, Mark Cuban is going to have plenty of sleepless nights, holding his wallet close.
- Even after all of the barking and strutting, I still love watching Kevin Garnett play. As long as he milks that pump fake and turnaround jumper, it doesn’t much matter to me what he’s said or done. Garnett — the player — is still terrific in my book, even if Dirk gave him serious trouble with his drives. Also: KG is so brutally effective from the high post against the zone. He backs down a shoots jumpers over JET, while having the passing savvy to abuse any double-teamer that comes his way.
- If you think this game was in any way decided by officiating, stop. The free throw discrepancy was that large for a reason, and the Mavs’ aggressive third quarter mentality was a big part of that reason.
- Hail Jason Terry, who in his infinite wisdom, opted to foul Ray Allen with 1.5 seconds left in the game. The Celtics had collected an offensive rebound after Rajon Rondo’s three-point miss, and the Dallas defense was in slight disarray. The Mavs had a foul to give, and Terry took it while he could. Not only is that a smart move irrelevant of the result, but the fact that Dallas was able to completely smother the ensuing inbound pass and force Garnett into a contested turnaround from the far corner…well, you can’t ask for much more. Pitch-perfect execution in all regards by Dallas down the stretch, and a great judgment call by Terry.
GOLD STAR OF THE NIGHT: Tyson Chandler. I wouldn’t hang the Mavs’ hat on this iteration of Chandler showing up for every game, but Mavs fans should be thankful he was so effective last night.
Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Marc Spears have unearthed the All-Star reserves, with a few surprises.
Dirk Nowitzki’s exclusion was not one of them. His selection was never even debatable. But the Western Conference reserves will be Chris Paul, Brandon Roy, Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Pau Gasol, Deron Williams, and and Zach Randolph. Great picks all the way down the line, and particular kudos to the coaches for picking this crop over Denver’s Chauncey Billups. Billups is a fine player, but this just isn’t his year. Plus, I think there’s a very legitimate argument to be made for Tyreke Evans over Chauncey, anyway…but we’ll save that for another day.
In the East, the reserves will be Rajon Rondo, Joe Johnson, Chris Bosh, Gerald Wallace, Al Horford, Paul Pierce, and Derrick Rose. In related news, it really, really sucks to be David Lee right now. He’s doing just about everything humanly possible (ahem, offensively), and still can’t catch a break. Pierce is having an off-year, but his selection was more or less assumed. I just wish we could see Lee and Josh Smith in the game, but no such luck.