A Beautiful Construction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regression to the Mean

Posted by Ian Levy on June 5, 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 a part of The Two Man Game family. You can follow Ian on Twitter at @HickoryHigh.

Shame on me.

I left the establishment where I was watching Game 2, just after Dwyane Wade hit a three pointer to put the Heat up by 15 with 7:13 left in the 4th Quarter. I had to follow one of the greatest comebacks in NBA history on the radio as I drove home. Although I didn’t get to see it live, there’s something to be said for great sports moments on the radio. Receiving auditory input only somehow seems to heighten the tension…Yeah, I’m not buying it either. I’m an idiot. If you’re too disgusted to keep reading, I completely understand.

Depending on the media outlet, the Mavericks’ Game 2 victory was either an epic comeback, or an epic collapse. I really do appreciate those who are covering it accurately as both. The Mavericks’ scored the points they needed to close the gap, the Heat couldn’t extend or even protect their lead. The Mavericks raised their game on both sides of the ball, a feat that happily coincided with the Heat easing off the throttle. Most of the attention on the Heat following Game 2 has been focused on their failure to score down the stretch; an offense that had been steaming ahead smoothly, suddenly came off the rails. Here are the results of each offensive possession by the Heat over the last 7:13:

  • Dwyane Wade misses 24-foot three point jumper
  • Mario Chalmers misses 25-foot three point jumper
  • LeBron James misses driving layup
  • Chris Bosh misses 21-foot jumper
  • LeBron James makes 2 free throws
  • LeBron James misses 16-foot jumper
  • Chris Bosh out of bounds lost ball turnover
  • Udonis Haslem misses 15-foot jumper
  • LeBron James misses 26-foot three point jumper
    Dwyane Wade offensive rebound
    LeBron James misses 25-foot three point jumper
    Udonis Haslem offensive rebound
    Udonis Haslem bad pass (Jason Terry steals)
  • Dwyane Wade misses 24-foot three point jumper
  • Mario Chalmers makes 24-foot three point jumper (LeBron James assists)
  • Dwyane Wade misses 28-foot three point jumper

Obviously, anyone complaining about the Heat’s shot selection and lack of interior attempts over that stretch has a point. By my count, there were two turnovers, two free throws, a layup attempt, three long two-point attempts, and seven three-point attempts. The last two three-point attempts can probably be excused as one was a wide-open game tying try and the other a heave at the buzzer, but even when taking away those two attempts, the Mavericks’ defense deserves credit and the Heat offense deserves criticism for their respective performances over that spread.

However, while I can’t condone the Heat’s shot selection, I can — in part — understand it. Up to that point, the Heat were shooting 40.4% on three-pointers for the series. Wade and LeBron,who were responsible for five of those six missed three-pointers, had shot spectacularly well from beyond the arc. James had made six of his 10 three-point attempts for the series, and Wade had made four of eight. In case you don’t have a calculator handy, that’s 55.6% shooting on three-pointers from a pair that combined to shoot 32.0% during the regular season.

The Heat should take some heat for their shot selection, but they were missing shots that had been going in for the previous 88 minutes of Finals game time. Part of rooting on Wade and LeBron is living with some ill-advised jumpshots. If you’ll pardon a second pun dropped in this single paragraph: they are the kings of the heat check. They make outlandish shots better than just about anyone, but they’re still rely heavily on outlandish shots and sometimes they don’t go in. Luckily for the Mavericks, Wade and LeBron chose an inopportune time to regress to the mean.

A few other points which seem to have been glossed over in the national discussion:

  • I’m giving myself half a pat on the back today. I went out on a limb in my series preview, saying DeShawn Stevenson should play much better and had an opportunity to have a large impact in the series. The large impact hasn’t quite materialized but Stevenson has been very effective, playing tough defense, grabbing 5 rebounds in just over 36 minutes, and knocking down five of eight threes.
  • As great as Nowitzki’s scoring bursts were down the stretch, he helped put his team in position to steal a win by killing himself on the glass. In Game 1 the Heat had an Offensive Rebound Rate of 34.8%. In Game 2, Dallas held the Heat to an ORR of 16.7%. Much of that credit goes to Nowitzki, who grabbed 9 defensive rebounds in the second half.

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.

I Bite My Thumb at Thee

Posted by Rob Mahoney on May 30, 2011 under Commentary | 2 Comments to Read

Beckley Mason, whose prolific writing can be matched only by his equally prolific hoops game, was kind enough to have me drop by HoopSpeak for a “gentleman’s debate on these impending NBA Finals:

Rob: Well, the only forecasters who are hideously wrong are those who expect a lopsided series in either direction. Something has to give when elite offense and elite defense collide, but the matchup dynamics of this series speak to a hard-fought six-or-seven-gamer. I’m waffling in my prediction of the verdict at the moment — the only outcome that seems as likely as the Heat winning in seven is the Mavs winning seven, or six, or losing in six, or what have you — which is really only indicative of the slightest of margins that separates the performance of these two fantastic teams.

Dallas will have a lot to contend with; their problems go beyond LeBron and Wade diving into the paint, as the offensive complications Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem, and Mike Miller provide could end up deciding the series. Miami has a lot of focused firepower in their best five-man lineup, and the aforementioned defensive prowess to boot.

But the Mavs didn’t come this far by way of luck or some trickery. Dirk Nowitzki is, as you may have heard, that good. Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, and Jason Kidd provide the framework for an incredibly versatile and prolific offense. I’m still not convinced that the Mavs will win the series, but I fail to see why they can’t. Dirk is as unguardable as any player in the Finals, and provided that Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood can manage some way to negotiate their responsibilities as both on-ball defenders against stretch bigs like Bosh and Haslem and as perfectly vertical monoliths protecting the rim from the James/Wade barrage, I’m not seeing what makes the Heat anything resembling an overwhelming favorite.

Be sure to check out the full dialogue over at HoopSpeak, and look for the OFFICIAL Two Man Game Finals preview tomorrow.

Scene Stealing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Once More, With Feeling: The Formula

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

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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.

Heard It Through the Grapevine

Posted by Rob Mahoney on October 15, 2010 under xOther | Be the First to Comment

  • Art Garcia previews the Mavs’ season for NBA.com, with some help from Jason Kidd: “Surveying the roster, Kidd points to the two candidates the Mavericks need to come through if that’s going to happen. ‘Shawn and Caron are the two guys that I would circle,’ he said. ‘We need them to have big years.’ Getting that out of them is a function of both understanding the system and each other. Shawn Marion is just one year into his Dallas career. Caron Butler arrived in February. The two former All-Stars are still transitioning to Carlisle’s system. There’s been a lot said and written about which of the two will start this season, since both are natural small forwards. They started together last season, with Butler sharing backcourt space next to Kidd. The starting point guard dismissed any notion that playing time or starting status is going to be an issue. ‘They’re going to be on the court together,’ Kidd assured. ‘It just goes back to being comfortable. When you’re comfortable and understand each other’s tendencies, the game becomes that much easier.’”
  • For those of  you who are fantasy basketball-inclined, Tom Carpenter pegged Rodrigue Beaubois as a legitimate breakout candidate.
  • Another quality quote from Art Garcia’s preview, this time courtesy of Rick Carlisle, who accurately appraises the Mavs’ current value (emphasis mine): “We know we have a good team here. And what we want to be is a special team. For that to happen, we’ve got some improvement to make in some specific areas.”
  • Courtesy of Tom Haberstroh: skew the stats just right (read: on a per-minute basis), and Ian Mahinmi is an all-timer.
  • Chris Tomasson of NBA FanHouse on the Maverick bigs: “Nowitzki’s centers have included stationary objects Shawn Bradley, Raef LaFrentz, DeSagana Diop and Dampier. General manager Donnie Nelson said the Mavericks have had “your traditional aircraft carrieresque centers,” but not the agility and versatility they have in the pivot now with Chandler and Haywood. ‘We’re just going to keep bringing bigs and don’t have to worry about foul trouble,’ said Cuban, who also has in his stable two more centers in 6-11 Ian Mahinmi and 7-foot Alex Ajinca. ‘We can be aggressive, we can press and run and we can do a lot of things we couldn’t do before. It helps us match up against anybody, the Lakers in particular. If they’ve got Bynum, Gasol and Odom on the floor, we can match up. We don’t have to worry about one of those guys posting us up…We’ve got depth and we can put a lot of pressure on teams and hopefully wear them down over the course of a game.’”
  • Dirk doesn’t think he’s “big-time” enough to throw out the first pitch at a Rangers’ playoff game.
  • Dominique Jones, who is wise beyond his years (via Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas): “If you looked at me my whole career, when have I ever missed layups? We’re talking about layups. We aren’t talking about my jump shot or 3s. We’re talking about layups. I’m missing layups. If I keep going in there, something good is going to happen…I can’t be a rookie this year. I’ve never been a freshman, and I can’t play like a rookie, can’t look like one.”
  • Apparently, when Jason Terry signs each tweet with “CTC,” he does mean “cut the check.” Only he doesn’t. But he still really does. Alright.
  • Dominique Jones and the Dallas Cowboys’ Dez Bryant have had very different rookie experiences.

A few older links, from yet another unpublished edition of the Grapevine:

  • It was once supposed that the Mavs might be able to flip some combination of expiring contracts (Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler, etc.) for an impact player mid-season, but Ryan Schwan of Hornets 24-7 made an excellent point to the contrary: the oversaturation of large expiring contracts on this year’s trade market will make the trade value of all such contracts decline, and the likelihood of any given team (in the case of his piece, the Hornets, and for our purposes, the Mavs) drop accordingly.
  • According to Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News, “the Mavericks are fortunate to have a superstar who loves his surroundings and is willing to help make it work in Dallas.” I’d agree, but they’re just as lucky that Dirk Nowitzki never received a certain phone call.
  • Per Art Garcia of NBA.com: “Byron Scott said Tyson Chandler is best & smartest center he’s ever coached.”
  • The preseason matters more than we think, which probably isn’t what Mavs fans want to hear after going 1-3 on their preseason run thus far.
  • Brendan Haywood as a selection on Kevin Sawyer’s All-Overrated team at Detroit Bad Boys. I couldn’t disagree more. Haywood’s good for a quasi double-double, and the real deal when he gets proper minutes. He’s a smart help-side defender and skilled in defending the low post. Considering how much a premium is placed on those skills, I fail to see how Haywood falls so miserably short, even if we use his price tag against him. Overpaid maybe, but necessarily so. Throw in solid finishing ability, a decent righty hook, and par-for-the-course rebounding, and you’ve got yourself a hell of a player that shouldn’t even sniff this list. (Link via Ball Don’t Lie)
  • Udonis Haslem quietly killed the Mavs in the 2006 Finals, and the nearly came to terms with Dallas for the mid-level exception. What’s he doing these days? Oh, not much, just being a damn essential part of the vaunted Miami Heat.

Heard It Through the Grapevine

Posted by Rob Mahoney on July 12, 2010 under xOther | Be the First to Comment