Quiet Mavericks One Piece Away From Being in Play

by Rafael Uehara

Dallas improved to 23-16 with its easy beatdown of slow-developing Orlando on Monday night. The Mavericks are now posting a .589 winning percentage against what basketball-reference.com rates as the 10th toughest schedule in the league. Dallas is outperforming its 12th-ranked pace adjusted point differential by three spots in the win column thanks to outstanding late game performance. They have won 12 of 22 close games (here defined as five-point games with five minutes remaining), holding opponents to 97 points per 100 possessions on 78 clutch time minutes, according to NBA.com/stats/, good for fourth best in the NBA in such situations.

The Mavericks have picked up those wins thanks to unexpected good defense in the end of games (more on their overall defense later) but have gotten to those scenarios in the first place because of a very high functioning offense that ranks seventh in scoring per possession and fourth in effective shooting, anchored by yet another prolific season by the great, great Dirk Nowitzki and high basketball IQ all around the perimeter, including by wildcard Monta Ellis. With Nowitzki shooting as well as he ever has and Ellis mostly playing within the structure of Rick Carlisle’s pick-and-roll heavy offense Dallas has arguably been the best team in the league in halfcourt execution, excluding Miami and San Antonio from comparison.

The signing of Ellis in the summer to a three-year, $24 million dollar contract was met by some with skepticism. But, though it remains questionable if the Mavericks couldn’t have negotiated a better deal considering the market was cold on him, Ellis has turned out to be a good pickup at this point, performing the key task of balancing Dallas’ offense. According to nba.com/stats/, with Ellis on the floor the Mavericks average 19.5 shots per game within five feet of the basket and just 5.5 with him off the floor. Ellis’ speed turning the corner and attacking the rim to either score or draw an extra defender and free a teammate has been very important to a team that has only him and Brandan Wright (who is dependant of being set up) as reliable interior scorers. According to vorped.com, Nowitzki only averages 2.2 shots in the lane per game.

He is, however, having one of the greatest jump-shooting seasons in recent memory. Nowitzki is averaging 1.33 points per shot on 53.7% effective shooting in 1233 minutes, boosted by an incredible 53.1% shooting on 316 mid-range attempts, according to vorped.com, and also quite excellent 41.1% three-point shooting on 146 attempts from beyond the arc. At age 35, there are no signs of Nowitzki slowing down. His attempts closer to the basket have progressively decreased the last three seasons but an argument could be made that it’s due to the fact that Ellis is a much more dangerous threat than Darren Collison, Jason Terry and Delonte West on the two-man game, which has led to better catch-and-shoot looks. He ranks second in the league in catch-and-shoot scoring, behind only Klay Thompson.

When Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson assembled this roster in the summer, it looked as if they were attempting to recreate that team that won the title. Jose Calderon was signed to replace Jason Kidd as a ball mover and outside gunner, Ellis was brought in to emulate Terry and Barea as Nowitzki’s pick-and-roll, give-and-go partner and hope was Wright and Samuel Dalembert could combine for some of the value Tyson Chandler produced. Calderon has been tasked with less shot creation than in Detroit and Toronto (so much so that basketball-reference actually tags him as the nominal shooting guard and Ellis as the point guard, though it’s all semantics really) but has thrived in the role of off guard. Paid as one of the best shooters in the league (his contract is in line with those received by Kyle Korver, JJ Redick and Kevin Martin), Calderon has produced as such. According nba.com’s SportsVU, Calderon has posted a .689 effective field-goal percentage on roughly 174 catch-and-shoot attempts. He also ranks fourth in three-pointers made.

The rotation at center hasn’t been as productive, however. With Wright missing 24 games to start the season, late offseason pickup DeJuan Blair has split minutes with Dalembert and it seems clear neither has impressed Carlisle very much. Both have logged almost the exact same minute total. The Mavericks rank in the bottom five in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage and have allowed the eighth most points at the rim on 63.7% shooting. Opponents have shot 56% on roughly 163 attempts with Blair protecting the rim and 51.5% on roughly 244 with Dalembert doing so, according to nba.com’s SportsVU. Wright has been a very good offensive threat (partly responsible for Vince Carter picking up his game after a poor start to the season, as brought up by Grantland’s Zach Lowe) and Dallas has been a scoring juggernaut in the 302 minutes he has been in the lineup but also has allowed 109.6 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would rank last in the league in defensive efficiency among teams.

The league is going through an injury epidemic, and that includes the top of the west with Russell Westbrook dealing with complications of the knee surgery he underwent last March. Miami will enter the postseason having played well over 300 games of a very taxing brand of basketball over the last three-plus years. Quietly, this could be one of those seasons where a surprise candidate could have a path to the title, as it was the case when Dallas won three years ago. And it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to envision the Mavericks, with its core surviving the significant injury bug and an offense that can score as well as any other team, in play again if they manage to fix its subpar defense, which is of massive importance for this scenario. According to Zach Lowe, only two teams since 1990 have reached the Finals ranking outside the top 10 in scoring allowed per possession; the 2000-2001 Lakers and the 1994-1995 Rockets. Elite defense is key for contention. Dallas currently ranks 19th in scoring allowed per possession and 20th in opponents’ effective shooting. Not only it allows the eighth most points at the rim but also the fifth most off corner three-pointers.

It is hard to envision much internal improvement out of this group, so the Mavericks will likely to dip into the trade market to fix its issues in prevention. As we all know Omer Asik is available and he would be the perfect addition for this team but it’s difficult to see a path for the Mavericks to acquire him. Dallas owes a first round pick to Oklahoma City, which only becomes unprotected in 2018 and does not hold the rights to any unsigned high profile European prospects. I can’t imagine the Rockets or a third team being interested in Shane Larkin, Ricky Ledo and Gal Mekel as sweeteners to make it worth waiting for a pick to be conveyed only six years from now. Milwaukee has Larry Sanders, John Henson and Miroslav Raduljica and logic dictates it should make one of them available for the right price, maybe even Sanders who is quickly becoming kind of a headache. One assumes it would be Raduljica, though, who does not have much of a track record (having logged just 254 minutes his three-month NBA career) but has posted eye popping advanced metrics. He would a gamble nonetheless. And it’s unclear when Emeka Okafor will be ready and what the Suns’ plans are for him. No one else appears rushing to give up what might be the most valuable commodity in the game (rim protection) at this moment. But if the Mavericks do manage to somehow pull a surprise trade for that missing piece, someone we can’t think of as available right now (that’s usually how most trades work), they immediately become a team of much more interest.