The Dallas Mavericks missed the playoffs in the 2013 season. Between the aging of Dirk Nowitzki and having to compete in the ruggedNBA Western Conference, there weren’t a lot of reasons for optimism prior to this season. But as we approach Christmas Day, the Mavs are hanging right in. Their 15-10 record would put them in the postseason. Let’s take a look at what the keys to success have been, and what the future looks like.
Dallas signed guard Monta Ellis in free agency this summer and the prolific scoring guard has made his presence felt immediately. Led by Ellis and new point guard Jose Calderon, the Mavs are playing at a quickened pace and executing well offensively. Dallas ranks in the top ten in offensive efficiency, a stat that measures points on a per-possession basis and doesn’t reward teams just for running and gunning.
The high ranking for the Mavericks tells you they are not only playing faster, they are playing well. Ellis is knocking down 20 a game, with Calderon kicking in 12 and veteran Vince Carter chipping in 11 points off the bench.
Most impressive though is that Dirk seems to have a found a fountain of youth. The big German is pouring in 21 points per game, and his fellow veteran forward Shawn Marion is also scoring in double digits.
What Dallas is not doing is rebounding, and the defense has been subpar. This is also a little bit of the Ellis effect. Even for a guard, Ellis smallish and he’ll never be known as a lockdown defender. Calderon is also a small guard. In a league where a lot of guards go 6’6″ and 6’7″ and can crash the boards from the wings, this is a big matchup problem.
The Mavericks get decent rebounding from their frontcourt people–center DeJuan Blair has done a quality job off the bench, but none of them are really dominant rebounders. Nowitzki has never been, relative to his size and position, a physical inside player. All of this makes the small backcourt stand out a little bit more. Devin Harris will provide some more depth when he comes back from a toe injury, but in terms of physical build, he’s cut from the same cloth.
When you look at the Western Conference playoff picture and see a team like Golden State currently on the outside looking in, and a team like Memphis trying to stay afloat until Marc Gasol gets healthy, it makes you ask who are the 1-2 teams currently in the top eight that will get bounced out. Dallas is certainly a candidate, and they need to toughen up on defense and add a veteran rebounder by the trade deadline.
But the Mavs weaknesses are certainly not worse than Phoenix or Denver, and if nothing else, it looks like Dallas is at least going to contend all year. That’s something it was hard to be sure of when the season began.
When it comes to disappointments, the Dallas Mavericks have gotten off the hook when it comes to media pressure this season. All of the oxygen in the room has been sucked up by the Los Angeles Lakers. Then you can add in that Dallas has been further submerged by the success of the other two teams in the Lone Star State. San Antonio just keeps churning out wins, while Houston is the only NBA team to have already exceeded its preseason Las Vegas win projection.
Trade deadline talk took up more airtime, though the 3 PM ET deadline passed today without major incident. Finally let’s add in the fact that Dirk Nowitzki missed games in the early part of the season, so the Mavericks were tacitly off a lot of radars to begin with. Nonetheless, Dirk’s been back since Christmas, and the Mavs are still on the outside looking in the Western Conference playoff picture, with a 24-29 record. Therefore, TheSportsNotebook’s NBA coverage today hones on what the problem is in Big D and whether there’s still time to turn it around and at least squeak out the #8 seed.
When you look at Dallas’ complete body of work the first thing that has to jump out is how bad the rebounding is. The Mavericks rank 27th in the league in rebound rate. The defense has also declined, ranking 20th in efficiency. This isn’t a franchise with a defensive reputation, but they were 8th a year ago, and 7th in their championship year of 2011. In fact the last time Dallas was in the bottom of half of the NBA on defense was 2009 when they were 17th. So this is a very shaky defensive team that doesn’t close out possessions when they do force a miss.
There are some reasonable excuses that can be put forth. The season-long data obviously includes the games Nowitzki misses. Another big man, 7-foot center Chris Kaman has been out with a concussion since January 30. He’s started to do non-contact drills in practice the last couple days and the Mavs really need him back. The front line is rounded out with Shawn Marion and Elton Brand, ages 34 and 33 respectively. Combined with Dirk, this makes for a frontcourt that’s long in the tooth.
Dallas invested in the backcourt during the offseason, bringing in Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo. It’s turned out to be a pretty good tandem. Mayo is averaging 18 points a game and does it with efficient shooting both from the floor and from three-point range. Collison shoots 48 percent from the floor himself and both players are decent distributors. There’s veteran depth in the backcourt with 38-year-old Derek Fisher who knows something about winning, even if he’s not productive on the stat sheet. And there’s 36-year-old Vince Carter who knows something about being productive on the stat sheet even if he’s not winning.
Even allowing for the competitiveness of the Western Conference, the personnel is here to at least make the playoffs. Dallas has played modestly better since Nowitzki’s return on December 23. The overall before and after records don’t show it, at 12-15 without and 12-14 since the return. But that includes losing the first four games Dirk was back, when he was presumably still playing his way into shape. Dallas stabilized in January, at 7-8 and has gotten on a nice little run in February, winning five of seven this month.
Thus, the question is whether the improved play of February is a sign of an impending stretch drive. Here’s a run through each game of the 5-2 stretch with a special focus on the question of rebounding…
Feb 1: at Phoenix (109-99)–Brand and Marion each have double-digit rebounds, keying an overall 51-46 edge on the glass. Dirk misses this game.
Feb 4: at Oklahoma City (91-112)–I’ll cut the Mavs slack here since there’s no denying they lack the talent to compete with the West’s upper crust. Dirk was back and ineffective and Dallas lost rebounding, and the Thunder were also hot from three-point range.
Feb 6: vs. Portland (105-99)–A good night on the glass, with a 46-42 advantage, again keyed by Marion and aided by Nowitzki. Mayo knocks down 28 points to be the offensive difference-maker.
Feb 9: vs. Golden State (116-91)–The best defensive performance of this stretch, holding the Warriors to 38 percent shooting. It makes up for a tough night rebounding, with Collison and Mayo playing a dominant game in the backcourt.
Feb 11: vs Atlanta (101-105)–A tough home loss is caused by Josh Smith and Al Horford owning the boards for the Hawks. Dirk scores 24, but Smith and Horford can eat up a weak rebounding team and that’s what happens here.
Feb 13: vs Sacramento (123-100)—It’s 51-44 for Dallas on rebounds and that advantage is thanks to a complete team-wide effort. It’s the best game in this sequence, although it’s also easily the worst opponent.
Feb 20: vs. Orlando (111-96)–Close to a wash on the glass, at 44-43 Dallas. But when you’re 27th in the league in a category and you play dead-even, that counts as a win. And it’s translated into a W on the court.
Dallas has held its own on the glass—if you go strictly by rebounding, that’s four wins and three losses, with the final win being close enough to call a push. It’s a demonstration of the fact that if the Mavs can continue to at least break even, they can keep winning games. The next question would be how much credibility do you give the competition?
It’s not a bad schedule stretch by any means, with three games against playoff teams and Portland at least being respectable. But it does have to be concerning that the three playoff teams—Oklahoma City, Golden State and Atlanta also are the three teams that beat the Mavs on the boards and two of them won the game.
If Dallas had some cushion that could be overcome by just taking care of the games against inferior teams. But they’re 4 ½ games behind Houston for the last playoff spot. It’s only three games in the loss column, but don’t forget the Lakers are a factor in this race as well. Portland might also be if they can turn around their recent slump. In the Western Conference, you have to assume it will take 42 or 43 wins to get in, and that means the Mavs have to win 18 or 19 times in their final 29 games.
Somewhere along the line that means beating quality teams and that starts Sunday. After a Friday night trip to New Orleans, the Mavs host the Lakers in a 1 PM ET tip on ABC. That’s followed by a home date with Milwaukee, followed by games with Memphis, Brooklyn and Houston. So it’s a Sunday preliminary bout, followed by four straight against teams currently in the playoffs. There’s no room for error and that means Marion, Brand and Nowitzki have to get tough on the glass.