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The Resurrection of the Dallas Mavericks

With a crew of aging stars and forgotten players, Dallas is thinking about making noise in the postseason

The Dallas Mavericks on the surface are a crippled giant lurching across the NBA — an aging group with a bad defense, no juicy trade assets, no chance against the Western Conference elite, and no obvious path back to 55-win relevance as Dirk Nowitzki approaches the end of his career. They’ll have cap space as Nowitzki and Shawn Marion hit free agency, but in the NBA under the new collective bargaining agreement, almost half the league’s teams enter each offseason with major space.

Despite all this, people in the organization are surprisingly optimistic about the team’s prospects this season and beyond. They view the Mavs as a half-court scoring machine built to do damage in the postseason, if they could just get there, and a flexible free-agency behemoth positioned to act as a predator.

“We haven’t played our best basketball yet,” says owner Mark Cuban.

“If we get into the playoffs,” says Rick Carlisle, the team’s head coach, “we’re gonna be a team people don’t want to play.”

The Mavs rank sixth in points per possession, emphatic proof they can still build an elite offense around Nowitzki, Carlisle’s scheming, and an adequate supporting cast. That’s enormously important, both this season and going forward in Cuban’s quest to build Dallas back into a champion while Nowitzki is still around. Dallas can focus on the obvious areas of need — defense on the wing, rim protection, and youth.

They’ve built this offense with a bunch of unwanted spare parts from other teams. Monta Ellis was a punch line before Dallas signed him to a widely panned contract. Jose Calderon can’t guard anyone, so of course the Mavs paired him with another sieve in Ellis. DeJuan Blair is a huge defensive minus with no ACLs, but the Mavs saw him as a weapon they could acquire on the cheap. This is the team that reinvented Vince Carter and turned Marion into a floater-launching weirdo who defends four positions.

The Mavs are the league’s strangest team, and it’s something in which they take pride. They give regular minutes to a lineup featuring no player taller than 6-foot-7. They play more zone defense than anyone but the helpless Bucks. They’ll break out Marion-Blair pick-and-rolls, and even the occasional Nowitzki–Sam Dalembert Frankenstein pick-and-roll:

The Mavs have found value in playing unconventionally. They’ve signed bargain deals with players whose warts turned off the rest of the league. Dallas sees the redeemable good in everyone.

“In this league,” Carlisle says, “you have to embrace who you are. We have to embrace our inner misfitness.”

Carlisle and Nowitzki personify these strange Mavs. The coach is an oddball wizard, regarded around the league as the NBA’s second-best tactician, behind only Gregg Popovich. Talk to executives on other teams about the Mavs’ cap sheet and lack of trade assets, and many of them will stop you right away: “Remember the team’s most valuable long-term piece — the coach.” He’s a natural with lineup combinations, and he was way ahead of the curve in removing Nowitzki early in the first and third quarters so that Nowitzki could return to play heavy minutes with the rest of the Dallas bench — a crew in need of a fulcrum. Some coaches who have worked with Carlisle nicknamed him “Captain Script,” because of his tendency to put players through more 5-on-0 drills with the team’s core offensive sets than anyone else. He’s the only head coach who regularly works out players on the court pregame; he was timing Ricky Ledo on sideline sprints before Dallas’s loss in Brooklyn on Friday.

Nowitzki is basically a historical anomaly. Opposing coaches marvel that they have to throw out their core defensive schemes two or three times a year to deal with a 35-year-old stiff who sets picks and shoots like Stephen Curry.

Ellis got all the early-season press, but Nowitzki remains the engine of Dallas’s offense. The Mavs run more pick-and-rolls than any other team, per Synergy Sports, and that’s in part because Nowitzki’s jump shooting neutralizes the style of pick-and-roll defense most NBA teams play. When a big man sets a screen for a point guard, most NBA defenses will instruct the man defending the screener to hang back in order to corral the point guard rocketing around the pick:

DROPPING

You can’t play that way against Dallas; Nowitzki will simply pop out for a wide-open 3-pointer, an untenable outcome. Defenses can have a third player fly at Nowitzki to prevent that shot, but Nowitzki is a skilled passer putting up near career-best passing numbers this season, and the Mavs have long been able to pick apart that kind of frenzied rotating defense.

Most teams instead have the man guarding Nowitzki stick close to him, flashing out at the point guard only for a split second — or even staying attached to Nowitzki’s hip.1

That tactic removes the threat of Nowitzki’s jumper, but it also allows smart ball handlers to turn the corner if they act fast. Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo didn’t do enough with this precious benefit last season. The Mavs turned to Calderon, an all-time great shooter and careful distributor, and to Ellis, a gunner for whom decisiveness has never been an issue. He is the Mavs’ new, more dangerous, and more polished version of J.J. Barea — a guy who understands the space Dirk provides and will put his damn head down to take advantage of it.

Ellis’s transformation has been a bit oversold. He has struggled with turnovers in acting as the team’s co–point guard, and he’s still an unreliable outside shooter. But he’s getting to the line more often, and the profile of his shots has changed. The Mavs have coaxed Ellis’s worst shots out of him and encouraged his best habits. Ellis has taken only about 2.2 catch-and-shoot jumpers per game this season, according to data provided to Grantland from the SportVU cameras, down from nearly four such shots per game last season. He’s third overall in drives per game, and he’s attempting more shots after several dribbles this season, per the camera data.

In short: The Mavs have turned Ellis into a full-time pick-and-roll player. If he’s going to shoot a jumper, it had better be a wide-open pull-up off a pick-and-roll. This has allowed Calderon to shift into a less ball-dominant role, often working as a spot-up shooter while Ellis runs the offense. Calderon has already launched 49 corner 3s after attempting just 40 last season, per NBA.com.

The Mavs don’t get to the line much, and they’re a poor offensive rebounding team. But they can always generate good shots in the half-court, something that would serve them well in the postseason, when the league’s overall pace of play slows.

Alas: The team can’t guard, and it’s hard to imagine Dallas building an above-average defense with Calderon, Ellis, and Nowitzki logging heavy minutes together. The Mavs are 22nd in points allowed per possession, and they haven’t had a consistent good stretch on that end all season. They need elite defenders at the other two starting spots — a wing and a rim protector. Dallas signed Dalembert to do the latter job, but his minutes have been spotty, his attendance unreliable. Dallas opponents have shot better at the rim with Dalembert on the court, and they are running wild — scoring nearly four more fast-break points per 48 minutes when the big fella is playing, per NBA.com.

Dallas has leaked points in transition all season. Dallas opponents average about 1.16 points per transition opportunity, the fifth-highest mark in the league, and they run on the Mavs a lot, per Synergy. Some of this is inevitable. The Mavs are big, old, and slow. Three players 35 and older — Carter, Marion, and Nowitzki — have logged about 35 percent of Dallas’s minutes this season, the highest such share for 35-plus players on any team since the tail end of the Stockton-Malone Jazz, according to a Grantland analysis.

Big men can outrun Dalembert and Nowitzki, either scoring easy dunks or sucking in attention from the perimeter — leading to open 3s. Ellis leaps for steals instead of getting back on defense, and the Mavs, as an unusually pick-and-roll-centric team, will feature lots of possessions that end with a big man cutting to the rim and a shooter in each corner:

TURNOVER

Cough up the ball in that situation, with three guys along the baseline, and you’re toast. “Sometimes I think it might be better for us to just take a 24-second violation,” Nowitzki says, “instead of a careless turnover. We don’t have great foot speed.”

Marion is working his tail off as the wing stopper, but the contortions are painful. Dallas likes to have Marion guard an opponent’s top perimeter scorer, even point guards, so that they can hide Calderon and Ellis on less-threatening players. But that’s impossible against teams with dangerous small forwards, and they also need Marion to check power forwards when Nowitzki sits. “I have to do whatever I can to help my team,” Marion says. “But I shouldn’t have to do it for certain periods of the game. It is what it is. There are a lot of teams with horrible individual defenders in our league, but their team defense is overwhelming. We have to be that way.”

There are some internal solutions, though none are promising. The return of Devin Harris will allow Carlisle to split up the defensively challenged Calderon-Ellis duo; Calderon so far has played all but 85 of his 1,329 minutes alongside Ellis, per NBA.com. “Devin might be one of our closers,” Nowitzki says. “We love his toughness.” But Harris is undersize, almost 31, and in decline. Brandan Wright has the long arms of a rim protector, but post behemoths can push his skinny frame around, and he has never shown killer defensive instincts. The Mavs’ zone has been shaky.

This team can score, and if Dalembert could ever give them 25 minutes a night of solid defense in every game of a series, the Mavs are polished enough to be a problem — if they can hold on to the no. 8 seed. But even that won’t be easy. Dallas has blown a lot of fourth-quarter leads, not shocking for a bad defensive team, and the Grizzlies, Nuggets, and Timberwolves are on their heels. “We want to be in the show again,” Nowitzki says. “But we have to be good enough to get stops in crunch time.”

But it’s hard to see this roster winning more than one playoff series at its absolute best, and this franchise is never satisfied with that kind of ceiling. Dallas has had major cap flexibility ever since Cuban looked at the restrictive new CBA and elected to let several key cogs on the 2011 title team walk away. Critics have ripped that choice, but Tyson Chandler is really the only one among those players who is still relevant, and the only one who has proven irreplaceable. Dallas tried to replace him with Dwight Howard last summer, but watched Howard sign with Houston one year after Deron Williams spurned the Mavs to stay in Brooklyn.

Cap room remains the Mavs’ best path to a championship-level roster, since the team is bereft of trade assets. Critics have snickered at Cuban’s unrequited free-agency chases, and the franchise star allows for a bit of longing. “We made a business decision as a franchise to let some of our warriors go,” Nowitzki says. “We didn’t get a big fish. It has been a tough few years.”

Even Cuban, ever the confident optimist, acknowledges the glut of cap space around the league could devalue any one team’s ability to spend. “That could potentially be the case,” Cuban says. “But a lot of that depends on how you spend it, right? A lot of teams choose not to, so we’ll see.”

Executives on other teams view Dallas with respect, and fear — a big-city team with an appealing owner, great facilities, and a friendly state tax regime. Depending on what sort of pay cut Nowitzki is willing to take, the Mavs could re-sign him immediately at the start of free agency, wipe his massive cap hold off the books, and proceed with as much as $20 million in cap space.2 That’s not quite enough to fit a max-level salary for Carmelo Anthony, but it is enough to chase just about everyone else.

This year’s free-agency class is weak on big men, but it includes two wings worth considering: Luol Deng and Lance Stephenson. Deng would be a nice fit as Marion’s replacement on the wing. Stephenson is a guard, and Dallas already has a bunch of those, but that’s the wrong way to look at things. Dallas has rehabilitated the trade value of both Ellis and Calderon, and could use either as a trade chip if it lands another guard.

Move just one of them for someone on a shorter contract, and Dallas could sign a major free agent this summer and still have max-level cap room in the summer of 2015. That is the summer of big men — of rim protectors and post scorers. That free-agency class could include Roy Hibbert, Chris Bosh (a Dallas-area native the Mavs could chase this summer if he opts out, though Bosh’s skill set overlaps with Nowitzki’s), Marc Gasol, Brook Lopez, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Omer Asik, and old friend Chandler.

Depending on the length of Nowitzki’s final contract, Dallas could be in a position to strike in both 2014 and 2015, and still have room to chase Kevin Durant in the summer of 2016. Remember: The cap will go up every year, so any contract signed today will take up a lower percentage of a team’s cap each year going forward.3 And if you don’t think teams are already planning that far ahead with Durant in mind, you don’t know NBA front offices. If Dallas strikes out again this summer, expect it to make value plays on available veterans with a defense-first skill set.

Even if straight free agency doesn’t work out, Dallas has positioned itself to take a risk on any high-priced player who becomes a problem child on his current team. Josh Smith is a nonstarter for the Mavs, but that’s the general type — a talented guy who either isn’t working out on his current team or is a risk to bolt that team in free agency. The Mavs are going to be on every soon-to-be free agent’s short list, and Dallas likes to gamble on Carlisle’s ability to maximize strange talents.

The lack of a tradable first-round pick will make it hard for Dallas to land a true home run deal. The Mavs owe a first-rounder to Oklahoma City, and they could use a trade sweetener. The Mavs keep that pick in each of the next three drafts if it falls within the top 20, which puts the team in an awkward position. They have some incentive to finish with the 11th-best record (or worse), so that they can keep the pick and use it while Nowitzki is still on the team. This team has failed badly in plucking young talent via the draft over the last decade; it needs to reverse that, now. Finishing that low might be tough. There’s a real chance only two Eastern Conference teams finish with a better record than the no. 8 team in the West, meaning Dallas could squeak in the playoffs and still finish with one of the league’s 10 best records — and thus lose the pick.

There’s upside in that outcome: Sending the pick to Oklahoma City in June gets the transfer over with, freeing Dallas to trade future first-round picks much more easily.4 Cuban wouldn’t comment on his preferred timing on the pick trigger.

Dallas is on the dreaded treadmill now — a so-so team, too good for the high lottery, but not good enough to contend. That’s supposed to be the worst-case scenario. But not everyone can bottom out and rebuild, and that path is not a fail-safe. Dallas has a pretty good team that could be dangerous in the first round this season, and a roster good enough that the Mavs could plausibly vault up another level quickly. They’ll likely need to hit in free agency to do that, but the odds are good they’ll land a game-changer eventually. There’s still time for the Nowitzki era to produce a top-level playoff team, and the Mavs have some of the tools required for that kind of instant upgrade. “After winning a championship, you wanna get back there so bad,” Nowitzki says. “You want that feeling again. You don’t want to play for the eighth seed.”

10 Things I Like and Don’t Like

1. Greg Oden

He can’t jump as high, he’s not playing many minutes, and each day after a game brings the fear of some bad report about swelling or knee pain. But it’s wonderful to see Oden back on the court after an unprecedented three microfracture surgeries. The Miami bench goes berserk every time Oden does anything good. Delightful.

2. The James Harden–Dwight Howard “Snug” Pick-and-Roll

Houston runs a lot of side pick-and-roll action designed so that there is no obvious help defender to crash on Howard’s roll to the rim. A pet favorite of mine begins with Howard entering the ball to Harden on the right block, and then setting a pick for Harden:

Setting up on the right block and surprising defenses with an unconventional pick-and-roll allows Harden to do two things defenses don’t like: get to his left hand, and get to the middle of the floor.

Howard’s man (Marc Gasol here) has to slide over to contain Harden’s drive, and with Harden going left, it would normally fall on a defender along the right baseline to jam Howard. But Houston has cleared that side, leaving no easy helper. Great stuff.

3. The James Johnson show

Umm … holy crap. This dude, plucked off the D-League scrap heap, is doing everything for the resurgent Grizz. There is exactly one player in the league who has assisted on at least 20 percent of his team’s buckets while on the floor, grabbed at least 10 percent of available rebounds, and blocked at least 5 percent of opponent shots. That player is James Johnson.

The guy is blocking jumpers on the perimeter like he’s Anthony Davis or something. Johnson always flirts with being completely out of control, which is why he’s so mesmerizing-slash-terrifying to watch. But he gets out of control because he knows he’s good enough to do crazy things, and the ratio of crazy James Johnson good things to crazy James Johnson bad things has worked wildly in the Grizzlies’ favor.

This probably won’t last, at least at this level, but between the play of Johnson and Courtney Lee, the Grizz will have some interesting choices to make on the wing when Tony Allen gets back.

4. Evil-Sounding Public Address Announcers

I feel like in-arena announcers are getting more cartoonishly dull in announcing enemy baskets. The tone of voice is lower and more ominous, the pause between first and last name extending to ridiculous lengths. “Paul ……………… George.” I love it.

5. Corey Brewer’s Defense

Brewer is one of those guys who is so hyperactive that he convinces some folks he’s a plus defender. Spoiler alert: He’s not, and his hyperactivity hurts his team just as often as it helps. Brewer is a serial gambler, always looking for steals and leak-outs, and leaving his team in the lurch when those bets go bust.

But more than that, he’s just a very loose defender in the half-court. He goes under picks when he shouldn’t, takes wild routes around screens both on and off the ball, and generally has trouble staying solid within Minnesota’s scheme. And let’s just say he’s not quite as committed to getting back in transition defense as he is to sprinting for Kevin Love’s outlet passes. If Chase Budinger can find his game and his legs, Rick Adelman has to at least think about starting him and bringing Brewer off the bench.

Budinger isn’t a stopper, of course, but he’s a bit steadier than Brewer, and any team playing Ricky Rubio at point guard needs to maximize the outside shooting around him. Love plays so much that Adelman could bring Brewer off the bench without sacrificing the Love-Brewer outlet show.

6. “The Killer Bs”

Craig Bolerjack, Utah’s affable play-by-play guy, has used this nickname for the Alec Burks–Trey Burke combo. I move to veto. The Killer Bees were a likable wrestling tag team in the 1980s, and the nickname has been overused in general. Given the similarity in last names here, we should be able to find something more creative.

7. Giannis Antetokounmpo Name Jokes

Dear opposing announcer whose team is facing the Bucks: Everyone has already made all the jokes about the length of Antetokounmpo’s last name. “Man, I stayed up all night practicing the pronunciation!” “How did they fit the name on his jersey?”

They’ve all been done. Ditto for the jokes about how the Bucks feature so many international players with long last names. We’ve heard them all.

8. The D’Antoni Backdoor Cut

Mike D’Antoni’s teams have been doing this for years, and it still looks so darn pretty:

It’s so simple: The guard with the ball dribbles up the sideline, directly at a teammate stationed in the near corner. The hard sideline drive draws the attention of the teammate’s man, allowing for a backdoor cut and a pretty bounce pass. Boom.

By the way, I see L.A. fans on Twitter every day calling for D’Antoni’s head and expressing disappointment with the Lakers’ record. Please take a minute to scroll down the Lakers’ roster. Then look at the rosters of some other NBA teams, particularly those in the Western Conference.

9. Stephanie Ready, in the Huddle

Stephanie Ready is the sideline reporter for the Bobcats, and she might be my favorite such reporter in the business. She has unbelievable access to Charlotte’s coaching staff. The Bobcats will be breaking huddle for a game-deciding play, and Ready will come on the air, apparently having eavesdropped on the whole thing, and tell the viewing audience exactly what play Charlotte is going to run — and why. Awesome work.

10. Robin Lopez, Hitting the Offensive Glass

Lopez hasn’t turned the Blazers into anything like an average defensive team, but he’s been sneaky good on offense — as he was last season in New Orleans. He’s looking for his shot with confidence, and he’s destroying the offensive glass. Lopez has rebounded 14 percent of Portland’s misses, the third-best rate in the league, behind only Andre Drummond and Jordan Hill.

But it’s the manner in which Lopez snares these boards as much as the sheer number of them. He doesn’t indiscriminately crash the glass. He understands when a good offensive rebounding chance presents itself, especially when he screens in the pick-and-roll, forcing his defender to slide off him into help position — and opening a lane to the glass.

Filed Under: NBA

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA

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