The Art of the Wildly Efficient Dallas MavericksFernando Medina/NBAE/Getty
The Dallas Mavericks are currently sporting an offense on pace to smash the all-time league record for scoring efficiency by an almost comical margin. And, weirdly, none of them are surprised at all.
They know it’s early, and that they’ve fattened up on some of the league’s worst defensive teams, while struggling, in relative terms, against playoff-level opponents. They also understand the monster they have fashioned in signing Chandler Parsons and reacquiring Tyson Chandler, a rim-rattling hero from their magical 2011 title team.
Most of us read the Chandler trade as the Mavs plugging the dam on a bottom-10 defense, and to a large degree, that was accurate. But Dallas also viewed Chandler as a keystone in what could be a historically great offense — a scoring machine so ruthless, the Mavs could chase a title in Dirk Nowitzki’s twilight without an elite defense.
“When we can spread the floor with Tyson or [Brandan Wright] rolling,” Nowitzki says, “it’s a bitch to guard.”
The Mavs also have coach Rick Carlisle, the league’s quirky chemist, moving the chess pieces into the right places. “We’re just trying to score,” Carlisle tells Grantland. “If we can defend, we can become an exceptionally good team.”
That first “if” is a big one. The Mavs after Monday’s disconcerting home loss to the punchless Pacers rank 15th in points allowed per possession against a soft schedule, and they’re dead last in defensive rebounding rate. You can’t win a title that way. You can’t even contend for one — unless you really do have one of the greatest offenses ever.
The ingredients driving that offense are obvious, even if the Mavs surely can’t quite sustain this level of dominance. Dallas sports two of the half-dozen best pick-and-roll screeners/dunkers in the league: Chandler and Wright, shooting an absurd 130-of-174 combined. Their presence allows the team to maximize the spacing power of Nowitzki, the greatest shooting big man in history. He can simply watch a Monta Ellis–Chandler pick-and-roll, parking himself behind the 3-point line and sucking his defender too far from the rim to be of any help.
And when Nowitzki sets a ball screen — something he does more than almost any player in the league — he can fade out along the perimeter, leaving the lane open for drives and lobs to the Mavs’ Hammer Brothers.
Every player orbiting those big men is a threat to shoot, drive, and pass. The Mavs don’t have great 3-point shooting, but everyone among Ellis, Parsons, Jameer Nelson, Devin Harris, and J.J. Barea is good enough once granted the extra airspace that Nowitzki provides. More important: They’re all smart enough to understand when they can generate a better look by pump-faking, driving, and moving the ball into the next pick-and-roll.
“They have two great athletes running to the rim, surrounded by multiple guys who can put it on the floor and shoot it,” says Brad Stevens, who watched in horror three weeks ago as Dallas dropped 118 on the Celtics. “The way they share the ball — it’s really impressive.”
Try to help on Chandler’s roll to the basket and the Mavs can kick it to open shooters/drivers stationed everywhere. Stay at home and Chandler will dunk all over your self-esteem. “Teams have to pick their poison,” Parsons says. “Offense is gonna come easy for us.”
Chandler likes this mantra: “The ball dictates the shot, not the person.”
The Mavs, once a jump-shooting team, have crafted a drive-and-kick assembly line perfectly designed to leverage the league’s handcheck ban and emphasis on spacing. Only two teams average more drives per game, and no one sets more picks on the ball, per SportVU data provided to Grantland. You can’t overload your defense against a moving target like this:
Dallas doesn’t have an en vogue point guard with an eight-figure salary, but the team spent big on the wing — where the league is thinnest. Dallas figured it could get by with a set of low-salaried veteran point guards — heady decision-makers who could thrive as fourth and fifth options. The Mavs miss Shawn Marion’s defense, but he had become something of a burden on offense — a player who could neither shoot 3s nor drive the ball all the way to the rim. Dallas wants every perimeter player to be able to do at least one of those things, and preferably both.
“The game these days is all about pick-and-roll,” Nowitzki says. “The Spurs showed it, and they play in a fun way. They move it, and everybody can score. That’s the name of the game now, and we adjusted.”
The results so far have been spectacular. The Mavs have scored 115.2 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would blow away the league’s prior record. The gap between Dallas and Toronto’s second-ranked offense is as large as the chasm between the Drakes and Boston’s 13th-ranked unit. The Mavericks are shooting 68.2 percent in the restricted area on an above-average number of attempts, and ginning up nearly seven corner 3s per game — a number that ranks near the top of the league. They pass the ball a ton1 and they rarely turn it over.
This isn’t just about talent. There is art in how Dallas arrays its players and makes reads on the fly. A threatening pick-and-roll requires a third defender to help the two directly involved in the play. The most common job for that third guy: Dart into the paint and crash into the screener rumbling down the lane — Chandler or Wright, when Dallas is at its best.
Teams have specific rules about which defender draws that help assignment. It is almost always one of the defenders on the weak side, so if Ellis is driving down the right side of the floor, a defender all the way across on the left wing has to dive into the paint and bump Chandler.
The Mavericks specialize in throwing those rules into chaos. They want to confuse you about very basic things: Which side is the weak side? Whose job is it to help on Chandler?
The best way to sow such doubt is to act early, before a defense is set. That’s easier coming off a stop, when the Mavs can rebound and push the ball amid the chaos of transition. There is no time for Carlisle to call plays after a Dallas stop, and the coach likes it that way. “We try not to call any plays if we can,” Carlisle says. “We want to be difficult to defend, and the more random we can make it, the more difficult it will be for defenses.”
After an opponent misses, Nowitzki and Chandler will quickly find each other and jog into a monster double screen for whichever Dallas player brings the ball up. As Chandler sets that pick, he will scan the floor, making calculations like the Terminator: Are any of these backpedaling suckers ready to help on me?
If not, he’s sprinting right for the rim, often without even bothering to set a pick.
“I know which guy is supposed to bump me — and where he should be,” Chandler says. “If I see that place is empty, then it’s gonna be a quick action. I want to get right to the rim.”
Jumbling the mind of a set half-court defense takes more thoughtful work, but the Mavs specialize in that too. It amounts to doing two things at once: moving the ball from one side to the other, and keeping the Mavs who don’t have the ball in motion. The designated “weak” side changes with every swing pass, meaning defenders away from the ball have to toggle from “help” to “don’t help” in an instant.
And that toggling becomes harder if the Dallas players are moving. Nowitzki on this Ellis-Chandler pick-and-roll merely shifts from the wing to the top of the arc, but that’s enough to confuse the Sixers about who is supposed to crash down on Chandler:
Just having two guys switch places along the perimeter can be a surprisingly powerful way of occupying defenders who should be focused on their help assignments. Also, abandoning Nowitzki is normally a no-no, forcing smaller defenders to make longer rotations away from shooters in the corner:
This isn’t rocket science. Every smart team is trying to wrong-foot defenses this way; the Mavs are just better at it, in part because they have some uniquely awesome players. “There’s just not a predictability to it,” says Terry Stotts, who helped build the Mavs’ championship offense before taking the head job in Portland. “They do a great job of moving guys around.”
Take this little pitch play that the Mavs will run for Chandler at least once or twice per game:
Only the broad strokes are etched in stone: Chandler scurries to the foul line, someone passes him the ball, and Nowitzki keeps the defense on its toes by cutting across the baseline. Everything else is up in the air. Chandler can pitch it to whichever cutter he prefers, or neither. The cutters can hold the ball, effectively breaking the play, or cut in a different direction than they do here — whatever they deem in the moment is the best way to slice through the defense.
“It’s all misdirection on that play,” Chandler says. “And then it’s just reading the defense. It’s kind of like I’m an option quarterback.”
It all unfolds so fast, with so much whirring action, that Chandler can dunk before the defense even understands what is happening.
This is how the Mavs play now: all pick-and-roll, all the time. Nowitzki is attempting only about two post-up shots per game, by far the lowest number of his career, per Synergy Sports. Only 3.7 percent of Dallas’s offensive possessions have ended directly via a post-up. That would be the second-lowest such share for any team, ever, in Synergy’s database.
Meanwhile, a titanic 23 percent of the Mavs’ trips have ended with the ball handler in a pick-and-roll shooting, turning the ball over, or drawing a foul. That would be the highest such share in Synergy’s archives.
Another team that played very much like this, both in style and numbers: the peak Mike D’Antoni–Steve Nash Suns, who also hoped a blow-away offense could carry a mediocre defense to a championship. The Mavs know how things ended for Phoenix, and what they must do to avoid the same fate.
They’ve put up ho-hum scoring games against the better defensive teams they’ve faced — Washington, Houston, Portland. The best postseason defenses will scout every Dallas wrinkle and better prepare their defenders to navigate the thicket of simultaneous threats that Dallas presents. The Mavs will have to be even more unpredictable, less reliant on shots that stem directly out of the pick-and-roll.2
Dallas knows this. The Mavericks are conserving minutes, Spurs-style, and the decline in Nowitzki’s post-ups is another preservation tactic. He’ll play more when the games matter, and he’ll be ready to command the ball on the block in the playoffs. “The goal is to keep me as fresh as possible,” he says, “and not have me grinding through 25 post-ups every game.”
Carlisle will unveil playoff gadgetry, like the switching defense that flummoxed the Spurs during the first few games of Dallas’s near-upset in last season’s first round. None of it will matter if the Mavs can’t build a defense that at least sniffs the top 10 overall. That will be tough. The Mavs start Chandler alongside four below-average defenders. Nowitzki, once a strong rebounder, has problems boxing out quicker brutes; Dallas is dead last in defensive rebounding rate, and the small-ball lineups it runs out while Dirk rests, with Al-Farouq Aminu or Parsons at power forward, are getting torched on the glass.
The Mavs’ title team compensated for slow feet with size and lots of zone, but this team can’t lean on either. Dallas is small across the perimeter, and early attempts at zone trickery have failed badly. “It’s getting lit up,” Nowitzki says. “We have to get better at it. We should be a better zone team.”
Dallas has fallen back on a pretty standard NBA scheme: Chandler drops back against the pick-and-roll3 and everyone else helps and recovers as needed.
There are wrinkles, of course: Dallas will double strong post scorers and blitz pick-and-rolls when shooting power forwards set the screens. But the scheme overall is pretty vanilla, and Dallas, with such limited defenders, can apply only so much stress. The Mavs are counting on brainpower: If everyone tries their hardest, knows the rules, and executes seamlessly, Dallas can force midrange jumpers and challenge them:
“A lot of it comes down to whether guys can guard their position,” Carlisle says. “On paper, we’re not a great defensive team. We have to become a collective unit that knows how to stop people. That’s less about schemes and more about whether you can square a guy up and stay in front of him.”
The Mavs are also hoping their offense will help their defense. When they score, they can set up — negating their speed disadvantage a bit.
Chandler has looked springy along the back line, and the Mavs so far have allowed only 23.9 shots per game in the restricted area — the fifth-lowest number in the league. They don’t foul, though Nowitzki will occasionally nail someone with a trademark swipe, complete with comically long windup — a desperation tactic he uses when his feet can’t get him where he needs to go. “It’s like slap-boxing,” Chandler jokes.
Chandler has the standing to call guys out on their defense during film sessions, and he does it often, both he and Carlisle say. “Our scheme is nothing fancy, but you can’t just assume everyone understands how to do it,” Chandler says. “Not everyone has been in a great defensive system before. Years before, it didn’t need to be said — you played both ends of the floor. Now it’s different. Not everybody plays both ends. Some guys don’t even think about defense.
“You can hide out there on the floor sometimes,” he says. “You can’t hide on film.”
The results so far have been uneven, to be generous. Chandler can protect the rim, but he can’t make up for every breakdown on the perimeter — the botched closeouts, slow feet, and instances when a Mav smashes head-on into a pick.
Those breakdowns open paths into the paint, and teams are driving-and-kicking Dallas to death from there; opponents have hit nearly 52 percent of their corner 3s against the Mavs, easily the worst mark for any defense, per NBA.com.
Aminu and Jae Crowder present potential defensive X factors. Both are capable wing stoppers, though Aminu can space out now and then, especially away from the ball. Dallas has to figure out whether its defense balances out the harm that Aminu and Crowder might inflict on the offense.
Aminu has been a non-shooter, though he has shown glimpses of a workable corner 3, and he’s looked more confident off the bounce so far in Dallas; lineups featuring him have been almost uniformly devastating.
Crowder has floated in and out of the rotation, mostly because he (unlike Aminu) lacks the size to play power forward. Crowder is a more proven corner shooter, but he doesn’t have Aminu’s explosion off the dribble.
You get the feeling Dallas will need big things from at least one of them to have a realistic chance at surviving the West. The team may also need to find a fourth big man, so that the Mavs aren’t undersize whenever Nowitzki sits; they’ve been playing Wright and Chandler together more of late.
“We don’t have the kind of team where you can write down what the rotation is gonna be every night,” Carlisle says. “There will be variance game to game.”
Chandler is ready for the journey and confident about the ultimate outcome.
“The thing I love is being able to see growth through an entire season,” he says. “Everyone on this team is willing to do the right thing. I think we can make it work.”
10 Things I Like and Don’t Like
1. The Marc Gasol Pitch-off
Lots of big men keep the offense moving with dribble handoffs at the elbow, but not many do it with Gasol’s flair. If Big Spain is impatient, he won’t wait for the hand-to-hand transfer. He’ll pitch the ball hard at his teammate’s gut, and in the same motion, slide over to set a pick:
We should probably just change this header to: “Everything About Marc Gasol and the Grizzlies.” What is there not to like here? Gasol’s silky not-really-a-jumper? His passing? His spin move in the post? The way he’s shouldering more of the offense this season — to great results?
Gasol belongs in the MVP discussion, and the Grizz look like a legit contender.
2. The DeMar DeRozan Back Cut
The Raps have a pet set in which Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas run a pick-and-roll, and then Lowry turns the corner, stops short, and passes to Amir Johnson on the left block. Johnson then works a handoff with DeRozan, who curls into the middle of the floor for a midrange jumper.
Defenses will sometimes overplay this, and DeRozan has gotten smart about sniffing that out. He’ll short-circuit the curl, snap into a backdoor cut along the baseline, and take a little bounce pass from Johnson there:
3. Charlotte’s Purple Alternates
Charlotte gets minus points for wearing these puppies at home — and generally being hard to watch this season — but they sure are sharp. The purple is dark enough to feel more foreboding than cartoonish, and the Hornets just own this color scheme. There is nothing else in the league like it.
4. Wizard and Thunder Girls
You can’t just call your dance team “[Team Name] Girls” — not in a world where the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, a D-League team, have the “Madame Ants.” Show some creativity! Readers suggested Witches and Bullettes (among many others) for the Washington crew, and you could go in a dozen different directions with the Oklahoma City dance team.
5. The Lance Thomas–Andre Roberson Combination
The cavalry is coming, but the Thunder have fallen way behind, and they urgently need wins now. The Thunder have scored just 81.9 points per 100 possessions when Roberson and Thomas share the floor; it’s the third-lowest mark among all Oklahoma City duos that have logged more than 20 minutes this season, per NBA.com. Bad news: Scott Brooks is currently starting both of them.
The Thunder need to start Anthony Morrow, or at least use a quicker hook on the starting lineup (sound familiar?). Morrow’s shooting props up reserve units, but the Thunder need to squeeze every ounce of productivity out of their depleted roster until the stars return. They can’t waste a single minute if something isn’t working.
6. The Pelicans’ Elevator Doors Decoy
An NBA gimmick like this goes through cycles. One team popularizes it, everyone copies it, and then smart coaches start building new plays off of it.
This baby starts like a normal elevator doors play for Eric Gordon, who U-turns in the paint and squeezes into the left corner through the Ryan Anderson–Anthony Davis double screen. But that’s a decoy — a trick to distract the defense before the real thing unfolds.
Davis releases from that double screen, scrambles across the paint, and takes a cross screen there from Jrue Holiday. This is really a designed post-up for Brow, and the Spurs stop it here only by fouling him. Good stuff from Monty Williams.
7. The Temporary Terror of a Court Sweeper Caught in Play
This is always great — the NBA’s version of Dusty Baker’s kid nearly wandering into a home plate collision. OH GOD AN INSTANT TURNOVER, SOMEONE MIGHT RUN ME OVER:
8. Brandon Knight’s Reject Drives
Brandon Knight is having a nice season for the Bucks, though it’s still unclear whether he has the passing vision and creativity to work as a franchise point guard. What is clear: Knight is turbo fast and very good at sensing when he has a chance to bolt away from a teammate’s pick and into a clear driving lane:
This is an especially good tactic when the screen setter is someone with shooting range — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ersan Ilyasova, or Jabari Parker. The guys defending those players are often instructed to stay attached to the pick, so that no help defender drops down into Knight’s driving lane. If Knight can bait his own defender into leaning toward the pick,4 he’s home free:
9. Shabazz Muhammad’s Lefty Jump Hook
Muhammad can be a bit of a black hole, but he’s a brute on the block, and he can launch this sucker against almost any defender — from either side of the court. The speed is the appeal here. Muhammad jumps, spins, and releases this shot all in one motion — a twisting snap of his body. The ball is in the air before most defenders can get off the ground.
10. “Spills Out”
A number of play-by-play guys, including Matt Devlin in Toronto and Marc Zumoff in Philly, use these words to describe a shot that rolls around and out. The imagery is perfect; it’s a nice turn of phrase. Two Toronto-themed “likes” this week? DAMN RIGHT. That’s what can happen when you’re 12-2, fresh off destroying Cleveland on the road in front of your invading lunatic fans.