One of my favorite moments in Breaking Bad is a plant-and-payoff that took more than three years to square. (Mild spoilers to follow.)
Upon learning his cancer was in remission, Walter White — worn out from being trapped in the arid New Mexican dessert for days on end — excuses himself to the hospital bathroom. He had lied, of course, about his whereabouts the past week — his wife, Skyler, still completely in the dark about his cooking habits.
Part victorious celebration, part self-loathing and agony, White catches his reflection in the metal towel dispenser and unleashes a carnal beat down.
During the mid-season finale of Breaking Bad, in a spellbinding episode of television called “Gliding Over All,” White returns to the hospital bathroom following a routine MRI. All of these months later and nobody has bothered to fix the battered dispenser. Staring at his reflection through its metallic bumps-and-bruises, White smiles.
Without spoiling too much plot, Breaking Bad intentionally ended its eight-episode half-season in 2012 with “Gliding Over All” to create false hope that White could get away with his crimes. There is a perceived closure for White in moments like these — that he had swam through his tunnel of shit (his cancer, his marital troubles, his battles with the goons and goblins of the drug trade) and made it clear through the other side. But that’s not how showrunner Vince Gilligan’s world works, and the final eight episodes in 2013 forced White to reconcile with his past in a myriad of devastating ways.
It is possible that the Dallas Mavericks have had their own “metal towel dispenser” moment over the past four seasons following their historic 2011 title run. Dallas has failed to win a playoff series since, and despite winning 49 and 50 games, respectively, the past two seasons, the Mavericks didn’t finish higher than seventh in the West, losing to far superior teams in San Antonio and Houston.
We all know what happened. Dallas let playoff heroes Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea walk. The Mavericks whiffed on a series of mega free agents — Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Deron Williams and Carmelo Anthony — and were resigned to piecing together their roster with high-risk, high-reward gambles on short-term deals.
Monta Ellis was miscast, though occasionally brilliant, as the team’s lead scoring guard. Chandler Parsons spurned the team’s in-state rival and filled the cap space provided by Dirk Nowitzki’s massive hometown discount. Mark Cuban traded for Rajon Rondo — a controversial decision that never sat well with Rick Carlisle and ultimately torpedoed the Mavericks season.
This summer Dallas has nine free agents, and the only money on the books outside of Nowitzki and Parsons is Devin Harris, Raymond Felton and Dwight Powell — combined the Mavericks have roughly just $32 million invested in their 2015-’16 roster. Dallas has prided itself in recent years on its flexibility, and they have certainly lived a malleable reality, rumor-to-rumor, the past four seasons chasing superstars to pair up with Nowitzki and Carlisle.
Hindsight is 20-20: If Dallas acquires Paul or Anthony, perhaps we think about the Mavericks in a much different light — as a team that correctly gambled and extended their championship window beyond the prime of Nowitzki.
That isn’t what happened, though, and this summer the Mavericks are staring hard at their reflection — their knuckles bloody, their ego bruised.
What complicates matters for Dallas is the blessing/curse of having an aged franchise player — in particular, one with a championship to his name. Nowitzki is far, far from overpaid — he makes $8.3 million next year and has a $8.7 million player option for 2016-17. But the legendary scorer has more than handicapped the team in other ways, facets of the game that are far less glamorous than his insta-GIF shot-making and trademark leg kicks.
In his age-36 season, Nowitzki was OK (for his illustrious standards). He averaged only 29.6 minutes over 77 games, scoring 17.3 points on 45.9 percent shooting from the field — the third-worst FG% of his career. His 38 percent perimeter shooting was mediocre, and despite a career-best 1.3 turnovers per 36 minutes, Nowitzki posted his second-lowest assists totals as a pro.
A true 7-footer, Nowitzki has never been a plus-rebounder, and with age comes decline in hustle categories. While Ellis was the team’s leading scorer, Nowitzki — and the gravity he possesses — remains the team’s most critical offensive weapon, meaning that even in reduced minutes Nowitzki is exerting maximum effort on that end. Dallas has understood for some time the pivotal nature of surrounding Nowitzki with defensive help.
In 2011, Shawn Marion and Tyson Chandler were at the apex of their abilities, and their defensive pedigree steadied the Dallas ship as an all-time 3-point shooting barrage snatched a title away from LeBron James. Without anyone like Marion, and a diminished version of Chandler back at center, the Mavericks were simply a bad defensive team in 2015.
Where the problems begin and end for Dallas is on the glass. The Mavericks were the worst rebounding team in the league, per NBA.com, with an anemic 47.8 rebounding percentage. While some teams intentionally surrender the offensive glass (i.e., Atlanta) to beef up their transition defense, Dallas was simply pathetic in both regards. The Mavericks were seventh-worst in offensive rebounding AND second-worst in opponent fastbreak points. Compare that to the Hawks, who were dead last on the offensive glass but were fourth-best in opponent fastbreaks. (Note: Atlanta won 10 more games than Dallas and made the Eastern Conference Finals.)
Much of this, unfortunately, comes down to playing Nowitzki starter’s minutes. He grabbed just 5.9 rebounds per game, the second-worst mark of his career. Dirk had a 2.1 OffReb% (!!!) and an overall 11.3 Reb% in 2014-15. No power forward in basketball, per NBA.com, was worse on the boards.
How did Dallas win 50 games with such a pathetic defensive/rebounding team? In short, having Nowitzki offers a few benefits too. Because opponents have to employ an inordinate amount of attention on Nowitzki, he opens up the floor for his teammates. Dallas has posted insane offensive numbers much of the past two seasons without inspiring point guard play, and much of that is because Nowitzki buys so much free space for his guards.
Nowitzki also seldom turns the ball over, and as a team Dallas posted the third-best turnover ratio in the NBA. Coupling this with an aggressive defense looking to
end possessions early force turnovers, it bears mentioning that only Golden State finished with higher net production off turnovers than Dallas.
Long considered the game’s best midrange shooter with few challengers, Nowitzki hoisted 601 such shots last season, hitting on 46.9 percent. That’s insanely good even for his standards. Amongst players who attempted 400 midrange shots, only Chris Paul and Al Horford were better, and otherwise only Nikola Vucevic and David West were close.
Yet, nobody attempted more of these mid-to-long 2s than Nowitzki outside of LaMarcus Aldridge (788 FGA). While his clip remains as high as ever, Nowitzki, by comparison, attempted just 11 corner 3s, almost entirely from the left side (3-for-10). He attempted 263 3s above the break on 38 percent shooting. That’s a fraction of his total field goal attempts (24.7 percent) when compared to the massive slice of the pie he took from midrange (56.6 percent).
As anyone familiar with how effective field goal percentages work could presume, Nowitzki posted a higher eFG% on his above the break 3s (57 percent) than his mid-range shots. (eFG% and FG% are the same for all 2-point makes. Meanwhile, eFG% credits 3PM as more efficient baskets.)
While 99 percent of his above the break 3s were assisted, only 70.6 percent of his mid-range attempts came off the hands of his teammates. This is because Nowitzki often works out of postups, where he averaged .95 points per possession on 252 total shots in 2014-15, per Synergy. That clip was virtually tied for second-best among players with at least 200 such shots — Aldridge, Marc Gasol and Blake Griffin all scored roughly the same. (Who was way out in front? Jonas Valanciunas scoring 1.02 points per postup. Wow!)
His proficiency over defenders 1-on-1 is a skill Nowitzki might have until the day his legs fall off. But where his game is regressed to dangerously low levels is at the foul line, where Nowitzki has fallen off a cliff in terms of drawing shooting fouls and earning free points. While Gasol (15.8) and Aldridge (13.4) were routinely turning postups into free throws last season, Nowitzki had a 7.7 shooting foul frequency, leading to just 3.8 free throw attempts per game — the second time in three seasons he’s failed to eclipse 4.0 FTA on the season. Nowitzki’s and-1 frequency out of postups was almost nonexistent at 1.6 percent.
The Rondo trade deserves plenty of blame for what happened to the Mavericks last season, but it’s ultimately a frustrating (and costly) blip on what’s been a four-year free fall. In the 26 games Nowitzki played after the All-Star break, the Mavericks were outperformed by 2.1 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor. Asking the question “Can you still build a title team around Nowitzki?” is not sacrilege for Dallas — it’s mandatory.
Wednesday was humbling for the Mavericks. Chandler fled for the Suns. Al-Farouq Aminu took a fat new deal in Portland. Dallas has made DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Matthews its priorities on the market, hoping to ink Matthews first and use him as bait for Jordan.
Mavs likely to try to get Wes Matthews deal done before DeAndre Jordan's decision. Believe it could help sway DJ to Dallas.
— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) July 1, 2015
They have the cap space: the Mavericks could throw upward of $12 million at the recovering Matthews, extend their maximum offer to Jordan, and fill out the roster with cheap, short-term deals. Harris/Matthews/Parsons/Nowitzki/Jordan, if healthy, is probably 48 wins or more in the West. Another No. 8 seed, another battle against San Antonio or Houston — the Mavericks can certainly fetch that team.
Even if Jordan stays with the Clippers, there are other moves available to them. High-risk, high-reward moves that resemble the past four years — trading for Joe Johnson and chasing after an immediate fix at center like Robin Lopez or Omer Asik. But — and I ask this with all due respect to the Mavericks organization — what would that accomplish?
Does that change the fact that Parsons, whom you’re severely overpaying, can bolt for the open market next summer? Or that the Western Conference has proven too tough for the Nowitzki/Carlisle duo to overcome with spare parts and fliers on their side?
The Rondo deal cost Dallas a first round pick in 2016, and barring a plummet into the bottom 7 picks, the Mavericks have no incentive to give away the 2015-16 season. But where does that leave them exactly? Are DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Matthews the future of this franchise or simply the best they can do?
Nobody loves watching Nowitzki do anything more than me. He’s a basketball icon — one of the few true “Box Office” types that sell out whatever home or road arena they’re playing in. If you told Mark Cuban back in 1998 that Nowitzki would win Dallas a championship, and he would also give the Mavericks the type of brand and identity organizations outside of L.A. and N.Y. need, I bet he’d take it.
It’s been an incredible ride for Nowitzki and the Mavericks. However, Father Time is undefeated (although he’s currently in OT against Tim Duncan), and sooner rather than later, Nowitzki will be calling it quits. In the meantime, Nowitzki is experiencing what Brian Phillips of Grantland so expertly describes as “still fast.” Dirk can do most of what he used to, and we love watching him try to test the physical limitations and boundaries that come with his age. He’s a treasure.
However, here’s a guarantee: the Mavericks are not going to win another championship with Nowitzki as the team’s starting power forward. The Mavericks squandered the best team they ever placed around Nowitzki, and after four years of trying to buy more time, here they are — an empty roster, more money then they know what to do with, staring at their own reflection.
I wonder if DeAndre Jordan will buy what they’re selling.