Watching the present iteration of the Dallas Mavericks, I’m distracted by what could have been. The final vestiges of Deron Williams, former Utah Jazz superstar, and earlier than that, consensus All-American out of Illinois, have brought the ex-All-Star back to his hometown to team up with another thirty-something in their closing stanzas as a professional athletes. Williams, only 31, has had a more severe tumble down the mountain than Dirk Nowitzki, 37, in hot pursuit of his second 50-40-90 season.
A basketball eternity ago, in the summer of 2012, the Mavericks pitched Williams on teaming up with Nowitzki. The motivated will search high-and-low for evidence to support their narratives, but it’s a fact Nowitzki and Dallas owner Mark Cuban didn’t make an appearance to woo Williams — something that, amid today’s free agency hullabaloo, sounds terribly shortsighted.
The summer before, Cuban had failed to acquire Chris Paul or Dwight Howard. Cuban watched America’s two largest markets swallow up his three shiniest targets, and Nowitzki and head coach Rick Carlisle have spent the past four seasons in an extended championship hangover. Dallas has lost in the first round three of the last four years, missing the playoffs altogether in 2013, the summer after losing Williams to Brooklyn.
Williams’ time in Brooklyn was so detrimental, so damaging to his reputation on and off the floor, that the Nets paid $29 million for him to go away. Regarded as a franchise cornerstone only three years earlier, Williams inked a two-year, $11 million deal last summer with the Mavericks, a piece of the organization’s patched-together business plan following the DeAndre Jordan saga.
Nowitzki is a walking anomaly — a lights-out shooter from the block, elbows and above the break, at 7-feet-tall, who never turns the ball over. Having Nowitzki as the pillar of his offense allows Carlisle to experiment with atypical lineups, and one of his favorite combinations is playing multiple point guards with Nowitzki. The Mavericks won the title in 2011 with Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and J.J. Barea sharing the backcourt in Carlisle’s pick-and-roll-heavy offense. Kidd dished out 8.2 assists per game that season, but he wasn’t the same player, and Carlisle circumvented his greyness by supplementing his creation skills with Terry and Barea darting around shooters and roll men.
What Carlisle discovered was Dallas doesn’t need a ball-dominating point guard — if things are done correctly, everything will funnel through Nowitzki. The ball doesn’t stop: one guard uses a Nowitzki screen, pitches back to Nowitzki, who does a dribble handoff with the other guard, who penetrates the lane and lobs the ball to the airborne center — or finds the open spot-up shooter on the wing — or locates wherever Nowitzki has drifted to:
As disappointing as it was, the failures of last season’s Rajon Rondo trade were foreseeable. Carlisle had little interest in turning over his league-leading offense to a loose cannon, and once Rondo felt disrespected, he was a turtle in his shell for the duration of his stay. Dallas watched Rondo, Tyson Chandler and Monta Ellis leave the Mavericks under bitter circumstances, and after losing Jordan at the 11th hour, Carlisle and GM Donnie Nelson had to try and put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
Bless their hearts, the Mavericks have avoided the cataclysmic decline many of us anticipated. Williams has turned heads during the first quarter of the season. After shooting his eyes out in Brooklyn, he’s hitting 37.1 percent of his 3s on an appropriate diet of jumpers. The corner 3 has done wonders for him, with Williams hitting 57 percent of his 21 attempts.
He’s left room to be desired finishing drives and getting to the foul line, where he’s stroking at nearly 93 percent. He makes up for it by being careful with the ball. Williams has a mighty 2.81 assist-to-turnover ratio and a 30.3 assist percentage. When Nowitzki and Williams isolate their defenders on the strong side, with their collective height and craftiness it’s tough stopping them from getting what they want:
Nowitzki and Williams still have a slightly negative net rating (-0.2), but over the team’s past 15 games, Nowitzki and Williams are outscoring opponents by 2.9 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. This isn’t a Rondo/Nowitzki situation. Williams isn’t highjacking the offense like he did in Brooklyn, and an uptick in shooting around the basket will nudge their combined offensive rating above 101.6. Williams has exceeded his short salary thus far.
Comparatively, Dallas bet high on Wes Matthews’ recovery from an Achilles injury, and he has satisfied expectations with steady week-to-week improvement. Dallas is scoring 110.4 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com, when Matthews is on the floor. Dallas will run Matthews around Nowitzki at the elbow, and when the center and opposite wing part the lane, Matthews breaks through for an easy layup — a play made entirely possible by Nowitzki’s gravity. The Mavericks have also gotten Matthews open on variations of the elevator screen action.
His 3-point shooting and perimeter defense is a welcome addition to Dallas, who hasn’t had a player of his two-way caliber since Shawn Marion. When Nowitzki and Matthews share the floor, Dallas has a net rating of 7.2 points in 498 minutes, per NBA.com.
The Mavericks are standing up straight this season in large part by stealing Zaza Pachulia from the Bucks. I wrote about this extensively in July, but for all the greatness Nowitzki provides, he comes at a price. No power forward in the NBA last season was worse on the glass than Nowitzki, and playing him starter’s minutes means giving up the ghost on the offensive glass.
Pachulia helps matters. He’s pulling down 19.7 percent of all rebounds when’s on the floor, seventh in the NBA among starting centers. His ability to compete on the boards allows Dallas to overachieve on the defensive glass, and Pachulia has steadied their interior play. The Mavericks are a top-10 team in terms of opponent’s points in the paint and FTA rate. Pachulia could stand to improve his scoring in the restricted area, but he’s been passable on the offensive end, and Dallas is scoring 104.7 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor.
Dwight Powell, a shoe-in from the Rondo deal, has impressed in the early-goings. He’s not Brandan Wright exploding off the pine in a convincing Tyson Chandler impression, but Powell combats his lack of highlight real material with an improving jumper and sound movement. He can’t do anything in space, and he’s prone to throwing rogue bounce passes at the feet of teammates when he gets caught telegraphing his next move, but he offers Dallas much needed rebounding off the bench.
Still recovering from his ambiguous knee injury, Chandler Parsons hasn’t had much to offer thus far. He’s missed time, and his jumper is flat, bouncing hard off the rim on a line drive. He’s shooting 43.8 percent from the field, and Dallas will be missing a gear offensively until he rounds into form. The Mavericks are scoring 102.6 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com, a dangerous figure considering the team’s defensive inefficiencies.
Matthews is the team’s only true wing without Parsons at 100 percent, and Carlisle has made lemonade by rotating four point guards, semi-regularly playing three at once. This includes Devin Harris and Barea, mainstays for Dallas, as well as Raymond Felton, who has strangely unlocked the team’s best lineup combinations. Felton’s individual numbers are dull — he doesn’t finish at the rim or from the paint, his turnover ratio is high, and he’s only connecting on a third of his 3-pointers from above the break.
What Felton does is difficult to measure. His job is make every movement count, and he just knows where to be. Felton and Nowitzki look like Tony Parker and Tim Duncan sometimes, with Felton on the receiving end of an impeccable give-and-go. He’ll time his drives just right so that Nowitzki can adopt his man as his own, yielding a colossal mismatch for Dallas:
Dallas is outscoring opponents by 8.1 point per 100 possessions with Felton on the floor, and the Mavericks are performing like a top-5 offense and defense with Felton/Matthews and Felton/Nowitzki on the floor. Carlisle has started Felton in place of Parsons the past six games, and I’d expect that to remain the case until Parsons returns to form.
Playing super small lineups has been costly on defense for Dallas, which doesn’t have a bundle of do-it-all switchers like Golden State and Cleveland. The Mavericks aren’t spry enough to push the tempo above a murmur and win in transition. In fact, it’s the opposite: opponents are killing the Mavericks with nearly 15 fast-break points a game. Dallas seldom turns the ball over, but it surrenders an abnormal number of long rebounds — the team is 6th in 3PA (27.1) but 25th in 3-point percentage (32.6).
When Dallas went with a three-point guard lineup and Wes Matthews at power forward against Houston last week, the Rockets countered with Trevor Ariza and Terrence Jones in the frontcourt, two players who can hang in transition and who can switch against the Mavericks’ guards in the pick-and-roll. The game simply got too fast for the Mavericks, and Nowitzki and Pachulia returning to the floor couldn’t slow things back down. The Rockets made 9 of 16 twos during the fourth quarter, and assisted on twice as many baskets as Dallas by getting to the paint whenever it wanted:
Houston recovered 32.6 percent of its offensive rebounds, routinely getting the better of Dallas’ small frontline. This advantage reared its ugly head with the Rockets ahead, 94-92. Matthews stuck Harden for an entire possession, even blocking his shot, but the Mavericks lost the chance for a huge stop when Patrick Beverley climbed over Felton for the board:
The Mavericks can outscore lesser teams, bullying them into their curtailed pace and slicing them up with screens and jumpers. Against real competition, however, there are an inordinate number of ways to pick Dallas apart. In a loss to the Kings on Nov. 30, Rondo was having a field day distributing the basketball, and he even got involved from the corner on a pair of head-slammers in the first half. The Kings assisted on 15 of their first 25 buckets.
By the second quarter, Boogie Cousins asserted himself as the best player on the floor. Pachulia couldn’t front him or slow him down on rolls to the rim. Boogie started to put the ball on the floor in the fourth, taking advantage of a wiped Mavericks team. On this play, Boogie did an excellent job anticipating Dallas clenching up in the lane, and he created a 2-on-1 on the strong side for a pair of marksmen:
And then there’s Nowitzki. I won’t belabor the point: opponents just go out of their way to punish his lack of foot speed:
Dallas needed overtime against Portland in large part because of how successful the Damian Lillard-Meyers Leonard pick-and-roll was against Nowitzki. Leonard scored 23 points, including four threes, against Dallas. Watch as Nowitzki gets trapped square between Leonard and Lillard, unable to guard either play:
Nowitzki doesn’t have to apologize for being slow — he’s a wonder who makes everything Dallas does offensively possible — but playing him starter’s minutes means sacrificing a great deal on the other end. Pachulia has been a pleasant surprise for Dallas, but he’s not enough to overcome Nowitzki’s shortcomings (and newsflash: neither is DeAndre Jordan).
After opening the season at 9-4, Dallas has stumbled against stiffer competition. At 13-11, the Mavericks remain firmly in the West playoff picture, but they have benefited from terrible starts in New Orleans and Houston, and Rudy Gobert’s injury. The Rockets will pass the Mavericks before 2016, leaving Dallas, Memphis and Utah to battle whatever fringe contenders remain by the spring. With Golden State and San Antonio as juggernauts sitting atop the West, the difference between the No. 6 seed and the bottom two seeds could be having a shot in hell versus getting swept in round one.
Dallas was never going to win a championship this season, and so making the playoffs and giving a real contender a run for their money remains their destiny. The Mavericks and Grizzlies have a lot in common in this way. These teams are playing hard for their fans and respecting their veterans by giving them enough talent to scrap by. The expectations are different in Los Angeles, sure, but there is a cruelty to watching Kobe Bryant amnesia walk through his final season on the worst team in the NBA. To that end, there is a decency to the final years of Nowitzki in Dallas, because while he’ll never win another championship, we’re still watching him play at a remarkably high level.
Watching him run the two-man game with Williams, however, adds a pinch of salt to this season. Man, it would have been incredible to watch Williams in his prime driving hard off a Nowitzki screen and taking it straight to the tin for a dunk. Nowitzki would have lived off wide open 3s and free rolls with Williams running the show. And who knows? Perhaps the extra motivation — of staying home, of playing for a sturdier organization — would have kept Williams healthier in mind and body. The history of the NBA is filled with great, “What ifs…,” and playing in Dallas during the center of his career could have changed Williams’ career in myriad ways.