Let me preface by saying, of course, the Mavericks are already playing well. I don’t just mean playing well. The question I am asking is could Dallas beat a Golden State, San Antonio, or Oklahoma City in the playoffs? The answer is complex.
Realistically, the Mavs probably do not have the star power to beat any of the top three teams in the West. Here is the thing, though, Dallas has a coach that is determined to never rebuild and an owner that will ensure Carlisle won’t have to. So, let’s talk about Dallas’ biggest strength, Rick Carlisle.
Carlisle, for all intents and purposes, is a basketball warlock/mastermind hybrid. He was into utilizing advanced analytics way before it was popular. He’s developed teams that, while on paper are not incredibly talented, are a bad matchup for every one of the elite teams in the NBA. In fact, in an article about this season’s Mavs, Zach Lowe interviewed new Maverick Zaza Pachulia, and their exchange was priceless. Lowe stated “When Pachulia arrived, Carlisle introduced himself by saying he had just watched Pachulia’s last 100 shots in Milwaukee, Pachulia said. When Pachulia was settling into bed in Portland around 2 a.m. Dec. 1, hours after a loss to the Kings and a short flight north, he got a text from Carlisle asking him to come to Carlisle’s room for film study.” Thus, like in year’s past, this year is no different for Carlisle.
Entering the season, Carlisle was faced with a host of dilemmas. First, he was facing his fifth new core in five years. Second, his core was not what he expected it to be following the DeAndre Jordan emoji-gate fiasco. Third, and most importantly, his core was not nearly as talented as many of the elite contenders in the West.
So, prior to starting the season, Carlisle analyzed what he had. This amounted to the always reliable Dirk Nowitzki, core player Chandler Parsons, high potential signings in Deron Williams and Wesley Matthews, and a ton of mobile big men. What all of this led to was Carlisle realizing he had a bunch of players who can shoot, however, not many who could create their own shot. For most coaches this would’ve been a major problem, in fact, many analysts picked Dallas to miss-out on the 2016 NBA playoffs; however, for Carlisle, this led to intrigue.
What if Dallas could utilize an offense similar to the 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks but with greater effect? Would an offensive system be able to ensure success of Deron Williams and Wesley Matthews along with guaranteeing the effectiveness of Zaza Pachulia, Dwight Powell, Raymond Felton, Charlie Villanueva, Salah Mejri, JJ Barea, and Devin Harris? Could a four-guard lineup with one athletic big actually defeat a team with strong post players? Carlisle’s answer to all of these questions was yes.
In terms of this offense being Atlanta-esque, they utilize a ton of passes to create even more catch-and-shoot attempts. Per SportVU, Dallas averages the fourth most catch-and-shoot attempts out of any team the past three years (being the 2014-15 Hawks, Pacers, and Knicks) and the second highest eFG% out of all four (behind only Atlanta). Moreover, They average the fourth most pass attempts per game this season. So, in terms of ball movement, in what ways is it different than simply a poor man’s 2014-15 Hawks offense?
Outside of having a historically great, go-to scorer like Nowitzki – something the Hawks sorely lacked – this team is unfortunately too familiar to the 2014-15 Atlanta team. And that’s not a good prognosis. First, let’s look at their offensive strategy, where both teams focused on creating a mass of open and wide-open shots as well as being seemingly allergic to offensive rebounding.
Figure 1 Stats via SportVU Player Tracking
A brief note. The reason for such little rebounding is due to something studied by Seth Partnow, which is the points a team gains from offensive rebounds is easily offset and more by getting back on defense. When you are a team like Dallas, who has the eighth slowest movement speed on defense, the extra time getting back into transition is crucial.
Consequently, if Dallas’ offense is so similar to the failed 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks, what would make one think that the Mavs could make noise in the historically powerful West? Unfortunately, not much. And frankly, the answer to my original question is that Dallas is, with significant likelihood, no more than a second-round exit.
Nevertheless, Dallas has Dirk. And this makes them different. One of the Hawks’ greatest problems against the Cavs was, when push came to shove, they lacked a go-to scorer. Dirk is, even this late in his career, still a go-to scorer. Dirk is having a good year scoring the ball, and is averaging a 78.1% True Shooting Percentage in clutch situations. Additionally, the Mavs have a revitalized Deron Williams, who is one of the twenty best at attacking teams off drives in the NBA and an effective veteran. These two veterans, who both at times can be considered “go-to” scorers, provide Dallas with something Atlanta did not have last season. And when you combine Dirk, a stable of effective veterans, and the genius of Rick Carlisle, Dallas will always have a chance to be a threat come playoff time, even if the likelihood is minimal.