Every summer NBA franchises make decisions that positively or negatively effect their future. This is the latest in a series of articles detailing transitional teams. I.E., teams that have had notable offseasons, and thus, are must-watch television during the 2016-17 season. For our last article on this subject, regarding the Oklahoma City Thunder, click here.
The Dallas Mavericks had four problems during the 2015-16 season that prevented them from becoming a real contender. First, they had no true first offensive option. Nobody is insinuating Dirk Nowitzki is not a talented player anymore, on the contrary, he absolutely is. But having a poor man’s Kevin Love (again, at his prime, Dirk was a superstar, he just is not at the level anymore) as your number one option is a recipe for failure. In fact, due to this, it’s absolutely astounding that they were able to reach the playoffs and win a game. As I noted during the season, this has a lot to do with Rick Carlisle’s offensive genius.
The second problem Dallas faced was poor transition defense. Last season Dallas had the seventh worst transition defense in the NBA. This acted as a dagger against Oklahoma City, who over the course of their first round matchup, consistently had difficulty guarding the Mavericks’ offense. Essentially, every time Dallas did not score, it felt that the Thunder did. This, in part, was due to the Mavericks inability to stop Westbrook and Durant in transition.
The fourth problem is one facing, at the very least, twenty other teams in the NBA, which is the utter lack of parity. Dallas does not have a superstar, and frankly, we have not seen teams figure out how to beat Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Cleveland without said players. In fact, since LeBron James left for the Miami Heat, there have been zero teams that challenged superteams without a superstar. Because of the Mavericks’ lack of said superstar, short of revolutionizing the NBA, Dallas will not be able to do much in the playoffs.
Why I Liked The Mavs’ Offseason, Part 1: Overview And Andrew Bogut
Quietly Mark Cuban’s team has had a notable free agency. Just as a list, the Mavericks lost Chandler Parsons and Zaza Pachulia, signed Harrison Barnes, Quincy Acy, and Seth Curry, traded for Andrew Bogut, drafted A.J. Hammons, and retained Dirk Nowitzki, Dwight Powell, and Deron Williams. Overall, while Dallas may have lost talent this offseason, they gained athleticism and modernism. In today’s NBA you need to be able to shoot threes, score and defend in transition, score using the pick-and-roll, and prevent drive-and-dish three-point shots. Thus, even though Cuban may have wanted Conley and/or Whiteside, this offseason should not be viewed as a failure in Dallas.
First, let’s examine how the addition of Andrew Bogut will benefit the Mavs. Last season, opponents shot 13.6% worse within ten feet of the basket when Bogut is the primary defender. As I have done before, let’s examine how Bogut’s defense compares with other NBA finals starting centers over the past three years.
What we see here is that Bogut’s rim protection stats fit comfortably in the middle of rim protectors over the past three NBA finals. He’s very good at using his size and verticality to prevent drives to the rim. Let’s examine a video below:
What you see in this video, taken from game 2 of the 2016 NBA Finals, is that Bogut’s ability to use his height posed big problems for the Cleveland Cavaliers. First, LeBron drives to the rim and creates an opening, however Bogut uses his size and speed to position himself to block the shot. After this happens and the Cavs get the rebound, moreover, Kyrie Irving opts not to drive because Bogut has completely clogged the lane. Thus, on this play the Cavs miss two shots, and Bogut is responsible for seventy-five percent of that. Additionally, Bogut’s rim protection and smart blocking allow him to hurt his opponent’s transition while benefiting his own team’s.
In this video, Kyrie Irving takes the ball in transition and Cleveland finds an open Tristan Thompson. However, Bogut uses his length to block Thompson, but does it smartly and aims the ball to his teammate, Steph Curry, who then scores a transition three-point shot. Thus, not only will Bogut’s rim protection aid the Mavericks’ interior defense, but more importantly it will allow for more transition offense.
Furthermore Andrew Bogut was the Warriors’ best screen-setter during the 2016 NBA playoffs. Using SportVU data to track “hustle” stats, during the NBA playoffs, we see that Bogut averages 1.4 screen assists per game, in only 17 minutes per game. This is huge, because even though he is not an “offensive weapon,” so to speak, his ability to set screens allows the Warriors to score three-pointers at a higher rate. Let’s examine two videos of this below (it should be noted, these screens are, at best, fringe-illegal, but Bogut does a good job avoiding calls on such plays):
In both of these videos, Bogut sets a screen that allow Steph Curry to shoot an open three-point shot. His size and strength make it difficult for smaller guards (namely, Kyrie Irving) to escape around Bogut and help defensively.
Consequently, Andrew Bogut will provide Dallas with necessary strength and athleticism compared to a previously weak Dallas team. His ability to protect the rim in transition and set screens (albeit sometimes illegal ones) on offense will address two of the Mavericks biggest issues from 2015-16. Moreover, Bogut will serve to minimize weaknesses in the games of both Dirk Nowitzki and youngster Dwight Powell. His addition is a clear benefit to Dallas, and frankly, was not their best move of the summer.
Why I Liked The Mavs’ Offseason, Part 2: Harrison Barnes
The addition of Harrison Barnes will be of the utmost importance for the Dallas Mavericks’ success in 2016-17. It’s important to start by recognizing that Barnes had a very mediocre NBA finals, played on the best regular season team of all time, and has never played as a top option. It’s because of this that a lot of NBA analysts believe Dallas to have downgraded from Parsons. This, in the words of Greg Popovich, is a load of poppycock.
Chandler Parsons has the potential to be the ideal NBA stretch four. He is a solid enough defender, a great three-point shooter, and a playmaker. He is creative with the ball and can generate his own offense. Here is the issue, though: Chandler Parsons has never lived up to expectations regarding how good Chandler Parsons could be. Whether it be due to injuries, assumptions meeting reality, or the teams he has been on, Parsons just is not an elite player, no matter what he gets paid.
Now, why is Barnes so different? First, health. Barnes has been a consistently healthy player. Parsons has not. Second, Barnes is arguably a top-ten stretch four defender in the NBA. In fact, four out of Golden State’s five best playoff lineups came with Barnes guarding the opposing team’s power forward. What makes Barnes so dangerous at defending stretch fours is his ability to defend off screens (Barnes ranked as the best and second best defender against screens in the playoffs for the Warriors and the league respectively) and defend post-ups (Barnes was second best post-up defender on the 2015-16 Warriors). Because of this, Barnes should allow the Mavericks to defend teams who play small with more ease than last season, and thus he acts as an efficiency multiplier for Dallas.
Yet, with the benefits of the Mavericks’ offseason additions accounted for, let’s look at the Mavericks projected rotation to understand my main concern.
PG: Deron Williams, Seth Curry, J.J. Barea, Devin Harris, Jonathan Gibson
SG: Wes Matthews, Keith Hornsby
SF: Harrison Barnes, Justin Anderson
PF: Dirk Nowitzki, Dwight Powell, Quincy Acy
C: Andrew Bogut, Salah Mejri, A.J. Hammons
Let’s look at that roster critically. They have five scoring point guards, three NBA-level wings, and six bigs. Essentially, this is not a roster built to play small, and I can’t figure out how to even create a small lineup where one of the Mavericks best players does not end up on the bench.
This problem stems from the fact that five of Dallas’s six bigs expect and deserve to see playing time. Moreover, none of the Mavericks’ point guards are tall and/or physical enough to defend other combo guards. This creates a problem where, to play small, Dallas will need to play without Quincy Acy (who was brought in to play against other teams’ small lineups) or with Barnes at the small forward position (his weakest defensive role guarding smaller lineups). Furthermore, Dallas’s small lineups will have weak perimeter defense. In my mind, these are the two best five-men “small-ball” lineups for Dallas:
PG: Deron Williams
SG: Wes Matthews
SF: Justin Anderson
PF: Harrison Barnes
C: Dirk Nowitzki
PG: Deron Williams
SG: Wes Matthews
SF: Harrison Barnes
PF: Quincy Acy
C: Dirk Nowitzki
These lineups cannot guard fast perimeter players, have little-to-no rim protection, and put the Mavericks’ best players in suboptimal positions. Even if Dallas lets Acy guard the smaller wing on offense, allowing Barnes to guard the stretch four, this creates a speed mismatch on the perimeter. Thus, while Dallas will be difficult to beat when they play big lineups, doing so minimizes the impact of their two best free agent signings. Whereas, the Mavericks lose their biggest strength when playing small, but need to do so to maximize Barnes and Acy. This dichotomy, combined with the Mavs’ lack of a primary offensive option and superstar, results in an underwhelming view of their success this upcoming season.
The Dallas Mavericks did address two of their four biggest problems during the 2015-16 season. Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes, and somewhat Quincy Acy will modernize the Mavs’ roster by creating better transition defense and more points off of screens. Because of this, the Mavericks will be more pleasing to watch in 2016-17 than they were in 2015-16. And while these additions should guarantee a low playoff spot, the roster imbalance poses such significant problems that they will not be able to solve the “no superstar” problem, consequently placing them firmly outside the “contender” bracket in the Western Conference.