Dirk could only watch -- literally -- as theBucks closed out the Mavs last Saturday.
Yesterday, I criticized
how the Dallas Mavericks handled crunch time in their Saturday night loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. To recap: The Mavs couldn't create shots for Dirk Nowitzki -- the league's reigning MVP -- and their sixth man, Jason Terry, took five of the team's last six shots, mostly off one-on-one plays.
It's not that I think the Mavericks are a selfish team; they're coached to spread the floor and hit the open man, and that's exactly what they do. But it's also true that for the last couple seasons -- basically since Steve Nash left* -- they've ranked near the bottom of the league in assists per game (APG). To whit:
In 2005-06, only one team ranked below Dallas (60-22) in APG: New York (23-59).
Last season, only six teams ranked below Dallas (67-15) in APG: Atlanta (30-52), Boston (24-58), New Orleans (39-43), New York (33-49), Orlando (40-42), and Portland (32-50).
Things have improved somewhat this season**; there are 11 teams below Dallas (9-5): Atlanta (5-7), Charlotte (6-7), Chicago (2-10), Cleveland (8-6), Los Angeles (6-7), Miami (3-10), Minnesota (2-10), New York (4-9), Philadelphia (3-9), Sacramento (4-9), and Washington (6-7).
Notice the trend? I know this snapshot isn't as thorough an analysis as, say, PER or a +/- score. But if you go back and look at league standings on a season-by-season basis, you'll notice that the best teams are (typically) among the league leaders in APG, while the not-so-best teams are (usually) among the league losers.
When a team has a high APG number, that often means that its players get a significant number of open and/or high percentage shots. When a team ranks near the bottom of the league in APG, it tends to mean either one of two things (or perhaps even both): They aren't moving the ball and/or they aren't hitting their shots.
Unlike most of the other teams listed above, we know the Mavs hit shots. They hit lots
of shots. They're currently 11th in the league in scoring (102.5) and 8th in field goal percentage (46.2); last season they were 9th in scoring (100.0) and 5th in field goal percentage (46.7). Here's the problem: They have a lot of players who score through freelancing, isolations, and one-on-one play. Dirk loves to catch the ball at the foul line, take a couple dribbles, then spin and shoot. Howard and Terry love to dribble penetrate and either take it to the hoop or pull up for jumpers. Devin Harris, by Avery Johnson's admission
, has become a "one-man fastbreak" this season.
I've been saying this for the last couple years, but it's like I'm screaming into silence: The best teams tend to be the teams with the best ball movement. The Spurs, for instance, always seem to rank around the top 10 (they're currently ranked 7th). And while the Mavs are in no way selfish, they simply aren't a great ball movement team. Statistically, they aren't even a "good" ball movement team; they rank among the league's bottom dwellers despite
the fact that they're one of the league's elite (and highest scoring) teams.
The Mavs are fortunate that they have players such as Nowitzki, Terry, Harris, Josh Howard, and Jerry Stackhouse, guys who can break defenders down and get their own shot virtually any time they want. But what this means is that, throughout the game, those players have to work harder (and therefore expend more energy) to score than the players on teams that move the ball around for a higher number of open shots. This makes the Mavericks uniquely susceptible to breakdowns in the 4th quarter of close games and (especially) the playoffs. That's because increased defensive pressure tends to kill the teams that rely too heavily on one-on-one play unless they have a dominant low post presence (like a Tim Duncan, or Shaq in his prime), a pure scorer who can put up points against anyone in any circumstance (like a Kobe Bryant), or a superstar who can penetrate and draw fouls in the clutch (like Dwyane Wade now, or Michael Jordan back in the day). The Mavs don't have any of those things, which, in a sense, makes them a (much) better version of the Chicago Bulls.
I read in the Dallas Morning News
that Avery Johnson has actually admitted that the Mavs' ball movement (or lack thereof) has been a problem in the past and he's trying to fix it. I would guess that's why Dirk's shot volume has dropped (from 17.2 per game to 15.6) and his assist numbers have gone up (from 3.4 per game to 4.1). It's also why Jason Terry got sent to the bench in favor of Devon Harris. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Mavs actually had a solid assist total against the Bucks (26), but their fourth quarter rally featured a lot of mad dribbling and one-on-one play (particularly by Terry, who, for all his talent, isn't Kobe Bryant).
When I brought this up last season (on a Mavericks message board), I was accused of nitpicking. I was told, rather strongly, that the Mavericks are such a great team their one minor weakness could easily be overlooked. And maybe it can. But in my opinion, the ball movement thing continues to be the team's Achilles' heel***, and unless Avery Johnson can coach the problem away, or Dirk transforms into a clutch scorer/foul-drawer, you can probably expect more end-of-game failures and playoff collapses from the Mavs.*The 2003-04 season was Nash's last with the Mavericks. That year, Dallas ranked 3rd in the league in APG (despite the prescence of ballhogs like Antoine Walker and Antawn Jamison). Phoenix, with Stephon Marbury running the point, ranked 25th. In 2004-05, Nash signed with the Suns and Phoenix promptly rose to third in the league in APG. The Mavs, on the other hand, fell to 26th. Coincidence? Me thinks not.
**I realize that it's only been a month, so this is a smaller statistical sample.
***I'm sure somebody's going to read this post and say, "Well the, why doesn't the team with the best APG win the most games and the championship every year? Well, just because a team has good ball movement and an efficient offense doesn't mean they themselves don't have their own Achilles' heel. For the Suns, for instance, it's been their lack of interior defense and low post scoring. Every team has strengths and weaknesses. The Mavs have plenty of strengths. And they also have, I think, one or two glaring weaknesses.
Labels: assists, ball movement, clutch, Dallas Mavericks, Devin Harris, Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Josh Howard, Milwaukee Bucks, Phoenix Suns, Steve Nash