I came across a Sports Illustrated article (via TrueHoop) that points out how Jason Terry couldn't get the ball to Dirk Nowitzki during Game 4 of the Mavericks/Warriors series. The inference seems to be that Dallas, as a team, occasionally struggles to distribute the ball to their best players for high percentage shots.

This isn't a new thing, people.

As Hubie Brown once said, "Winning covers up a multitude of sins." The Mavericks' greatest "sin" as a team is their relative lack of ball movement. They were tied (with the Boston Celtics!) for 24th in the league in assists per game this season (19.9). The only teams below them were (in this order): the Atlanta Hawks, New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets, New York Knicks, Orlando Magic, and Portland Trailblazers. Did you notice the rather disturbing pattern there? Except for the Magic -- who finished the season below .500 (40-42) and were unceremoniously swept in the first round by the Pistons -- those were all lottery teams. In the playoffs so far, the Mavs are ranked 13th out of 16 with an average of 17.4 APG. That's only 2.4 more than Steve Nash is averaging by himself.

I don't know about you, but I find it alarming that the best team in the league (by the numbers) is also one of the worst passing teams (by the numbers), particularly since they rank in the top ten in scoring. Maybe I'm a sucker, but I've always kind of assumed that the best teams were the best at moving the ball around to the open man. Not so for Dallas. Last season, they ranked second-to-last (ahead of the dreadful Knicks) in APG, and the season before that they ranked ahead of only the Magic, Wizards, Pacers, and Supersonics. The Mavs haven't been in the top ten in APG since -- you guessed it -- Steve Nash was wearing the green and white.

During last year's playoffs, Dallas was ranked 14th in APG, ahead of only the Kings and Grizzlies...two teams that were eliminated in round one. And yeah, I know they made it to the NBA Finals and everything, but they often struggled mightily to score against the Heat, particularly at the end of Games 3, 5, and 6. And they scored only 74 points in a Game 4 blowout loss. If you watched that series, you probably remember how the Mavericks simply could not get a good shot during crunch time of those close games.

Back in December, after a rare loss to the Utah Jazz in which the Mavericks tallied a mere eight assists, I posted a comment over at The Association that the Mavericks had ball movement issues. My contention was that they rely too much on isolations and one-on-one play from Nowitzki (who can shoot over almost any defender), Terry (who can blow by just about anybody), Josh Howard (who is spectacular at breaking down his man), and Jerry Stackhouse (who is still Jerry Stackhouse). Those players are good enough that the tactic usually works, especially against weaker teams. But in heated, defensive, bump-and-grind games, that style of play can, will, and has killed them, especially when one or more of those guys don't shoot well. The general response was that the Mavs were the best team in league and I was simply nitpicking.

But I think I was on to something. The Mavericks did a much better job at working the ball around during Game 5, and they won. Of course, the victory was also partly due to Dirk's heroics (his first real MVP-type display of the playoffs) and, conversely, the Warriors choking up a 9-point lead by inexplicably slowing down the game (which is antithetical to their usual style) and running a handful of truly awful offensive plays (if you can even call them that).

The Mavericks can -- and, now, probably will -- still come back and beat the Warriors. Heck, they might go all the way to the NBA Finals and win. But if they don't, if they fall short somewhere along the way, it'll probably be because of their ball movement and execution. Or, rather, their lack thereof.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...
I have been a mavs season ticket holder since 1994 (the forgotten years). I follow everything they do and you are spot on. Avery wants to make the Mavs a 1999 Spurs clone. Just isolations and kick outs with occasional pick and pops with Dirk and Terry that border on retarded. They have routinely had 3 assist games this year and no one notices because they have such talented one on one players. It also helps that the new rules pretty much allow moving screens give our offensive players so much space at the top of the key that you could fit GSoM's overinflated sense of accomplishment in it.

Blogger scoots said...
It certainly looks like a lot of the Mavericks' regular-season success was due to a laid-back offensive style that most teams let them get away with. Now the warriors are playing rough--the refs aren't calling *anything* on *anybody* in these playoffs--and the Mavericks haven't adjusted well.

I can't wait to see what happens next.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
"the refs aren't calling *anything* on *anybody* in these playoffs"

Except clapping...that's a big no no.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
i think you're on to something. for one thing, moving the ball around will make the defense keep on moving, chasing the ball and thus expend energy.

another thing that i dont like much about the dallas offense is that they often force to give dirk the ball despite one or two defenders guarding him well and ready to double team him. this causes, at times, intercepted passes or ball taps since it seems very predictable.