Dirk Watch
Dirk could only watch -- literally -- as the
Bucks 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.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...
This is 100% true, I couldn't have said it better myself.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Great analysis! I completely agree.

In fact, look at the lost series vs GS in the playoffs last year. Long players kill improvisational shooting, not assist-based shooting, and that hurt Dallas.

You should do more of this. You're a smart hoops analyst.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I'm not sure I completely agree, to be honest. Dallas was one of the best teams in the league in winning close games last year, and they played pretty much the same offensive style. Yes, they go through stretches where the one-on-one play breaks down, but it happens fairly infrequently, to my viewing.

Their problem right now is they're not defending. They were fifth in defensive rating last year (points/100 possessions), but are 19th so far this season. Perhaps it has something to do with not playing the centers as much, but I just don't think they're so focused on that end. Josh Howard used to be a sieve, but Caron Butler dropped 35 on him last night. Trenton Hassell was brought in to defend, but he really hasn't done much of that this year. And guys like Dirk, Terry, and Stackhouse are either too slow or too small to defend well, and increasingly, they are being relied upon to score. Golden State provided the blueprint for beating them defensively, and it seems more teams are adopting it.

So sure, the one on one thing may be a slight problem, but it's not a major weakness, in my opinion. Dallas' offense is first in the league in points/100 possessions, so they're doing something right. The problem is defense, and unless they start to focus more on that end and get back to their pre-2007 level, they'll slip.

Blogger Basketbawful said...
alexandra -- Thanks!

wormboy -- You know, sometimes I get so busy making fun of lousy teams and thinking up new fart jokes, I forget that I actually know a few things about basketball. Tell you what: I'll try to toss in an actually analysis post now and then, just to shake things up.

pradamaster -- A number of people have been e-mailing me about the John Hollinger article that mentions the Mavericks' success in "close games" (that is, games decided by 5 points of less) last (regular) season. Interestingly enough, the fail to mention some of Hollinger's other comments, which include:

"But this nine-game streak was done mostly with smoke and mirrors. Dallas won by 2, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 points, even though only two of the opponents had winning records."


"They outscored their opponents by 7.2 points per game, which is impressive, but normally teams who do that win 63.5 games, not 67. Dallas won more than its share because it was so fortunate in close contests, going an absurd 20-4 in games decided by five points or fewer. Normally I have to explain to people that this is almost pure luck rather than a sign of clutch ability, but given the Mavs' recent history this sort of goes without saying."

Clearly, Hollinger isn't trying to say that Dallas is a clutch team. He points out (rightly) that much of the Mavs' success in close games came against sub-.500 teams and as a result of luck (I didn't know Hollinger ever accounted for something as arbitrary as luck).

Anyway, forget the regular season. The Mavs only played one "close" game in the 2007 Playoffs...and they lost it.

They played 10 "close" games in the 2006 playoffs. They were 3-10 in those games, including 0-3 in the NBA Finals.

They played six close games in the 2005 playoffs, and they were 3-3 in those games.

That gives them a 6-14 record in close playoff games over the three seasons in which I've accused them of having poor ball movement (i.e., the post-Steve Nash years).

Now, I don't get a chance to watch every regular season game the Mavs play, but I have watched all of their playoff games over the last few years. And what I've seen is their offense breaking down at the end of games. I've seen them incapable of scoring against the Heat, and against the Warriors. I've seen them unable to get their best player good shots in critical situations. Of course, you could just blame Dirk for that, as many people have (and probably will continue to do). But maybe some blame should go to an offensive system that doesn't help the players get a higher number of easy, high percentage shots.

P.S. I agree they haven't been playing well on defense this season, not consistently anyway. But they played pretty good defense the last couple seasons, and that didn't prevent them from getting upended in the playoffs by less talented teams.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
No, I agree with you...this is a problem. It's just not nearly as big a problem as the defense, which stunk against Golden State in the playoffs.

Miami basically played isolation the entire time when they beat Dallas in the 2006 Finals. Golden State is completely an isolation team. You can play this style and win.

The other thing is that I do think winning close games is mostly a factor of luck, which is why I don't see why they need to scrap their style. It's kind of like Portland in the mid-90s. They got so caught up in the "self-destructing" argument that it mentally affected their play. They spent more time vehemently arguing against the "self-destruction" point (reference Adelman's comments after the March 1, 1992 game against the Bulls) than just playing, and letting things sort themselves out. It seems like Dallas is letting the chocking thing get into their heads.

I'm rambling, and not making much sense, but if your basic argument is that they need to play their style better, then I agree, to a certain extent. If your argument is that the style doesn't work, then I disagree. But either way, if they play their style as well as they can, and still don't play defense, they won't go anywhere.

Perhaps the defense wasn't the problem in the past, but it is right now. They're scoring more efficiently than ever before, but they're worse because their defense is allowing the opposing team to be more efficicent than ever. My guess is that if they defend better and still maintain their offensive style/output, they'll once again be the best team in the league.

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Maybe if Dirk wasn't such a ass clown jerk face they would win more games?

Blogger Basketbawful said...
pradamaster -- In essence, I think the Mavs need to focus more on ball movement, and players setting screens and making hard cuts and so forth, than all the isolations and one-on-one stuff they use. And it's not like they can't pass, or that their guards (and Dirk) can't create for other players. It's just that they sometimes fall into the habit of relying on using mismatches to dictate their offense.

Maybe it's the relic of Don Nelson's original system. Because that's what all Nellie teams do: Force mismatches and isolate the best offensive players over and over and over.

Isolation worked for the Warriors...against the Mavs. The Jazz didn't seem to have much of a problem with them. Isolation worked for Miami, but that team had a dominant low post presence (Shaq might not have scored his typical 30 PPG, but he drew a lot of defensive attention) and a superstar who could drive and draw fouls at will. The Mavs don't have that, which is why their isolation sets tend to falter under intense playoff-caliber defense.

I just can't agree that they're scoring "more efficiently than every before"...the numbers don't bear that out. They shooting percentage, as a team, is down slightly and their three-point shooting percentage is down five percent. Their assists (20.1) are roughtly the same as last season (19.9). At best, I would rate them "just as efficient."

Anonymous Anonymous said...
They're #1 in offensive efficiency this year.


That's what I'm getting at.

Blogger Basketbawful said...
pradamaster -- I get what your saying. However, a lot of that efficiency is coming from the fact that they only turn the ball over a league-lowest 11.8 times. They're doing a great job taking care of the ball...but, of course, that is, in part, a product of the type of offense they run, which, as I've pointed out, tends toward isolations and one-on-one play rather than heavy ball movement ("heavy ball movement" sounds kind of pornographic, but anyway...).

You'll notice that their effective field goal percentage is quite a bit below the other elite teams despite the fact that they're currently the second best FT shooting team in the league. Their FG percentage, both from the field and 3-point range, has dropped this season. So...something seems off to me. By the numbers, their ball movement isn't great and their shooting percentages have dropped from the previous season, yet their points per 100 possessions is up.

Hey, look, I'm not a mathemologist, and, anyway, I think basketball is more magic than science anyway. Am I nitpicking? Maybe. But what I can see with my own two eyes when I watch this team play is that they, by the very nature of their offense, have to work a little harder than the other elite teams to get their shots. Fortunately for them, they are a supremely talented group of guys and so most of the time it doesn't matter. They get their shots. They hit their shots.

Of course, like I said in my post, their own coach has cited ball movement as an issue, so I'm probably not imagining things.