How are the Dallas Mavericks winning?
At first glance, Dallas doesn't fit with what most teams look like today. Its point guard is slower than most, its center is smaller than most, its small forward is older than most, and its shooting guard can't shoot 3s. So how is it that the Mavericks have an offense that is tied for seventh in offensive efficiency?
To beat an evolved NBA defense -- one that swarms toward the ball, rushes at 3-point shooters and works to protect the rim -- teams must make defenders cover as much ground as possible. Basically, the theory goes, spread the defenders out while looking for the hole that opens up as they move with the ball. And Dallas excels at exactly that.
It sounds like an NFL philosophy, but in basketball there can be multiple passes in a single possession. NBA offenses spread defenses vertically -- including the full court and the half court -- and horizontally. But it's the way Dallas plays fast that has it winning and outhustling its opposition. Much of this has to do with the burgeoning trio of Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon, who have meshed quickly and effectively.
What is working
Dallas is smart to play fast, hoping to find the first hole when defenders don't race back to set up as fast as they should. It's even smarter because Dallas starts only one player who would be deemed fast in this league -- Ellis. But his teammates are just fast enough and skilled enough to create a very good transition offense, one of the league's best five at this style of play.
The Mavericks defense also is built around this fast philosophy, gambling for deflections and jumping passing lanes, which is why they are No. 2 in steals per game. Steals lead to two-on-one and three-on-two breaks (plus one-on-zero, the best kind of break), and with Shawn Marion and Ellis, plus Jose Calderon as a decision-maker often, Dallas is excellent at converting steals into points.
Dallas is effective running after missed shots, since it has shooters and slashers who hurt defenses when they focus on only one area (either the rim or the 3-point line) at the expense of the other. The Mavericks' ball movement rivals that of the San Antonio Spurs when they are playing their best, one of the biggest keys to their overall success.
Perhaps surprising to some, Dallas is an excellent half-court offense as well, thanks to the same core attitude that forces defenses to guard the whole court, sideline to sideline and timeline to baseline. Everyone associates spreading the floor with 3-point shooting, but that tells only part of the story. Just as the threat of a 3 invites defenders to the perimeter, scoring at the rim sucks them down into the paint. Each is vital to the other. And this is where Dallas' secret sauce is made.
The Nowitzki effect
To begin with, the Mavericks are one of the elite post-up teams in the league. You read that correctly. They don't have Zach Randolph or Brook Lopez, Dwight Howard or Tim Duncan, but they do have Nowitzki, and his post-up game is delivering at a high rate. He does not earn paint shots as often as some of the aforementioned guys, but his turnaround jumper is at least as effective as almost any other post weapon in the NBA and is better than most. It appears Nowitzki has embraced this part of the game, as he is running to post up frequently, and it is paying off as he is having an excellent season as a finisher (48.9 percent) on all shots.
With the kind of success Nowitzki is having posting up, defenses are forced to send help down toward him, which opens up shots for Calderon, Vince Carter, Marion and Jae Crowder. DeJuan Blair also is a tough guy to guard one-on-one in space inside, and many of his touches down there derive from Nowitzki's presence nearby.
Dallas has another great paint weapon, but this one happens to be almost a foot shorter than starting center Samuel Dalembert. In the NBA today, there might not be a more dangerous slasher to the rim than Ellis. His attacks are not as productive as say, Howard, Duncan or DeMarcus Cousins near the rim, but they are close enough to simulate the same net effect.
Think about it; a defense has to race back to defend Dallas' early ball push, hoping to contain Ellis and Marion in transition while finding marksmen like Calderon and Nowitzki spotting up behind the 3-point line. Then it has to watch for Nowitzki inside while dealing with Ellis' ability to get to the rim in an instant.
That attention to paint defense is what opens up the perimeter, just as the attention to the perimeter opens up the paint. That's typically too difficult a challenge for defenses, which is why Dallas is eighth in 3-point percentage and fifth in overall field goal percentage. The only teams with better shooting percentages from 3 and overall than Dallas are the two NBA Finals teams from last year, Miami and San Antonio.
The final key for Dallas, one that bears watching, is its passing ability. I'm talking more specifically about its ability to move the ball fluidly from one threat to another. Inside to outside, sideline to sideline, Dallas is a team that thrives when the ball does not get stuck in one man's hands. The Mavericks don't have LeBron James or Dwyane Wade as isolation stars, nor do they have a pick-and-roll talent like Tony Parker. This was a concern entering the season with the arrival of Ellis -- and that his reputation as a ball stopper would hurt the offense -- but he has been very good for them.
As the season moves on, however, Ellis could easily revert to what he's always been more comfortable doing, holding the ball and waiting for a screen. We have seen a little more of this lately, perhaps the reason Dallas is 6-7 in its last 13 games. Dallas cannot defend or rebound well enough to survive the loaded Western Conference if it does not have a highly rated offense, and that can't happen unless it continues doing what it has been doing most of the season.