The Dallas Mavericks: A time-tested vision facing its mortality
On Sunday night, the Dallas Mavericks recorded their first win of the season, an 86-75 overtime win over the Milwaukee Bucks (who fell to 4-3) that made for pretty grim viewing. Dallas were led by 34 points and 8 rebounds from Harrison Barnes, alongside 21 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists for J.J. Barea.
Last night, they followed it up with a slightly more convincing 109-97 win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Again by Barnes (31 points) and Barea (18 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists), Dallas also enjoyed 22 points off the bench from Seth Curry, while Andrew Bogut (+20) was much better on the interior defence than his raw stats show.
It is of note that Dallas were missing both Deron Williams and Dirk Nowitzki for these two games. Nowitzki is out for at least a week to rest a sore Achilles, while Williams missed the pair of victories with a slight calf strain. In missing those two, Dallas was missing both of its main half-court shot creators. But despite the two wins in their absence, that is kind of a problem here.
Assume for a moment – generously - that every member of the Mavericks was fully fit and healthy to play. That would in turn yield a starting line-up of Williams, Wesley Matthews, Barnes, Nowitzki and Andrew Bogut, plus key bench contributors of Barea, Seth Curry and/or Devin Harris, Justin Anderson, Dwight Powell and Salah Mejri. That is not a rotation with a particularly high talent level offensively.
This is evidenced in the stats alone. The Mavs are fourth last in the league in points per game at 97.4, as well as fifth last in the league in Offensive Rating at 100.7 – this includes the 109 point outing, their best of the season, against one of the league’s worst defense. This is simply a team poor at scoring. And nor can we write these numbers off as a potentially decent offensive team off to a bad start. While Dirk’s absence and obvious struggles have been a factor in this poor offensive start, they are neither the sole cause of the problem, nor are they reason for much hope.
In basketball terms, Dirk is old now. His 1,488 NBA games between regular and post seasons combined is the most amongst any active NBA player (Paul Pierce trails by seven), and at an average of 37.8 minutes per game, plus some international summers, that is a very heavy workload. He lost pretty much any defensive impact he once had in the last few years, stopped rebounding seven years ago, and while his offensive game has enjoyed a beautiful longevity in recent times, it hasn’t been so this year. This year, Dirk has taken 39 shots to score 36 points, and has not looked good doing it.
The Achilles soreness has clearly been a significant factor. Dirk has missed a lot of shots, and he has missed a lot of them short, a sure-fire sign of a lack of lift in his legs caused by the bad Achilles. It will likely heal, if treated properly. But then there’ll be something else to deal it, because he’s reached that age. Dirk is 38 years old now, which is equivalent to about 84 in normal human years, and the decline is real. He is such a good shooter that he will never lose the open look jump shot, but if there is no lift or no strength in the legs, those patented fall-aways will be gone. At that point, until he gets his legs back, he is a set shooter, and with each new problem, the legs are less likely to come back.
Without Dirk to create from the posts or off the dribble, then, the Mavericks offense loses a lot. Being the point guard, the offensive responsibility defaults to Williams, whose basic numbers of 15.0 points and 5.8 assists per game look pretty good, and are nigh-on identical to his numbers from last season. However, Williams himself has lost a lot of his effectiveness due to injuries. The one time elite point guard has lost his explosion, and by this time it isn’t coming back.
Therein lies the biggest problem. There is a lack of creativity and shot creation amongst this Mavericks rotation. J.J. Barea is the team’s best creator in the half court, and yet with all due respect to the fine role player that he is (they would undoubtedly be 0-7 without him), that isn’t good enough.
There is also a lack of athleticism, particularly amongst the starters. While Anderson, Powell, Mejri and (if used) Quincy Acy bring it from the bench, they are limited offensive creators, as well as being fairly limited finishers. And none of them are ball handling guards. This hampers the team’s transition opportunities, making them rely more on their half-court options to get points. And the half court options are few and far between.
Without his explosion and his once-deadly crossover, Williams finds it hard to get into the paint. He needs a screen, and yet without a great first step or a deadly jump shot, defense play him in such a way as to allow the two point jump shot. Williams obliges, and makes a few such shots, but it is an inefficient shot which he shoots at only a 38% clip. Unable to collapse a defense or stretch it with elite shooting, Williams is nowadays regrettably a very average point guard. Between him and Dirk, the Mavericks’ starting unit relies a lot upon jump shots by broken shooters who can’t readily get to the rim.
Speaking of which, it is becoming increasingly certain that Wesley Matthews is not getting his game back. After shooting 9 points on 17 shots with one rebound and one assist in the Bucks win, Matthews hit the lowest point of a particularly low start, and now has a PER on the year of a mere 6.0. With no legs, Matthews’s ability to get open off the ball for jump shots, drive on close outs, run the court and defend with gusto is all diminished. At this point, he is a late career DeShawn Stevenson with worse shot selection, which is a real shame to see in once so good of a role player.
Having turned 30 last month and far from back to being the player he was before his Achilles injury, the worry that Matthews will never again approach what he was is a very real one, no matter how much he tries. Elsewhere, Bogut has long since lost the post-up game he had in his younger days, and although he can still roll to the rim, his limited touch and very poor free throw stroke make anything outside of the dunk a bit unreliable. (He also cannot stop fouling.)
Seth Curry is a good three point shooter, off the catch and off of screens, but he is seriously limited outside of this, and yet despite this seems oddly gun shy, pump-faking too often and not doing the one thing at which he is an above average NBA talent. Powell has not developed as a stretch four as hoped, hitting almost nothing outside of five feet and not a great creator off the dribble or in the post. His athleticism, along with that of Anderson, does at least provide some points here and there. But they both need setting up. And no one is setting them up.
The Mavericks found themselves in a similar situation in the 2014-15 season. Short of a creator outside of Dirk’s turnarounds and Monta Ellis’s pull-ups, they entered the season with a patch-up point guard quartet of Barea, Harris, Jameer Nelson and Raymond Felton, then quickly pulled the trigger on a deal that sent Nelson, Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder, a first round pick and a second pick to Boston for Powell and Rajon Rondo.
Rondo bombed horribly – temperamental off the court, Rondo’s lack of shooting was too big of a problem to overcome on it - and the deal has been one of the worst of the decade. Crowder has continued to improve into high quality role player status, the always-underrated Wright was dealt for a first round pick of his own, while the picks (#16 and #45) could have gone some way to alleviating the dearths of talent and youth that now plague the team.
However – and notwithstanding their poor draft record in the Mark Cuban era – Dallas does have a couple of silver linings other than Barea. In a rare instance for them, the Mavericks have full control of all of their future first round picks, and also have second round picks in all but one future draft.
This gives them an opportunity to do something they do not normally do –tank. “Tank” does not mean deliberately lose games. No one does that, apart from occasionally extremely egregiously. Barnes and Barea certainly aren’t doing it right now. But it does mean to change priorities. The Mavericks’ plan in recent history has been to keep Dirk, get some decent players, tread water, and try to sign a star every summer to get back into contention. Yet several years of failing at the last part of that plan has seen the first part lose its lustre, the second part lose its meaning, and the third part lose its purpose. The Mavs will now struggle to tread water. They can’t score enough.
Add a couple of years of first round picks, however, and things start to pick up. For all the critiques of Mavericks players above, every one of them is an NBA player worth having on a roster. They need some premium talent to be paired with, but via the draft, finding that talent is possible. This is reliant upon not trading picks for short-term rental veterans, as was once the case with the Rondo deal – rather, it means the opposite, and trying to be on the receiving end of those deals, consciously lowering the short term talent level for the benefit of the long term while still playing to win every game possible.
Alongside that first silver lining would be Harrison Barnes, the brightest spot thus far. After an absolutely awful preseason, Barnes has begun his official Mavericks career in fine fettle. Through six games, Barnes is averaging 22.3 points and 5.9 rebounds on 51% shooting in 38.7 minutes. The latter of these figures needs to come down, but the first three are nice.
Barnes was brought in to Dallas to be a focal point offensively in a way he has not been since his first 15 or so games at North Carolina (and, let’s not forget, at which he struggled in his first 15 or so games at North Carolina). Always ‘looking the part’, with an NBA body, decent athleticism and some finishing ability, Barnes has never done all that much with the ball in his hands to be the elite scorer that he sometimes looks as though he should be, and nor has he ever previously had a substantial offensive role, save a brief audition by Mark Jackson. Barnes does not create in isolation, nor in the post, and nor is he an elite scorer. His role has thus far been tough to find.
What he can be, however, is a mighty fine third wheel. Barnes cuts off the ball, spots up, attacks closeouts and drives overplays, none of which requires a tremendous amount of ball handling skill to do. Put him in the triple threat position against a shifting defense, the theory goes, and he will score some points. What Barnes is out to prove right now is that he can be a second wheel. This week at least, he has shown that.
Despite the points and the 51%, Barnes remains flawed. Give him the ball against a set defense, and he probably will (or at least probably should) give it back. Put him in the post, and not much will happen. Make contact on him, and he’ll miss. Barnes lacks lateral speed, is not an especially energetic defender, is average defensively, does not project to be much better than that given the lateral speed issue, and demonstrates little in the way of passing vision.
However, give Barnes a pacey, spacey offense, find some probing guards and passing big men who can find him on the move, and the 20ppg+ can sustain. Barea is one such guard, for now, and the two are making each other sufficiently better to win a couple of games. Still young, Barnes is a piece going forward, and a particularly good piece if he keeps this efficient scoring up. In that respect, he stands alone amongst the starters. It is time to change that, and aiming to improve the future assets, while still aiming to win.
To say that the Mavericks’ future is with Barnes would be a worrying conclusion to draw, because Barnes isn’t good enough for that, even with Barea’s help. But is it more with Barnes then Dirk, Deron and Devin. After repeated free agency strikeouts, in which Barnes was the best they managed and in which the offense is nearly the league’s worst despite his breaking out, it might be time for a new approach.
The present isn’t all bad – Dirk, Deron and Devin will be back, and the outside shot at the eighth seed is still just about in play. But the offensive struggles from 13 of the 15 players speak to a low talent level that isn’t worth keeping around for long.