A DB.com Bar-Room Brawl With Numbers

The argument isn't whether Dirk Nowitzki is "unique''; in the NBA, he helps define the word. The argument I'm about to have in this "Bar-Room Brawl'' is over whether stats are being properly used to prove that the Dirk-less Mavs – their likely state for tonight's showdown with the Spurs – are destined to be a uniquely lousy basketball team.

My two friendly combatants come at me from different angles. Our buddy Rob Mahoney of TheTwoManGame is thoughtful and poetic; our buddy Tim MacMahon at ESPNDallas enjoys striking his subjects with blunt objects.

What we all agree on: If Nowitzki's pessimism over participating in the Mavs-Spurs matchup comes true (here's all the latest news you need on that front), it puts Dallas at a distinct disadvantage.

But how large is that disadvantage? And how handicapped would the Mavs be if they had to face Life Without Dirk for any extended period of time?

First, to Tim MacMahon, who writes:

When their superstar is a spectator, the Mavs get outscored by 13.7 points per 48 minutes, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. They outscore their opponents by 13.3 points per 48 minutes with Nowitzki in the lineup. That 27-point differential is the highest among qualifying players this season.

With Dirk, the Mavs are an efficient offensive machine, averaging 104.7 points per 48 minutes while shooting 49.9 percent from the floor and 38.5 percent from 3-point range.

Without Dirk, the Mavs are an inefficient offensive mess, averaging 83.9 points per 48 minutes while shooting 42.1 percent from the floor and 29.0 percent from 3-point range.

All the numbers are right. But when I read between Tim's lines, I think the next logical assumption is that if the Mavs don't have Dirk at their disposal … tonight or this weekend at Milwaukee and at Cleveland … they figure to get outscored.

Maybe, over the course of those 48-minute games, by 13.7 points!

This assumption pushes Tim to conclude (with that blunt instrument of his):

This is a bad basketball team when Nowitzki isn't on the floor.

I think that's inaccurate.

If the Mavs KNOW they won't have Dirk for Milwaukee and Cleveland … they will gameplan for that. The rotation will be adjustment. The ebbs and flows of the games – especially the dips in scoring that obviously come when Nowitzki rests – will be different.

Make Nowitzki a pre-determined scratch, and what will the coaching staff do?

Shawn Marion will have a different job, with a possible emphasis on interior scoring. Caron Butler will be more of a first option offensively in quarters beyond just the third. Jason Terry will be elevated up the scoring totem pole.

So things will be different. And inferior, obviously, because you are erasing one of the mind-blowingest offensive players of all time.

But will they be different in the sense that they will add up to minus-13.7 points per game?

I wouldn't think so, no. Nor should you, unless you believe that oddsmakers are planning to make Dallas a double-digit underdog for its two weekend visits to the Snow Belt.

In fact, I think I can prove that there isn't a 13.7-point pit waiting to be plunged into.

But first to Rob, who writes in the NY Times that the "Mavs With Dirk'' vs. the "Mavs Without Dirk'' is "the biggest on/off discrepancy in the entire league,'' and adds:

This is where Nowitzki's incredible impact becomes a bit of a curse. The team's offense is built to maximize his talents in such a particular way that if Nowitzki were to ever be sidelined by a serious injury, the offense would collapse in Cavalier-like fashion both due to the structure of the system and the personnel Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban have assembled around Nowitzki.

Beautifully written. (As always, Rob!) But I'm not quite buyin'.

How, exactly, does Dallas "maximize his talents in a particular way'' that is different than what any other team does when it employs a standout superstar?

Rob seems to cite the Cavaliers with/without LeBron. But why not continue on?

The Lakers without Kobe?

The Thunder without Durant?

The Nuggets without ‘Melo?

The Rockets without Yao?

The Blazers without a Roy?

The Hornets without Paul?

The Suns without Nash?

The Jazz without Deron?

Including the Mavs, these nine teams are the top nine teams in the West (trailing the Spurs). So it's pretty much anybody that's any good.

Rob has a wonderful way with words, but I think Dallas' reliance on Nowitzki is not "unique.'' It's normal. I am not privy to this specially-tailored "structure and personnel'' that Cuban and Donnie have sewn together for Dirk's benefit – again, in the sense that it's something that a coach like Rick Carlisle didn't do with previous groups of players in Detroit and Indy. … and that goes for Dwane Casey when he was the boss in Minny and it goes for Terry Stotts when he was the boss in Atlanta.

Rob means to praise Dirk and the organization's work to build an infrastructure around him, and I get that.

But any front office that didn't do that would be foolish. And fired.

Certainly, if the Mavericks didn't have The UberMan, they wouldn't win at the pace they do.

But – even with the fabric of the special tailoring in tatters -- they might still beat the Milwaukees and the Clevelands and on most nights, the Torontos.

Of course, they didn't beat the Torontos on Tuesday, which is what all this fuss is about.

From Tim:

Consider Monday's mostly Dirkless win over the Oklahoma City Thunder an inspirational aberration.

But why?

Winning without Dirk is a fluke … and losing with Dirk is the reality? Why? Who says? Because of a 24-hour-long sample?

I think – respectfully to my man Tim – that this is a bogus conclusion based on a bogus thesis.

The Mavs beat OKC without Dirk because they are good enough to do so.

The very same bunch lost to Toronto because they are also capable of doing that.

Rob writes:

Other teams can find some level of success without their star, but Nowitzki's absence eradicates any hope for offensive efficiency in Dallas.

In the last few days, the Mavs are 1-1 in games in which Dirk is largely absent. Overall, the Mavs are 17-13 in games in which All-Star Dirk Nowitzki doesn't play.

And here is the nut of my argument, offered with help from DB.com analyst Luke Kammrath:

*From 2002-2003 to 2009-2010 (what we'll call "Dirk's prime'') Nowitzki missed 23 regular season games.

*In those games, the Mavs went 13-10. (Worse that the overall 17-13, but not quite "bad basketball'' by reasonable standards.)

*The Mavs averaged 96.8 points per game (not the 76 points they scored vs. Toronto) while their opponents averaged 95.8 points when Dirk sat. So … even without Dirk, Dallas' production remains slightly better than its opponents' production.

*Overall however, during that time frame (with or without Dirk) the Mavs averaged 101.7 points per game while their opponents averaged 96.8 per.

Therefore … drum roll, please … the Mavs scored approximately 4.9 points per game better when Dirk played and gave up approximately 1.0 point more.

Meaning that over this span – a span during which Dirk has been an MVP candidate and his team has been a contender – The UberMan has made about a +4 points-per-game difference by playing vs. sitting the entire game.


Clear enough? When they know ahead of time that Dirk won't play in a game, the Mavericks are four points worse than they are otherwise.

Four points. Not 13.7. (Or, at least a four-point argument that is just as valid as the 13-7-point argument.)

I suppose our numbers establish that there might be some losses in the offing. …

But that doesn't sound like a series of 13-point losses waiting to happen. To me, that doesn't sound like "a bad basketball team,'' either. Nor – as poetic as it is – does it sound like "an eradication of hope.''

Thanks to Tim MacMahon and Rob Mahoney for being good sports and letting me Bar-Room Brawl ‘em!

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