Monday Mavs Donuts: Offensive Progress Report
PRE-DONUT: Is Dirk Nowitzki Done? Will a statistical look at the Mavs offense suggest that it is "done,'' too?
This isn't a conclusion that should be arrived at flippantly. (Though we admit Charles Barkley, talk radio and Twitter have carved out an entertaining place in the "flip'' marketplace.) The notion is worthy of real examination of the forces at work to see if Dirk's individual struggles are part-and-parcel of what ails the suddenly-mundane (at least in second halves!) Mavericks offense as a whole.
DONUT 1: The context Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban recently counted how many conclusions one can draw from this lockout-mauled NBA season.
"None," Cuban said.
Between the loss of half of training camps, a hurried schedule and next to no time to practice, this season is too far from normal to make too many normal basketball conclusions. The stats from this bastardized season? "Dirty data,'' Cuban calls it. With that in mind, assessments of Dirk Nowitzki's demise always seemed to us to be grossly premature.
In an age of Twitter-driven "instant analysis,'' we rarely are given time to reflect before making sweeping proclamations. Seemingly with each game, the talking heads on some TV networks offer their seat-of-pants opinions on how what they had just witnessed impacts a player's in-granite legacy forever. It's ridiculous. There is value in time for reflection and assessment, both paramount to making judgments that accurately reflect reality.
In this season, of all seasons, drawing larger conclusions is a fool's errand. Remember when the Spurs won their first title in '99 and everyone wanted to put an asterisk next to it because it happened in another wacky, lockout-shortened year? Those arguments have at least some merit because of the Franken-ball they were born out of. Like '99, this season is marred by ugly play around the league. The lack of a training camp and the absence of significant practice time are extremely detrimental for veteran-laden teams that rely on cohesion and precision to succeed.
Dirk and the Mavs were robbed of these by the lockout. Of all teams, the Mavericks were perhaps hardest hit by the lack of practice time as they incorporated so many new faces. There is also another factor we must mention.
DONUT 2: How short our memories are Dirk just fulfilled all the remaining goals of his professional career. All that his resumé lacked was the ultimate validation of a title. By winning the championship last summer, he removed the 800-pound gorilla from his back and "forever destroyed" the demons of 2006. Cementing his place in history, Dirk erased all doubts about his ability to lead a team to a championship, his abilities, his toughness, all of it.
After the relief of so many professional burdens, a letdown is natural, and perhaps should have been expected. Fish has written about this a thousand times over the years using this analogy: How many times does the same mountain climber return to the same peak?
Nowitzki acknowledged the power of his past failures shortly after being handed the Larry O'Brien and the Finals MVP trophies when he mentioned that without them, he might not have been driven to work as hard.
The residual euphoria of his achievement, combined with a stint on the German national team, and a lockout-lengthened break all would undercut, on their own, his ability to perform at the level we recently saw in the playoffs. Combined, and with a knee injury, they have the power to make The UberMan appear, well, ordinary. Dirk should have rested after the longest, most grueling playoff run of his career and then trained normally. Instead, the duty-bound Dirk went to work for a far-outmanned German squad in an ill-fated pursuit of an Olympic berth. ... and then didn't train at all.
Furthermore, one does not go from looking like the best player on the planet in June to being "washed up'' in January.
DONUT 3: A look at the stats Charles Barkley says the downfall of great players is usually steep, that rarely do they enjoy a nice, gentle decline. This merits further examination; it is really so? But for now, let's go with it. The logic doesn't apply here. There are too many extenuating circumstances to yet cite Dirk's decline in production this year as "the end" of his UberMan era.
Let's look at the stats, (all numbers are averages):
Dirk last year: 23.0 points, 51.7% FG, 39.3% 3FG, 89.2% FT, 7.0 Rebounds, 2.6 Assists, 23.4 PER (10th highest in the league).
Dirk this year: 16.9 points, 44.7% FG, 18.4% 3FG, 90.6% FT, 6 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 18.4 PER (far outside the top 20).
A significant drop to be sure. These numbers are comparable to Dirk's second season in the league, when he was still the quirky novelty 7-footer with an outside game.
DONUT 4: The Father Time argument Barkley's thoughts (especially about the end of his own career) deserve further examination and we will save that for future Donuts. But yeah, both in terms of age, and minutes played, Dirk is becoming "old.'' Since Nash left seven seasons ago, no other player in the league has been asked to shoulder a load as large as Dirk has assumed. Those minutes as "the man'' take a toll, physically and mentally. LeBron tried to be that in Cleveland, and ultimately took his talents elsewhere upon the realization that he could not carry a team alone. The only player who compares, in terms of load carried for his team, is Derrick Rose, and he has only been at this level for two years.
But Dirk's skills have never relied on speed or athleticism, the tools that usually abandon great players at this point in their careers. Since he stepped into the league, he has been the only prototype of players like him, and each step is an experiment. There has never been another like Dirk in this game, and there is no blueprint to describe how he should be expected to age.
Our Michael Dugat has an in-depth examination of this here.
DONUT 5: The Effect on the Mavs' offense As a one-superstar team, the Mavericks offense is built around the talents of Dirk Nowitzki. His skills demand the defense's primary focus, and often, double-teams. This leads to more open looks for Dirk's teammates, and ultimately, more open threes on the perimeter. Look to last year's sweep of the defending-champion Lakers as the exemplar of what the offense looks like when everything is running according to plan. Everyone remembers all those open threes the Mavericks made, but many those looks aren't there if the defense isn't worried about Dirk's deadly array from mid-range.
As one of the foundations of the Dallas offense, when Dirk isn't right, the entire system is compromised. Let's look at how:
DONUT 6: The Shooting By almost all measures, the Dallas offense this season is suffering. Last season, Dallas shot 47.5% from the floor (5th in the league) and 36.5% from three-point range (11th). This season, Dallas is down to 43.8% from the floor (18th in the league), and 31.8% from the arc (22nd). Part of the decline is accounted for by the league-wide effect on shooting. Indeed, as a whole, field-goal percentage is down about 2 points across the league. However, Dallas' rank relative to other teams has plummeted more than should be expected by a league-wide trend.
When defenses don't have to worry as much about Dirk killing them, the looks for everyone else get a little tighter. Dallas is still primarily a jump-shooting team, and with tougher defense, shots don't fall as often and points are harder to come by. Last year, Dallas was 11th in the league in points per game at 100.2. This season, the Mavericks have fallen below the league average of 94.5 points per game to 94.0.
DONUT 7: Ball Movement The other pillar of the Dallas offense, aside from deadly outside shooting, has been expert ball movement. The calling card of last season's magical run, at least against the Lakers and Heat, was swinging the ball to the weak side of the defense and burying open looks. Last season, Dallas was 2nd in the NBA in assists per game at 23.8 and had an assist on 63.7% of their field goals. This year, that number has dropped to 21.0 assists per game, and Dallas only registers an assist on 59% of their made field goals.
Interestingly, Dallas has remained steady in turnovers, coming in a 12th in the league both last year and this. (13.9 per game last season, 14.2 this year). They aren't any sloppier with the ball; it's just simply not getting to the right man at the right time… which brings me to my next point:
DONUT 7: Jason Kidd Dirk is not the only Maverick to suffer a noticeable decline this season. Fellow future Hall-of-Famer Kidd has endured his share of struggles as well. In fact, Kidd has already missed more games this season than he did all last year, when he played 80 of the teams 82 regular season games.
His numbers bear this out. Kidd impacts the Mavericks offense primarily in two ways: assists and three-pointers. In five fewer minutes a game, Kidd's assist numbers have fallen from 8.2 last year to 5.1 this season. His 3FG%, has taken a dip for the third straight year, from 36.1% last season to the current 28.2%. Last season, Kidd attempted 7.5 field goals per game, 4.9 of which from the arc. This year, he only attempts 4.9, with nearly all, 4.1, coming from downtown. Not surprisingly, his true shooting percentage, resides at a career-low 40.5%.
Last season, Kidd turned in a PER of 14.4, slightly below the league average of 15, but this season, he is down to a career-low 9.3, ahead of only Brian Cardinal on the team.
Interestingly, despite an Eye Test full of what we see as lots of unneeded chance-taking, he is still taking care of the ball, turning it over at only a 2.2 clip last season and a 2.1 rate this year.
For a team built on Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki, as they go, the team should be expected to follow. Roddy B and Delonte West simply cannot replicate Kidd's production and the offense does not function nearly as well with them at the helm as Kidd. However, the overall decline of the team has been mitigated by outstanding defense, elite depth and…
DONUT 9: Jason Terry and Shawn Marion Though Jason Terry's numbers this season are at or near his career averages, on a per-minute basis, he is actually better this year than last. Indeed, his PER last season was 15.9, his lowest since his rookie campaign. This year, it is 17.9.
Similarly, Marion's PER last season was a respectable 17.0, while now at 17.8, the highest mark of his career since 2007-8 in Phoenix. He has also has reincorporated the money ball into his arsenal, shooting 36.7% from downtown, his highest since 2002-03. In only 24 games, Marion has made more threes this season (11) than in the past three seasons combined (10).
DONUT 10: The Centers Call it "The Chandler Conspiracy,'' but it sure looks to us like Dallas is attempting to get their centers more looks at the rim. Aside from leading to some awkward off-the-dribble moves from Haywood, what this should lead to is increased spacing for everyone else. For example, in the past, defenses could cheat off Dallas' centers towards Dirk since plodders like Damp never really threatened anyone on offense. However, with the threat of a Chandler lob, defenses could no longer load up on Dirk, and we all saw last May/June how efficient Dirk can be when facing single coverage.
"The Chandler Conspiracy'' (which means Dallas is trying to "prove'' something at center following TY's departure)? The usage rate for both Haywood and Mahinmi have jumped this year.
The average usage rate of Dallas top two centers last year was 13.3. This year it is 14.6.
Last season, Dallas got 14.5 points, 14.6 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 0.7 steals a game from their top two centers. This season, it's 12.9 points, 12.2 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, and 0.9 steals a game, thanks largely to the emergence of Ian Mahinmi.
Individually, Haywood is averaging 1.0 points more per game this year and nearly 2 rebounds more than a year ago in about four more minutes per. Mahnimi, in almost 12 more minutes a game of playing time, has nearly doubled his output across the board. He is averaging 7.5 points (last year 3.1), 5.3 rebounds (2.1), 0.6 blocks (0.3). Meanwhile, his PER has jumped from 13.7 to 16.0. Importantly, he is figuring it out on defense and is now able to stay on the floor without fouling at such a high rate.
"The Ianimal'' had a difficult weekend (as did the Mavs, with their losing streak climbing to three), and voila, Brandan Wright steps in … and his production fits right into our formula.
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DONUT 12: The Transition to a New Era As mentioned above, since Nash left, Dirk has had to shoulder a heavy load that may, or may not be finally catching up to him. We simply cannot draw reasonable conclusions in a strange season such as this. That's why the "Dirk is Done" argument is particularly insidious: it's nearly impossible to disprove. With the roster turnover, wacky schedule, post-championship hangover and time spent playing for the German national team – oh, and let's not forget a young man traveling the world while in love! -- a decline in production was all-but inevitable to start the year. Perhaps a run like last year's playoffs will re-quiet the detractors.
However, one conclusion is clear: this will be the last season Dirk is asked to carry such a burden. Due to the intersection of opportunity and necessity, if all goes according to plan, next season the Mavericks will begin a new era in which Dirk will not be the only superstar on this roster. With enough room carved out by the front office to sign one (and maybe two) top free agents, a way has been paved for Dirk to age gracefully.
Imagine how much easier his life will be next season should he no longer be the sole focus of defenses' attention. His array of midrange jumpers will be opened up like never before by the presence of a speedy guard on the wing and/or a big down low.
In this way, those who say Dirk is done being "the man," are right…hopefully. "Done'' being forced to go it alone as the lone superstar on this team. "Done'' being forced to shoulder such a load. "Done'' being constantly dissected and assessed for whether he can be "the man.''
is Dirk done? In this sense alone, Mavs fans can only hope.