Musings On The Mavs' Backcourt

The Jasons are gone. Their replacements are on divergent paths. MavsLand is contemplating ways to keep O.J. Mayo around here long-term. Meanwhile, MavsLand's ears are burning from the audible frustration with Darren Collison. 'What the f*** are you doing?' Rick Carlisle screamed at DC. Here's the answer: Musings on what Collison and the rest of the Mavs backcourt is doing:

The Acquisitions

Replacing two local legends is never easy. However, in the Plan Powder era, such turnover may become the norm, at least in the short term. With the exits of Jason Kidd and Jason Terry, two integral championship pieces, a way was paved for a new Dallas Mavericks beginning.

In place of the aging Jason's, Dallas traded for a 25-year-old point guard with plenty of speed, but one who has not quite ascended to the level of NBA-starting point guard - not on a permanent basis, anyway, as Collison was a starter in Indy last year before losing his job. Still, his arrow was pointing up and there is hope he can still take the next step forward.

Dallas signed another guard who was used in a reserve role by his squad, one who was drafted to be a star but, for whatever reason, was not panning out as planned. Despite his considerable potential, his arrow was pointing downward and he was trending towards a "bust" label. ... and here we are, with Mayo having not started a game last year in Memphis but standing in Dallas as the only Mav who has started every game in this 8-9 campaign.
Since their arrival, the Mavs' opening-night starting backcourt partners' paths have could not have been more divergent.

The Rise of Mayo

Mayo, the former lottery pick and would-be "bust," has been nothing short of a revelation in Dallas. Pick almost any offensive number or metric and Mayo's impact becomes clear. He's in the top 12 in the NBA in field goals made, 2nd in three-pointers made (but just ninth in three's attempted – landing him 2nd in 3FG%). His prodigious shooting has landed him 8th in the league in points per game at 20.2 per contest and is 17th in Offensive Win Shares.

He has performed at an All-Star level and is the 24th best player in the NBA at 1.08 points per possession, per Synergy Sports. He still tops the league in isolation sets, hitting 1.23 points per possession, shooting a ridiculous 56.3% overall in such situations, including 50% from the arc. Further, he is the 4th most effective player spotting up, hitting 1.53 ppp overall and 64.4% from the arc.

During the Mavs' three-game losing streak, OJ averaged only 9.3 points on 32-percent shooting. Without Mayo, the team's leading scorer with 27 on Saturday, Dallas' record certainly would be worse than their current 8-9. Mayo himself is making adjustments to being a No. 1 option.

"It's a little different with the defensive coverages for me now,'' he said, "so I have to be patient and pick and choose when it's a good time for me to be aggressive so it doesn't seem like I'm just out there jacking up some shots.''

That comment (and OJ's play) demonstrates a growth in maturity that has the Mavs already contemplating a future with him.

"I don't want to talk him up too much because I don't want him to opt out next year," Mavs owner Mark Cuban recently joked of Mayo, who has a $4.2 mil player option for next season.

However, beyond the obvious hole in the lineup without Nowitzki, one of the reasons for Dallas' sub-.500 record thus far has been the disappointing play of Mayo's original backcourt mate, Collison.

The Fall of Collison

Entering the season, we knew Collison's strengths were derived from his ability to harness his superior athleticism and speed. He was a plus P&R ball handler as a Pacer and excelled in transition. His numbers this season mirror this: 74th in the league as a P&R ball handler, hitting 0.61 ppp and netting 1.24 ppp in transition, good for 31st in the NBA.

However, to take the next step, he would need to transition into a better facilitator and hone his instincts as an offensive leader.

Thus far, he has not taken that step. That is why, along with a finger injury, after starting the first 14 games of his Maverick career, he has found himself coming off the bench in the last three games. He has shown flashes at times, but still experiences too many moments like in the Saturday night win over visiting Detroit that cause his coach to audibly scream "What the f*** are you doing!?" at the young point guard.
Furthermore, though the Mavs' offense is 5.3 points better with him on the court, Dallas' defense is about 15 points better per 100 possessions when Collison sits.

Collison let it be known after the game Saturday night that he wasn't given a fair opportunity as the starter.

"I think as hard as I worked over the offseason, I'm disappointed by the whole situation, how the whole situation went down," said Collison, who had five points and eight assists off the bench in the win over the Pistons. "But I'm a team guy. I just want us to win. Whatever it takes for us to win, we'll do that."

But when one looks at the facts, it is easy why Dallas has chosen to bring in the nearly ancient 38-year-old, Derek Fisher.

Enter Fisher

Though his stat line from his opening night with Dallas was about as pretty as the bloody nose Fisher suffered in his first practice, his impact was felt immediately. During the third quarter, when Dallas pulled away from the inferior Pistons, Fisher played bus-driver and set up many key scoring opportunities for his teammates. His presence may have even spurred Collison to one of his better games of the season, where he dished out eight assists and finished the evening with a positive +/- for only the sixth time this season.

"We all have individual responsibilities and accountability every time we come to work,'' said Fisher said. "So I don't want to overdo the "I'm coming in to right everybody else,' as though guys aren't doing what they need to do. I want to be a part of a good group of guys. I think there are high-character guys here, but we want to win games. And so whatever I need to put on for us to figure out how to win games, that's the hat I'm going to wear.''

Going Forward

So, what is the goal going forward? Clearly, the goal is to have Collison take that next step. The question of how to achieve that, however, is less clear. His abilities are unique among those on the roster, and whether it is by the stick or the carrot, Rick Carlisle and the coaching staff need to spur his continued growth.

However, there is a place for Fisher as well.

Whether as ‘bus-driver,' weak-side shooter, or just veteran guiding hand, he can be a functional team member here. As Rick said after Fisher's two-points/two-rebounds/three-assists start on Saturday, "He enhances our situation in a lot of different ways. He gives us more options, and his experience, you can't substitute what that means.''

A poor man's Jason Kidd? That's asking too much. But while Fisher is extremely limited at his age, he is still a useful piece, and should be a better one once his conditioning improves.
Further, Fisher and Collison could form an unorthodox-but-effective back court duo for stretches. Fisher's superior decision-making and Collison's athleticism could make for a heady mix when the matchups are favorable. (Also in that mix, of course: Vince as a shooter, Dahntay as a defender and Roddy B, now languishing as essentially the fourth PG.)

Eventually, realizing Collison's potential seems to be a significant factor in determining the ultimate ceiling of the team this season. With Fisher aboard, now Dallas can continue the work of turning that potential into results while having a veteran on board to provide some stability, and with a little luck, some basketball IQ for Collison.

Who starts and who finishes is not nearly as important as our collective effort toward winning," Carlisle said on Monday, as some of the weekend dust settled. "That's what we're all looking at. ... (Collison) and I talk every day. We have good conversations every day about our style of play, things that he can do to improve, things that he sees during the game that have helped me understand what he's thinking a little bit. Hey, it's all good and going forward, communication is the key to everything."

This season's backcourt goals can best be reached not by stopgap guys but rather by the original plan coming to fruition. Whatever Fisher can do to help OJ and DC get there is a positive ... especially if some veteran guidance pushes Collison towards committing fewer errors that earn Rick Carlisle profanity-laced tongue-lashings.

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