Role-Playing: Mavs Still Searching For Niches

'Be Ready' is about preparation for multiple role demands. But once they take the floor, Rick Carlisle teams - especially the Mavs' 2011 title team - are known for having players with very specific and defined roles. For a variety of reasons, this year's club is helter-skelter when it comes to role definition. Would changing that change Dallas' fortunes?

DONUT 1: Show your ID's The Dallas Mavericks' season so far has been unstable to say the least. Their franchise player missed the first two months of action, a starting point guard was signed mid-season only to ask to be released mid-season as well and they have been playing themselves out of the Western Conference playoff picture for weeks now.

But with Dirk Nowitzki seemingly getting closer and closer to top form, the Mavericks only have so much time to find their team's identity and begin to climb back into the postseason race. ... if that's even at all possible, as the 13-22 Mavs are at the Clippers tonight (we've got TV starting at 9 p.m. on Fox Sports Southwest.)

We've also got a fresh Mavs Podcast to discuss all the issues of the day ...

Featuring Fish, Mike Marshall (who produces and therefore gets to paste his face into the link), Chuck Perry and Roy White ... and just a few cuss words ... the Mavs Podcast is ready ... settle in and give us a listen!

Still, stringing together a winning streak is about more than just "playing better." A theory: It's about identifying player roles.

DONUT 2: Not just 'Be Ready.' Rick Carlisle teams -- especially the Mavericks' 2010-2011 championship team -- are known for having players with very specific and defined roles when they are on the floor. You might say it's his not-so secret formula to success.

Now, that's different than Rick and "Be Ready'' -- a mantra that is about player preparation before the floor is taken. That's different, than, say, D-Steve being asked to play the 3, or than, say JJB becoming a Finals starter, two of the seemingly odd-ball moves that worked so wonderfully two seasons ago.

DONUT 3: Remember 'Rag-Dolling'? Remember Rick's approach to this subject in the fall of 2010, after being accused (by Shawn Marion) of "rag-dolling'' the roster through a previous-season playoff failure in San Antonio?

"I don't care if guys are happy or unhappy about their minutes,'' Rick said to the full media audience at the 2010 Media Day. "When you're talking about winning at the highest level, individual needs for minutes and touches, if that stuff comes into the equation, then you got guys who aren't about the right things. Anybody who presents themselves with that kind of selfishness isn't deserving of being in a Mavericks uniform."
Rick continued: "This ain't going to be about role definition. It's going to be about role acceptance. And we'll see the character of our team and the resourcefulness of our team. That's what's going to define us as a special team as opposed to a good team."

Later that day, conducted a one-on-one visit with the coach on the subject.

"Rick," we asked, "Is your role acceptance concept a product of this team's depth and particular talents? Or is it a product of your general style and beliefs? If the players tell you they'd prefer a more strict definition ...''

Carlisle's response was firm and sarcastic.

"Sure," he said. "Let's have specific definitions. Let's leave no questions. We'll determine all the roles. We'll print them out and we'll laminate them and we'll hang them all in everybody's locker. OK? I'm serious! Let's do that!"

DONUT 4: The Creative Foxhole. Carlisle has worked with some talented GMs who can acquire the right pieces; he often speaks of being ecstatic to be in the "creative foxhole'' with Cuban and Donnie. (Premium Mavs get inside into that level of thinking as it relates to Dwight Howard here.) fans But perhaps more importantly, he has always managed to get his players to buy into the value of their role. ... and their changing roles ... and into understanding that doing so can add up to team success.

"Coach does it very well,'' Marion said. "He says it adamantly and repetitively. This is a very, very prideful franchise. They pride themselves on winning, and they've been doing it very well for a long period of time.''

But that lacking definition seems to be one of the biggest issues resulting in inconsistent play this year. The Mavericks have talented players on their roster. (Or, at least, more talented than being 13-21.) And it would seem unfair to accuse the team of not bringing enough effort. (Though Rick screaming in the faces of guys at shootarounds is something we're not privy to having witnessed, so, ... maybe.)

DONUT 5: A good stubborness. "I've said it repeatedly that I like the roster," said Carlisle a few days ago. "We're not that new. We got to fix it."

He repeats the theme often now, only with fresh twists. Or are you not familiar with "Colonel Sanders Carlisle''?

DONUT 6: However, individual roles seem to be more wide-ranging than in seasons' past. Players are having to do a little bit of everything. That sort of role works well for someone like Shawn Marion who has made a career out of being a jack of all trades. (Yes, even when he was being "rag-dolled.'') But he has proven himself to be a "glue guy" for years. If, however, you have a roster full of players having to do too much then you just have a bunch of glue and nothing to piece together.

If we compare this roster to the Mavericks championship team (admittedly an unfair comparison) we will see that the title team had a number of what are often referred to as "specialty players." These are players that above all else, have one particular skillset that earns them the bulk of their paycheck.

The title team had some of the most intelligent and skilled "specialty" players in the NBA. Jason Kidd was an example of someone who evolved into a specialty player as he aged and served as distributor on offense and disciplined perimeter defender. And as a BBIQ closer, there are few better in league history.
"The last couple years, we knew each other so well and we had a point guard, in Jason Kidd, who was always the smartest out there," Nowitzki said. "I think it's going to take us a little more time together to figure those end-of-game situations out."

Of course, Tyson Chandler was the rebounder/shot blocker for the team. Along with his vocal leadership style, anything else was simply a bonus. Kidd and Chandler are obvious examples and their present roles on the New York Knicks only reinforce the point.

But the beauty of that team was that so many of the players could easily be identified by their roles on the team. Peja Stojakovic was asked to shoot three's. J.J. Barea was asked to penetrate and agitate. Jason Terry was the offensive spark/sixth man. DeShawn Stevenson was the team's best perimeter defender. And of course, Brian Cardinal was the Custodian.

DONUT 7: This year's roster lacks that sharp-pointed identity. It's not difficult to name a current Maverick and then list some of his better attributes ... but identifying his role his a whole different story.

It has seemed that so many Mavericks have needed to focus on multiple things on the court rather than having the luxury of knowing that the completion of one very specific task will go a long way towards helping the team win.

Let's pinpoint a handful of such areas of concern.

DONUT 8: O.J. Mayo is by far the team's best three-point shooter at an astonishing 46 percent. But throughout the season he has been asked to be the team's highest and most efficient scorer. In other words, he's too good to be just a spot-up shooter a la Stojakovic or even Terry at times.

And yet at the same time, Dallas is asking him to also guard star wings while being a primary driver, ball-handler and distributor. And it's all too much, we think.
"Some guys that have that aggressive, go-for-broke wiring, you have to help them reconcile that the go-for-broke wiring with what's best for sensibility and the team,'' Carlisle said of Juice. "He's a kid that really, really desperately wants to win, he wants to do well for his teammates. ... We just got to stay at it, and at some point it's going to click in. It's not like he's never going to have turnovers. That's not going to happen. But the ones where it gets up to four, five or six, that's where it really hurts."

DONUT 9: Shawn Marion needs to be a small forward. This is part of The Dirk Effect (see below). There is a major way that Dirk moving into the starting lineup, as he did for the first time over the weekend, should help Trix be Trix.

In short, it allows Marion to go back to small forward. This team is starving for rebounding. Put Trix at power forward and he gets dominated there; his Rebounding Rate at the 4 ranks 25th in the NBA.

His Rebounding Rate at the 3? Second-best in the NBA.

We might add that another way to utilize Trix is to play him as part of the closing five, something Rick is apparently not sold on.

DONUT 10: Darren Collison's speed and driving ability has been impressive throughout the season. It makes you wonder if Collison could excel if put in a very similar role as Barea played (although in a much different style) during the title year. DC as a spot player? What a luxury! But with the lack of depth at point guard Collison needs to focus on his responsibilities as a distributor and floor general.

And just when you think you've got this one figured out? The PG of record to finish in Utah wasn't DC, but instead, Roddy B.

DONUT 11: It's the same with the seemingly one-dimensional big men. Brand is the team's best interior defender, but up until recently he has struggled with his shot, while Kaman has provided post scoring, but been a liability on defense.

"I think the reason (not to play a Kaman/Dirk combo) is that Chris and myself both can't guard nobody," Nowitzki said. "(Carlisle) wants at least one big guy in there that can block some shots and guard somebody."

Increasingly, Brand is the better of the two in terms of being a two-way player.

DONUT 12: When's Dirk 'Dirk'? Is there a way to make it work?

The good news is that it isn't bad coaching that has led to this unidentifiable team. Carlisle is a smart coach and his players have been playing multiple roles out of necessity.

The return of "vintage Nowitzki" could go a long way towards everything falling into place. The team was obviously built around the power forward and the roles of the surrounding players will ultimately be based around him as well.

"I see him change how everybody plays them," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. "It's 'The Dirk Nowitzki Effect' on their offense. As a defense, you absolutely overreact to every situation he's in -- or even that he's not in -- and then you lose all sight of your team defensive rules." ... "They have an obvious plan with Nowitzki. And it's a big-picture plan."
But establishing and fitting into those roles is a difficult task. ... heck, temporarily, it's actually challenging because of the re-introduction of The UberMan.

Can Vince Carter become efficient enough to be a Terry-like sixth man? (And back off being a guy who all-too-often has the offense running through him?) Can Dahntay Jones be as effective as DeShawn Stevenson was? (And make enough shots to deserve time?) Can Brand serve as Brendan Haywood-type bruiser without being a complete liability on offense? (And therefore keep Dallas from the flop that is SmallBall?)

DONUT 13: The Final Word. Maybe these comparisons are all wrong. Maybe new roles will be established quite differently from any other Mavs' team.

But finding them and defining them might just be the key to this team making a rapid run toward the postseason vs. a slow trudge toward the lottery.

"That's what we're trying to hopefully instill in everybody,'' Brand said of a turnaround. "It's a lot of free agents (to be) and some guys may not be here (next season). But you have to really instill that if you put that jersey on, that's what you're standing for.''

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