Are the Mavs heading toward a philosophical change in offense?
More than just filling out the roster with the best possible players is at stake for the Dallas Mavericks this summer. A full-on installation of a new offense is potentially at hand.
Since the departure of Steve Nash from the Dallas Mavericks in 2004, there has been zero question as to whom the top offensive option, scoring alpha dog and franchise centerpiece was in Dallas: Dirk Nowitzki. Over the years, the Mavs' front office has been creative in surrounding Nowitzki with different pieces in order to maximize his effectiveness. Since 2010, the players surrounding the German were so specialized in how they fit and played next to him, the team became "As Dirk goes, the Mavs go."
That credo was never more evident than in recent years, with Nowitzki missing more games than he ever had in his career. Without him, the offense became borderline inept. In terms of simply being able to run consistent plays without their best player, no team seemed more reliant on a superstar than the Mavericks.
Knowing that Dirk is in his mid-30's and a free agent this time next year, the criteria in which Dallas' front office strategizes its way around offseason may be quite different than it has in the past. It's just not smart for the Mavericks to continue to have such heavy reliance on Dirk while he's getting older and beginning to miss more time than ever. At some point something needs to change on offense and while this offseason is crucial for that, there were even signs of a philosophical shift last season.
The proof is in the personnel and the stats.
I usually try not to dive too deep into advanced statistical analysis because I think it's for rich people, but I figured I'd give it a run here to try and prove a point.
One measurement to see whether a team is an isolation-based offense or not is by looking at how many of their field goals are assisted. The lower the percentage of assisted field goals (% AST), the more isolation plays a team likely runs. Conversely, the higher the percentage, the more likely it is that a team is focused on ball movement, quick shooting two man games, etc., rather than individual scoring prowess.
Here are a few of the % AST numbers from notable Mavericks seasons in recent history:
|Season||Result||% of Baskets Assisted|
|2002-03||Lost in Conference Finals||58.1%|
|2003-04||Lost in First Round||59.1%|
|2005-06||Lost in NBA Finals||50.0%|
|2006-07||Lost in First Round||54.2%|
|2009-10||Lost in First Round||61.1%|
|2010-11||Won NBA Championship||63.7%|
These seasons show various degrees of success with different types of offenses.
In 2002-03, the Nash-Nowitzki-Michael Finley era in Dallas reached its peak. Not surprisingly, a Steve Nash led team (Nash averaged 7.3 assists per game that year) heavily relied on the then-youthful Canadian to prod the defense in order to set up his teammates for their shot.
During 2003-04, the Don Nelson experimentation started rolling out of control with Nowitzki, Nash, Finley, Antawn Jamison and Antoine Walker all on one team -- and all attempting 10+ shots per game. Surprisingly enough, with so many shot-chuckers on one roster, that team actually averaged more assisted field goals (59.1%) than the year before. That's probably more of a credit to Nash than anything, but you know how that story ended.
"Nellie Ball" in Dallas essentially died that year as the relationship between Nelson and Mark Cuban deteriorated. It may have ultimately worked, but the lack of any legitimate defensive presence didn't appear to be a championship business model.
Jumping to 2005-06, the Mavericks had their most successful season to date … with the lowest % AST number of the seasons presented here. Jason Terry was in his second season with the team and began realizing his success in Dallas was tied to Nowitzki, setting the stage for nearly a decade of the Nowitzki-Terry two-man game. It was a devastating offensive force, but didn't quite rack up the assists if each player took on their own man after getting the favorable mismatch they desired. Also, Devin Harris and Josh Howard started realizing the ability to create their own offense. The former especially did in the playoffs after an injury-plagued regular season. Harris was as big a part as anyone in helping the Mavericks beat the Spurs in the Conference Semi-Finals with his speed and use of screens in the half-court offense. With less ball movement, this Mavericks team took the franchise to heights never before seen.
In 2006-07, what was poised to be an incredible season before [stuff edited out of my memory] happened, a miniscule 54.1% AST number led the Mavericks to 67 regular-season wins. After their offense stalled out in the Finals the previous year and completely failed them during this campaign in the playoffs, the front office determined a more fluid offensive flow was the path to take.
What better point guard to conduct that orchestra than Jason Kidd?
Skipping ahead, 2009-10 brought on a trade that sent out isolation specialist Josh Howard and brought in Caron Butler, who was thought to be used in a similar way. Instead, Kidd had now fully put his stamp on the team by inducing complete ball movement and a 61.1% AST. Again the Mavericks had a strong regular season that landed them the second seed, but flamed out in the First Round.
Finally in 2010-11, it all came together. A team made for Kidd to take the reins, with obvious assistance from universal offensive force Nowitzki, overwhelmed a team in the Finals that was the time was arguably too focused on its individual greatness. Dallas' 63.7% AST speaks to the "team basketball" that observers from all over seemed to adore about this team's playoff run.
Make sure we get the importance of this: Casual observers call it "team basketball'' by casual observation. The 63.7% AST proves it.
Fast-forward to this past season. Gone are Kidd, Terry, Tyson Chandler and basically anyone else from that championship team save Nowitzki and Shawn Marion. Replacing them were OJ Mayo, Vince Carter and Chris Kaman, all of which are good players in the league, but not exactly who you would place amongst that championship group based on how they went about their business on offense.
This group didn't quite have the assist numbers drop off as you might expect (59.9%) ... but let's bounce back to "observation.'' The offense was visibly different. The drive-and-dish was more of a crutch than ever, especially due to the absence of Nowitzki for so much of the season, which is basically my point in this exercise.
The Dirk-era Mavericks had their two best postseason runs with two different styles of offense. Nowitzki was the constant, but the surrounding pieces varied in scoring style. That matters because it gives the Mavs' front office confidence in knowing they can succeed with either of these strategies. However, if the Mavericks wish to proceed with the model that won them their only championship, acquiring another superstar -- and determining his offensive fit -- becomes that much more vital.
Granted, other advanced statistics greatly influence the comparison of offensive numbers, but looking at points-per-game paints a simplistic picture. In the last two years, Nelson and Rick Carlisle have tried to add more competent isolation players to the offense, rather than strictly guys who would thrive as Nowitzki complements.
In 2010-11, Nowitzki missed nine games. During that time the Mavericks averaged just 91.6 points per game. Despite obviously having championship-caliber players, their offense was just too predictable without Dirk. As we all know, Terry was at his best during his Mavericks tenure while playing in the two-man game alongside Nowitzki, becoming infinitely more guard-able without gaining those favorable mismatches (Just ask the 2012-13 Boston Celtics).
There was just nothing else to do on offense without Dirk in there.
Nowitzki missed just four games during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, in which the Mavs averaged 95.5 points per game.
Dirk missed (or didn't start as he worked himself back into shape) 35 games this past season, by far the most in his career. During that time, the Mavericks averaged 99 points per game. Players like Mayo, Carter, Kaman and Elton Brand have experience in either being the center of an offense or having to create their own shot, which is a different mindset most players had alongside Nowitzki in the 2000's. I'm not saying this was necessarily good offense we witnessed without Nowitzki, but at least they had SOME proven scoring options when/if the Dirk-centric offense became unavailable.
Unlike the past, there was at least a plan in place with players who had that experience.
Putting all of that into consideration, it's safe to assume that the Mavs will factor in "Life After Dirk" when they sign anyone to a long term contract this offseason. The priority is to find a player capable of carrying an offense AND making players around him better. Dallas wants a guy who can share the alpha dog status and eventually take over that role full time when Nowitzki moves on.
This franchise has a philosophical decision to make moving forward and that needs to be made soon if they really do plan on making authentic commitments to players in the offseason. Knowing that they always had Nowitzki to fall back on when points were absolutely needed in the past, any play could be aborted and Jason Kidd would get the ball to Dallas' moneymaker.
With the use of Nowitzki in that capacity coming to an end, Cuban and Donnie need to either bring in 1) A new moneymaker to carry that torch or 2) A collection of players who can create their own piece of the offensive pie in the same way the 2005 to 2007 Mavericks teams found success. ... along with the ability to create for each other.
In case you can't read between the lines here, that is exactly why DallasBasketball.com has reported exclusively that in-house, the Mavericks have decided that Chris Paul is their primary target this offseason instead of Dwight Howard. He fits the exact bill described here.
(FYI: Paul led the Clippers to % AST numbers of 56.8% and 62.0% during his two seasons with them.)
Hitching the Mavericks' wagon to Nowitzki was obviously the right move. That's what you do with superstars; you ride them out. In the NBA, it's difficult enough to find that superstar, but it's just as tough to decide the right time to divorce that ideal.
In a sense, the Mavericks need use free agency to protect themselves from themselves.
It's not that Dallas needs a new backup plan. It's that they need a new primary source of offense who allows Nowitzki to BE the backup plan. And acknowledging the importance of assist numbers is a key page of that plan.