Tinkering: The Mavs At Center
The Mavericks' center rotation this season has been, well, sporadic.
From Samuel Dalembert to Dejuan Blair, from Brandon Wright to even Bernard James, they've all stepped in at times and been very productive big men for Dallas this season. But you know what they say about restaurants with a bunch of pretty good things on their menu: they're not as good as the restaurants with one really good thing.
Center has been the weakest spot in the lineup for the Dallas Mavericks this season. But that doesn't mean it's all gloom and doom for Dallas' big men. Every lineup has to have a position that's weaker than the others. That's just how it works, as Asset Management isn't as simple as "trading bubble-gum cards,'' as GM Donnie Nelson puts it. And as we already mentioned, the Mavericks have talented centers capable of stepping in and contributing meaningful roles. It's just a matter of finding the rotation that is most efficient.
Finding that rotation is clearly much more difficult than it sounds because Rick Carlisle has been searching for it all season.
This is where Fish's "The Three Bears Syndrome'' comes in.
Dalembert has averaged 20 minutes per game this season. Wright has averaged 18.6 and Blair has averaged 18.1. On the surface that seems to imply that it's been a very balanced rotation. However that is very misleading. The truth is that all three of those players have switched back and forth from being prominent contributors to spending long stretches on the bench. "Inconsistent" is actually a more accurate word to describe the center rotation than "balanced."
One bear is long but sometimes somnambulant. Another bear is thick but too short. Another bear is athletic but thin.
So which bear ... er, center ... should be playing? And when?
Dalembert was signed to this team with the expectation that he would be the team's starting center. That's because he has made a career in this league as a solid defensive center who can protect the rim as well as guard offensive centers. Unfortunately, his own offensive skills have proven to be inept at times and his levels of focus and energy have not always been as high as the team needs from him.
For those reasons, Dalembert has found himself sitting out crucial moments of games and his role on the team has fluctuated throughout the season. But there's no denying that no one else on the roster has a remote possibility of defending the LaMarcus Aldridges, Tim Duncans and Dwight Howards of the West with even a little bit of success.
The help defense is also nearly non-existent when Dalembert is not on the court.
Wright, on the other hand, is the most offensively-gifted big man on the team not named Nowitzki. He cuts to the basket at the right moments and has great hands to receive passes (a stark contrast from Dalembert). He also has an uncanny ability to slip screens (he essentially comes up as if he is about to set a screen and then goes right back to the basket, usually to catch a lob). Mavericks games that don't feature a Brandon Wright lob have become very rare these days. He's also a skilled offensive rebounder.
Defense is where Wright struggles. This is not for lack of effort. Wright actually has very good defensive instincts. Unfortunately his size -- that is, his lack of girth -- prevents him from being an above average defensive center.
We asked Carlisle about this and he downplayed Wright's lack of heft.
"(Wright) got stronger this year, which has been helpful," Carlisle said. "He can bang with the big guys. He gets a lot of attention because he's a high flyer and he plays above the rim. He's important to us."
That might be true; heck, we got details of B-Wright's 15-pound weight gain from him last summer. But Wright's frame still makes it nearly impossible for him to effectively guard some of the stronger centers in the league. A pairing of Nowitzki and Wright is just not competent enough defensively to be given long stretches of time together. Neither is atrocious on defense, but both are much better-suited playing alongside a big man that can hide some their inefficiencies.
Wright told DallasBasketball.com this week that in an ideal world, he prefers minutes at power forward rather than center.
"Wherever I can play," Wright said before adding, "I like playing power forward. It's a little bit more freelancing. The center is little bit more set. You need to be screener. You need to be rolling to the basket. You need to be solid on defense. You need to protect the rim."
This makes of sense because a lot of the league's power forwards are less likely to be able to take advantage of Wright's defensive short comings. His quickness can come in handy defensively at the power forward. The Mavericks just so happen to have a pretty good power forward on their roster already so he in order to maximize Wright's minutes (and thus take advantage of his offensive prowess) he needs to play a lot of center.
Blair is probably the most unique center on the roster. He's easily the shortest, but by far the strongest. He can maneuver under the basket and finish pick-and-rolls with surprising efficiency. He basically never dunks it, but because he's only 6-7 he has developed an almost guard-like ability to use the rim to shield his shot from shot-blockers. His effort and hustle is notable, and most of his value comes from his ability to outwork opponents. Defensively he offers very little rim protection. He is more likely to take a charge than block a shot, a sign of his effort, and a result of his 270-pound bulk, but not ideal for your center.
Carlisle will continue to tinker with the center rotation as the season winds down, but one thing seems to becoming more and more clear. This team is noticeably better when Dalembert is starting and playing at a high level.
The defensive makeup of the starting lineup demands a defensive anchor in the middle. Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis are likely going to allow a fair amount of penetration and someone needs to be in the paint to help compensate for that. Carlisle knows this and that's why every time he has benched Dalembert he has eventually given him a second chance to redeem himself.
He'll never be Tyson Chandler of 2011, but Dalembert at his best should be passable ... and absolutely is necessary.
Even with Wright's defensive flaws, he still seems to make the most sense as the first big man off the bench. Even if he is getting just the backup minutes for Dalembert and Nowitzki that can actually add up to serious playing time considering Nowitzki's monitored burn. The spark that he provides offensively is rare for a big man off the bench and it's a valuable asset.
Even with all the positive things Blair brings to the table, it's fair to say that he is a more of "changeup.'' That's not to say that he shouldn't get minutes in the playoffs (if the Mavericks make it to the postseason). There will likely be times when Dalembert is too much of a nonfactor offensively or Wright cannot hold his own on defense. The beauty of Blair is that he can be inserted into the game with the hope that he simply causes the other team havoc. That's what hustle players do. Blair embodies the "Be Ready'' player that Carlisle often speaks of.
Bernard James is a consummate professional who will contribute tough play and focus whenever he enters a game, but it's safe to say if the Mavericks are relying on him in crucial moments then they're already in trouble.
Monday's win over Boston serves an example of the rotation I just laid out. Dalembert started the game and played the most minutes (22). Wright finished the game and played 17 minutes. And Blair contributed eight minutes off the bench.
And yet ... the imperperfections: The Mavericks did give up 21 offensive rebounds to the Celtics.
This type of rotation is the correct formula. But the specific formula only works when you get consistent play from all three big men. ... and when you don't, the formula needs to be remixed.
Given the strengths of the centers, we'll just have to live with more tinkering among the trees. Given the weaknesses, it'll be a challenge to see how long Dallas lives beyond the regular season at all.
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