Mavs Midseason: Smooth Seas + Skilled Sailors

The Mavericks in the first half? Smooth seas. Ah, but smooth seas don't make skilled sailors, so our Mavs Midseason Review is about how the waves have been handled so far ... and about the bigger waves to come.



SMOOTH SEAS, SKILLED SAILORS

Clearly, the most interesting thing to happen this first-half season is the complete rewiring of the motherboard the Dallas Mavericks signed up for when they traded for Rajon Rondo.

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The pre-Rondo offense was fun and on a historic pace but it doesn’t take much inspection to realize that a roster without a single above-average perimeter on-ball defender is like that goat they set in the T-Rex pen in "Jurassic Park.'' Not being able to stop dribble penetration and not having anything that resembled a top-15 defense was no longer an avoidable hinderance. The Mavericks chose the path of most resistance knowing that with one single juxtaposition in the starting lineup the brand of basketball that they had been successful with was about to go through puberty. (In other words: They made the Rondo trade knowing there were going to be growing pains, as we've discussed often.)

Let’s take a look at some of the key numbers that Rondo has affected in his 16-game stretch here.

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A quick glance might lead you to question the Mavericks' new formula, seeing as they lost seven points per 100 offensive possessions but only taking away five points from the other team. The trick that the magician is showing you is the fact that the Mavericks are averaging two more possessions a game while not turning it over and deflating the value of the other team’s possessions by limiting their efficiency from the three-point line as well as how often they take them (22.2 a game as compared to 24.6 prior to Rondo).

The numbers are a healthy reinforcement for what you think you’re seeing on the court but you also have to keep in mind that these results are also tainted by that January 5th-through-14th run in which the Mavericks played some of their worst offensive basketball in years (including a loss in Denver in which everyone sat).

You can’t win a title if you don’t have a top-10 defense. It’s just a fact in the modern NBA. (Think back to when we wrote about LeBron saying Dallas would be a top-three offense and how that, combined with coach Rick Carlisle's desire to make a defensive leap, added up to contention.)

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Remember what Rick told us at training camp?

“We know, to be as good a team as we want to be, we’ve got to get into the top 10 in defense. And that’s going to be challenging. On paper right now, we’re somewhere in the middle of the pack if you go on individual analytics. I don’t see it happening overnight, but I believe we can do it. We got pieces that fit.”

And that was pre-Rondo.

This 99.4 defensive rating since Rajon has been on the team is good for seventh in the league in that stretch. Rondo does deserve a heap of credit for what he’s done in fast-tracking the Mavericks defense back to the respectable realm, but it really comes down to one very simple thing: defending the three-point line.

BOMB SQUAD

Early this season the book on the Mavericks was starting to be written, and it read: “SHOOT AN ASS-TON OF THREES AND YOU CAN BEAT THEM.”

Eloquent, we know.

But it was true. Through the first 27 games, the Mavericks' opponents were launching 24.6 threes per game and it was particularly a problem on above-the-break (middle-of-the-court) threes, as teams were launching 18.5 shots per game from that area. You might notice that that’s where the point guard would typically defend.

Through some statistical wizardry we can tell you that Jameer Nelson was allowing players he defended to shoot 42 percent from beyond the arc. This next number is going to shock you: When Rajon Rondo is defending a three-point shooter since his trade to the Mavericks, the opponent is shooting 17 percent.

Seventeen percent!

That’s half of the average three-point percentage in the league. We're not going to say that Jameer Nelson is just garbage and this is all his fault but you witnessed it with your own two eyes through the first two months of the season. The on-ball defender (Nelson) would get beaten and then require a scramble by the help defender and then another scramble and the possession would end with an opponent’s wide open three.

The opposition is shooting a minus-25-percent differential from three-point range on shots defended by the Mavericks starting point guards since the Rondo trade.

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None of the above, by the way, is propaganda regarding our feelings for Carlisle's decision to bench Rondo in the final 5:11 of Friday's loss to the Bulls. Rick went with his "gut.'' His gut wasn't good enough. ... But in any event, we wrote 99 percent of this Midseason Review before the loss to the Bulls.

That reinforces, we hope, the fact that we are not "making too much of this story,'' but rather, identifying it as a "story.''

We move on ... knowing that our numbers above (and more below) support the Mavs and Rondo as a clutch pairing for the second half ... while pondering what it all might mean for this summer, when Rondo is a free agent and Dallas needs to decide just how badly it wishes to court him.

And one more time: To argue that all of this is a non-story places one firmly in the category of "homer'' (nothing wrong with that) and also firmly in the category of "head-in-sand fan'' (lots wrong with that).

THE CASE FOR STABILITY

Late December/January is the time when NBA teams realize whether it’s going to be their year or if they’re going to fall victim to an NBA calendar that probably needs to be shortened by about 12 games. When January starts you can’t see the All-Star Break over the next ridge and you’re so far away from the playoffs that turning that switch isn’t even an option. January is a time for some ugly basketball.

All of this has allowed the 30-win Mavericks to vault themselves into the top-four region in the West with a real chance at attacking the top two. Let’s take a look at the paths the top nine in the West have taken since the start of the season.

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Outside of the damn witchcraft that Golden State has been rolling out (hovering between 78.6-90-percent win percentage every month) the Mavericks have been the most consistently good team in the West. The Mavericks' worst month was December and that’s better than every other team’s worst month other than those damn Warriors.

Their path back into the top four in the Western Conference has basically come from them just staying the course at their 70-percent win rate and the other teams fading back. January has not been kind to basically every other Western team.

Now that the Mavericks have cracked the top four, they probably just need to maintain a 70-percent win rate (sounds simple, we know) to hold off the bottom-four pack in the West.

CLUTCH TIME

The Mavericks have almost all the character traits of a pretty good basketball team, but what has separated them into that elite tier of teams is how damn clutch they are. "Clutch'' is defined as "final five minutes of a game within five points.'' The Mavericks have been disgustingly good in these situations. Here are the numbers.

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The main fear when you see a stat like this is regression. But, honestly the only player that has overachieved in such situations (outside of the Memphis game when Dirk went Hulk) is Monta Ellis.

BEST PASSING TEAM IN BASKETBALL

One of the things we’ll never forget from the Mavericks championship run is Rick Carlisle’s pride in the fact that the Mavericks, featuring unselfish superstar Dirk Nowitzki, were the best passing team in basketball during that stretch. If you look closely you can see the bedrock of what might be another exceptionally skilled passing team.

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The other side of that coin is how well you force and then you capitalize on the other team’s turnovers (they average 19.9 points off turnovers, most in the league). That’s another Mavericks cheat code. Despite not being one of the most skilled shooting teams in the league thus far this season, their field-goal percentage is always hovering near the top because they are lethal in transition and in the clutch.

Despite the Mavericks' concerns ... rebounding the basketball.... the Rondo adjustment ... the rest breaks for the elderly ... the little waves sailed through in the first half and the bigger waves coming ... this team does itself most every favor when it comes to looking like a quickly-rebuilt, paper-clip-becomes-a-house second-half contender.

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THE FINAL WORD

"We’re getting there. It’s a relatively new group, and we haven’t been through a lot of struggles together ... The second half of the schedule is unbelievably difficult. This is another of those difficult games. ... These are the kind of tests that help teams get better.'' - Rick Carlisle.


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