The Dallas Mavericks weren’t exactly healthy in their preseason debut (reviewed here in Mavs Donuts), so what they accomplished, or what was accomplished at their expense, was of little consequence. What they will need to spend all season working on, however, is universal to starters and role players alike.
Even a Mavs unit with a completely healthy Chandler Parsons, Dirk Nowitzki, Wesley Matthews, and Deron Williams (see some of those health updates here in "Rapid Fire'') will be at risk of getting absolutely eviscerated in transition defense. Dirk Nowitzki and Deron Williams have not exactly been light-footed in quite some time. The quickest players in the starting lineup—Parsons and Matthews—are coming off of major leg surgeries.
So a missed shot by the Mavericks’ offense could lead to a transition basket before Dirk and company even cross half court. Players like John Wall, Russell Westbrook, and Ty Lawson will look to slice up Dallas in transition. Stopping them once they get an outlet pass will be like trying to catch up to a train that’s already in motion.
That’s what systems are for, to offset talent deficiencies. And that’s what coaches are for, to implement those systems. Prior to Tuesday’s game, Rick Carlisle laid out a philosophy that is almost too simple to even be considered a system: Everybody get back on defense except the center.
“It’s pretty simple,” Carlisle said. “The only guy that should be rebounding [on offense] for us is the 5 man. Everyone else should be back.”
It's not complicated or remotely unorthodox, but it is a necessity. The Mavs don’t have the personnel to risk crashing the offensive glass and coming up short. Obviously, players that are clearly in the vicinity of the ball “on a common sense basis” should hustle for the ball, but otherwise, leave it to the center.
Against the Nuggets, that center was Zaza Pachulia and, by most indications, he will continue to have the starting spot when the season opener comes around. JaVale McGee is recovering from injuries and is also the physical embodiment of a question mark. Sam Dalembert is a better rim protector, but provides little else of value.
Pachulia is the most polished center. He is never going to be the most impactful Maverick on the floor, but there is a lot to like about him. He’s a physical defender that can defend in the post one-on-one as well as provide help defense.
Offensively, he has a reliable set shot, which is huge for a Mavericks team that will rely heavily on spacing to create offense. He is also a deliberate passer. The danger with Dalembert and McGee is that both can fall into the trap of completely stalling the offense if they don’t get the ball exactly where they need it under the basket. The beauty of Pachulia is that you can dump it to him and he will turn around, take one hard dribble towards the basket and whip it out to a wing in the corner. The Mavericks can feed him without sacrificing ball movement, which is how players like Nowitzki and Matthews can eventually get open looks.
Against the Nuggets on Tuesday in the preseason-opening Mavs loss, Pachulia recorded four points, eight rebounds, two assists, and one block and steal a piece. ... and sure, once all these guys are together, we can envision better things ...
But ... The Nuggets are one of the teams that will look to exploit Dallas in transition. They are young, fast, and their rookie point guard, Emmanuel Mudiay, will rely on transition baskets for his scoring while he gets used to the NBA. The Nuggets scored 23 fastbreak points in their 96-86 win over Dallas. Considering many of those can be chalked up to preseason slop, the transition defense was relatively decent.
Things might change as the months go by, but Pachulia has the tools to be the most productive center for Dallas. The Mavericks will eventually field four very talented and very productive NBA players in Williams, Nowitzki, Parsons, and Matthews. At the very least, Pachulia won’t be a comically weak leak.
But can he get any offensive rebounds? He had four offensive boards Tuesday night, and while that may not seem like a drastically impactful number, it could be a sign of significantly important production.
Saving themselves from becoming a total train wreck in transition defense will come at the cost of offensive rebounding. So does that mean Dallas is doomed to be a terrible offensive rebounding team by design? Well, that may all be up to Zaza, since he’s the only one allowed to go after the boards on offense.
It’s something to keep an eye on against the Rockets tonight at Houston and throughout the preseason. If Zaza plans on making his presence known on the offensive boards, then he might be more valuable than anyone expected.