It’s nice to have someone to protect the rim. When an opponent makes it into the paint it’s nice to have a looming figure that can alter the ensuing drive, either mentally or physically. As you probably already know, that’s why Dallas went after DeAndre Jordan. (And enjoyed the work of Tyson Chandler, seen below.) And as you might have noticed, Dallas is lacking someone like that on its 2015-16 roster.
And as much of a luxury as a player like that is, he is not the end-all-be-all of a defense. It’s much more important (and effective) to stop a player from getting to the paint than it is to alter that players’ shot once he’s already in the paint. Rick Carlisle is a good defensive coach and there are some solid defensive players on the Mavs roster. That ability to minimize opponents from getting into the paint will be the key all season to whether the Mavericks’ have a playoff-caliber defense. The numbers bear it out: the less their opponents are able to drive this season the more effective Dallas has been. That’s not surprising; that concept will likely ring true for every team in the NBA.
Obviously this -- and most other things for a 2-3 Dallas team that has lost two straight and tries again tonight at the AAC against the (0-5!) New Orleans Pelicans -- is a team effort. The guards need to stay in front of their men and prevent any easy lanes to the rim. In the case of Deron Williams and Wes Matthews, we’ll find out as the season goes on if they will become more capable of this as their offseason injuries become further in the past or if the grind of the season on their bodies will make them more susceptible to let their man past them. The same goes for Chandler Parsons once his minute restriction is lifted. Zaza Pachulia typically does a good job of preventing opposing centers from getting good position in the paint.
None of those are players are guaranteed successes, however. Parsons health is a major concern when you consider the possibility of him guarding explosive players like LeBron, Durant or even a player like Tobias Harris. (And it's not going to work at all while CP is angering "the basketball gods'' with his first-half/second-half trickery.) Matthews seems a step slower compared to his elite defense of past years and it’s hard to tell if that’s conditioning or injury recovery. Pachulia might currently be Dallas’ best defender and he was lit up by Al Jefferson on Thursday night to the tune of 31 points off 15-18 shooting.
But the biggest red flag is Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk can still shoot like he’s 25. He still has the offensive (and even defensive) instincts that have made him great, but when it comes to staying in front of a driving player, he looks even older than his 37 years. In consecutive games, Blake Griffin (26 points, 10 rebounds in just 27 minutes), Julius Randle (22 points, 15 rebounds, 4 assists), and Luis Scola (19 points, 12 rebounds) torched Nowitzki with total confidence. Now, sure, Griffin has put up similar numbers every game this season, and maybe Scola benefited from some tough shots and lucky foul calls, but Randle attacked Nowitzki like he was an immobile obstacle.
Dirk is not a total train wreck on defense. Stretch-4's typically get open for a lot of three-pointers against most defenses, but Nowitzki is smart enough to be aware of where they are on the floor. Before Tuesday’s game against the Raptors, former Mavs assistant and current Toronto head coach Dwane Casey said he used to laugh when players would forget how long Nowitzki is because he really knows how to use his length on defense. So even when a stronger player posts him up, he’ll make the shot difficult just by being tall enough to reduce the potential angles of a shot.
But players like Griffin and Randle—players who can face the basket and attack off the dribble—are an absolute nightmare for Nowitzki. His length is completely negated when he has to come up to guard someone who can drive right past him with ease.
Thursday night in Hornets-Mavs (see Donuts here) even Marvin Williams was made to look like an elite athlete driving on Dirk. On two particular possessions, Williams went by him like Dirk was a traffic cone. He outplayed Nowitzki and finished with 17 points off 6-11 shooting to go along with 12 rebounds.
(Obviously, all these guys' stats aren't coming against Dirk alone. Look at Griffin's work against Dallas in Game 2 of the season and you see him dominating Powell and Charlie V and everyone else, too. ...)
Driving straight at Nowitzki is the key to continued success against the Mavericks, which means Dallas can never get away with switching on pick-and-rolls that involve Nowitzki. Leaving Dirk on an island with a driving point guard like Ty Lawson, Goran Dragic or Russell Westbrook is a quick way to give up two points.
Carlisle addressed this sort of thing at training camp, saying, “When you have a leak in the roof, you’ve got to figure out if there’s a bunch of little things contributing to it or if it’s one big thing. Right now, we’ve got a lot of little things that we need to get patched up, and that’s what we’ve looked at.''
Pachulia as a "patch''? Maybe, though he will have his hands full guarding his own man and positioning himself for rebounding against people like tonight's featured foe, Anthony Davis. Nowitzki as a "leak''? That's harsh, but he is as much of a defensive liability as he’s ever been, and unfortunately, there’s no reason for foes to stop driving on Dirk this season because there are too few patches to protect him.