“Grinding people on defense and flowing on offense.”
According to Rick Carlisle, that’s the key, not only to this season, but to the NBA in general. Actually, the Mavericks’ head coach was a little more specific back on January 18th, when he explained the key to success for the Mavericks going forward.
“It’s one of the hardest things to do in this league is have a possession mentality on defense and a flowing game on offense,” Carlisle said after the Mavs recently squeaked out a win over the Celtics. “The great teams win championships. [In] 2011 we won a championship playing like that.”
In other words, take a big-picture mentality on offense and live in the moment on defense. Ever since Carlisle said this, Chandler Parsons has had the best stretch of his Mavericks career, shooting 52 percent for the month of January and averaging 25.4 points per in the last five games of the month. That might be a coincidence, but that doesn’t mean these two things are unrelated.
Carlisle’s philosophy comes down to the notion that if you have the right personnel, and that personnel has a basic understand of their abilities and role in the offense, then you don’t have to worry about scoring. Shooting comes down to averages. If you aren’t making shots now, just trust the process. The ball will go in the basket eventually and it will become routine. A game’s worth of quick decisions and few mistakes will always result in a winnable amount of points.
Personnel is important on defense as well, but it can be compensated for to a degree with effort. On offense you need to take advantage of your specific abilities. On defense, you need to be constantly trying to accomplish what anyone in your specific position is supposed to accomplish. Your most important defensive possession will always be your next one.
Parsons is the biggest key to the Mavericks’ success, and his abilities are a microcosm of Carlisle’s ideal team mentality. Parsons can do everything. He can’t do it all every night and he can’t do anything specifically as well as some of his peers, but he has a good enough supporting cast to succeed by finding an offensive flow and playing out every defensive possession.
Offensively, it is becoming quite clear in the past two weeks that Parsons can thrive as a small-ball power forward. A lot of this has to do with the fact that slower big men are unable to guard him. There’s a distinction to be made here, though. Just because there is a mismatch doesn’t mean that Parsons should be stopping the offense to exploit it. The best version of Parsons’ game is when he is a triple-threat, quick-reaction player. He can catch the ball, shoot, pump-fake and drive, dish or finish, or pass immediately. It’s not as important that power forwards can’t guard Parsons as it is that power forwards can’t defend the Mavericks’ offense when Parsons is playing power forward. Parsons’ isn’t such an explosive scorer that a slower power forward can’t smart or luck into stopping him in isolation. But that power forward will be at a disadvantage and a scrambling power forward is something that the Mavericks’ offense can take advantage of and it will result in open shots or lanes to the rim. Remember, the offense is a big picture mentality. You don’t exploit a player each possession. You run an offense that will exploit mismatches over the course of a game.
As CP himself says: “It’s obviously a mismatch when they’ve got a bigger, slower guy guarding me. I’m versatile and can catch-and-go and shoot the ball. Obviously, the better I shoot the ball, the harder they’re gonna close out on me and the more they’re gonna bite on the pump fakes. It just gives our team a different look, a more versatile look where we can get up and down.”
This jump in confidence and ability to play within his abilities and the flow of offense is why Parsons has thrived in games without Dirk Nowitzki, and it is why Parsons will likely adopt the role of backup power forward from here on out, including of course tonight at home against Miami. (Mavs vs Heat GameThread and more discussion here -- including tonight's absence of Deron Williams -- on DB.com Boards.) That said, 28-23 Dallas won’t be even more successful unless Parsons can learn to thrive with Nowitzki on the court. Parsons likes to catch the ball and use a lot of space to drive. This is good when you have a lot of players spreading out and giving him space. Nowitzki operates in the mid-range area and isn’t exactly zipping around the court when he doesn’t have the ball. It clogs things up for Parsons. Sometimes he runs himself into Nowitzki’s defender. Other times he’s just less assertive with Nowitzki on the floor.
Parsons has to understand that his quick action, especially in drives, will always be what’s best for the offense, even if it feels like he is getting himself into trouble. His long strides and reach make him a great finisher in traffic. A kick out to any of the Mavericks wings will keep the offense flowing if it is done without hesitancy. But the simplest thing to point out here is how good Nowitzki is at finishing in awkward situations. It makes total sense that Dirk clogs the lane a bit, but if Dirk’s defender even hints at getting in Parsons way then Parsons can make an awkward pass. It doesn’t have to be fancy or even on the money. It might be a high, get-rid-of-the-ball sort of pass. Nowitzki has the height to grab it, and he is one of the best shot-makers in NBA history. The tiniest bit of space that Parsons might have afforded him by driving will be enough for Nowitzki to make the shot.
Parsons also needs to make a greater effort to intiate transition offense when Nowitzki is in the game. Dirk might not run with him, but the rest of the Mavericks’ offense will be happy to. Surrounding Parsons with smart, offensively capable veterans is actually the best way to utilize his skills. The Mavs have plenty of those. If Wes Matthews is open for three, it would a poor decision for him not to shoot. Likewise, when Parsons get the ball he needs to make his move, whatever that move might be, immediately. That’s how you play the odds. That’s how you find a flow.
Defensively, Parsons is not Draymond Green, but he’s more than capable of guarding a lot of different types of players. He also has the luxury of Matthews, who will typically guard opponents’ most dangerous perimeter players. Matthews will almost always deliver on defense. Dirk will always be something of a liability. Parsons can go either way, and if he fails to deliver then don’t expect Nowitzki, Deron Williams, JJ Barea, Zaza Puchulia, or Raymond Felton to be able to compensate for him. They just aren’t good enough on that end of the floor. But every possession in which he meets his defensive challenge makes it easier for them to use energy and focus to contribute to a stop. Remember, it’s a possession-by-possession process on defense.
Trusting in an offensive flow and taking defense one possession at a time. It’s Carlisle’s key to basketball and it's Parsons’ key to maximizing his game, and you guessed it, it's the Mavericks’ key to success.