It is no surprise that many fans and the NBA press are looking at the Mavs season more for indications as to how they will have adapted or changed for the post-season than for pure wins or losses. In a nutshell, if the Mavs win 70 games but look like they are using the same systems, there will be plenty of doubts heading into the playoffs. While it is certainly way too early to make any conclusions about how the Mavs have changed their offensive or defensive systems, it is not too early to look at specific trends. Let's take a look at them, comparing the first three games of last year (all losses, so take not of that) and the first three games of this year (featuring multiple injured players, so take note of that as well).
Perhaps the biggest issue the Mavs faced in the playoffs was an offense that collapsed in efficiency. An offense that centered on creating isolations and mismatches, anchored by Dirk Nowitzki, simply fell apart when facing a well-prepared team that took Dirk out of his comfort zone and had personnel that allowed for very few mismatches in general. Coming into this season, there were indications that new assistant coach Paul Westphal would be creating a more varied offense with plenty of ball movement and a focus on creating offense in the paint.
So have we seen that? By all indications, yes. In the first three games last year, the Mavs averaged 17 assists per game. This year that total is up to 22 assists per game. One side effect of attacking in the paint are free throws. In the first three games last year the Mavs averaged 19 free throw attempts. This year they are averaging 24.7. Another side effect of attacking in the paint are higher percentage shots. In the first three games this year the Mavs are shooting 51.8% from the field. Last year they shot 43.6%. Finally, a team that attacks in the paint and doesn't settle for jump shots tends to shoot fewer three point shots. In the first three games this year the Mavs have averaged 18.7 three point attempts. Last year they averaged 19.3.
Again, it is early, but as you can clearly see, every single offensive trend points to the Mavs as being a team that attacks the paint and focuses more on ball movement than isolation play.
Last year the Mavs had the fifth best defensive efficiency in the league, but they really weren't at the same level as San Antonio. As we saw in Miami and Golden State, the Mavs had significant trouble with talented guards, specifically larger guards. The Mavericks addressed this by signing Eddie Jones and trading for Trenton Hassell, both very talented wing defenders. The Mavericks have also invested a ton of playing time in Dasagana Diop with Erick Dampier injured. Dampier is not a poor defender, but Diop is worlds better than Dampier. While it is too soon to see how things will change when Dampier returns, with Diop in the line-up and Hassell and Jones at the wings, the Mavs are looking very good on defense, although their effort has been inconsistent so far.
Perhaps the biggest indication that the paint is better defended this year is the number of shots that the Mavs block per game. In the first three games last year, the Mavs averaged 4.3 blocks per game. This year that number has almost doubled to 7.7 blocks per game, an extraordinary increase. Last year the Mavs started extremely slow, going 0 and 3. Part of that was that they played stronger teams than they have played this year, which makes one stat alarming: In the first three games this year, the Mavs are allowing opponents to shoot 51.8% from the floor, an extraordinarily bad percentage. During last year's poor start, the mavs gave up 50.7% shooting, which is better than this year but still very poor. One positive is that the Mavs are defending the 3 point shot, well. In the first three games this year, opponents are shooting only 29.4%. Last year opponents shot an embarrassing 44%.
So we don't have an overwhelming trend like we have for offense. In some ways, the Mavs are starting stronger on defense, but in others they are worse. It is possible that the Mavs are actually going to be significantly better on defense this year, but the new wing defenders will take time to get comfortable with the rotations around their new teammates. Also, the lack of center depth hurts, as when Diop is off the floor, the Mavs defense suffers.
Two More Notes
By now you've read about the Mavs poor rebounding so far. While they outrebounded Sacramento, they were badly outrebounded by Cleveland and Atlanta. How does this compare to last year? Well, in the first three games this year the mavs are being outrebounded by 7 rebounds a game. Last year, in their poor start they were slightly outrebounded by .4 rebounds per game. Last year, the Mavs turned it around and ended the year as one of the best rebounding teams in the league. So it is certainly too early to make conclusions on rebounding, as losing Josh Howard and Erick Dampier in the first two games had a huge effect on the team's rebounding, but it is worth keeping an eye on.
Finally, as I noted in an earlier post, one of the keys for the Mavs to maximize their defense was to lower the number of personal fouls they are charged every game. Using San Antonio as a goal, the target would be 19 fouls per game. So far this year the Mavs are being charged with 21.3 fouls per game, which is a significant improvement over the horrible 24.67 fouls per game they received in the first three games last year.
I'm cautiously optimistic on this count. The Mavs actually have a long history of being called for more fouls than other elite teams. Any improvement here would be another indication that the Mavs are moving toward a significantly stronger and playoff-ready team.