Mavs Halfway: Improved Offense, Less Aggressive Defense

It's halfway into the 2007-2008 season, and the key question has nothing to do with the regular season at all: Have the Mavericks improved their players and systems for a more successful playoff run? Of course the answer to this question has much to do with a comparison to the past: Have the Mavs improved in various ways to overcome the strategies that stopped them in 2006 and 2007? That's what I'll look at in my review of games 1-42.

Are we pacing ourselves?

Before we look at offenses and defenses, let's take a look at minute usage. Both Detroit and Phoenix have often been pegged as teams with poor minute distribution. They ride their starters all season long, and by the time the playoffs come around, fatigue becomes a factor in their play. This has some support from the statisticians, with at least one report showing that limiting starter's minutes has a correlation to post-season success. Certainly the Spurs have been lauded for this as a team that paces itself and peaks at the right time.

We know that Dirk took at least a month off from basketball, and that his German national team play was shorter than usual due to them not advancing in Eurobasket 2007. So, from a fatigue standpoint, Dirk is starting well ahead of previous seasons. None of the other Mavericks, with the possible exception of Barea, had a significant off-season play schedule, so the same goes for the team as a whole.

Last year the Mavs had pretty decent minute distribution, despite the comments that they wore themselves down during the regular season. This year the Mavs look good again. Dirk is slightly up in minutes (about 30 seconds a game), while Josh Howard is up significantly (about 1 minute 20 seconds a game). Jason Terry is down four minutes, and Devin is up about four minutes a game. Overall, the Mavericks have four players averaging over 30 minutes a game, 1 fewer than San Antonio, but less than Phoenix (6 players) and Detroit (5 players). Also, the Mavs have 10 players averaging a guarter of gametime (12 minutes) per game. San Antonio has 11, while Detroit and Phoenix have 9.

So in terms of fatigue and minute distribution, the Mavericks are doing fine. The Mavs certainly aren't riding their starters hard for regular season success. The team with the greatest danger of that is Phoenix, which has 6 players playing over 30 minutes/game, which is double San Antonio's three.

Has The Offense Changed?

One of the single biggest issues with the Mavericks last year was that their offense was too predictable. They ran the offense through Dirk in a very consistent way and complemented this with screen and rolls and picks that led to favorable isolations. Against a team that played Dirk aggressively on defense, a major part of our offense broke down. With Paul Westphal now lead assistant, the gauntlet was laid down: Create a team that has a more fluid offense, featuring strong on-the-ball and off-the-ball movement, and utilize Devin Harris and our guards as penetrators.

It is clear the Mavericks have improved at least a little in ball movement. One of the real indicators of good ball movement is assists. As the ball moves to the open man and he scores, an assist is credited. The Mavericks assists are up slightly this year (19.9/game to 20.5/game).

What about penetration? Well, the Mavericks are penetrating more, although much of this is due to Devin Harris getting more minutes. In general, however, the Mavericks ARE featuring more penetration. At first glance this isn't the case because the Mavericks are on pace to finish the year with about the same number of layup, dunk, and close shot attempts as last year. The big difference? Free throw attempts. The Mavs are up over 1 1/2 free throw attempts this year than last year, which is a big improvement.

So the Mavs look like they are perhaps penetrating more, while their overall ball movement has improved as well. Of course beyond the statistics it pays to use your common sense to examine what is going on, as well, and at least in this instance what I've seen on the court is not telling me much different than what I outlined above.

Offensive Efficiency

From the above it may seem like the Mavericks offense this year is only slightly different than last year's offense. That's not completely true. For one thing, Dirk's repertoire has broadened considerably, from his improved passing to his more aggressive positioning around the hoop and in the post. The end result of these changes is that Mavericks do indeed have a more difficult offense to defend, and this is indicated by the Mavericks offensive efficiency number, which is 114.2, over a point higher than last year.

To put this in perspective, last year the Mavericks had the No. 2 offense in the league, and they've improved upon that. Again, I don't want to make it sound like the Mavericks completely retooled their offense. That is certainly not the case, but they have made the offense more efficient and flexible, especially in how they use Nowitzki, and that's big when you look at how our offense ground to a halt against Miami and Golden State with Dirk hounded aggressively.

Discipline On Defense

One of the subtle but important differences between Dallas' very good defense last year and San Antonio's outstanding defense was that San Antonio fouled much less. One way to think of this is that this year San Antonio averages 18.3 fouls per game, which indicates that the opposition has a hard time getting into the bonus. Dallas, on the other hand, averages 21.8 per game, or more than 5 per guarter, which obviously means quite a bit more time in the bonus for the opposition.

Dallas is actually doing better than last year, where the team averaged 22.4 per game. Ideally, the Mavericks need to do an even better job of not fouling the opposition, but, as we will see later, they should perhaps give up on this and focus instead on improving their defensive aggressiveness.

Defensive Efficiency

And here we come to the big problem area: The Mavericks defense. The bottom line is that the Mavericks defense is much worse than it was last year. The best way to measure team defense is to look at how many points you give up to the opposition during each of their offensive possessions. This is generally presented in "points per 100 possessions" or simply "defensive efficiency." If you stop a team 100 out of 100 times, you'll have a defensive efficiency of zero, the best you can have (lower is better). If they score a two point shot on half of their 100 possessions, you'll have a defensive efficiency of 100, which is excellent.

Last year, the Mavericks ended the year in the top five in defensive efficiency. This year they have dropped precipitously to 15. To put this drop in perspective, the Mavericks defense this year is about as good as the Suns defense was last year, which is to say mediocre, at best. This begs an important question: What the heck happened? What makes this question difficult to answer at first glance is that the Mavericks can look absolutely dominating on defense at times.

At first I thought that the difference was due to pace. If the Mavs are running more and playing a much faster pace, this could mean that their half court defense is still good, but it is being hurt by a poor transition defense. But the Mavericks aren't playing at a much faster pace. Their pace this year is 88.8 possessions a game (25th in the league) compared to 88.2 last year (28th in the league). So our transition defense has little to do with it.

I had also considered that the league as a whole was shooting better, hurting the defensive efficiency of the whole NBA, but that wouldn't account for the big drop in defensive rank. The bottom line is that 10 more teams are better the Mavs on defense this year than last year.

So where is this drop coming from? This is where abandoning general efficiency and looking at the specific numbers is important.

We already noted that the Mavericks have improved at reducing their fouls on defense, but has this come at a cost? Have the Mavs turned into the Phoenix Suns, avoiding fouls but hurting their defense in the process? It certainly looks that way. An excellent indicator of defensive aggressiveness is turnovers. A team that forces a lot of turnovers through steals and clogging passing lanes is aggressive on defense. Last year the Mavericks forced 13.8 turnovers/game. This year that number has plummeted to 12.4. Our steals number mirrors this drop: Our steals are down from last year (6.83/game to 6.02/game).

Fewer fouls on defense combined with fewer turnovers by the opposition is a big indicator that defensive aggressiveness is much lower than last year.

Of course the biggest indicator that your team is not defending shooters or stopping penetration is defensive field goal percentage. If the other team shoots well, you're simply not making it hard for them. This year the opposition is shooting 45.1% from the field, and 36.0% from three point range. Last year the opposition shot 44.7% from the field and 34.9% from three point range. While these aren't big drops, even small changes in field goal percentage matter, as these lead to actual points going on the board during a game. So the Mavs are not doing as well this year here, as well.

Finally, what about rebounding? If we allow more offensive rebounds, then the opposition has a greater opportunity to score, hurting our defensive efficiency. With our pace slightly faster, we'd expect a small increase in offensive rebounds allowed/game, but not much. In 2006 we gave up 10.2 offensive rebounds/game. This year we give up 10.8/game. This is another step backward.

By now you should be seeing a pattern: The Mavericks defense is slightly worse in every single aspect other than fouling the opposition. There are two things to take from this: The first is that the Mavericks are suffering death by papercut on defense. The small declines in multiple defensive categories adds up to a significant decline overall. The second thing to take from this is that there is a reason for what we're seeing: A drop in overall defensive aggressiveness.

Looking Ahead

It is likely that the focus on changes to the offense have had a negative effect on the Mavs defense. If this was the case then we should see the defense steadily improve as we head into the playoffs, with the offense flowing more naturally and becoming second nature. It should be noted that we are already seeing signs of this, as Jeff Caplan outlined recently (referenced by Wes in his Sunday links post below).

It is also important to note that the Mavericks are largely the same team that was No. 5 in defense last year. It's always dangerous to think of a team as being able to "turn it off" and "Turn it on" when it comes to something as important as defense, but the consistency in personnel certainly indicate that this team is capable of very strong defense when they put their mind to it. The focus simply has to be there.

The Mavs end the first half of the season as one of the elite teams in the NBA. At the halfway point, they were on pace for a 58 win season and within 1 1/2 games of a No. 1 playoff seed. They've achieved this while developing a new offensive system and watching their defense suffer in the process. That's pretty amazing. If the Mavericks can continue to effectively execute a more flexible offense and steadily improve their defense in the second half of the season, there is no reason to think that they won't be better prepared for post-season success than any of the past few years.

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