It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. A season that Mavs followers looked at with a hint of youthful hope has quickly turned into 8 out of 11 losses with numerous blowouts along the way. So what the hell happened? Were the first five games a complete aberration?
To put those games (LAL, UTAH, CHA, POR, TOR) into perspective: with the exception of the now revived Lakers, all those games were against bottom 15 defensive teams. In fact again excluding the Lakers, the three wins the Mavs actually scored were against the 24th, 26th, and 28th ranked defensive teams. There is no question that the Mavs were playing with a much better offensive flow early in the season but playing against those kinds of opponents will do that for you.
I was one of those pumping up the possibilities of this team before the season started as well as through the short-lived good times. And while my optimism needs to be tempered, it is certainly still alive and strong. What we all need to realize is that this team is young. Yes we have veterans like Carter, Marion, and Brand but this team is only going to go as far as Collison (24) and Mayo (25) can take it. There are no reliable backups for these spots – there is no one off the bench that can come close to replacing at least the potential that these two guys have. The backups or subs for these spots are just as young: Roddy 24, DoJo 24, and Crowder 22 (with Carter moving to the 2). Dahntay Jones can soak up minutes in spots and the newly signed Derek Fisher will take up some minutes immediately, but these guys are just placeholders. They’re not going to win a game for you, you just hope they don’t lose the game for you while you’re playmakers rest.
Being young has its obvious advantages such as young legs. Dallas is averaging 4 more fast break points than it did last year and at 15.7 fast break points per game, the Mavs are 9th in the league despite the recent slump. The Mavs have upped their fast break efficiency, overall offensive efficiency, free throws attempted per game (which is impressive without Dirk’s career average of 6.5 FTA), and effective field goal percentage over last year’s numbers. As we have obviously seen though, these improvements have not necessarily led to wins.
With youth comes obvious inexperience and this is shown through turnovers (1.2 more), fouls (4 more for 5th in the league in fouls committed), second half points as % of total points (where Dallas ranks 29th in the league), and close game record (where the Mavs are 1-3 in games decided by 4 points or less). These sorts of things didn’t used to be problems for the veteran-laden Mavs with their high BBIQ and end game experience. But this young team is having a lot of trouble with the mental pieces of the game: picking up on halftime adjustments, learning when to push and when to setup the offense, seeing offensive and defensive mismatches, rotating for help defense, and closing out games. While Dirk’s return should help with a number of issues, it is far from a cure all.
Dirk is a master in the half-court especially in the 4th quarter when the game slows down. So assuming Collison and Mayo learn well enough to get him the ball, he should be able to help Dallas improve their second half scoring and close game record. But he’s not going to be able to do it on his own and as has been shown so far, this offense does not continue to pound an offense advantage. There has been far too much perimeter passing and far too little post work and lane driving for a team with Chris Kaman and Darren Collison. These guys need to learn how to force the defense to change when there are obvious advantages – force double teams and help defense down low, force zone play to limit penetration, force ball trapping or 3 pt line fronting, or anything to make the defense adjust. Right now in the half court, this team doesn’t test the defense at all or push its advantages; they just pass it around until someone has to take a shot and while Dirk’s return would give us another quality shooter to throw out there, that doesn’t solve the offensive mentality.
I love Carlisle. I think he is a great coach – he normally makes good in-game and game-to-game adjustments, he tends to get the best out of role players, his offensive philosophy lets players demonstrate their strengths while his defensive schemes tend to minimize players’ deficiencies, and his work ethic and hard-nosed nature make him a good leader. But it’s been hard to follow some of the changes and lineup choices he’s made this year.
Obviously he has the insight from practice and the locker room, more advanced statistics than we could ever imagine, and general NBA head coach knowledge and intuition but I can’t reason through some of the choices he’s made this year. It has been quite a while since he had to play young, unseasoned players and I think it shows in his approach to lineups and subs and play-calling and in-game teaching or lack thereof. It used be that when Terry or Marion (who got ragdolled a lot early on) or Haywood or on the rare occasion Kidd made a bonehead play, Carlisle would just pull them and let them think it over on the bench. He can’t take that approach with these kids though because 1) we can’t have them on the bench that long and stay competitive on the court and 2) a good deal of the time I get the feeling that they don’t know what he wanted them to do.
Now I do not support coddling players of any age or ability and I certainly wouldn’t expect Carlisle to start but he has got to make sure that he is teaching these kids what it takes to get on the court and what is expected of them while they are out there. Right now it doesn’t look like Crowder knows what he needs to do to get time or what his role should be (besides jacking up threes) when he’s out there. The same goes for a number of other players with only Marion coming to mind as a guy who looks like he knows what he’s doing night after night.
Carlisle’s flow offense is based on playing off of each other and movement but that is difficult to generate when you haven’t ever played with the other four guys on the court at once. Similarly the morphing zone and general man-to-man help defense takes communication and time to get accustom to what teammates are able to do on the defensive end. I understand that Carlisle is spending a lot of these games looking for sparks because the offense stalls or we can’t get stops or someone is having an off night but I think we have to think about more than just one game and give this team some structure. There aren’t veterans here anymore to provide it – to teach, to think through mistakes, to call the right play, to yell out on defense, etc – so Rick needs to step up and do it. Set a top seven or eight that are going to get consistent minutes and play together, call out mismatches and plays to exploit them, force the veterans to take the lead on both ends of the court and communicate with everyone, and just generally make sure it’s clear what is expected of each individual player.
His offensive and defensive schemes can be very effective when players are comfortable with each other and know their roles, but we just aren’t there yet. And the best way to get there faster is to force it through minutes played together, calling out more plays from the bench until players can recognize the offensive chances on their own, teaching in-game during timeouts and free throws, and making players fight through tough stretches. I would be a quick timeout guy like Carlisle I sure and I know exactly when Rick is going to call a timeout cause I’m shaking my head and saying it at the same time. But there is value for young players trying to play through a tough stretch, there are learning experiences to be had in losing badly and battling back, and at the end of the day most times there isn’t a magic lineup combination to win. You can tell during each forced timeout that Rick is beating his head against a wall to figure out a way for this team to win and he tends to land on subs as solution.
For a veteran team that is struggling, subbing in an end-of-the-bench energy guy can be a real shot in the arm for a while in a game. But that is not really our situation, and in most cases, these subs have been throwing mediocre vets (Jones, Murphy) at on-court youth. I know Carlisle wants some stabilizing vets out there to hopefully limit mistakes but that is certainly not going to give you a spark to help turn it around. If anything, we should be throwing more minutes at Crowder, Sarge, and Wright if he wants to add a spark. The bench vets (exc Carter) are known quantities and aren’t going bring a spark or change the momentum of the game. Either timeouts need to be used as teaching opportunities with players staying on the court or we need to actually use energy subs. I recognize that both of those options could lead to a continued on-court slide if players really can’t adjust or the energy subs fall flat but I would much rather see that then Murphy and Jones playing to keep the margin at 15.
All that said, I have confidence in Carlisle to make changes and in Donnie to not let this season get away as well as in most of the young players that the Mavs have. There is definitely potential here and it is just a matter of figuring out how best to pull it out. 7-9 without Dirk is far from the end of the world and if these Mavs had pulled out their two overtime games and picked up a lucky win in Philly (in a game they had no business being in at the end), then there would be much less doom and gloom chatter in Mavsland at 10-6. But the fact is they didn’t and the reasons behind that aren’t going away quite yet so while in the same way we were unconditionally thrilled through five games, we shouldn’t wear our rose colored glasses when looking at that could-have-been record. 7-9 without Dirk is acceptable and will have to do for now. Hopefully this upcoming set of road games brings this team together and they start to right the ship in at least some ways before Dirk’s return.