Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
What do I expect from OJ Mayo?
That's what I was thinking, sitting in the ashes of another "must-win" game that slipped, specifically, from OJ Mayo's fingers. I've never really watched anyone like OJ, he's one of those guys for whom the eye test doesn't work. He's the Mavs' best three-point shooter, and their best finisher (not in terms of completion percentage, but in terms of the athleticism of some of his drives and finishes), and he does it against the other team's best wing-defender.
But he's not a guy advanced stats love. His 16.86 PER this season is 84th, tied with Greivis Vazquez, just behind Mike Conley. While Vazquez and Mayo both, in some ways, merit consideration for the Most Improved Player award, Mayo was never supposed to be Greivis Vazquez. He's at 3.8 winshares on the season, tied with Kyle Lowry, Jason Kidd, Ersan Ilyasova, Brandon Jennings and Goran Dragic for 64th, just behind Darren Collison. His career similarity scores so far are unfortunate, Luther Head, Mario Chalmers, Malik Sealey....
At the same time, his true shooting percentage is a sterling 58.5%, behind only James Harden and Manu Ginobili among shooting guards who are near the top of their team's offensive pecking order. You could argue--it'd be hard not to argue--that he's the fourth best offensive 2 in the game, behind Kobe, Harden and Wade, two of whom he outshoots from the floor period, all of whom he significantly outpaces from behind the arc (his 42.6% from there is nearly 8 points higher than Harden's).
Can't you do something with that? Isn't that worth keeping? There's a lot of talk every time Mayo does this, misses a crucial free throw, throws a couple crucial interception, and one or the other has happened literally a dozen times this season, that we just need to get rid of the bum. But that's not good enough unless you think you can replace him with somebody better, or something better. Can you really?
The weird thing is the nature of Mayo's mistakes. He plays a whole game well. Yes, in February he's regressed in terms of turnovers, but in the whole month of January he averaged under two. He scores points, 15+ in 14 of his last 20, and he does so generally efficiently. And he passes much, much better than people give him credit for. You want to know where his 5.45 assists a game since the beginning of 2013 would rank among SGs? Second to James Harden. And while the Mavs play at a fast pace, they've got nothing on Houston.
They're entirely situational. He had four turnovers against the Hawks and two of them were in the last minute. One of them was on a fast break layup that should have given them the lead (or, more probably, been pulled out and rotated for a better shot to potentially give them a lead). The other was on an inbounds play. Both were killer. There's no question that this is a problem, and probably a season-defining problem for Mayo.
But can that really happen? Can a guy who's shooting 85.3% from the line on the season shoot 73% from the line in the clutch? Can a guy who has taken care of the ball pretty well for a while now completely lose it in the last two minutes? It's not bad luck, far from it, but is it chronic?
The really weird thing is, Mayo is shooting 47% from the field, 43% from three in the clutch. He doesn't get the shot off that often, he throws it away or gets fouled and goes to the line (where he's shooting an abysmal 73% in the clutch), but when he just SHOOTS he's among the clutchest players in the league, apparently.
Take away the last minute turnovers, the missed clutch free throws. What would that OJ Mayo be like? And is that the Mayo we should expect? Is it possible, or likely?
Mavs fans, who have watched their team lock themselves into an excruciating waiting game are now, reasonably, unwilling to think it was all for THIS OJ Mayo, and they don't want to commit money. One thing I think is that Mavericks fans need to adapt to new realities, need to realize that, no longer the cream of the crop, they can't be as picky about free agents. It's been so long that we forget, Charlotte isn't paying Ben Gordon 12.4 million dollars this year because they crazily overestimated his talent, but because that's what they needed to pay him to get him to come to Charlotte.
It's not enough to say the Mavericks should get somebody better than OJ Mayo. You have to have some idea of who, and you have to have some explanation as to why it's going to be better. Mayo will be a free agent next summer, and no one wants to pay him more than 10 million--but you have to know you're going to use that 10 million more productively, at least think it's likely. Do I think the Mavs can do better?
I don't, really. I think Mayo is too good a piece for the Mavs to pass on, at this point, with what they have going forward. If he keeps giving up these crucial turnovers, keeps missing those crucial free throws, I'll be wrong. I just can't believe that that's a real thing. His play, in general, has problems. I just can't believe the situational stuff will be a death sentence---I've never, in my years of watching basketball, seen it before.
Ben Gordon is, perhaps, as good a model as anybody to think about OJ Mayo's future with. This year, good as Mayo's been, he's only .05 points per play better than Gordon, a bench player for a much worse team. He's been a lot better in isolation, a lot worse as the ball handler in the pick and roll. He's a better spot-up shooter, significantly worse off screens. Significantly worse cutting, better in transition.
In short, they're both good offensive players but Gordon is pretty good, and Mayo is REALLY bad at playing with his TEAMMATES. All the parts of his game which involve co-ordination with someone else, Mayo is not doing well. And that matches up with what my eyes tell me.
But here's the thing. Like they say, if two men run to first base, the first one has horrible form, the second one has great form, and they tie, you do hire the first guy, don't you? Because if you teach the first guy form, he's going to win by a landslide. And incidentally, while Ben Gordon is allowing 1.03 points per play, Mayo is averaging a pretty good .87. He's not a good defender, but he's apparently not the worst team defender.
The Mavericks either have a guy who's just scratching the surface of his talent, who can score from anywhere and pass like few shooting guards in the game, or a guy who's overachieving with high usage and I can't really tell which one. In a way, they're probably both true. They certainly have a guy who has an unfortunate ability to make mistakes at the wrong time---mistakes that invalidate everything he's capable of, which would seem to be quite a lot.
As I say, I don't think the Mavericks can afford to pass on a guy who could be as good as Mayo could be, and I don't think the problems he's having are the type of problems that will dog him for his career. I especially don't think the Mavericks are in a position to imagine they can certainly do better, that it's as easy as passing on a flawed candidate to open the door for a less flawed one.
But if I'm wrong about one thing, I'm wrong about all three.