Before the season, Chris Kaman's deal with the Mavericks seemed like a win-win. After failing to sign Deron Williams or any other big names in 2012, reloading the front court with a 1-year, $8 million contract on Kaman seemed like a fairly sound decision, no matter how far Kaman's game had fallen since his lone All-Star appearance in 2010.
Kaman's defense was average for the position but he featured a low-post game that no Maverick center had possessed before. He could post-up, hit pick and pop jumpers from 18 feet out and could make his free throws (the free throws were a big deal after the Brendan Haywood disaster of the last two seasons.)
Most admitted that Dallas was going to lose some on defense going from Haywood to Kaman but that his offense should outweigh it. Combined with Elton Brand and his defensive prowess, it appeared the Mavericks had done a decent job of bargin-bin replacing the production of Tyson Chandler.
Unfortunately it wasn't that easy of a transition. Brand's offense was no where to be found in the first month of the season and Kaman's defense looked worse than ever while his offense was jumper-prone. Kaman has always had a reputation of relying a bit too much on his jumper but that was especially true in Dallas. So far this season, according to NBA.com, Kaman has shot 218 shots in the restricted and paint areas of the floor. From mid-range? 236. It's the reason Kaman's field goal percentage can never creep much higher than 50 percent.
Before Dirk Nowitzki came back, the shot-hunting Kaman wasn't too much of a problem because Dallas needed offense in the worst way. The problem has started since Dirk returned and it has been two-fold: Kaman starting took away most of Dirk's early looks and the defense of the two has been catastrophic.
When Dirk and Kaman share the floor together, per NBA.com, Dallas' defensive rating shoots up to 107.7, a mark that would currently rank 28th in the league and nearing Sacramento-levels of ineptitude. The offense is just as bad, scoring at 97.1 points per 100 possessions, which would rank 29th in the league. When Dirk and Kaman share the floor, the Mavs perform no better than the Bobcats.
The offense could be saved if Kaman and the Mavericks used a different approach. Too often, the Mavericks will run sets that get Kaman a look from the elbow. The problem is that Kaman is far too happy to launch the jumper when he gets the ball. That leaves Dirk as a bystander before his scheduled exit from the game five to six minutes in. Dirk never plays an entire first quarter and rarely plays past the six minute mark -- the Mavs players, and Kaman, need to better understand this and get Dirk his looks in that time fame. Kaman should be playing off Dirk in those first quarters -- not the other way around. That's fixable and just requires some film-watching and more practice sessions between the two. There isn't much to be said about Kaman's passing, however. Once the ball enters Kaman, it usually doesn't find another Maverick. He turns it over a good amount too, all the more reason for Dallas to limit his initial touches.
It seems like the defensive fix isn't as simple. Kaman came into Dallas with an OK-defensive reputation. He wasn't a world-beater but he wasn't Amare Stoudemire. Kaman's size and length is useful to pack the lane and force awkward shots. That's still happening to a degree, the problem is that when Kaman shares the floor with Dirk he doesn't have an above-average NBA big man defender to make up for his limitations and mistakes.
That's part of the reason why the Kaman-Brand lineup worked so well in their Clippers heyday. Kaman would handle the heavy duties of guarding the team's most talented offensive big man while Brand would be there to use his athleticism for support. Kaman has never been a great pick and roll defender but with Brand on the back line to back him up, Kaman's inefficiency there wasn't as sorely noticed.
In Dallas and paired with Dirk, it's front and center. Dirk isn't quick enough to make up for the lack of ground Kaman can cover on pick and rolls and teams are just roasting the two in those situations. Combine that with a bad defensive point guard (Darren Collison) and it's clear to see why the starting lineup with Kaman in it gives up 108.8 points per 100 possessions.
Kaman has had a couple of nice block-number games to help hide how poor he's truly been. To be fair, when Kaman does make it to the right spot at the right time, he usually makes the defensive play. He's a smart player and knows when to block and when to contest and alter, a much-needed skill for all NBA big men. His individual defense is fine, showcased by his ability to frustrate Dwight Howard in limited minutes during Sunday's home-loss.
But unfortunately, Kaman can't do much more than that. Force him outside of the paint and his age, injuries and lack of mobility catch up to him. The Bernard James-Dirk starting lineups aren't fairing much better in terms of net production, but they aren't the NBA-worst type numbers that Dirk and Kaman were putting up together.
Which means that it's best suited for Kaman to come off the bench when he's ready. Even Kaman admitted to reporters this week that he has no clue what his role is going to be. Hopefully Rick Carlisle sees the bench role as the best choice and it makes sense: Kaman coming in with the second unit allows him to be more of a focal point of the offense and defend less-capable bench players on the other end. It might mean that the James experiment is over at center, with Brand becoming the full-time starter. It was nice to see James' enthusiasm, hustle and energy on the floor but he's far out-matched for the time being.
Remember, Kaman's injury wasn't the real reason he was benched. In back to back games, Kaman played just 12 minutes against the Spurs and 11 minutes against the Suns before he suffered his concussion in practice. The coaching staff had already considered limiting Kaman before he was hurt.
Maybe we've seen the last of Kaman in Dallas playing meaningful minutes and Carlisle sticks with the James-Brand combo and only results to Kaman when facing an opponent with size. Let's not also forget that Brandan Wright is still forcing his way into games with productive results as well. With the playoffs becoming more of a distant thought, the Mavericks have some decisions to make when it comes to going all out for that 8-seed or seeing what the younger players can do.