Christmas Day is traditionally one of the turning points in the NBA season. After two months, teams are settling into their identity. It's long enough to where variations in the schedule begin to even out and the wheat starts to separate from the chaff. Scouting reports are pretty full. Coaches and video guys have broken down enough film to know tendencies, rotations and weaknesses. The book is out for every team in the NBA.
To me, that is the most concerning part about the Mavs recent struggles. They lost to a Clippers team without Chris Paul in a game in the 110s and they lost to a Knicks team without Tyson Chandler in a game in the 80s. Even the vibe at Rick Carlisle's post-game press conferences has been off lately. We in the media are running out of questions to ask and he seems to be running out of answers.
Here's something from after the loss to the Spurs, in reference to a question a problem with the Mavs defense:
It's easy to look at our roster and nitpick the challenges. We've got age, we've got some size issues, we've got this that and the other. If you want to make a laundry list, it's not hard to make a list. But my job is to be a problem solver, not a problem identifier; your guys' job is to identify the problems; and that's one reason this job pays a lot more than your guys' job does.
This is Carlisle last night, in reference to how much this team misses Sam Dalembert, who struggles with the same tardiness issues that plagued my high school and college careers:
But we need everyone to be all in. Our margins are obviously thin. We are not going to reinforce behavior that is unacceptable and that is just the way we are going to do business with him. We need [Dalembert] and I like him, and I think we can correct this, and I believe that we will.
Here is a fun note Mark Followill dropped in the post-game radio show. He said he has been in the league a long time and he has seen plenty of guys miss a shoot-around or be late to a practice. Never twice in the same season, though.
Dirk got into the fun after the loss the Clippers, in reference to the Mavs inability to hold leads:
The way we let these games slip away, I don't think we're a playoff team. We've gotta win those games, we should be able to find a way to get some stops and protect the home court...this is another one we've got to have; we can't afford to give games away.
I was talking to some media folks who were wondering what kind of message Dirk and Carlisle were sending to the team. If I had to guess, I don't think they are sending one. When you reach a certain age and you have accomplished enough in your career, you stop caring about the media chatter. Dirk and Carlisle aren't trying to prove anything to anyone; they are just answering questions as honestly as they can. It's part of the job.
To put it another way, the number of fucks being given at your average Rick Carlisle press conference is dropping by the day. There are only so many bullets a coach can take for his GM. It's kind of like this story from The Wire about being the Mayor of Detroit:
If that isn't the speech Carlisle should have given to Jason Kidd, than I will eat my hat.
When healthy, the Knicks aren't even that terrible. Nevertheless, they did everything in their power to give the game away in the second half; it's just that the Mavs were in no position to take it. It was a pretty miserable 92-80 loss that showcased basically every flaw this team has. It was a worst-case scenario for how an NBA team can exploit the various weak points on the Dallas roster. You can rest assured that other teams are taking notes.
Presented in no particular order:
1) No reliable perimeter shot creator outside of Monta Ellis
Iman Shumpert is a tough match-up for Monta. At 6'6 220 with a 6'9 wingspan, he is one of the biggest and most athletic guards in the NBA. He also takes a lot of pride in his defense; I'm sure partly because he knows he won't get many shots in the Knicks offense. He locked up Monta and hounded him all over the floor. Shump could play a step off and still contest his jumper. The result: 13 points on 6-13 shooting, 3 assists on 3 turnovers.
With Monta unable to get going, the Dallas offense was really stagnant. No one was getting into the lane and creating easy shots for anyone else. In theory, Jose Calderon should have stepped up, especially with Beno Udrih on him. However, he no longer has the quickness to generate much 1-on-1 offense; he needs to be in the two-man game to create a passing angle. The problem is that Knicks forced a TO by trapping him with Beno and Amare. Think about that.
2) No two-way play at the center position
At first, I was going to say lack of rim protection, but really it's a symptom of an even greater problem. The Mavs don't have a center who can score and defend, which is the only way to plug a roster with this many holes. It's either Dejuan Blair and Brandan Wright giving up size and strength or Sam Dalembert and Sarge James not being guarded on offense. Depending on Carlisle's subs, a good team can either attack the rim or make the Mavs play 4-on-5.
The Knicks grabbed 47 rebounds and shot 48% from the field. This is a team full of jump-shooters who don't like to mix it up in the paint and don't make good decisions with the ball. They shouldn't be dominating you at the rim like the Heat or the Pacers. They rolled Kenyon Martin off the disabled list and he had 14 points and 6 bounds. Amare had 11 points and 7 bounds. No offense to those two, but that can't happen in 2014.
3) No second perimeter stopper besides Shawn Marion
It's a good thing that the Matrix is an ageless wonder, because the Mavs sure do ask a lot of him. He is a 35-year old in his 15th season in the NBA. If you ask him to carry a huge load on both sides of the ball on a nightly basis, you are going to get fumes eventually. The problem is Carlisle doesn't really have a choice; he has to put Marion on the best 3's, 2's and 1's. And while Marion used to be a great small-ball 4, those line-ups haven't been effective all season.
Against the Knicks, when Marion came out after 8 minutes, Jae "The Beast" Crowder came in. He's a smart player and a decent athlete, but he has no chance of matching-up with Carmelo Anthony. The Mavs were -7 in the last 3 minutes of the 1Q. Here were the Knicks baskets in that span: Melo 2, Melo FT's, Melo 3, Melo FT's. One way to slow down a scorer is to attack him on defense. Crowder's line last night: 12 minutes, 2 rebounds and 2 personal fouls.
4) No contributions from the end of the bench
That near 13 trillion Crowder put up is nothing new for The Beast. I am well aware that the traditional box score is not the end-all be-all marker of a player's value on the floor. Nevertheless, in the course of helping your team win, you should manage to find some way to stumble into traditional statistics. There's a lot of games where Crowder is a ghost in the box score -- treading so lightly that he makes no impact on any statistic but minutes played.
It's not like Carlisle has many other options. Gal Mekel is a 25-year old defensive liability with a 5.6 PER. Watching him try to ball-hawk Toure Murry was just a waste of everyone's time. If anyone thinks Gal is a better PG than Kendall Marshall, speak now and reveal yourself to be Donnie Nelson. I like Suga Shane Larkin, but at this point, he's a 5'11 rookie trying to figure out the NBA game. He has a 6.7 PER; time in the D-League wouldn't kill him.
5) The over-reliance on Dirk
Carlisle has been using Dirk to carry line-ups with those three players, which is almost a sadistic way to treat a 35-year old All-Star. Maybe we don't need to conduct science experiments in terms of how many offensive liabilities a 7'0 shooter and passer can carry at any one time? I can already feel the drumbeats coming -- play Dirk more, Dirk needs more shots, run more offense through Dirk. And while that might work in the short-term, you are playing with some very dangerous fire.
After the scare with the knee injury last season, Dirk has gotten back into a groove, in terms of managing his body and staying consistent on a nightly basis. He is about one of the only things this franchise has going for it and he is one the great wonders of the basketball world. Do not run him into the ground trying to max out a 45-win season. Example: Kobe Bryant in 2013. Dirk can ride this out awhile longer -- think medium-term. Monta is a piece, so the season won't be a complete waste.
When teams start losing games, especially to opponents previously considered below their station, the easy thing to do is blame effort. To be sure, that was not great effort against the Knicks. You can knock Dalembert for showing up late to practice, but the real problem is that you are depending that heavily on him in the first place. He is a 32-year old on his fourth team in four seasons. If you thought he would be anything than what he is, that is your fault.
This team is maxed out. Devin Harris should help, if he ever gets back on the floor. He would give the Mavs another ball-handler and another perimeter defender, even though he would replicate a lot of what Monta does. The problem with Monta-Calderon is that you can't afford to have leaky perimeter D when you don't have any rim protection. Devin-Monta could salvage a playoff berth, but the lack of depth at the 3-4-5 positions will be hard to overcome.
Carlisle and the players on this team are pros. For the most part, they are going to put in a solid effort and they are going to do everything in their power to win ballgames. The reality is that there are only so many answers on hand. Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban are the ones who have to fix this team. The Mavs don't have many trade assets, but that's not the only way to upgrade your roster. NBA teams that work the waiver wire correctly can always find more talent.
Look at Kendall Marshall with the Lakers. James Johnson with the Grizzlies. Alexis Ajinca with the Pellies. In the last few years, Patrick Beverley with the Rockets. Jeremy Lin with the Knicks. Alan Anderson with the Raptors. There are plenty of good basketball players not in the NBA. It wouldn't take much for one of them to be an upgrade here. You know who was supposed to be good at that stuff? Gersson Rosas. I'm sure it was his fault things didn't work out here.
For now, let's just hope none of the older guys gets hurt. Than the losses could start piling up pretty fast.