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An Unsolvable Problem?

In the last week of the season, including the home finale against New Orleans, one of the real nagging concerns I had was with Dirk's ankle. Dirk showed that he can still get it done on the offensive end, but I saw some disturbingly bad defense from Dirk, even in our good games. My fear was that Dirk's ankle would turn him into a severe defensive liability. In fact, I mentioned this in my short Q&A with At The Hive before the series started.

Of course, the Mavs have also played some solid defense with Dirk on the floor during that time, so the question I posed myself was this: Were these moments where the opposing team simply didn't take advantage of Dirk's ankle or were the Mavs really stepping up as a team and working around Dirk's lack of defensive mobility?

Before I answer that question, we should look at Dirk's defense while he's healthy. Dirk isn't nearly as bad on defense as he his reputation makes him out to be, but he's not great either. He doesn't have the athleticism to truly effectively guard other power forwards in straight man-to-man defense or to explosively snuff a drive as a help side defender, although his positioning has improved, and he makes much more of an effort than he did earlier in his career. Another important thing to note about Dirk is his defensive rebounding, where he is one of the best of the league. Defensive rebounds stop possessions, and that's the goal of any defensive effort.

With this in mind, there are two things that stand out: The first is that Dirk can't really afford to lose mobility. He'll simply get abused in man-to-man defense by talented opposing forwards. The second is that where he shines on defense is his rebounding, and if that takes a hit, his effectiveness on defense plummets. The scary thing is that both of these are now in effect with Dirk's ankle injured. As Dirk said after the New Orleans season-ender, he isn't getting much lift on his ankle, and it's hurting his rebounding. And, more ominously, he doesn't see it getting better any time soon.

Back to New Orleans and my initial question: Is New Orleans abusing Dirk's bum ankle and focusing their strategy around this chink in the Mav's defensive armour? Well, it sure looks that way.

Two things make this clear: One is that Dirk Nowitzki has a spectacularly bad plus/minus of -34 in the first two games of the series, by far the worst on the team. The other is that the opposing forwards on the Hornets are the top two in terms of plus/minus for the series, with a Peja Stojakovic at +42 and David West at +41. Don't get me wrong, Chris Paul has been spectacular, but the real key to this series has been that the Hornets forwards have just dominated the Mavs forwards, especially Nowitzki.

Plus/minus is a stat I rarely use because it has serious shortcomings due to different situations (e.g. a good bench player can have a better plus/minus than a star since he's playing against the opposition's second team). However, a lot of those issues are removed when you are playing one team in a playoff series. Benches are shortened, and the quality of the opposition is consistent. In playoff circumstances, plus/minus can tell you a lot.

And Dirk's plus/minus indicates that his defense is hurting the team far worse than his offense is helping.

I'm not sure this is a solveable problem. Team defense can only go so far, and if Dampier has Dirk's back, then Tyson Chandler is left to abuse the paint. If Josh cheats over to help Dirk, then Stojakovic will just nail mid-range jumper after mid-range jumper. The Mavs could conceivably play a lot more zone defense and hope the Hornets shooters go cold. Another alternative is to sit Dirk, but let's be honest--that's just not realistic.

If the team defense can't effectively help Dirk, there may only be one way to address this problem: Employ a large number of different defenses, which individually may have weaknesses, but the weakness would change with each possession. Trap Chris Paul one possession, go matchup zone the next, go straight man the next, constantly switch man coverage at the forward spots--in short, mix up the defenses so completely that each possession provides a new challenge for how to take advantage of the Mavs defense.

The danger in this strategy is that NBA teams generally play a specific defensive scheme for a reason--they are good at it, and it works. Tossing ten schemes at New Orleans means that maybe seven of them aren't that good and have weaknesses. Desperate? Yes, but adding a touch of confusion to the mix and moving the weaknesses around the floor may be better than the alternative: Leaving Dirk alone to get abused by David West and Peja Stojakovic.