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The Elephant in the Room: Studying Dallas' Defense

This Mavs' squad is really exciting to watch, but they'll never be title contenders without a better defense. Here's a look at exactly what's wrong.

Tom Pennington

At the moment, this Mavericks squad is several orders of magnitude more entertaining than it was last season, and most of Mavs fandom is content with the team as it stands at the moment -- if they're not also actively optimistic for the future. For me, just having a fun team to watch is wonderful.

There is a problem, though: the present iteration of this team will not ever be able to compete for a title. Ever. No version of a Calderon-Monta-Dirk core -- without an elite rim protector and at least some perimeter defense -- will win a title. Personally, I'm fine with that. After the disaster of the last two seasons, I'm happy with "really, really fun." But I know the organization isn't.

What is it about the Mavs' defense that makes a long term goal of a championship untenable? Why is defense that important if the offense is really really good (and it is really, really good)?

To answer the second question: only two teams to win a title in the last 20 years have been the best offensive team in the league. Every team to win the title in the last 20 years, though, have been in the top 10 in defense, except the 2001 Lakers, and many of those winning teams were also the absolute top in defense (Jordan's Bulls, Ben Wallace Pistons, at least one of the Spurs titles). Defense has historically been far more important to championships than offense.

The Mavs are not a good defensive team. They're not terrible, and they're far better than a lot of us thought they would be. Right now, the Mavs are 18th in defensive efficiency, allowing 103.6 points per 100 possessions. That number is perfectly reasonable for a low-seed playoff team, and far higher than I thought it would be, given the pieces involved, but it's not contender-level.

Really, Calderon, Ellis, and Dirk have all been major defensive liabilities through their careers, some more than others (both Calderon and Ellis have been nothing short of disasters prior to Dallas) and they have no rim protection to speak of. That seemed to, before the season started, equate to a bottom 10 -- if not bottom 5 -- defense, and yet, they're decidedly mediocre this season.

I've been somewhat flummoxed by this team's defense: why is it better than it seemed like it should have been, in what ways is it good, in what ways is it bad, and will it improve?

So, I decided to look into it.

Per Synergy, the Mavs are actually a borderline top 10 defense when it comes to defending almost all major halfcourt sets. The problems are only:

  • Defending the roll man in pick and rolls (a big problem)
  • Defending the ball handler on hand off plays -- plays where the big man hands the ball to a ball handler for a drive or shot.

That said, they also have major problems defending in transition, and they're terrible at stopping second-chances from offensive rebounds.

However, they're actually quite good at defending spot up shooters who are getting open passes, they're decent at defending ball handlers in pick and rolls, and they defend pretty well in isolation and in the post.

The rebounding problem has a pretty obvious cause: the Mavs don't have anyone who can rebound other than Blair, and he can't defend anyone who gets an offensive rebound over him. Instead, the Mavs leak out for transition offense early instead of waiting in the defensive side of the court for the rebound, and so they let offensive rebounds lead to easy points. That's the cost of their rebound-less roster, and it's a cost that Dallas can absorb and accept. They're hoping, I would assume, that their transition offense is so good that it neutralizes the problems on the boards (thus, the leaking out), and, so far, it has been, so long as the rest of the defense can pick it up.

But why are they so bad at defending the roll man in the pick and roll -- where the player who sets the pick for the ball handler proceeds to run to the rim for a pass inside? I looked through a lot of film, and I noticed something really interesting: they actually defend the pick and roll pretty well. However, they're terrible at defending pick and pop plays, where a big man sets a pick but then fades for a jumpshot instead of rolling to the basket.

The thing is, when a big man charges down the middle of the lane at the basket, the Mavs are fairly good at recovering to protect the rim. But when a big man fades to take a jumpshot, he's often wide open. Lets look at these stills of LaMarcus Aldridge from last week's Portland game.



Here's where the problems really begin. Jose Calderon and Shawn Marion go to trap Mo Williams in the pick and roll (and I mislabeled Williams as Damian Lillard in the picture, sorry). There's no good reason for a trap like this, other than Calderon just can't keep up with anyone on the pick and roll. In an attempt to keep Williams from charging down the lane and scrambling the defense, Marion switches, here, and Caldy doesn't get the memo.



Here's another example, and you'll notice that everyone does pretty much the same thing, even though it's Gal Mekel and Dirk Nowitzki setting the trap, not Calderon and Marion:





The fact that both the Calderon-Marion and Mekel-Dirk tandems executed the same trap indicates that there's a system in place, here, that's leading to these traps. Carlisle has taught this team to trap at the top, for some reason. But why? Maybe a look at a more typical pick and roll, without a shooter setting the pick, will lend us some answers.




What's interesting is that the trap gives Bogut what looks like an open path to the rim, and definitely an open midrange shot, if he wanted it, but he's not a shooter. What the Mavs are doing, is that they're trapping, letting the roll man have a path, and then relying on someone to rotate down low to protect the rim. As far as I can tell, Dallas is clearly conceding midrange shots on pick and rolls. For guys like Bogut, it seems to work really well: the floater that Bogut gets, here, is a really low percentage shot. It's quite hard.

And, as a side note, I'd like to point out that Dirk has really good positioning in the above still. He's been rotating quite well in all pick and roll coverage that I can find. Even if he's still not particularly quick and will have difficulty covering more lithe players, he seems to have become far less flat footed with his rotations, which makes a big difference. He's still not a very good defender, but he is making a difference, which is nice to see.

Here's another example:




Here, once again, the Mavs trap Ricky Rubio in the pick and roll and trust that Marion will make the rim-protecting rotation to the basket. They'll concede that midrange, so long as the rim is covered.

Which, also, accounts for why shooters get so open. They're operating in a space that the Mavs are giving to them, so long as they don't head to the rim.

Let's look at another pick and pop to illustrate that point, looking for what we've seen in pick and rolls:




The big, obvious question, though, is "why trap at all?" Why bother to trap at the top when you're going to spend the rest of the play sending guys frantically to open players, and in particular, rotating with guys who are slow on defense and lack a lot of necessary instincts? I mean, hell, Pekovich misses a hard floater in the stills where he rolls to the basket, but Corey Brewer is wide in the corner; that's not ideal. On the Bogut roll, Harrison Barnes is wide on the wing.

In one sense, it's great that Dallas has figured out a way to consistently make rolls to the rim hard on big men, but it's predicated on sending out extra guys to corral ball handlers in a way that's unnecessary, and leaves so much to be desired. Why not just guard the ball handlers one-on-one, have the big man drop back a little bit, or go under on the ball handler when the big man is a shooter? Why not use a typical scheme?

The thing is, Carlisle is having to maximize what he gets with what he has, which isn't much. To reiterate: this squad is actually great at defending ball handlers in pick and rolls and spot up shooters. Despite the massive deficiencies between Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon in regards to their ability to just stay in front of players, having the team trap ball handlers before the play really starts has gone a long way towards stopping those ball handlers from abusing either Mavs guard. Similarly, the Mavs are actually doing a great job of rotating correctly to the open spot-up guys that we're seeing pop up in these pick and roll defenses.

And that makes sense, too. When the Mavs rotate so late to a big man rolling to the rim, who only one second earlier had a ton of space, that player is going to be disoriented. They were going for a shot through the open paint, they're primed to shoot, and having a guy in front of them throws them off, but not quite enough to get their brain out of "shoot" mode. It doesn't work all the time, but so far, it's been a manageable game plan.

Not to mention, the Mavs are actually, statistically, doing a great job of stopping shots right at the rim. Dallas is in the bottom 3 in shots allowed from between 5-9 feet (so they give up lots of those awkward dead zone floaters); but they're actually in the top 15 in field goals allowed inside of 5 feet, and their "above-averageness" defending inside improves to "downright solid" when you take away offensive rebounding second chances from that total. Dallas can't rebound for anything, but they do a good job of stopping people gunning inside.

This is all tempered, of course, by an understanding that they do a good job of putting a body in front of people really well, but the Mavs don't have the personnel to honestly stop a big-man force inside. Dirk is tall, but slow in one-on-one. Blair is tiny. Marion is great against anyone 6' 10'' or shorter, but anyone else can go over him, and Shawn can't guard everyone. Even if they're good at putting bodies in the right places, they'll still have massive problems with the DeMarcus Cousins and Dwight Howards of the world.

The Mavs will take that, though, as long as they can keep causing problems at the rim for your run-of-the-mill big man.

The problem is, the Mavs wouldn't be able to stop rolling big men, driving ball handlers, or shooters if they didn't have a rigorous system that stopped ball handlers from driving in and collapsing the defense. Jose and Monta can't stop anybody on their own. We've seen that in previous seasons and from time to time this year. Trusting them to go under a pick and subsequently recover to their man is always a bad idea. So, instead, Carlisle has the big men help to trap the ball handler, and he uses his more defensively savvy big men and wings to cover the damage elsewhere.

Unfortunately, whenever you have weak pieces that have to get covered up for, there are holes, and shooting big men getting open on a pick-and-pop is one really massive such hole. At its core, too, is the defensive troubles with Jose and Monta.

Fundamentally, this is the problem leading to the defensive inefficiency in hand off and transition plays, too. Hand offs, in a sense, create pick plays where big man defenders have to drop back to defend, or the opposing Center suddenly becomes a ball handler with a very clear path to the rim. When opposing teams run hand off plays for ball handlers, Jose or Monta has to contain their man by themselves, and it's not pretty:



Losing the ball handler in the pick and roll scrambles your defense and is as close to a death sentence as there is. If Calderon is defending a guy straight-up. That happens a lot. Same with Monta. Watch this transition "defense:"



The thing is: Carlisle should get a lot of credit for building a functional defense with this squad. They shouldn't be even decent with a backcourt like that and no rim protector, but they manage, somehow. Carlisle was crafty, and he recognized his weaknesses, and he figured out how to mitigate those as much as possible.

Problem containing ball handlers: fixed. Problem protecting the rim: managed. If the Mavs are gonna have some issues with shooting big men as the result of the scheme that fixes those things, then so be it, I guess. It's the price of mitigating what could be a disaster.

The only real concern is: this is probably about as good as the defense is likely to get. There are some ways that the Mavs can buckle down a little more: if a wing sitting inside (like Vince, in those LaMarcus Aldridge stills) were to rotate to defend pick-and-pop shooters quickly, and everyone else were to rotate in kind, they could cut down on some of those shots. As well, the Mavs can try sending defenders full-court from time to time to try and slow transition chances.

Unfortunately, a high-rotation system would rely on Jose or Monta eventually making a very quick switch to a dangerous jump shooter somewhere along the line, which is potentially far more disastrous than allowing an open big man to shoot a two-point jump shot. Similarly, sending Jose or Monta to full-court-press risks having Jose or Monta getting burned before the play even starts.

Carlisle has proven before that he can get this team to do the unexpected, but even if they can pull off those adjustments, this is probably a 12 ranked defense at absolute best. Not terrible, and quietly very interesting, but also not game changing.

Weirdly, that's also the slogan of the 2013-2014 Mavs: not terrible, and quietly very interesting, but also not game changing.