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More small sample size fun: worrying about the Mavericks' defense

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The Mavericks' historically good offense has covered for their atrocious defense so far, but can they win it all with such a major imbalance?

This was an impressive block, but everything else has been pretty bad.
This was an impressive block, but everything else has been pretty bad.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

So many things have gone right over the last few games, but man oh man that defense! It's really bad. And because some of us enjoy a little not-so-fun with small sample sizes, let's talk about that. But first, if you haven't already read Hal Brown's amazing early-season take on the Mavs' Galactus-like offense, do that now. I'll wait.

Now that you're back, take another look at this chart he made that plots the top ten all-time greatest offenses (led by your 2015 Mavs) against their defensive ratings:

Offensive vs  Defensive Ratings

And take a final moment to appreciate how awesome the last few games have been, offensively speaking, because as cool as that is, I'm still pretty worried.

It turns out that the old "defense wins championships" adage applies even to teams with historically great offenses. That circle with the above-average defensive teams includes the only two teams from that list of all-time great offenses that actually managed to win a championship. Only two! Rick Carlisle, take note: NBA history is littered with the bones of teams who thought they could compensate for their sub-par defense with white-hot shooting.

Hal does some wonderful math to show that, although Dallas will almost certainly play tougher defenses and regress to the mean, they just may still be good enough to compensate for their defensive terribleness (they're currently third-worst in the league). He includes some smart quantitative disclaimers about that optimism, but I think there's at least one slightly more qualitative reason to think offense alone won't get Dallas another ring: the playoffs are actually different than the regular season.

Strong offenses often underperform in part because teams can buckle down and focus on make specific defensive adjustments to address their opponents' most potent offensive weapons. Every team that watched Dallas play the Spurs last spring changed the way they defended Tony Parker after Rick Carlisle's adjustments rendered him all but ineffective for most of that series. The Western Conference is packed with talented teams and smart coaches, and there's no reason to think Dallas will be immune to these same tactics come playoff time.

But there is a silver lining, I think, and it's that just as we're all pretty confident Devin Harris will not continue to shoot 70 percent on long twos, I'm almost as certain Dallas will step up their game on defense. Watching some of these games (most notably against the Jazz and Celtics), the lack of defense at times seemed like a strategy Carlisle was employing against teams he felt confident couldn't stop Dallas at the other end.

The Mavericks' defense has actually been at its best against the Spurs, the strongest team they've faced. They may have lost that game, but they allowed a season-low 101 points, which is a good four points fewer than the Spurs scored on average last season (and since they brought back almost the entire roster, that seems like a reasonable baseline to use). The Spurs may have been short-handed during that game, but they're deep enough that I don't think that alone accounts for their slight underperformance on offense. This isn't to say that Dallas' defense was good during that game, especially on the perimeter (50% from three is quite high, even for an excellent three-point shooting team), but it does suggest that they have another level they're capable of playing at when they think it matters.

Still, I think history makes the case that it matters quite a bit, so hopefully the Mavericks will be able to take advantage of offseason acquisitions Tyson Chandler and Al-Farouq Aminu and start taking defense seriously.