The Mavs started off the 2014-2015 NBA season blazing hot, leading to a ton of attention on Dallas' ferocious offense, and for good reason. For all that discussion, there was far less concern over the evidence that Dallas' defense was atrocious (though, Kate Crawford seems prophetic, now).
Dallas put up a stinker of a game against Portland last night, particularly starting in the third quarter. The whole game might have seemed anomalous, but really: the offense was due for a bit of a regression, and it turns out, when Dallas isn't actively scoring like no other team has ever scored before, allowing 109 points per 100 possessions is a pretty huge problem.
So where does this problem originate? The problem lies with the guards...and Chandler Parsons.
I spent the entirety of last night's game screaming "DEVIN, WHY AREN'T YOU ROTATING?" "JJ, THAT'S YOUR FREAKING MAN!" "MONTA....WHAT EVEN?" "PARSONS, PLEASE JUST STAY ON YOUR GUY."
The problem, fundamentally, seems to be about effort and awareness, which has its benefits and drawbacks. On the bright side, it means that all Dallas has to do to take a step forward is to make the guards pay more attention. In some cases that's easier said than done (Monta has never had a history of being an aware defender ever, but both Devin and Barea have had histories of being engaged defensively) but it's easier than teaching defense from scratch. Plus, how much better could the defense be if the team just tries?
On the other hand, it's worrisome, because if the guards already aren't paying any attention now, what happens later?
Well, let's try and break the defense down a bit further to drive the point home.
From a moment against the Celtics, you can see how many of the players get caught ball-watching on this Jared Sullinger shot at the rim. All the Mavericks were still this out of place before the shot, though, and would have been totally helpless had Sullinger passed out:
In fairness, this is one of those plays that's pretty irreparably broken. But, either: Wright should have stayed on Turner or Devin should have rotated and everyone else should have followed. Since Wright moved, the rest of the team needed to do the same.
Instead of finding the right man, though, every player that's not Dirk or Wright just stands and watches Sullinger shoot. They don't rotate OR find the man they originally had to be guarding. They don't do anything at all.
The whole, "lets just stand around and let the bigs take care of it" mentality is a huge problem. Look at this shot from last night against Portland:
Tyson had to go cover Wesley Matthews in this play because he'd beaten Devin floating down to the wing (because Devin wasn't watching him), Richard Jefferson goes down to cover Robin Lopez, and Chandler Parsons doesn't even consider rotating to Nic Batum, the same way that Monta probably wouldn't have considered rotating to LaMarcus Aldridge in kind.
The result is Tyson and Jefferson running back and forth across the width of the court twice, and Jefferson getting smoked by Batum.
Like consider Devin's total lack of mindfulness on this play, that occurs in transition. It starts off as a team-wide problem, but ends with a wide-open shot because Devin never stuck to his man:
Batum ends up faking and driving here, which should buy Devin time to stick closer to the 40% 3-point shooter he's guarding (both Parsons and Tyson collapse to the lane before Devin):
"Well, Hal, it can't really be this bad, can it? It can't really be just laziness, can it?"
Yes. Yes it can.
When Devin, Parsons, Jameer, and Barea are paying attention, they're pretty good defenders. Barea and Nelson are just small, but the others can legitimately defend. There's evidence of that. So there's room for optimism in the sense that all the Mavs seem to need is an attitude adjustment.
On the other hand, this is badddd. This is not the kind of attitude adjustment that happens the night before a big game. These guards are barely paying any kind of attention, and they're getting killed everywhere. But it's not a function of mis-hedging on screens or misreading the play, it's a matter of just standing in one place or not paying attention to the movement of the players.
That's not to say that there hasn't been misreading of plays and bad management of screens. Dirk, in particular, has been dropping back really far on screens, often forcing a third defender to help on the play, and the team has just been slow to rotate, reticent to rotate at all, or they just don't know that rotation is required.
But the problem that's so infuriating is the thing that seems most easily fixable, and that's the issue of the guards not paying attention. The rest -- the difficulty with corralling players, mitigating the damage of a pick and roll with small and slow players, etc -- will take time.
But Dallas shouldn't be borderline the worst defense in the league right now, and they wouldn't be if a large chunk of the team would just pay more attention.
Hopefully, this is just a passing phase.