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Al-Farouq Aminu's defense essential for offensive-minded Mavericks

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The long-armed swing man is the X factor for the Mavs this season.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since they re-acquired Tyson Chandler over the summer, the expectations surrounding the Dallas Mavericks have been raised. In 2011, Chandler was the final piece of a championship team, the defensive-minded center the Mavs had been trying to put around Dirk Nowitzki for his entire career. Dirk was the captain of the offense and Chandler was the captain of the defense and the two of them were more dangerous in tandem than they ever were apart. So far, at least, the move has worked out swimmingly for Dallas.

The Mavs still win games with their No. 1 rated offense, but they are much improved on defense, going from 22nd in the league last season to 15th through the first month of this season. However, they are still a long way from where they were in 2011, when they were one of the most balanced teams in the league - 8th in offense and 8th in defense. For all the hype surrounding Chandler's return, he is still only one man and four years older than he was in 2011, when he was 28 and in the prime of his career.

As you would expect from the numbers, the Dallas starting line-up this season doesn't have nearly the defensive chops as the one that won the title. Until the insertion of JJ Barea into the starting line-up in the NBA Finals, that team started three defensive-minded guys on the perimeter for most of the playoffs -- Jason Kidd, DeShawn Stevenson and Shawn Marion. They struggled with the speed of smaller guards, but they went 6'4 205, 6'5 220 and 6'7 230 and all had the size to match up with the biggest wing players in the league.

This year's perimeter starters, in contrast, are some of the smallest guards in the league. The Mavs are starting 6'0 190 (Jameer Nelson) and 6'3 185 (Monta Ellis) in the backcourt, both of whom have been in the NBA for over a decade without ever being considered much of a defensive player. There are a lot more messes for Chandler to clean up on defense and that's without the help of a guy like Marion, who could match up with a top scorer at any one of four positions, giving everyone else a break.

With Nelson, Ellis, Parsons and Dirk starting in front of him, there's only so much Chandler can do to carry the team on defense. The Mavs have been scoring so many points that it hasn't really mattered, but that's only going to go so far in the playoffs, when they will be facing the best of the best. If you look at the Western Conference standings, there's a 6'5+ wing player who scares you on almost any of the Mavs possible first-round opponents - Klay Thompson, James Harden, Wesley Matthews, Kawhi Leonard.

That point was brought home two weeks ago, when Dallas lost a 95-92 game in Houston to a Rockets team that was without Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones. It was the second night of a back-to-back, so you don't want to take too much away from it, but James Harden's stat-line from that game certainly stood out - 32 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists on 18 shots, including 13 trips to the foul line. When he's going up against the comedy trio of Nelson, Ellis and Parsons on defense, that's about what you would expect.

The bright side from that performance came off the bench, where Al-Farouq Aminu did a credible job of staying in front of Harden. On the defensive side of the ball, he is everything the guys in front of him are not - at 6'9 215 with a 7'3 wingspan, he is a long and athletic wing player capable of moving his feet side to side, holding his own in the post and defending shots way above the rim. You can see his athleticism in his per-36 minute stats, where he averages 8.4 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.5 blocks a game, absurd numbers for a SF.

Here are two sequences from the Rockets game where you really see Aminu's defensive impact:

Rather than trying to get around Aminu and get to the rim, where he is most dangerous, Harden settles for a contested pull-up 3.


If you remember, the deciding play of the game came when Harden drew an defensive foul on Chandler Parsons in the waning seconds on a drive to the rim. It looks a lot different when Aminu is the one in front of him.


Playing good individual defense starts with being longer and faster than the guy you are guarding and Aminu is longer and faster than almost every other player in the league. Before the season began, Chandler compared him to Scottie Pippen, in terms of the type of impact he can have on defense. There's a reason this guy was drafted at No. 8 overall despite not being able to hit the broad-side of the barn with his jumper coming out of college. Aminu has all the physical tools to be the next Shawn Marion, at least on defense.

Throughout his career, the difficulty has come on the other end of the floor, where his inability to space the floor or take care of the ball has made him a liability. Aminu's jumper is still a work in progress, as he is shooting 28 percent from 3 this season, but his ability to crash the glass, cut to the basket and run the floor has allowed him to contribute on offense. At the very least, given the Mavs overall offensive numbers, they can afford to sacrifice a little on that end of the floor to get their best perimeter defender in the game.

The numbers bear it out, at least so far, as the Mavs are -2.2 points on offense and +4.7 points on defense per 100 possessions with Aminu on the floor. Two of their top three most effective line-ups feature Aminu - the murderer's row second unit of Devin Harris, J.J. Barea, Aminu, Dirk and Brandan Wright and the all-length unit of Harris, Monta, Aminu, Parsons and Chandler. When Aminu is on the floor, he makes every line-up he is longer and more athletic, which is helpful given the personnel around him.

He is currently averaging 17 minutes a game, a number which will have to go up as the season goes on and the Mavs begin getting themselves ready for the Western Conference playoff gauntlet. Harris is the only other perimeter player I really trust on defense, at and only 6'3 190, he doesn't have the size to match up with bigger wings. When you put the two of them on the floor at the same time, Dallas is an eye-popping +18 points per 100 possessions - for Rick Carlisle, it's all about finding a balance between offense and defense.

The worry is that because neither guy is a consistent three-point shooter, other teams will start to shrink the floor when they are in together and a lack of spacing in the half-court could eventually suffocate the Mavs. That's why I think Dallas is still one piece away from making a legitimate run at an NBA title - a 6'5+ 3-and-D perimeter player who can improve the team on both sides of the ball when he is in the game. Think a guy like Jimmy Butler on the high end and one like Iman Shumpert on the low end.

However, for the time being, those guys aren't walking through that door. Al-Farouq Aminu is the only guy on the roster with a prayer of staying in front of Harden or Klay Thompson in a seven-game series and this version of the Mavs is only going to go as far as his defense can take them. He's probably not going to be able to shut down any of those guys, but he is super fast and super long and he could make their lives very difficult in an extended 1-on-1 match-up. Not bad for a guy on a minimum salary.