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Statsketball: The "Lightning in a Bottle" Champions

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A look at what made the Mavericks Championship team statistically unique

Ronald Martinez

Every single one of us remembers the Mavericks' championship run a little differently. A lot of us remember it as Dirk single-handedly taking on three titans, a lot of us remember them as the "lightning in a bottle" hodgepodge group of previously discounted veterans proving the world wrong, and all of us remember it as great.

Most of us, though, don't think about those Mavericks in statistical terms, in part because the advanced stats revolution was only beginning by the time the Mavericks were hitting their stride.

Championship Week

It's a bit ironic that way, too, since those Mavericks were famous for being the first team to have a statistician on the bench, but analytical thinking just hadn't quite trickled its way down into the public consciousness yet.

Now, retrospectively, it's time to look a bit more analytically at what made the championship Mavericks so damn awesome.

In particular, I'm interested in addressing what it means that those Mavericks are considered the "lightning in a bottle" champions. The champions whose win was incredible, unlikely, and unrepeatable. The 2011 Mavericks might have been a truly unique team: one deserving of the lightning in a bottle term for their rarity, but perhaps not for their unexpectedness, in the end.

Realization: Dallas Won With a Unique and Elite Offense

The Mavericks ferociously blazed their way through the playoffs

The Mavericks scored 110.1 points per 100 possessions during their playoff run, far and away the best of any team in 2011, and 3.2 points per 100 better than the next best team.

The next best teams offensively, the Thunder (106.9) and Lakers (105.3), both got decimated when they ran into the Mavs. Dallas was a gargantuan 6.1 points per 100 better than the Miami Heat team that they beat.

Part of that, it should be noted, is a function of sample size. Those Heat played the likes of the Celtics and the Chicago Bulls -- elite defensive teams -- which hurts their offensive ranking. Meanwhile, the Mavs played the Lakers and Thunder, both of whom were primarily offensive powerhouses.

Still, it's impossible to ignore how freakishly better the Mavericks were offensively than any other team. After all, in just the Finals, against the defensively strong Heat, the Mavericks still put up an elite mark of 107.1 points per 100 possessions while the Heat only put up 103.3 against Dallas.

It's impossible to ignore how freakishly better the Mavericks were offensively than any other team.

What's particularly interesting about that is that the Mavericks put up this crushing, insane offense without dominating the paint. The Mavericks made 63 more 3-pointers than the next best 3-point shooting team (the Heat), and they made about 2.5 times as many threes as the average team during the playoffs.

That said, Dallas only shot roughly 20 fewer shots in the paint than the Heat over the course of the 2011 playoffs, so the idea that Dallas "was dominated in the paint" is overplayed. The Mavericks, though, are the only team who didn't decimate their opponent in the paint through the Finals since the early 00's.

That offensive dominance stretches back to the regular season, too. The Mavericks were the eighth best offense over the course of the regular season, behind the Nuggets, Spurs, Heat, Thunder, Knicks, Rockets, and Lakers, but, relative to the average offense each season, the Mavericks were the best regular season offense of any champion since Dallas lost in 2006.

To demonstrate, I've graphed the percentage by which each champion since 2006 was better offensively than the league average:

Championshipweekweightedo_medium

Dallas' simple combination of Dirk and totally-loaded three point shooting overwhelmed everybody. Of course. Because those Mavericks rocked.

Consider, too, this fun piece of information: of every team since 2006, Dallas also had the biggest increase in point differential (or, the margin by which Dallas won games per 100 possessions) from the regular season to the playoffs other than the 2014 Spurs.

Champweekpercentincrease_medium

It's insane that the Mavericks got that much better from the regular season to the playoffs, considering that the competition gets that much harder in the playoffs. But, instead of winning by a smaller margin against better teams, Dallas got even better when faced with more difficult competition.

For all the talking we do as fans about champions needing to "step up" when the competition gets harder, the Mavericks actually succeeded in doing so, which is part of what makes them special, and it's also a big part of why this Dallas team is often given the "lightning in a bottle" label.

Dallas Was an Elite Defense in 2011, but Mediocre Relative to Past Champions

In 2011, the Mavericks were the seventh best offense in the league, establishing them as an elite defensive team allowing only 102.3 points per 100 possessions. Their core of Jason Kidd, Near Prime Shawn Marion, and Prime Tyson Chandler was smothering, and more than enough to compensate for the deficiencies of Dirk and JET.

That Mavericks team is notoriously remembered as an amazing defensive team -- one of the first NBA teams to figure out how to mix zone and man defense -- and they were.

Still, every championship team is good defensively, and, relative to the league average defenses each season the Mavericks were the worst defensive team among champions since 2006:

Championshipweekd_medium

Mostly, this is just a reminder of how important defense is to winning championships. The Mavericks were an elite defensive team in 2011, and they were still the worst defensive team of any champion in the last 8 years.

What's funny, too, is that when you look at the playoff performances of every champion in the last 8 years plus the '06 Mavericks, you can notice that Dallas in '06 was actually the weakest offensive team in the playoffs of the entire set and the best offensively. Funnily enough, the 2011 Dallas team was the exact opposite, per this graph:

Championship_week_playoffs_medium

Not to get sidetracked, but WOW, the 2014 Spurs put on the best playoff performance in a decade and it's not close! AND last year's Mavs took them to 7! Suck it, everyone else!

Dallas needed an elite defense to win the championship, because everybody does, but the Mavericks really won on the weight of their incredible offense. That's not a knock, either: Dallas' defense was phenomenal, and they won a freaking championship. But all of this just shows how unique and awesome the 2011 Mavericks were.

Final Thoughts

To what degree Dallas was or wasn't a "lightning in the bottle" team is actually difficult to answer from what we know.

Was their win unexpected? Maybe. Their offense and defense were both championship caliber, but they also both stand as outliers now: a historic offense balanced (by championship standards) a mediocre defense, and it's hard to gauge to what extent your average fan should have recognized that balance of outliers as being championship material.

Was their win lucky? Maybe, again. Their increase in point differential from the regular season to playoffs is high, when there usually isn't an increase at all. But how much of that is a function of luck? It's really hard to know. The Mavericks stepped up when it matters, and their bizarre rotation finally figured itself out right when it needed to. That's part of what makes the 2011 Dallas team great.

Here's my two cents, for whatever they're worth: There was nothing unexpected, nothing unprecedented, and nothing "lucky" about Dirk Werner Nowitzki putting up a playoff line of 27.7, 8.1, and 2.5 on 48.5 percent from the floor, 46 percent from 3 on 2.5 attempts per game, and almost 95 percent from the free throw line. There's nothing new to his dominance. Nothing new to JET, or to Peja, Tyson, or Marion. That team was full of parts who did what they were born to do.

(Maybe there was a little bit that was lucky about J.J. Barea, in retrospect, but that's about it).

I do remember the 2011 Mavericks fondly as a "lightning in a bottle" team, but I remember them that way not because they were lucky, or because they did something they weren't supposed to do, but because they were an unprecedented team.

Among championship teams, they were -- and are -- unique.