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How the Mavericks have the best offense without an elite 3-point shooter

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Charlie Villanueva and Richard Jefferson are the two best shooters on the league's no. 1 offense. Here's how that's possible.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the most absurd thing about the Mavericks no. 1 offense this season is that they've done it without an elite 3-point shooter.

That's an odd thing to say about Dallas. The Mavericks were one of the earliest teams to realize how valuable getting an extra point for a made shot was -- from Feb. 27, 1999 to Dec. 14, 2012, they nailed at least one 3-pointer every single game (a streak famously continued by DeSagana Diop in 2006). Jason Terry and Jason Kidd, both known best for their time in Dallas, are the no. 3 and no. 4 all-time NBA leaders in 3-pointers made; no. 6 Vince Carter had a recent stint here. Now the team's in the midst of a new streak of making a 3-pointer in 180 straight games.

The definition being used for 'elite shooter' is just a rotation player who can take volume shots from distance and make them at a rate near 40 percent. Jose Calderon, Vince Carter and even O.J. Mayo all fit that category recently.

But this year, the Mavericks have, in a way, replaced quality with quantity. Charlie Villanueva shoots 13 3-pointers per 36 minutes and makes them at a 40 percent clip, although he's only played meaningful minutes in about half the team's games. Richard Jefferson is actually the percentage leader (43 percent) on the team, but he's meticulous about his attempts and mostly limits them to 'open' or 'wide open' opportunities1, per NBA.com's player tracking.

Chandler Parsons has attempted the most 3-pointers and is knocking down 36.5 percent. He's incredibly streaky, however -- he shot 32.7 percent in November, 44.5 percent in December and is under 30 percent this month.

Yet even without a Peja or Calderon, and even with Dirk Nowitzki's concerning slump over the past six weeks that has him making only 34.1 percent of his shoots from deep this year, the Mavericks are no. 6 in 3-pointers made per game and no. 8 in 3-point percentage (in a pack of four teams shooting 36.1 percent). They are the best offense in the NBA and have been nearly the entire year, with a couple brief hiccups. Clearly, it's working.

The concern with this strategy is consistency. Watching the Mavericks stumble and bumble to a victory on Monday against the Kings displayed it perfectly -- the team shot 6-of-24 from deep in the 108-104 overtime win. Sacramento matched that with 1-of-18 3-point shooting and you got the feeling whichever team finally broke through and made a few from behind the line would win, yet neither team did -- Dallas ended up just outlasting the Kings in a game of attrition.

Another prime example was the loss last Wednesday to the Pistons at home. Here are some of the shots they missed.

misses
misses

misses

Dirk from the top, Devin Harris from the wing, Monta Ellis from the corner. All wide open, all misses.

The Mavericks ended up shooting 6-of-22 from deep, including a combined 0-of-11 night from Dirk, Monta Ellis and Charlie Villanueva, in the 108-95 home loss. And this isn't the first time the Mavericks have lost games because their 3-point shooting turned into a centralized Ice Age. November 22's game against the Rockets stands out -- 6-of-35 3-point shooting as a team in a game that was lost by three points -- and how about the overtime win against the Knicks two days later? Dallas really, really should have lost that game with their 4-of-31 3-point shooting.

Is it because the team doesn't have a reliable 3-point ace? Well, no. 3-point shooter by committee can work if you don't have any bad shooters -- the only player shooting under 32 percent, Al-Farouq Aminu and his leprous 26 percent 3-point shooting has confined him to the bench.

Dallas has bad games, of course -- 10 times this season have they shot worse than 30 percent as a team. To summarize the chart below, it's big losses to good teams and unnecessarily close to bad ones.

Pelicans +5
Trail Blazers -21
Rockets -3
Knicks +7
Sixers +7
Bucks +2
Suns -12
Warriors -7
Lakers +4
Pistons -13
Kings +4

But it's not just the Mavericks. The Warriors have eight games where they shot 30 percent or worse. The Raptors have nine. The Clippers have 10. The Suns have 11. The Hawks have seven.

All those teams are in the top 10 of 3-point percentage and 3-point attempts. Bad shooting games happen to every team, even one starting Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. It's frustrating to see the team lose a game because they miss shot after makeable shot, but that's just part of an offense that heavily involves the 3-point shot.

It's worth looking at the pre- and post-Rajon Rondo trade numbers, too, though. Jameer Nelson and Jae Crowder, two outgoing pieces in that trade, were important cogs in the 3-point shooting Mavericks militia hitting 37 and 34 percent respectively.

Pre-Rondo trade Post-Rondo trade
3PT% 35.3 37.1
3PA 27.3 24.9
Pace 96 99

Even with a faster tempo, the Mavericks have backed off their 3-point shooting a touch and it has resulted in more shots going in. The 37.1 percent 3-point shooting is no. 7 in the league during that time frame and is the reason Dallas has jumped into the top 10 overall (their 35.3 percent was middle of the pack).

It's frustrating to watch a team shoot a lower percentage on uncontested shots than contested ones, like the Mavericks did Tuesday against Sacramento. It's upsetting to realize Dirk's only shooting 35 percent on 'wide open' 3-pointers even though he's getting 1.5 a game, per player tracking data. But every team that relies on the 3-pointer will in turn struggle with it; the Mavericks aren't alone. That's just the nature of how this sport works.

(author's note: Some stats may be slightly off since they were pulled Monday afternoon. All stats are courtesy of NBA.com and basketball-reference.com.)


  1. RJ has only attempted one 3-pointer all season with a defender 'very tight', or within 0-2 feet of him when he shot -- he missed it. For some reason, he's actually 6-9 on 'tight' 3-point attempts, with a defender with 2-4 feet.