By coming back to beat the Trail Blazers despite trailing by seven with 1:20 left to play, the Mavericks prepare for Friday's game against the Rockets on less of a sour note than we anticipated. A comeback like that is rare -- Dallas hadn't pulled it off in that little time since 2001 -- but this team should and will take wins wherever they come from without complaining.
But the win shouldn't undersell what's becoming a bigger problem for the Mavericks' offense in recent weeks: they aren't hitting open shots. And maybe hitting open shots isn't actually the "easiest" thing in basketball, but it's got to be close. It's what players spend more time on than any other skill. It's what kids practice before they even understand the difference between man and zone defense. Teams spend hours and hours scheming plays and watching film so they can create them during a game.
The struggle with open looks
Two weeks ago, I pointed out Dallas' struggles with open looks, as defined by SportsVU data. At the time, though, the Mavericks had won five straight and it was a side note. Now, after dropping four of their last six, this problem is growing more worrisome. In their back-to-back outings against Sacramento and Portland, Dallas shot just 34 percent on uncontested looks -- no defender within 3.5 feet -- even as they generated 96 such attempts.
Numbers tell one story, but pictures are sometimes more damning. These are all shots Dallas missed against Sacramento. A look through the field goal attempts through Portland would tell a similar story.
Deron Williams is actually shooting over 37 percent from behind the arc now. That might be all the Mavericks can ask of him. Wesley Matthews, coming off an Achilles injury, still may need months before he truly feels right. His 35 percent shooting and 32 percent shooting from behind the line make sense. Raymond Felton has, in most respects, been a revelation for Dallas. Can you ask him to improve on his 39 percent and 29.5 percent shooting, respectively? I'm not sure that's a reasonable expectation.
Now, J.J. Barea ought to improve a little bit, since his 3-point shot is down around 25 percent. You'd hope Devin Harris isn't going to finish the season as a sub-20 percent shooter from deep, or that Charlie Villanueva would finish lower than 27 percent on triples. Chandler Parsons is the biggest variable -- as his minutes continually creep upwards, his 3-point shooting (currently 31 percent) should right itself, not to mention he should bring an overall scoring boost.
So yes, while perhaps it won't be as dramatically as expected, Dallas' offense is really only a few more made shots away from improving substantially. The Mavericks are generating the fourth most "wide open" shots (18.5 attempts), meaning there's no defender within six feet per SportsVU data, while they still rank worst at actually making them. Seriously, consider this: Dallas makes 36.8 percent of their "wide open" looks while the Philadelphia 76ers, who won their first game this week, make 37 percent.
The median average in the league hovers around 42 or 43 percent. If they reach that mark, Dallas could be averaging about two points more per game, which is a substantial number over the entirety of a season. It'll take improved shot making and perhaps different players (I'm mainly thinking of a 35-minutes-per-game Parsons limiting Felton to a smaller role) taking these open shots that are being generated, but it could happen.
Should the Mavs be looking for tighter shots?
On another note, Dallas might actually be better off taking fewer "wide open" looks. It sounds counter-intuitive at first. But the Mavericks rank right in the middle on "open" looks, meaning there's a defender within four to six feet when the shot goes up, and they rank No. 4 on "tight" shots, indicating a defender within two to four feet. In fact, their shooting percentages on those are actually much higher than "wide open" shot percentage in both instances.
Why does this make sense? Most "wide open" shots are three-pointers and many "tight" looks are layups or shots closer to the basket. Raymond Felton attempting a layup or floater with a defender only two to four feet away from him might actually be a better look, percentage wise, than Felton attempting a "wide open" triple from above the break. And in the Kings game, I actually noticed instances where the Mavericks were passing up contested but good shots while hunting for wide open looks. That's not always a good thing.
Plays like this are good fun and stand out as "great basketball."
But there's been a few instances of the Mavericks "hunting" for possessions like this -- or, at least, passing up viable looks on possessions that ended in worse shots. Here are a few shots the Mavericks didn't take playing Sacramento:
Dirk passes out of this clearly advantageous post-up with Rondo guarding him. (Deron has to clear out quicker and run to the opposite corner to give Dirk that needed space.)
The Dallas offense is just slightly better than league average right now, but it clearly has top-10 potential if Dirk continues his lights out shooting all season. Whether regression to the mean is in order, whether players just need to take shots they can make instead of hunting for the perfect pass, I don't know for sure. But whatever the solution, for Dirk's sake, it just can't be him alone.