The reasons for Chandler Parsons' summer recruitment campaign of DeAndre Jordan went beyond friendship or accessibility. He was an unrestricted free agent Dallas coveted, of course, but there was another aspect to it: this was the type of player that Parsons needed to bring the best out of his own game, too.
Instead, after verbally committing to Dallas, Jordan departed and the Mavericks scrambled to end up with Zaza Pachulia. Given the situation Dallas faced, Pachulia has been a godsend, filling in as the team's starting center admirably. But the downside, one that's hardly his fault, is that his presence is suffocating Parsons every time they share the floor.
There's more to it, of course. Parsons is averaging fewer minutes than even his rookie year thanks to offseason knee surgery -- a hybrid microfracture procedure that may or may not be as severe as the Mavericks let on. He has slowly worked back into full health and only recently shed a minutes restriction that has hampered him since the season's start. At times, he still doesn't look like he's fully healthy, despite saying he is: his shot is flat and he isn't dunking much.
All of those factors contribute to Parsons' disappointing season averages: 9.3 points, 44.7 percent field goal shooting, 32.2 percent shooting from behind the arc. But Parsons is also a player who excels when he's given space, particularly when handling the ball in a pick-and-roll situation. Last year, sometimes it was Monta Ellis or Rajon Rondo mucking that up, but Dallas could hide them in the corner and make things work with Tyson Chandler, an excellent roll man. While the perimeter shooting has improved this season, Parsons simply doesn't have the same magic when it's Pachulia setting picks on his man.
Blame Parsons for this if you'd like -- and certainly, his play isn't blameless this season -- but this is the player that they signed. Parsons isn't an isolation player; he won't create quality shots out of nothing. In the right setting and the right lineups, Parsons' playmaking and ball handling in a 6'9 frame shine. In the wrong one, he'll feel like an afterthought -- like a player who has attempted less than 10 shots in five of his last nine games.
On Wednesday, though, it was no surprise to see Parsons excel. With JaVale McGee starting instead of a resting Pachulia, Parsons had his best game of the year: 21 points, 9-of-16 shooting, eight rebounds, six assists and just two turnovers. The season stats agree that Parsons is a better player when paired with McGee and a significantly better playmaker.
In 442 minutes, lineups including Parsons and Pachulia have a 101.8 offensive rating and a 101.2 defensive rating. When you look at Parsons and McGee lineups with 106 minutes of data, Dallas boasts a 102.9 offensive rating and a 106.7 defensive rating. But instead of Charlie Villanueva, who often mans the power forward spot on the second unit, let's swap in Dirk: when he's on the court with Parsons and McGee, Dallas rattles off a 108.7 offensive rating and 96.3 defensive rating in 54 minutes.
And then there's Parsons' raw numbers, per nbawowy.com. When playing with Pachulia, Parsons scores 13.4 points per 36 minutes with a 51.9 true shooting percentage, 18.6 usage rate and a 15.8 assist percentage. When it's McGee, Parsons' number jump across the board: 17.3 points per 36 minutes, 54.8 true shooting percentage, 21.9 usage rate and a 25.8 assist percentage. (Assist percentage is the number of possessions for a player that ends in an assist.)
In layman's terms, Parsons is involved on more possessions and scores more efficiently when paired with McGee, all while becoming a dramatically better playmaker.
It makes sense when you watch the film. Here's a Parsons-Pachulia pick-and-roll.
And here's Parsons-McGee on Wednesday. The difference is almost jarring.
Watching Dallas, you can consistently see how little attention big men give to Pachulia in pick-and-roll situations. Parsons needs pick-and-rolls to play his best. He needs to be a secondary option quickly catching an off-balance defense by surprise. He doesn't get that with Pachulia ...
... like he does with McGee.
McGee isn't better than Pachulia. In fact, you can make a pretty good case that McGee isn't good at all. But McGee is clearly better for Parsons, and that matters, because the Mavericks are committed to Parsons as their $15-million man. Pachulia does a lot of great things as a killer screen setter, both on the perimeter and subtly down low as a Mavericks' guard drives to the basket. He's perhaps the best offensive rebounder Dallas has employed in quite some time. Whereas McGee is wild and all over the place, taking ill-advised jump shots and struggling on anything that's not a dunk (he's 6-of-19 on layups this year, per NBA.com's stats page), Pachulia is consistent. You know what you're getting from him every night.
But the things Pachulia does well aren't crucial to making Dallas' offense hum. Dallas doesn't have another player who can duplicate McGee's production. Even if he isn't great, even if he's actually not good, he's the only player who can throw down alley oops AND block shots on Dallas' roster. (If you're still on the Jeremy Evans bandwagon, God bless your perseverance.) Parsons needs that attention that McGee attracts rolling down the lane.
It's hard to say how much better Dallas would be this season if DeAndre Jordan had stuck by his original verbal commitment -- honestly, it might not be much. But there's no doubt Parsons' situation would be improved. Instead, Rick Carlisle is stuck with a strange quandary between two centers, one who's clearly better at basketball but another who might actually help the team more despite himself.