The Mavericks are in a very bad way right now. Behind them is a five-game losing streak, the longest with a healthy Dirk Nowitzki since 2008. Ahead of them is six games against playoff teams, including four against the NBA's three best teams. (Golden State, San Antonio and Cleveland is a combined 162-34, so that should be fun.) The Sherlock Holmes's out there reading this have probably figured out that this is very problematic. This is the part of the movie where writers invoke deus ex machina. This is the time where you break the "break in case of emergency" glass. But those things don't happen in the NBA.
I already wrote about how finally, for the first time in years, there may not be a true solution that will allow Dallas to wriggle out of the shenanigans they got themselves into once again. Instead, let's do something more instructive and figure out why the team suddenly sucks so hard.
This is the end of Zaza Pachulia's run
Spacing, the NBA's hottest buzz word, is often compressed to the singular concept of shooting. People do this because shooting is the most important part, but there are many, many other factors at play. A stationary shooter standing in the corner isn't as effective as one running through picks in a way that attracts the attention of the defense. An athletic big man rolling down the middle forces defenses to shift just the same ways as a sharpshooter would, albeit in the opposite direction.
Once upon a time, even earlier this season, Pachulia occupied a defender, occasionally even two, as far as 15 feet. Now, defenders barely bat an eye when he camps out five feet away. Pachulia is shooting 33 percent on shots beyond eight feet this season, and as the long season wears on his 32-year-old legs, his finishing has noticeably declined, too. Can you blame him? Pachulia's already matched the number of minutes he played last year, and there's still a month left this season.
As a result from his struggles, defenders deliberately leave Pachulia with increasing frequency. It burns opposing defenses on occasion when Pachulia nabs an easy layup, but even then, defenses don't really care. Pachulia won't beat you. This is the opposite of spacing -- negative spacing, as I'll even coin the phrase.
Pachulia has been everything Dallas could have hoped and more when they snuck him out of Milwaukee. I've been saying this every time I write about his struggles, because I've been totally won over by his professionalism and attitude, both then and now. Watching his decline from this year's start sucks. But that's what's happening and Dallas knows it, no matter if they pretend otherwise.
Pachulia is still an above average rebounder and his size can be useful against larger post threats, but he mostly gives back all his positives on the other end these days. The Mavericks are often playing four-on-five offensively due to the passive way teams check him in man-to-man defense, which hurts the entire team, especially Chandler Parsons. Since the All-Star break, Pachulia has the team's second-worst net rating and the offense scores five fewer points per 100 possessions when he's on the court. And if Rick Carlisle hadn't dramatically cut his minutes in favor of small ball in several games, it would be even worse.
The bench provides so little
Who could have imagined how much the Mavericks would miss Richard Jefferson. By the time DeAndre Jordan and thusly Jefferson decommitted, it was apparently too late for Dallas to find a backup small forward they liked. When Parsons became the backup power forward -- the position he'll end up playing most of the rest of his career, I believe -- Dallas was out of pieces that made sense.
Enter the three-guard lineup. Carlisle had been using them all year with Matthews playing the three, but since the All-Star break, he began using more and more units with Felton there. The lineups aren't without positives: Dallas is still the sixth-best offense since the break, despite five straight losses. They have the best ball movement in the NBA -- the most passes, the third-most assists, the third-most secondary (hockey) assists, all per NBA.com's SportsVU data.
These lineups rarely defend well, though. They also have systematic problems with the personnel. Let's look at two players individually.
The Mavericks' best penetrator and best with the ball in his hands, although his spot-up jumper is decent. Somehow not the worst defender alive, but pretty damn close.
The Mavericks' best pick-and-roll ball handler, but really only effective with the ball in his hands, given he's only made one of his last 22 three-point attempts. He makes a negligible impact defensively, but he has enough size that he's at least not a target every trip down the floor. (Although perhaps that's only because there are better targets to exploit, if we're being honest.)
These two are both NBA players, but it makes very little sense to play them together, because the things they do best aren't compatible. And what would you know: per NBAwowy.com, when those two share the floor, the Mavericks have a net rating of minus-6.4.
The other guard, Devin Harris, is a streaky player who plays nice defense (watch how shifty he is getting around picks!), but definitely isn't the spot-up shooter this team desperately needs coming off the bench. His defense is often negated, too, because he's the one the Mavericks ask to match up with much larger players. Like, what do expect will happen when Harris is trying to match Kevin Durant in the post? C'mon.
This next exercise makes me nervous, so please read this entire paragraph. Using NBA.com's stats page, here's data on the different three-guard units the Mavericks have used this season. There's a lot of noise in this sample, so please don't take these results by heart. Who plays at power forward and center obviously matters a lot, as does the opponent. I can't factor out the four-guard lineups Dallas has used on occasion. The third unit listed (Felton plus starters) definitely isn't doing as well recently as it did earlier in the year. Lastly, except for one instance, I ignored minutes from Anderson.
(MIN - minutes, OR - offensive rating, DR - defensive rating, NET - net rating)
What should you take away from this? Here's my observations.
- The eye test checks out: that three-guard unit involving all three bench guards is trash. Like, really godawful, despite playing more minutes than any other threesome besides the Felton starters.
- Lineups that do well: Felton or Barea, like we talked about above, plus Matthews as the third guard. Lineups that do poorly include them both.
- Oddly enough, putting Anderson as the third guard actually made Felton and Barea work really well, although 83 minutes isn't as big of a sample size as you'd think.
- I'm disappointed that Harris plus the starting guards is the worst unit, but I understand. That unit can only create offense through Parsons (who is presumably playing the four), and with the Mavericks' reluctance to completely trust his with the ball in his hand, plus the lack of a real pick-and-roll threat, he's just not there yet. As you can see, that 101.1 offensive rating is the second worst.
- Most importantly: the three-guard lineup is not inherently bad. There have been some very effective uses for it this season, and while Carlisle may sometimes lean on it as a crutch, he often has very good reasons to do so. It's all contextual. The recent context, though, has pointed out that just about everything, three-guard units or not, is terrible.
The starting guards aren't reaching their potential
This can be brief. You know all about Wesley Matthews' struggles, although we respect the hell out of his journey back from injury. He's shooting five percent below his career true shooting percentage, and you can very visibly see the negative effect that has when he misses yet another open three. Deron Williams is playing better than he did last year in Brooklyn, but not as well as he did the years before that. His bread-and-butter shot in Utah and early on with the Nets was the pull-up jumper inside the arc, but he's only hitting 38 percent of shots between 16 and 23 feet, a far cry from his 43 percent career average. Throughout this five-game losing streak, minus one fourth quarter explosion from Williams, those two have just been bad.
So what can the Mavericks do?
Coaches don't like drastic changes. They don't decide on anything without taking days to settle on whether it's best for their team, and making dramatic alterations flies in the face of that.
That said, when you've lost five straight and have six more ridiculously games upcoming, drastic change might be the Mavericks' only hope. Here's what I'd do, plus the likelihood of these things actually happening.
Start David Lee
I didn't mention Lee when talking about the bench, because his stellar play simply didn't fit. He's been incredible since signing in Dallas, with a team-best 3.5 net rating. He's a threat rolling to the rim, a solid if unspectacular finisher when he gets there, a comparable rebounder and a better defender for the modern age because he's still pretty mobile. In every respect, Lee makes more sense than Pachulia. It's time to make this change.
Likelihood: 95 percent. After five losses, you almost have to do something, and Charlotte's perfect for doing this. Cody Zeller starts, and Lee can handle him, while Al Jefferson is the guy you'd want to use Pachulia's bulk against and he's coming off the bench these days. I bet this happens.
Give Felton or Barea's minutes to Justin Anderson
Carlisle must break up that terrible Barea-Felton duo, but given the team's roster, they pretty much have to play together unless you introduce another guard. Anderson plays defense and theoretically is a better spot-up shooter than both of them. Even if he misses every shot and bumbles the ball out of bounds, as he might very well do, at least you're getting something from him on the other end. In general, I've never been too concerned with the way Carlisle handles rookies, but this is a move of necessity.
Likelihood: 5 percent. Likelihood Anderson plays: 50 percent. Carlisle loves Barea and Felton too much to completely bench one of them, but Anderson could very well steal a few minutes from those two -- hopefully, from a lineup that would otherwise include them together.
Make Salah Mejri the backup center
Pachulia wouldn't provide anything behind Lee that Lee wasn't already bringing, but Mejri is a totally different player. He blocks shots and dunks, and that change of pace would be welcomed off the bench.
Likelihood: 1 percent. This isn't NBA 2K. These are humans Carlisle is coaching and you can't just mothball a player who started for you the entire season, even if it might make your team better. Mejri might play a few minutes, but Pachulia isn't going straight to DNP-CD, nor will he the rest of the season.
Keep JaVale McGee inactive
For those who keep asking about him, no. You see the size, athleticism, shot blocker and dunks, and think, "what if?" The Mavericks had the same thought when the signed him. But McGee isn't playable. He breaks off plays, has no sense of defense beyond blocking shots and really loves taking jump shots entirely too much. This experiment has ended.
Likelihood: 100 percent. I doubt McGee is even active the rest of the season, barring injury to someone above him.
These aren't good solutions. They're probably not solutions at all. The ideas may help and they may not, but at this point, it can't hurt to try.
Ultimately, most of the problems the Mavericks face aren't solvable until this summer. Their roster looks like it was thrown together like the basket of a grocery shopper who entered the store five minutes before they closed. This is what DeAndre Jordan did to them, and only a proper offseason can help them try and buff out those damages. Sadly enough, the worse the Mavericks do in this final month of the season, the less chance things will actually work out for them when July finally does arrive.