The Mavericks have the NBA's best offense since the All-Star break and it's not close. With a 116.9 offensive rating, Dallas easily tops second-place Toronto's 113.4 figure, and they're almost 10 points better than Golden State's 107.4 post-break rating.
Those numbers won't hold forever: a lot of comes from the competition. In six games, the Mavericks played five games against teams under .500, the one exception being a 116-103 loss to the Thunder that featured a five-minute stretch to open the fourth quarter without a single point. But there's a lot of good things the Mavericks are doing, too, that has helped open the floor to Dallas' posse of shooters.
"We're just trying to get Zaza a little bit lower," Matthews said. "We're trying to get Dirk rolling a little bit more. We still do a lot of pitches, but Zaza coming in the pick-and-roll, trying to create movement and make the defense have to shift."
Pachulia, for all that he's done for the Mavericks, really struggles to make an offensive impact outside of strong off-ball screens and rebounds. He shot below 40 percent from the field as a center in February, but even with his jump shot absent, dropping him further down the baseline helps keep defenders from completely abandoning him to protect the lane.
"There was some stuff going on where we clogged ourselves up a little offensively, and now we're trying to clean that up, get into five out and have the five roll hard," Dirk Nowitzki said.
Since Pachulia wanders into the lane more than rolls, the addition of David Lee has been huge. In four games and 76 minutes, the Mavericks' offensive rating is 121.6 with Lee on the floor. The other end hasn't been too hot -- a 111.3 defensive rating -- but that's livable for now when Dallas is scoring as much as they are with him on the court. The team's 63.6 true shooting percentage is a huge improvement on the team's season total.
On Tuesday in a 121-108 win against the Orlando Magic, the Mavericks added another layer to their offense, frequently going to Wesley Matthews out of the post.
"It gets me going," Matthews said. "One, I can score down there. Two, I'm not one of those guys that's thirsty trying get a basket. Three times I passed it out without even looking just because I'm drawing attention and I think we scored on all the possessions. Parsons is a great playmaker in the pick-and-roll, Deron is a great playmaker in the pick-and-roll. I feel like my playmaking is in the post."
The Mavericks lead the league in passes made since the All-Star break, too. (They're second since Jan. 1 and third for the NBA season, so this is not a new development.) Just passing a lot doesn't make an offense great -- Utah leads the league in passes, for example -- but Dallas also leads the league in points off catch-and-shoot jumpers since the break, scoring 37.8 points and nailing 9.8 threes off catches. Pair it with the eye test, and it all makes sense.
This is the Mavericks plan. They don't have a truly elite penetrator on the roster, someone who can constantly break down the defense alone like a Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul or John Wall. They create space by earning a half step of space here, another half step there, using pick-and-rolls to force effective double teams but following it up with precise passing that will exploit poor rotations -- and sometimes hurt you even if you roll perfectly.
Fixing the spacing has given teams less opportunities to cheat off Pachulia, which in turn helps the shooters find more spot-up attempts. Matthews, in particular, has shown major signs of life after struggling in every month but December.
"I was never not confident, but I just feel more complete," Matthews said. "Opportunities are there. I really think the tweak of the spacing helped me out. I think it helped all of us. I'm one of those guys that if you call on me I'll be effective, but I'll also be effective when plays aren't being run for me. And if there's a spacing breakdown, not only does it hurt the team, it hurts me."
The small lineups, and the ones featuring Dirk at power forward and Lee at center, will struggle more defensively as the schedule ramps up. The rebounding hasn't been good in the six games since the break, and premiere big men pose a greater problem on stronger teams because those teams have enough shooters to make double teaming tough (like Dallas did to Jahlil Okafor, Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Vucevic).
"We are moving it well, we are playing unselfishly and our shot making has been good," Carlisle said after Tuesday's game. "It's not because of our rebounding, I can tell you that. That is an area we just have to continue to harp on, for lack of term to sugarcoat it. We just have to continue to work on it and it's going to be an even bigger challenge on Thursday with (DeMarcus) Cousins coming in here."
But the right signs are in place for Dallas. In the 20-some games before making the Rajon Rondo trade in the 2014-15 season, Dallas boasted an offense that was on pace to break NBA records. (It's unlikely they would have finished that way, of course, but that's besides the point.) These post-break Mavericks invoke memories of that team -- again benefitting from the schedule, but generating open look after open look in such quantity that teams can only yield to Dallas' relentless approach.
The defense is still bad and the games are getting harder, but if this offense can be sustained, that might be enough to carry the Mavericks to a playoff berth anyway.