Despite maintaining 83 percent of last year’s roster (seventh highest in the NBA), Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle is still figuring out rotations. But one lineup is a clear standout this season: J.J. Barea, Devin Harris, Yogi Ferrell, Dwight Powell, and Dirk Nowitzki have been absolutely slaughtering teams.
Unfortunately, Carlisle could not have assembled a less fan-friendly lineup (aside from Dirk, of course). J.J. Barea and Devin Harris are fan favorites in theory, but most fans want them to step aside in favor of Dennis Smith Jr., Ferrell, and basically anyone else who barely remembers the 90s. Yogi Ferrell is one of those young guards fans want to see more of, but not as an off-the-ball guard next to J.J. Barea—they see him as the next J.J. Barea coming off the bench.
Then there’s the much maligned Dwight Powell. Like Barea and Harris, Powell should be a fan favorite. He checks all the boxes: works hard, hustles, doesn’t make excuses, has really tried to improve his jump shot, fights for loose balls, but one contract can change the perception of a player forever.
The Barea-Harris-Yogi-Powell-Dirk lineup has played 44 minutes over the course of eight games, including all four during the Mavs’ recent 3-1 stretch. In those minutes, this crew has posted an Offensive Rating of 121.5 (damn) and a Defensive Rating of 60.0 (daaaaamn) for a Net Rating of 61.5 (daaaaayyumm). Their Defensive Rating and Net Rating are the best in the league among five-man units that have played at least 30 minutes.
Read that again: a lineup with Dirk Nowitzki and J.J. Barea has the best Defensive Rating in the league.
Obviously, they’re accomplishing this in part by playing against opposing teams’ second (and sometimes third) units. Nowitzki, Barea, Harris, Ferrell, and Powell, or what I have deemed the Savvy Six (Carlisle is the sixth), have mostly played as carryovers between the first/second and third/fourth quarters. And defensively, the Savvy Six make no sense on paper: two listed 6’0 guards, another 6’3 guard, a 39-year-old mummy, and a springy try-hard big. Who does anyone in that group guard, especially against teams like Boston and Milwaukee who play multiple wings between 6’5 and 6’10?
But it works because Dirk, Devin, and J.J. are the three savviest, if not smartest, players on the roster and they play really well together. (Sidenote: they should be the second unit, but Dirk will never not start.) At 94.55 possessions per 48 minutes, the Savvy Six play at a sultry pace—slower than any team in the league. But this pace allows every player to be involved both offensively, where they’re good, and defensively, where they’re somehow great.
On defense, the three guards switch everything on the perimeter and they know who to close out on and who to leave open. A particularly striking example: four of Marcus Smart’s nine missed threes came against this lineup in the Mavs’ close loss to the Celtics. With this strategy, the Savvy Six allow the lowest Effective Field Goal Percentage in the entire league at 29.5 percent!
On the play below, everyone is covered on the perimeter and Al Horford forces a high hook shot over Powell. Notice how precisely Barea, Ferrell, and Harris calibrate their distance from their man at any given point, leaving just enough space to close out or get their hands in passing lanes. Dirk is there for the rebound, and this play turns into a nice transition opportunity that Powell capitalizes on.
Given their active hands and savvy positioning, it’s not surprising that this group has also forced the fourth highest turnover ratio (21.6 percent) among five-man units that have played at least 30 minutes. On this play Ferrell hedges off of Dario Šarić because he’s quick enough to recover. Embiid doesn’t see him come over, and Ferrell swipes his picnic basket.
Combined, the Savvy Six deflect more than six passes per game. These deflections don’t always result in steals, but they disrupt the flow of already shaky second unit offenses. Harris, Ferrell, and Barea are also sneaky good at drawing charges (eight total among the three this season), another way they disrupt the flow of the game and get stops.
Devin Harris is a professional at drawing offensive charges.— Mavs Moneyball (@mavsmoneyball) November 5, 2017
What are you a professional at? pic.twitter.com/kXILc9PYaK
On offense, this lineup is able to deploy essentially three point guards and Dirk Nowitzki, who thrives in the half-court. Barea, Ferrell, and Harris can all run a pick and pop with Dirk and/or a pick and roll with Dwight, the team’s second best roll man.
Powell has thrived alongside three players who can pinpoint passes to the rim; all he has to do is nudge the ball in the right direction. And some nudges take a little less effort than others.
The three guards and Dirk spread the floor so much that defenses are forced to cover a lot more ground then they anticipate. On this play, the Bucks cross the width of the court several times before a shot is attempted. By then, Dwight Powell is able to gather and Tyson-Tip-Out the rebound to a waiting Dirk.
It makes no sense, but Carlisle has uncovered a shockingly effective bench unit in the Savvy Six. Just when the NBA seems to be overrun with youth, length, and athleticism this group is shattering expectations by any means necessary.