Mavericks Re-Enter NBA Playoff Race Through Careful Pacing

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Tuesday March 7th, 2017

The essence of a Rick Carlisle team is control. Possessions are withheld—through slow, careful pacing—to the point that they become precious. Once so, Carlisle coaches his teams to wring the most that their talent allows from every trip down the floor. His Mavericks have found life in that economy. Slow the game down enough and attention to detail can become just as valuable as other qualities Dallas might lack. Keep your turnovers low and even a flawed roster can find advantage in attempting more actual shots than its opponent. Give your defense a chance to set on every possession and you just might take away enough of an opponent’s easy baskets to win.

This is how the Mavericks have slogged their way back into the playoff picture after starting the season 4–17. They are 22–19 since, with one of the 10 best net ratings in the league. Compounding injuries undercut an already limited team early in the year. Dirk Nowitzki’s nagging Achilles cost him almost two months of games. There were few healthy ball-handlers to speak of. Another team’s fourth option had become Dallas’s first, all without the kind of structural support needed to play competitive basketball. That Harrison Barnes acclimated himself well to his new role meant little considering how much of the team around him was ailing or ill-equipped.

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Things finally took a subtle turn for the better in December. There was no impossible run in Dallas like in Miami—only a gradual shift in the Mavericks play sufficient to change the course of their season. Nowitzki returned and took over as the starting center, decongesting the offense while playing to his age. That positioning isn’t ideal in every respect (nor is it practical with every combination of teammates), but it forces opponents to reckon with Nowitzki’s talents without Dirk having to actually create offense for himself. High-volume post play just isn’t a comfort to Nowitzki these days; at times he struggles even to capitalize on certain wing mismatches. By playing him at center, the Mavericks make the threat of Nowitzki’s shooting a looming presence and gently dictate what kinds of lineups opponents can field in the first place. The option to guard Dirk with a lanky, athletic wing—while forcing him to either defend that same player or cross-match to safety—is much less feasible when Nowitzki is the only true big on the floor.

That move was possible because of Barnes and, by extension, Wesley Matthews. Shifting a player up at one position creates ripples across a lineup. Playing Nowitzki at center pitted Barnes against power forwards on essentially a full-time basis. Matthews, at 6'5", then routinely had to cover wings three or four inches taller. Both made it work by getting after it. Matthews is one of the most tenacious denial defenders in the league and Barnes, after years of experience playing big with the Warriors, competes constantly for positioning. Neither can be pushed around and their combination (along with rookie Dorian Finney-Smith and the newly acquired Nerlens Noel) gives the Mavs invaluable defensive flexibility. Swinging between matchups allows Dallas to acclimate no matter its liabilities. From there, Barnes and Matthews work their asses off to prevent opponents from ever getting comfortably into their offense. Strained angles and earned deflections launch other Mavs into passing lanes all over the court. Rarely does Dallas lose the possession game.

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The Mavericks had already begun working Barnes into Nowitzki’s favorite spots on offense, both to cope in his temporary absence and to help eventually fill the void the legendary forward will leave behind. Barnes finds opportunities in the post off the same basic setups that have aided Nowitzki for years. His cleared-out catches at the top of the floor are reminiscent of Dirk’s in function, if not form. A well-planned, well-spaced iso can still make hay in the right hands. Barnes has proven to be in that vicinity, particularly when targeted matchups pit him against panicked opposing bigs.

In the absence of traditional drive-and-kick athleticism, Dallas fed Barnes and sought to micromanage the bottom line of every possession. No team in the league has turned the ball over less since their 4–17 start. Barnes, in the process, has himself posted a Nowitzkian turnover rate (6.5%) that defies the extent of his usage. Catch-and-shoot players who spend their entire season waiting on the wings turn the ball over more often. Some of that is a virtue of how little Barnes creates for others, though the ability to isolate his matchup and manufacture points is a more natural use of his skill set. The fadeaway, the step-back, and the face-up drive are all more viable than Barnes ever let on in Golden State. Dallas is making the most of them, in part by balancing the floor as best it can for Barnes to go to work.

It found those means in Seth Curry, a cast-off from Sacramento signed for $6 million over two years last summer, and Yogi Ferrell, a six-foot dynamo originally picked up on a 10-day trial. Dallas does this kind of budget roster-filling as well as any team in the league. Yet where in previous seasons the Mavs found great rotation value in smart, capable veterans, this year’s team has struck similarly on younger talent. Curry’s game has been unlocked by opportunity and confidence. Ferrell, in the vein of J.J. Barea, gives the Dallas offense flavor with his waterbug quicks and deceptive movement. This is Carlisle survivalism at its finest. An offense championed by Barnes, an aging Nowitzki, Curry, Ferrell, and Matthews wouldn’t seem to have enough punch or passing to score reliably. It manages—at an above-average clip since their initial slump—through precision and matchup control. 

Pulling off that approach with Nowitzki and a rotating cast of veteran hands had become routine for Carlisle. Here he’s managed it with a younger core and Dirk in clear decline, to the credit of all involved. Striking this balance has meant trusting in contribution over reputation; Curry wouldn’t be given this much free rein for just any team and Ferrell wouldn’t prompt Deron Williams’s release just anywhere. Dallas has the locker room to support this kind of in-season maneuvering because it made a point to prioritize it. Nowitzki is a culture unto himself, with an ethos that extends through team-first grinders like Barnes and Matthews. That virtue didn’t mean much when the Mavericks were at the bottom of the standings. In time, however, it allowed for a losing team to make every adjustment needed for a worthy grasp at playoff relevance.

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