"Whether it's advantages on the floor or off the floor with sports science or analytics, we're cut out to bring the best possible on the planet earth right here to our backyard in Dallas."
Those are the bold words of Dallas Mavericks General Manager Donnie Nelson from when he dropped by the Mavs Step Back Podcast to spend some time with us recently, and they ring true in every aspect of the franchise.
Rick Carlisle is one of the very best head coaches in the league, a future Hall-of-Famer and arguably the Coach of the Year at this point in the season, with the Mavs off to a 19-10 start. Mark Cuban is widely perceived as being the best owner in sports. Donnie Nelson is an incredible GM, having reeled in both Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis through trades in the last 18 months (he was also hellbent on drafting reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2013, but we won't re-open that can of worms -- instead, we'll keep a pipe-dreamy eye on summer of 2021). Casey Smith, who now oversees all Mavs medical areas as the Director of Player Health and Performance, is arguably the best athletic trainer the NBA has seen. Point being, the players on the roster matter a lot, but so do the people who are put around them.
When Nelson mentioned advantages in 'analytics,' we couldn't help but think of a very big addition the Mavs made a little over a year ago that hasn't really been talked about a lot. In October of 2018, Dallas hired former professional sports bettor Bob Voulgaris as its Director of Quantitative Research and Development.
"For years, Voulgaris made a living betting on NBA games, successfully wagering based on his research and information. Voulgaris is known for his deep analytics and expertise on coaching strategy and tendencies of individual referees." - ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe
Although people around the Mavs organization are fairly tight-lipped about the extent of his involvement in the team's roster-building, I think it's safe to assume that he's had an important say in it.
Since Voulgaris' hiring, the team has seen a decent amount of roster turnover. With Luka Doncic emerging as a star in his rookie season, it became painfully obvious that the supporting cast of Harrison Barnes, DeAndre Jordan, Dennis Smith Jr., and Wes Matthews just wasn't the best fit. Not that those guys couldn't play or didn't have some nice moments as Mavericks, but it just simply didn't mesh the way the front office might have originally envisioned.
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According to NBA.com's stats database, the Mavs had the 20th ranked offensive rating last season. After trading those players mentioned above, adding Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway in the process, and then signing Seth Curry and Delon Wright (sign-and-trade) during the summer, the Mavs now own the top offensive rating in the league. And this is all after the Mavs received a significant amount of grief, from both the fan base and the media, over the direction they chose in free agency once it was apparent that they would miss out on Kemba Walker.
Supposedly, nobody saw this level of success coming this early for the Mavs, but is it possible that Voulgaris did? Could the renowned sports bettor have gambled and won big yet again?
"For years, Voulgaris exploited this edge, playing both sides of it repeatedly. It is possible to say that it alone made him millions, combined with some keen observations regarding the game-management tendencies of three head coaches: Eddie Jordan, Jerry Sloan and Byron Scott. 'Those were three coaches I had nailed perfectly,' Voulgaris, now 37, says. 'I knew exactly what they were going to do. I mean, it was a joke, it was so easy.'" - from Scott Eden's 2013 ESPN story.
The rise of Doncic in his second season as an MVP candidate has definitely helped that cause, but as we've seen in his absence, due to an ankle sprain, the offense is still capable of putting up big numbers with the roster that has been put together over the last 10 months.
Although the Mavs only went 2-3 in their stretch against the best in the Eastern Conference, the wins were big ones on the road against the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, and the losses to the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors were all single-digit games that could have easily gone either way -- especially the unbelievable franchise-worst blown 30-point lead in Toronto. During that span, the Mavs averaged 113 points per game, which would still be good for seventh in the league. And despite the Mavs overall field goal percentage dropping with Doncic out, the point is that this supporting cast has been good enough to help the team tread water until he returns.
Last season, the Mavs shot the fourth-most three-point attempts in the entire league, despite only ranking 27th in three-point percentage. This season, the Mavs are shooting the second-most three-point attempts (only second to their I-45 rival Houston Rockets, who are also known for relying heavily on advanced analytics) while ranking 7th in three-point percentage. That's a remarkable improvement from one year to the next, and it speaks to both the Mavs' player development staff (already in-house guys like Maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith have been vital to the Mavs' success this season) and the front office for bring in guys who can shoot and play defense as well.
As mentioned, it takes multiple smart people to run a successful organization, and when it comes to the Mavs, there are so many names that should be recognized as they've risen back into NBA relevancy, but the 'deep analytics' advice and expertise of Voulgaris has to rank near the top of that list, as far as we're concerned. The majority of the Mavs significant turnaround has happened since his hiring, and that simply cannot be a coincidence.
The Mavs, who have always been known as being 'outside-of-the-box' thinking during Cuban's ownership, took a gamble on a guy who made his fortune doing that exact same thing, and so far, the results speak for themselves.