Nowitzki's return offers Dallas a glimmer of postseason hope

Thursday January 3rd, 2013

Dirk Nowitzki The Mavericks went 12-15 with Dirk Nowitzki sidelined by injury. They've gone 1-5 with him back in the lineup. (Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Rob Mahoney

Although the Mavericks have known success and failures aplenty over the last decade-plus, this season has managed to put all that has transpired in Dallas over that span into the proper context. Even at their lowest, the Mavs were persistently relevant; they ended a Finals series in heartbreak and a dream regular season in embarrassment, but Dirk Nowitzki's growth and the creativity of the front office allowed Dallas to rally year after year to retain playoff form. In some seasons the Mavs were contenders and in others they were merely present, but through it all they were there in the postseason, waiting for the right moment or the right move to put them over the top.

That moment finally came in 2011, but Dallas' title-winning explosion has been followed by a dreary decline into silence. Roster upheaval has given the illusion of progress at times, but no move has been made without a leery eye to the team's finances. NBA franchises should be consistently aware of their financial outlook as it relates to the salary cap and the luxury tax, but all of the Mavs' moves since their first-ever championship have come within the restraints of their own cap-related goals. Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson saw the catharsis of the title as a chance at a proper rebirth, with visions of Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, or Deron Williams in Mavericks blue. Hindsight isn't kind to the way that gambit played out, but Cuban and Nelson nevertheless chose to risk their team's league-wide significance for the sake of chasing Dallas' next superstar. The result, even after two offseasons of clever moves and value signings, is what you see before you today: a 13-20 Maverick team that's still and soundless, rendered into a pure state of incapability by the months-long absence of Nowitzki.

Dallas is 25th in the league in net rating, which is essentially a representation of margin of victory (or in the Mavs' case, defeat) adjusted for pace. They rank 23rd on offense and 25th on defense, leaving them no sanctuary on either side of the ball. Their strong start has been upended by weeks of misery, to the point that ESPN's Hollinger Playoff Odds calculates that Dallas has just a 0.7 percent chance to even make the postseason cut. Even for a team that has resigned itself to a season of stopgaps on one-year deals, that kind of projection is pretty brutal -- and, if I may say, a bit unfair when viewed absent of the greater potential for improvement.

No one can dispute the Mavs' misery, but it seems that some of the Dallas-related gloom coursing through NBA circles is reliant on all things remaining constant. Without Nowitzki, the Mavs are a bad team. We knew this going in, and knew that a .500 record through Dirk's recovery would represent a huge achievement. But now that Nowitzki is starting to vaguely resemble his former self (he had his best offensive game thus far against the Heat on Wednesday), why wouldn't we expect Dallas to improve dramatically? The Mavs have always been constructed in a way that works outward from Nowitzki, and they rely on him to score points, draw defenders and space the floor. He creates driving lanes and open jumpers for his teammates just by lingering in the right spots, and yet many act as if Dallas' fate has been sealed by the terrible play of a terrible, Nowitzki-less team.

Things will improve, as will that 0.7 percent mark. That isn't to say that Dallas will ultimately make the playoffs (keep in mind that I pegged the Mavs as one of the teams most likely to miss the cut), but to rule them out entirely with Nowitzki only now returning to form seems to fundamentally misunderstand just how important Dirk is to this (and every) Mavericks team.

Production is the mark of a star player, but Nowitzki's structural significance is far greater than the 20-something efficient points he contributes on a nightly basis. Many of Dallas' sets are designed around the threat that Nowitzki creates, and it often uses him as either a decoy or screen-setter to create hesitation on the part of the defense. It was no coincidence that Tyson Chandler regularly had open lanes to roll to the rim, that J.J. Barea's man never recovered off of Dirk in time to prevent dribble penetration, or that Jason Terry was able to use a single screen and a few dribbles to create a good look at a pull-up jumper. Even when Nowitzki wasn't directly contributing to a score, he was always somewhere along the edge of the broadcast view, pulling in a defender or two with the threat of his jumper. Defenses fear Nowitzki, and have little respect for Shawn Marion, Chris Kaman, or Elton Brand from the same range. All are theoretically capable of making some of the same mid-range shots, but none can do so under the same pressure, nor provide the same relief for the rest of the offense.

Replacing Nowitzki's scoring was an issue for Dallas, but a less pressing one than managing the structural void. This is nothing new; replacing Nowitzki's impact when he is absent is something that Dallas has wrestled with for years -- a fact that has only served to exaggerate his on-court import. Without Dirk on the floor this season, the Mavs are outscored by 3.5 points per 100 possessions, which is, as mentioned above, pretty crummy. But the same effect holds true for pretty much every Mavericks team for which such data is available -- including that vaunted 2010-11 squad that won a championship on the basis of its adaptability and depth. During that season, Dallas famously lost seven of nine while Nowitzki sat with injury, and the same basic struggles translated to every minute in which Nowitzki wasn't on the floor. Dallas was outscored by 4.9 points per 100 possessions whenever Nowitzki sat that season, mirroring the struggles Dallas is experiencing this year. Shot creation will always be an issue for this Dirk-dependent outfit whenever he's out of the lineup, regardless of whether his running mates are Jasons Kidd and Terry or Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo.

Speaking of that pair, no two individual Mavericks stand to gain more than those productively inconsistent guards. Both have the potential to fill key roles for a good offensive team, but are clearly reliant on high-level talent to help disguise some of their more pronounced weaknesses. Ball security has been a recurring problem for Dallas all season, and neither Collison nor Mayo have been particularly judicious in their work off the dribble. That's made it difficult for both players to access the most helpful facets of their respective games (speed and sweet shooting), and entire Mavericks' possessions are often wasted due to the guards' utterly flappable ball-handling. Nowitzki won't run night clinics to work on Collison's and Mayo's ball skills, but his addition to the pick-and-roll will help to pacify defenders who had otherwise ignored Brand, Kaman and Brandan Wright to rush the ball. There's a reason why offensive functions are nominally clustered as a "system" -- everything is related, and removing Nowitzki from the equation drastically alters the nature of a given possession.

Dallas has been so strapped for scoring that Rick Carlisle could scantly afford to play Elton Brand -- Dallas' top defensive big by far -- for heavy minutes. Age and injury began taxing Brand years ago, but the last two seasons have been particularly brutal in terms of his plummeting scoring output. Such is the case when a mid-range specialist finally sees his most potent offensive skill leave him. Brand still converts his intermediate looks at roughly a 39-percent clip, but that percentage is a far cry from the first-rate marks that once made him a 20-point scorer. His manageable 15.6 points per 36 minutes last season has slipped to just 11.2 points over that same interval this year, and in Nowitzki's absence it made some sense for Carlisle to limit Brand's playing time (21 minutes per game) in order to bank on Kaman's interior scoring and a variety of small-ball, pace-pushing lineups.

Yet with Dirk back, the need to run so small becomes less glaring, and Brand becomes an altogether more useful player. Brand doesn't have the height or speed that empower most of the top interior defenders, but he brings an Andrew Bogut-style savvy to his defensive positioning that allows him to get the most out of his limited athletic resources. His dance through the paint is really more of a plod, but he hits all the right steps along the way -- the hedge, the recovery and the challenge are all executed in step and in time. All that's left to find is a more suitable dance partner, and Kaman can't quite keep up. Nowitzki himself may only be solid on that end when playing at his best, but his overall offensive influence should allow Carlisle to use Brand more frequently, giving Dallas the most balanced frontcourt pairing possible and a shot at redeeming one of the league's most porous defenses.

Even in an optimal unraveling of all of these strategic lines, Dallas is still set to be a rotten rebounding team and no better than average on either end of the court. But two-way mediocrity may well be enough in a Western Conference field that's good but hardly perfect. There's no question that the West's playoff race is down to standing room only, but Dallas is still only four games back of the eighth seed after a tough stretch of schedule and the absence of an absolutely crucial player. They'll need to make up ground quickly, but there are plenty of weaknesses to exploit in the playoff-contending teams overhead. Portland has enjoyed a particularly friendly slate thus far and awaits the fallout from having one of the worst benches in the entire league. Minnesota has been fun to watch all season, but the reintegration of Kevin Love hasn't quite gone as expected, and the Wolves have been splitting games all season. Utah is just 3-7 over its last 10 games, hardly more promising than the 2-8 record that Dallas has returned over that same stretch.

Those factors alone don't get the Mavs back into the postseason picture, especially when Dallas needs to get the best of four higher-ranked teams from this point forward in order to keep their 12-year playoff streak alive. But ultimately, Nowitzki gives Dallas a chance. He isn't yet close to the height of his powers (it was just a few games ago that he was shying away from late-game possessions, and Dirk's defense thus far has been horrid), but the Mavs will improve incrementally as he retraces his steps. And that gives Dallas a chance to extend its historic streak and grasp at a relevance that it ultimately forfeited two summers ago.

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