The Dallas Mavericks have been a pretty good team for about three weeks now, since crushing Milwaukee 111-79 on Nov. 18. It doesn’t, of course, make any sense. Prior to the Milwaukee game they were a sparkling 2-14 to start the season. Since, they’ve been 5-3, and their losses have been close: In overtime against the Celtics, 108-115 against the Spurs, 104-109 against Brooklyn. They have some impressive wins, including against the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies, and those impressive near-wins.
What exactly is going on is very, very hard to say. But there are, I would say a few clues here and there. The easiest and most conventional thing to talk about is the play of Harrison Barnes, who averaged 20 points and eight boards in November while shooting 47 percent from the floor. And that’s even though his three-point percentage, 31.9 percent, left much to be desired.
Another clue is the strong play of Dennis Smith, Jr., who is beginning to become a much more efficient scorer. As bad as his numbers were in this respect early in the season, it’s wonderful to see that over the last five he’s shooting 48.5 percent from the floor and 35 percent from three-point range, averaging over 15 points a game. But another key is probably his improved point guard play. He’s not exactly racking up the assists – 3.6 per game in that five-game span – but his turnovers are way down. After routinely throwing 4-6 for much of November, he’s at 2 or fewer in five of his last seven games.
And of course, there’s Dirk, who is rather suddenly an efficient scorer again. His 48.8 percent shooting from the floor in November led everybody who got significant minutes by a fair amount, other than Barnes at 47.4, and his three-point shooting (36.2 percent) is better than anybody but Wes Matthews (38.6 percent) and Devin Harris (37.5 percent)
Overall, though, the biggest factor in the Mavericks’ improvement is probably just that everyone has begun to find their appropriate roles. When they’re struggling, Coach Rick Carlisle has a tendency to turn to his veterans, which explains why J.J. Barea often edged close to 30 minutes in the early going but in recent games you’re more likely to find him at 20 minutes. He’s best at providing a spark off the bench, and that’s what he’s doing now. Between Barea and Devin Harris, the Mavs have two competent offensive guards playing twenty minutes a game off the bench and keeping the Mavs’ scoring even when the big ticket items sit.
The Mavs spent some time trying to make Dwight Powell into a player who deserves the amount of money they have invested in him, and especially to see whether they could expand his shooting range. Now, they’re bringing him off the bench and pretty much exclusively throwing it to him at the rim, and his play has paid dividends. Dirk, who averaged 25.8 minutes in October is now most often out there for about twenty, and his numbers have shot up as a result. Yogi Ferrell, who played huge minutes in the first eighteen games of the season, is now usually getting twenty or so as well.
And, the Mavs have realized that, just because they don’t want to play Nerlens Noel, it doesn’t mean their other backup centers are any good, and have more or less stopped playing Salah Mejri and Jeff Withey. The core of the 2017-2018 Mavericks, then, is Dennis Smith at PG, Harrison Barnes at PF or SF, and Wes Matthews at SG. All of them are playing heavy minutes, all of them have a big role in the offense, and all of them are producing.
In other words, by turning the Mavs into a team with three starters and a very long, solid bench of guys with all kinds of skillsets playing about twenty minutes a game, coach Carlisle has insured that their offense, at least, has to be respected all game. It doesn’t always show, because they play pretty slowly, but the numbers are ticking up. While they average only 100.9 points a game, 25th out of 30 teams in the league, they have really been pouring it on over the last four games.
Ultimately, the Mavs have the problem that they are very low on talent in a very deep West, and on a lot of nights that’s still going to show. But, as usual, they are making the most of what they have, and it’s turned them into an okay team, at least for now.