The Dallas Mavericks were going to be bad. Everyone knew that coming into the season. A young roster buoyed by a handful of veterans isn’t a recipe for success in a loaded Western Conference. However, they weren’t supposed to be this bad. With an eighth of the season over, the Mavs sit at the bottom of the NBA’s basement, off to a worse start than Dallas team that stumbled out of the gates last year.
You could call the Mavs’ struggles a comedy of errors except there’s nothing funny about them. Yes, the team is dealing with injuries and dealt with an absence but across the board, they’ve just been bad. In addition, they’re bad in uncharacteristic areas. They’re ranked 29th in field goal percentage at .420, 22nd in free throw percentage at .752, and 28th in turnovers with 15.1 per game -- categories in which the Mavericks usually excel.
That’s not to say that the team hasn’t shown a modicum of improvement in the young season. In recent games, they’ve closed the rebounding gap, an area where the Mavs have struggled mightily. Even still, opponents still out-rebound Dallas 47-40 per game. Small improvements don’t matter when the team cannot score nor defend with any degree of consistency. Head coach Rick Carlisle knows that it’s all connected.
“I could come up with the numbers for you about when we get stops and get out in transition and get the ball over halfcourt in three seconds or less, you know,” Carlisle said. “The number would be, on a points per possession basis, the highest number of points in the history of basketball over 100 possessions. I guarantee that. On both ends, we’ve just got little slippages that we need to continue to work to clean up.”
It’s rare for Carlisle to make guarantees so taking him at his word when he cites advanced statistics is best. He can quote numbers until he’s blue, though. The number that looms largest for the Mavs right now is one. That’s how many wins the team has through 11 games.
Using the numbers, Carlisle must find the right lineups to be competitive. So far, he’s employed 110 different five-man units. This includes six different starting lineups. The best group, somewhat surprisingly, is that of J.J. Barea, Yogi Ferrell, Devin Harris, Dirk Nowitzki, and Dwight Powell. They have a total plus-minus of plus-31 in 48 minutes of playing time. A few of the starting lineups have positive net ratings as well but Carlisle is still trying to find something that works better.
“From a standpoint of lineups, I’m constantly looking at it,” Carlisle said. “I don’t like changing the starting lineup every other night or every night. It’s hard on the players. But we’re struggling with this lineup.”
He’s referring to the starting lineup of Dennis Smith Jr., Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Nowitzki, and Nerlens Noel. They’ve totaled 47 minutes and have a minus-12 net rating. In fact, every unit to play at least 20 minutes has a negative rating. Carlisle, though, must get the starting lineup right. Too often, the team's struggles set the tone for the rest of the game.
So, the Mavericks are worse than we expected. They’ve shown incremental improvement but it hasn’t led to wins. While key players remain sidelined, returning to full health might not even help. For his part, in spite of the difficulties, Carlisle is standing by his guys.
“I still like our roster to a large degree,” Carlisle said. “I’d like to get [Seth] Curry healthy and get [Dorian] Finny-Smith back and be whole and all kind of that stuff but these things happen. And so, we’ve got to go with who we have and where we are. Look, it’s been a very tough stretch with a lot of games and stuff like that. This is the NBA; it’s not supposed to be easy.”
For more Mavericks optimism, you can follow Doyle Rader on Twitter at @TheKobeBeef.