The Mayo problem: A season in review and a look toward the future
WFAA Sports Bloggers
Posted on April 19, 2013 at 3:57 PM
Updated Friday, Apr 19 at 4:09 PM
OJ Mayo, who scored more points than any other Maverick this year, has decided to become a free agent after a season of extreme inconsistencies. WFAA bloggers Chuck Perry and Mike Marshall break down OJ's season, diving into what made him such a volatile resource in 2012 - and get into whether he has a role in Dallas long-term.
To properly understand the frustration many have with O.J. Mayo, one first needs to properly frame the issue with expectations. Mayo, a former lottery pick, was brought to Dallas with the hope that he could resurrect star potential lost amid his four seasons in Memphis. He was viewed by many as the JET replacement - but younger, more athletic and with a more diverse offensive game than the departed Jason Terry. With these tools, he would become the Mavericks’ second scorer and ease Dirk Nowitzki's offensive burden.
While Nowitzki missed the first few months of the season with injury, Mayo performed at nearly an All-Star level, averaging almost 20 points per game and making a blistering 51% of his three-point attempts.
So far, Mayo was playing the part of Robin to the absent Dirk’s Batman brilliantly and keeping Dallas afloat during Nowitzki’s absence. However, that production was buoyed by a nearly career-high usage rate of 24.4% from October through December and came with the almost unacceptable cost of a 16.9% turnover rate during that stretch.
Still he was playing at nearly an All-Star level and hopes (and expectations) had been raised by his recent strong play.
However, as Nowitzki worked his way back into the starting lineup, the hopes for a Nowitzki/Mayo two man game never became reality as Mayo’s play began to slip. In the 26 games after Nowtizki regained his place in the starting lineup, Mayo’s scoring average dipped to 15.8 points per game and his accuracy from the arc, a staple of his early season success, abandoned him as he would shoot only 34% from the arc over that stretch. February would mark Mayo’s three-point nadir, where his 3-point rate was only .293.
Still, growth was evident in Mayo’s playmaking abilities. In the first 33, largely Nowitzki-less games of the season, Mayo’s assist to turnover ratio was almost 1:1. However, in the following 26 games after Nowitzki’s return, Mayo flipped that ratio to almost 2 assists: 1 turnover, and dropped his turnover percentage to a more reasonable 13.7%. His usage rate also fell to 20.8% as be began deferring more shots to Nowitzki and others.
At the time, we consoled ourselves with the knowledge that, if Mayo was not an elite scorer, than at least he could be a productive, and at times even efficient, teammate.
However, the continued downward trajectory of Mayo’s season was perhaps exacerbated by the arrival of Mike James into the Mavericks’ starting lineup. In the 23 games that Mike James started this season, Dallas was 15-8. However, what was good for the Mavericks was bad for Mayo, as over the same stretch he averaged 10.8 points per game (a would-be career-low if it were a full season), shooting a season-worst .410 from the field, including .382 from the arc. His usage rate again fell to 16.6%, partially explaining the drop-off in scoring production. However, over the same stretch, Mayo averaged a season-low 1.9 turnovers per game and nudged his assist: turnover ratio towards a season-high 2.5:1 while his turnover percentage again fell to 15.4%.
You can almost neatly divide O.J. Mayo’s season into thirds: the first 33 games while Nowitzki was out and working his way back to being a starter, the 26 games where both Nowitzki and Mayo were starters before Mike James took over the point, and the final 23 games of the season. In each, we see a downward trajectory in Mayo’s scoring and usage, but an overall upward trajectory in his assist: turnover ratio and other playmaking metrics.
The division of Mayo’s season into thirds also highlights the at least three vastly different roles Mayo was asked to fulfill this season. In the beginning, he was asked to play far above his ability as a primary offensive breadwinner for a team without a superstar. Then, he was forced to refit his game as a sometimes-sidekick to a uniquely-gifted power forward who was working his way back into dominant shape. Finally, Mayo was tasked with the role of part-time playmaker to a limited, shoot-first point guard. All the while, there has been little-to-no grumbling from the only player to start every game for the Mavericks this season.
Mayo’s 2012-13 campaign, however, has been characterized throughout by shrinkage in big moments. O.J. shoots his lowest percentage of any quarter, .430 from the field and .310 from the arc, in the fourth quarter and overtime. Further, his numbers against elite teams were also abysmal: against the conference's top five seeds, Mayo averaged 10.6 points per game, .382 from the field and .190 percent from the arc, including identical 9.8 points per game averages against Oklahoma City and San Antonio.
There are two ways to take these numbers, and both likely play a role.
(1) They may show evidence of a player being defended above his ability level.
(2) They may represent a player shrinking from the crucial moments because of either (a) deficiencies in basketball IQ or (b) a player being asked to do too much.
Whatever the cause, Mayo’s shortcomings and growth present a unique problem for the Mavericks this summer. As it stands, Mayo has confirmed that he will opt out of the final year of a contract that would pay him $4.2 million next season. He has undoubtedly earned himself some money this season with his play and the growth in his game. However, he may have sabotaged some of his value with his late-season swoon.
The key, of course, will be valuation. Over the course of the season we have seen Mayo settle into the role of above-average playmaker for his position and capable scorer in the proper context. We have also seen him be over-exposed in the role of second-best player on a team.
Is he worthy of a long-term deal? Absolutely, given the relative scarcity of Mayo’s skills at his position, the hope of continued growth like what was seen this season and his age (he will be 25 when next season starts), all argue for a multi-year contract.
However, as we have seen this season, Mayo is, at best, a third-tier player in the NBA and should not be compensated, or expected to perform, above that level.
One of the curses of our collective NBA fandom is the belief that the best scorer on a given team holds the highest basketball acumen. We’ve been taught this by the likes of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant in our short basketball memory. The best scorer is the best player, and if they wanted they could be the best at any other particular category they set their skills to. It’s just that logically it makes the most sense to be the best at scoring points in a game tallied by points. This lesson leaves an obvious aperture in the modern NBA, the pure gunner...O.J. Mayo.
The idea of O.J. Mayo as a JET replacement was a novel one. The actualization of that plan never did pan out for a variety of reasons. While O.J. Mayo is younger, better defensively and measurably more athletic at this point in time than Jason Terry, the qualities that he lacks are the qualities that make a fourth quarter pick-and-pop with Dirk effective. Jason Terry is a superior ball handler, has a higher basketball IQ and consistently knocks down the tough fourth quarter shot.
I believe Terry’s time in Atlanta running point for the Hawks is where his road and Mayo’s progression as a player diverged. Terry evolved into a gunner that could facilitate the offense at an average clip for stretches of a game with the Mavericks. We don’t know about Mayo’s abilities as a facilitator as he was never trusted to do so this season -- and we’re lead to believe this was rightfully so. The pick-and-pop with Dirk may have never been a real option once Dirk returned because of the team's lack of faith in Mayo’s abilities as a facilitator. That’s behind the scenes in practice stuff that we never really get to see or understand fully. What we’re really annoyed with from OJ Mayo is what we can see and in the clutch (clutch is defined as 4th quarter or overtime, five minutes left in a game within 5 points), in the second half of the season - and with his propensity for turnovers.
Ovinton J'Anthony Mayo played 99% of available minutes in the clutch, which is very odd considering he absolutely crumbles in the clutch. In clutch situations OJ Mayo’s free throw percentage drops 12.1% (82.1 to 70). Mayo has a slightly negative net rating in the clutch (-2.9) and he finished on the wrong side of the net points battle (-19). For a reference, let’s look at Wesley Matthews of the Trail Blazers -- a very comparable player on a comparable team. Matthews' FT% in the clutch actually increases (79 to 83), his net dips to just above average (+1, as will happen with mediocre teams. Not into negatives like Mayo’s) and his passer rating actually improves (3.7 to 5) as compared to Mayo’s virtually vanishing (5.4 to 1.6). Chuck did a great job displaying his late game struggles above as well but I just want it to be clear that OJ Mayo is not the same player in the fourth quarter or in the second half of seasons.
After the All-Star break when the Mavs were playing their best basketball (won 18 of 30 games post A.S. break) and making a legitimate (and unlikely) playoff run OJ scored 20+ points just twice. In that same stretch he had 5 games of 4+ turnovers.
Stats can be bent to support whatever hypothesis one has constructed in their mind but the absence of Mayo’s fingerprint on the large majority of games after the All-Star break and negative impact on many games in the clutch can not be ignored.
It’s interesting to me that the arrival of Mike James had such an effect on OJ Mayo’s season. The only rationale I can come up with is that Mike James simply wasn’t in those meetings early in the year when it was decided that Mayo would be the main weapon on offense, and James was stepping into a much different team with a much different philosophy on Mayo’s usage at that point.
It’s hard to put a finger on what has driven me to the camp of being ok with never seeing OJ Mayo in a Mavericks jersey but I think Carlisle applied hammer to nail last Monday night when he said “you’d like him to have more presence”. That’s it. For a guy who wants the role of lead scorer and alpha dog you’d like him to have some sort of presence in a game other than a 27-foot jumper from the wing.
We’d all really like it if OJ Mayo panned out as the player we envisioned upon signing and for a month or two he was. But when you don’t particularly play well with others and have no real purpose beside acting as a launching pad for much of the season it’s easy to understand why the market last offseason treated OJ Mayo so poorly.
As he was expected to when he originally signed his contract, Mayo opted out of his player option, foregoing $4.2 Million and becoming a free agent. This came on the heels of Rick Carlisle publicly questioning his integrity and expressing deep disappointment in him on Monday night. I believe the OJ Mayo experiment in Dallas is over. Whether it’s by the team's internal decision or a team like Milwaukee offering him 4 years for 26 million and pricing out the Mavericks, it really doesn’t matter. OJ Mayo can be a great shooter for stretches of a season and he can carry your offense for weeks at a time but he cannot be one of your three best players. That’s the curse of OJ Mayo.
Chuck Perry likes to talk about Star Wars, the medical field and - oh, basketball. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheChuckP.
Mike Marshall likes to make jokes, make fun of scooters and make money. He's also a sports nut and a very prolific tweeter. You can follow him on Twitter at @machine1310.