It has not been an ideal season for the Dallas Mavericks.
For the first time in Mark Cuban’s 13-year tenure as owner, Dallas will not make the playoffs. This is a team just two years removed from winning its first ever NBA Championship, now burdened with questions pertaining to the future, as well as some regarding the past.
Even though the future may not look bright at the moment, not all is lost. The Mavericks still have quite a bit of financial wiggle-room heading into the summer as they will try and entice a marquee free agent to sign here.
Yet, who and what they go after this summer will determine a lot about how this team will be composed for the future. A blueprint forward exists, however, as an in-state rival holds a model that the Mavericks should emulate.
Dallas is, by all accounts, a mediocre team. Mediocrity is the Black Spot of the NBA. Not all teams that consistently hover around .500 are damned to remain in purgatory forever, though. Clever teams who play for the future and who are active can save themselves. One team doing just that is the Houston Rockets, which the Mavericks host on Wednesday night.
Houston has been out of the playoffs since the 2008-09 season. Despite that, the team, under General Manager Daryl Morey, has steadily acquired players through trades and in the draft in order to improve.
Now, the Rockets have a player in James Harden that they can build around for the future. Toss in players with reasonable contracts like Jeremy Lin, (the last year of his contract balloons north of $14 million, however), Omer Asik, Chandler Parsons, Patrick Beverley, newly acquired Thomas Robinson, Carlos Delfino and Donatas Montiejunas and Houston is still financially flexible for the next couple of years.
Zach Lowe goes into much more detail about Morey’s path to rebuilding the Rockets in a post over at Grantland.
Lowe notes that Houston’s rebuilding has been centered on the style of play that the team wants to play. While this should be true of any team when they look at potentially players to bring in, how a player fits into a system is not always the concern of the front office.
Sometimes what they see in a player is the revenue potential that a certain player brings with them. Morey, for what it is worth, has not done this. Yes, Harden is an All Star and became a household name during the Finals last season and Lin had a breakout year with Linsanity, but a player like Asik goes widely unnoticed in casual circles and can therefore be undervalued.
Yet, his value to the organization, as Lowe points out, is unquestioned.
Of course, Houston’s rebuilding process has not been the prettiest. They, like Dallas, have been burned several times in their quest for top tier talent. At one point they were close to landing Pau Gasol but then, for “basketball reasons,” it didn’t happen. Houston had pieces that helped them to get into a position to try and land Gasol, though.
Currently, all the Mavericks have a number of expiring contracts and a lot of cap room.
Dallas’ approach, since the new Collective Bargaining Agreement places harsher penalties on teams that exceed the salary cap, is one of measured waiting. Since the team made just one move at the trade deadline, a deal that brought Anthony Morrow to Dallas and sent Dahntay Jones to Atlanta, it is clear that the Mavericks are holding onto their cards and waiting for free agency.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this strategy. Most teams made hardly a peep as the trade deadline came and went, except for Houston which netted the aforementioned Robinson. Yet, it cannot be the only tactic the Mavericks take as they move forward.
Though it is impossible to all of a sudden replicate what the Rockets have done over the past several years, it would behoove Dallas to look toward this process for guidance.
Since Dallas will likely lose out on acquiring Dwight Howard and/or Chris Paul this summer, the Mavericks have to look at how they want to structure their team. For what seems like an eternity, Dallas has been full of jump shooters and most of their shots come from what is considered the mid-range area.
When Dirk Nowitzki was paired with Jason Terry, especially during the championship run, these shots were leaned on heavily with little concern due to the high efficiency and smart shot selection that these two had in the halfcourt. That being said, mid-range jump shots are the least efficient shot in basketball.
As of March 1, the Mavericks have taken 38.34 percent of all their shots from 8-24 feet, or mid-range, according to NBA.com/stats.
That is just a tick higher than the number of shots they have taken near the rim, which are more efficient. Breaking their propensity for mid-range jumpers down further, Dallas takes 9.7 shots per game from 10-15 feet, which is the most in the league, and 17.4 shots per game from 16-23 feet, good for eighth least per Hoopdata.
The Mavericks connect on these shots at clips of 43.7 percent and 42.6 percent, respectively. Both of those percentages are well above average but if Dallas doesn’t change its ways, the team’s shot selection and field goal percentage could start to resemble that of the Philadelphia 76ers.
Luckily, as Brett Koremenos notes, Head Coach Rick Carlisle is tweaking the offense of the team in order to transition it from a halfcourt two-man-game into a full court sprint with high efficiency shots. This is another area where Dallas can take notes on Houston’s current incarnation.
The Rockets have the fastest pace, the estimated number of offensive possessions a team will have during a 48-minute game, in the NBA at 96.3.
Dallas is not far behind with a mark of 94.6, which is the fifth fastest pace in the league. The Mavs like to push the ball up the court in any given situation. Be it from a rebound, missed shot, or an inbound, Dallas wants to beat their opponent down the floor before the defense has an opportunity to establish itself.
This strategy is especially effective within the first 10 seconds of a possession because, as Koremenos points out, it is when Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo are at their finest.
When Dallas played at Memphis on Feb. 27, this strategy was on full display during the first quarter. The Mavericks were pushing the tempo and getting quick open looks. Many of their shots came in and around the painted area.
Memphis was so caught off guard and out of sorts that Dallas built a 25-point lead. Unfortunately, as the game progressed and the Mavs fell into halfcourt sets rather than pushing the ball, their lead vanished and so did their chances of winning the game.
Dallas showed that they are capable of running and taking shots at or near the rim, yet they just haven’t shown that they can sustain it in a manner like the Rockets do. Last season the Rockets ranked 25th in drives to the baskets. This season, they lead the league.
Not only have they improved there but they only take 3.2 shots per game from 10-15 feet and 10.8 shots per game from 16-23 feet. No other team shoots fewer mid-range shots than the Rockets. Rather than focusing on low efficiency attempts, Houston takes the ball to the rim, where 37.9 percent of their shots occur.
The rest of their attempts are threes. Both of these areas are the most high value shots on the court and where Dallas needs to focus.
Denver is another team that Dallas can look to for influence. The Nuggets are quite adept at pushing the pace and scoring, almost exclusively, at the rim. It is no surprise then that they, as of March 1, sit in fifth place in the Western Conference playoff picture.
Not only should the Mavericks take more shots at the rim like Houston and Denver, but they should also make a concerted effort to get to the free throw line more. The old adage goes that you don’t foul a jump shooter. Perhaps that is why Dallas is 19th in free throw attempts in the league.
The team is has the third best mark at making them so why leave such a valuable resource unused? Houston attempts the fifth most free throws in the league and Denver attempts the second most. Neither of these teams shoot them anywhere near as well as Dallas, though. The point is they get there.
Teams are like economies: the same model or strategy doesn’t work everywhere and, at present, the Houston model isn’t a perfect one for Dallas to follow.
Despite their offensive prowess, the Rockets are quite lacking in defense, especially when Asik is on the bench. The Rockets also turn the ball over far too often. These allow for quite a small point differential of only +3.1 in Houston’s favor. Yet, they are poised to be in the playoffs and Dallas is not.
The Mavericks also do not have all the pieces in place to fully implement an offense of this caliber. Nor is Nowitzki the ideal player for an offense such as this. However, Dallas should begin putting pieces together in order to shift towards a more efficient offense and the post-Nowitzki era. They should not pursue lumbering players or ones who often settle for long two-point attempts.
The Mavs need to start thinking about the future now rather than being concerned with a strategy that worked in the past. The league is changing. There is an influx of talent that is more or less the same height who are speedy, quick and lengthy.
Dallas should capitalize on those strengths rather than place itself in a positional cage. The Mavs are on the right path as it moves to a speedier more flexible roster. It has young players that it can build around going forward.
Nothing will happen overnight, but the potential framework to return the Mavericks to respectability and the playoffs, is on full display about five hours south on I-45.