Monday, November 15, 2010

Making Sense of the Dallas Defense

When you ask someone "what's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Dallas Mavericks?" you're sure to get a variety of responses: Dirk, Mark Cuban, Donnie Nelson, Steve Nash, run-and-gun, Jason Kidd, Shawn Bradley posters, high tempo, fastbreak and maybe even Nick Van Exel.

Noticeably absent from that list is, of course, defense. Throughout Dallas' renaissance of basketball over the last decade, the facet of the game that the Mavericks hung their hat on was definitely putting the ball in the basket. A lot. Who can forget the Western Conference Final team of 2003 that featured Dirk entering his prime (and chucking away a career high 4.9 threes a game), Steve Nash becoming the All-Star we know him as, Michael Finely being an all-around offensive machine and Nick Van Exel lighting it up, much in the same form as Jason Terry.

But it's never brought a championship. The only year Dallas has made it to the finals (2006) was when Avery Johnson drastically changed the culture of the club to a half-court, defensive oriented team. The Mavericks finally looked at bringing in a defensive center to compliment Dirk (Erick Dampier, 'Gana Diop) instead of failed offensive specialists that couldn't rebound or protect the rim (Raef LaFrentz, come on down!)

So now, how amazing/surprising to see the Mavericks with a higher defensive efficiency, than the rough, rugged and other arbitrary adjective Boston Celtics? That's right. Dallas is giving up 97.1 points per 100 possessions, which ranks them fourth in the league behind New Orleans, Orland and Miami (with the only shocker in that group the upstart Hornets.) How does this happen? Sure, playing games at the Clippers, Bobcats and 76ers certainly helps. But the Mavs have also had to tangle with potent offenses in Boston, Denver (twice) and Memphis (twice). How does this happen with a defensive black hole like J.J. Barea?

The first reason is that when Barea has been in the game, Dallas has gone almost exclusively to a zone, which hides many players individual faults. There's no question that the zone has seen effecitve use in wins against Denver and Memphis, where Dallas has been able to rest Jason Kidd and allow a well-prepared zone to befuddle opposing teams. Of course, zone does not work in the NBA over and extended period. Flaws will be shown and rebounds will be allowed. But used in short bursts? To hide weak defensive players? Why not?

Of course, the Mavericks have typically ranked low in the league in defensive play rate, which judges the rate at which a team collects steals, blocks and charges. Dallas has always been content with sitting back in man-to-man and playing straight up defense. No longer, at least this year. Dallas now ranks eighth. Jason Kidd averaging over two steals a game helps, along with Shawn Marion's ability to rack up a couple of steals and blocks a game to boot. But a big reason? Tyson Chandler. He's averaging 2.25 defensive plays a game, his highest since when he was running rampant in New Orleans. He's also cleaning up the glass, a big component to defense, grabbing 26.8% of the total defensive rebounds in a given game - once again, his highest since New Orleans.

Chandler also helped Dallas match up with the quicker centers and power forwards that has normally plagued Dallas in the past. As much as we scolded Erik Dampier, the man was a decent rebounder, screen setter and plug in the paint. The problem was asking him to step out of the paint. It's been well documented how well "fast big men" have given the Mavericks trouble. Nene, Amar'e Stoudemire, etc. With Chandler mobility, combined with health and an apparent enjoyability he's having right now, has given the Mavericks something that they aren't used to: defense. It's too early to know if the play will progress, but given the new variables of the use of zone, Chandler + Haywood's full-season impact, the unseen potential of rookie Dominique Jones (who Rick Carlisle has said is one of the teams best defenders) plus the ever steady Shawn Marion, Dallas might be able to jump into the upper echelon of elite NBA defenses.

(Advanced stats courtesy of


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  1. I am wondering what Jones' minutes will look like at the midway point and then at the end of the season. Is he going to be brought along like Howard was years ago and be depended on in the playoffs to be our main defensive stopper?

    Should be interesting to see how it all plays out.

  2. btw not a fan of having to use my google acct. access, I would prefer to keep my comments amongst the Dallas sport sites to one moniker (Trey), but oh well. Just know that it's me Josh.

  3. Thanks for the heads up. I changed the commenting settings so you don't have to have any sort of account to comment. Just select the "Name/URL" option when commenting and you should be good to go.