This Year's Mavericks Team Is Better Than Last Year's Version. But It's Not Perfect.
A quarter of the NBA season has now passed. And, 20 games in, the Dallas Mavericks have played pretty well. A 13-10 record isn't too shabby considering that, once again, the Mavs started this season with yet another revamped roster.
We saw the team try a similar strategy this last year. In the 2012 offseason, Dallas brought in a new cast of characters in an attempt to build within the parameters of the league's new collective bargaining agreement. That team puttered along, enduring a lengthy injury to Dirk Nowitzki, and eventually finishing with a .500 record. But many considered last season to be a dud. It was, after all, the first time in Mark Cuban's tenure as owner that the Mavericks failed to make the playoffs.
So, this year, one more time, players were cast off and new ones were brought in. DeJuan Blair, Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Monta Ellis and Devin Harris were all acquired during the 2013 free agency period. On paper, the new additions gave the team the offensive spark that it lacked a season ago. And, through 20 games, that offensive prowess has certainly been on display.
To date, Dallas' offense ranks as one of the best in the league. The team's points scored per game ranks in the top 10. So does its offensive rating.
While his signing was much-derided by so-called pundits and fans alike over the summer, Ellis in particular has given this year's Mavericks team a potent offensive punch. Since the loss of Jason Terry, Nowitzki hasn't had a sufficient two-man partner of offense, and Ellis has filled that role splendidly.
Plus, with Ellis and for the first time in years, the Mavs have a player that is capable — and willing — to attack the rim.
Not only that, but Ellis also facilitates the offense by often acting as the primary ball-handler. Thanks to his ability to drive, defenses collapse on him as he gets close to the basket, allowing him him to find his open teammates around the perimeter with his rather adept passing abilities.
Calderon, a great stabilizer for the offense, has especially benefited well from Ellis' passing. It's allowed him to knock down open three-point attempts all season long.
Of course, the greatest beneficiary of Ellis' arrival is Nowitzki. No longer can teams load their defenses so heavily onto Dirk. The presence of Ellis has allowed Nowitzki to work in space. It also helps that Nowitzki, despite recently wearing a knee brace, is back to full health. He remains the focal point of Dallas' offense, but now he has plenty of pieces around him to alleviate some of that burden.
Unfortunately, offense is only one half of basketball.
Defensively, things have been a struggle for the Mavericks through the first quarter of the season. This team was never going to be a defensive juggernaut a la the Indiana Pacers. No, this team, as mentioned, was built for offense.
What has been troubling, though, is the ease at which Dallas' opponents are scoring in the paint. The Mavericks have allowed 43.5 points per game to be scored on them in the paint thus far this season. Frequently, this number climbs above 50 points.
Much of this has to do with Dallas' perimeter defense. Gal Mekel and Shane Larkin, the Mavs' two rookie guards, are still learning to play at the NBA level and can get lost on plays at times. Calderon, meanwhile, isn't exactly known for his defensive prowess. Head coach Rick Carlisle has tried to hide Calderon's defensive deficiencies by cross-matching defensive assignments, playing Calderon off of quicker guards and shifting that responsibility to either Ellis or Shawn Marion. But cross-matching creates problems elsewhere, and though Carlisle has done his best to address these issues when they arise, they arise frequently.
As a result, opposing teams are getting to the rim rather easily, contributing to the Mavs' woeful giving up of 101.9 points per game.
This Mavericks rank 25th in the NBA in that statistic. There are only 30 teams.
In turn, Dallas has relied heavily on its offense to win games, posting an average of 103.7 points per game. That's a point differential of just 1.8 points — hardly a recipe for winning consistently.
While the Mavericks are in the middle of the pack when it comes to rebounding, they find themselves losing the battle on the glass more often than not. They have given up the 24th most defensive rebounds in the league. To this point, Blair has been the team's best rebounder gathering a total of 148 rebounds in the young season. Encouragingly, 61 of these have been offensive rebounds. Blair's ability to remain active on the boards has endeared him to fans and earned him heavy minutes in the rotation.
Unfortunately, one man's tenacity cannot make up for an entire team's shortcomings.
The Mavericks are far from a perfect team. And, with a revamped roster, there are sure to be more bumps along the road. But the team that has been assembled holds more promise than the one that took the court at the start of last season.
Through 20 games, it looks as though Dallas has found a potent offensive weapon in Ellis, a capable floor general and long-range sharpshooter in Calderon, and an active interior force in Blair.
These players, coupled with a healthy Nowitzki, have given fans something to cheer about, and rightly so.
Anything can happen in a long season.
But, at this point, there is no reason not to harbor some hope that this team can return to the playoffs.