In mid-December, the Dallas Mavericks had a fun team that wasn't going anywhere in the playoffs. We can be honest about this, right? Their free-flowing offense was beautiful to watch, but their perimeter defense was torn apart by good teams and incumbent point guard Jameer Nelson was shooting 37 percent from the field. Dallas was headed for a strong regular-season record and early-round playoffs defeat.
The Mavericks decided that wasn't enough in Dirk Nowitzki's twilight. They made a blockbuster trade, acquiring Rajon Rondo from the Celtics for Nelson, Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder and a first-round pick. They knew the fit wasn't going to be seamless, but banked on Rondo raising their playoff ceiling.
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But integrating Rondo has been more difficult than expected. His inability to score cramped Dallas' spacing and had an adverse effect on players like Monta Ellis and Chandler Parsons. Ellis in particular tanked after a fast start, posting a true shooting percentage below 47 after the NBA All-Star break. Dallas' defense improved, but its offense fell off even more. Losing Wright and Crowder hurt the team's frontcourt depth, forcing them to rely on veteran cast-offs like Charlie Villanueva and Amar'e Stoudemire. Even Nowitzki himself began showing his age, though you can't blame Rondo for that.
The Mavericks thus stumbled into the No. 7 seed, winning just one more game than last year, despite replacing Shawn Marion and Samuel Dalembert with Parsons and Tyson Chandler. A first-round series win seems unlikely, but the playoffs is also when the Rondo deal was supposed to pay off the most. Can this veteran crew turn back the clock?
How they beat you
When the Mavericks get going, they are tough to stop, even with Rondo occasionally mucking up their pristine spacing. In Ellis, Parsons and Nowitzki, the Mavericks have three players that can score from anywhere against any sort of defense. Nowitzki is still very good in the mid post despite a slight shooting slump and is increasingly thriving in pick and pop situations. Ellis' perimeter shooting has been off lately, but when the floor is spaced properly, he can drive on anyone. Parsons is getting more opportunities to create in pick and roll situations after initially struggling to find his place in the team's hierarchy. All three also take care of the ball, helping Dallas post a top-five turnover rate.
The Mavericks have also improved defensively with Rondo, for what it's worth. When Rondo's engaged, he can take top point guards off their games. Russell Westbrook in particular has looked mortal against Dallas, shooting 6-for-23 in a game in December and going 10-for-32 in a critical late-season matchup in April. The Mavericks surrender less than 103 points per 100 possessions when Rondo plays, which would approach the top 10 in the NBA. They just need to find a way to keep the offensive effective in those minutes.
How you beat them
This is still not a great defensive team on the whole, though. Ellis and Parsons are a poor wing combination and Nowitzki is affectionately nicknamed "The Mummy" around the team because he can't move anymore. Nowitzki's defensive rebound rate may be in line with his career averages, but 67 percent of his boards come with nobody contesting him, per NBA.com's player tracking data. By contrast, Stoudemire, hardly an explosive athlete anymore, grabs half of his rebounds with other players fighting with him.
When players are in Nowitzki's range, they usually beat him for boards like this. That's a problem against teams with two strong big man. It'll be a problem against the Rockets, who crash the offensive glass hard.
And then there's the offensive spacing with Rondo in the game. Dallas scores four more points per 100 possessions with Rondo out than him in. Worse, the normal starting lineup averages a whopping 15 more points per possession (118.4) with Devin Harris at point guard instead of Rondo (103). Rondo's man will just play free safety against the other four Mavericks knowing that Rondo can't punish him for doing so.
Most important player
You'll hear lots of cliches about Tyson Chandler's importance to the Mavericks. They're all correct.
It's scary to think where Dallas would be without Chandler, whom they reacquired from the Knicks for Jose Calderon's terrible contract, Dalembert and two second-round picks. He is their only good defensive rebounder, man-to-man post defender and rim protector. Hell, he's their only frontcourt warm body if you consider Nowitzki and Al-Farouq Aminu to be perimeter players. Take Chandler off this team and they win 30 games. That was true before they traded Wright and it's even more true now that he's gone.
The numbers show Chandler's impact, but they also undersell it. Because Nowitzki can't move defensively, Chandler must simultaneously check the opposing team's best frontcourt player and grab key defensive rebounds. Because Dallas' wings are such defensive sieves, Chandler had to defend more shot attempts at the rim than all but two players. Because Dallas' perimeter shooting outside of Nowitzki is spotty, they need Chandler to draw more on rolls to the rim to create better looks.
Chandler simply must do so much more than other centers because of the roster's limitations elsewhere.
TOO. TOO. TOO MUCH MONTA
This is the best team-produced video of all time.
The lead-in, the vintage graphics, the props, the lyrics, the players' devotion to rapping each verse like it's the last verse they'll ever rap, the highlights ... we're never getting anything better than this. I'm rooting for a Nowitzki/Ellis/Parsons highlight sequence just so we can post that video again.