Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Counting the Stars and Weak Links

Watching tonight's game, I think there was one very obvious reason why the Mavericks couldn't beat the Hornets in this series: the Hornets had two stars, and Dallas only had one. Closely related to this is the sad reality that Chris Paul had a triple-double in the series, and Jason Kidd didn't.

My brother Jeremy will doubtless continue his blaming of Dirk, but the fact of the matter is that Chris Paul--utterly brilliant especially in the first the fourth quarters--was able to relax for large portions of the game, because David West repeatedly hit big shots, even when Paul wasn't setting him up.

Having two stars instead of one makes an enormous impact on a team's offense, because the Hornets could regularly double-team Nowitzki with only minimal fear that anyone else would hurt them. In several cases Dirk (6 assists) found Terry for open shots, and that's a big part of the reason Dallas stayed in the game at all. But Terry can't get his own shot, which means the Mavericks weren't able to stretch the defense as well as the Hornets could.

But Dallas, faced with Paul and West as offensive threats, had few options for forcing the ball out of either of their hands. This amounted to a huge tactical advantage for the Hornets, and it's why they were simply the better team this series.

J-Ho and Stackhouse

The other reason for the disastrous series was the continued lousy offensive play of Josh Howard and Jerry Stackhouse. Both players actually started out game 5 quite well, Howard hitting 4 of his first 5 shots, and Stackhouse hitting 4 of his first 6. Yet 7 of these 8 made shots were layups or dunks. And what's more, after Stackhouse made a jumper with 5:50 left in the 2nd quarter, here is the offensive output the Mavericks got from Stackhouse and Howard combined:
  • Howard layup with 7:46 left in the 3rd
  • Howard jumper in the lane with 10:48 left in the 4th
  • Stackhouse dunk with 3:41 left in the 4th (a breakaway off a nice pass from Kidd)
All in all, for those last two-and-a-half quarters, Howard shot 2 of 9, and Stackhouse shot 1 of 6. Neither player could hit anything from outside all game: In fact, Howard didn't score a single point outside the lane, and Stackhouse only made one jump-shot. Other than that, every basket for either swing-man was a layup or dunk. I think they each air-balled at least one 3-pointer, and most of their shots weren't even close to going in.

Yet Avery allowed Howard and Stackhouse to continue setting up from outside, and between them they missed their last 8 outside shots, including 5 three-pointers.

With 1:47 left in the game, after Dallas had almost miraculously managed to pull within 8 points, hitting 3-pointers on three consecutive possessions (Kidd, Dirk, and George), Stackhouse inexplicably fouled Paul in the backcourt, which game him two free throws, and then Stackhouse slapped the ball out of Paul's hands, drawing a technical FT. Mercifully, this was Stackhouse's second tech of the game, which means it got him ejected--so at least Avery couldn't leave him in the game to keep missing shots.

What was particularly infuriating about this is that both Howard and Stackhouse have been completely incapable of scoring from outside for the entire series. Both players had scored a few points here and there, but virtually all of them were from layups and free throws. To have both players continue to take these shots in the fourth quarter of an elimination game was unconscionable from a coaching standpoint. Miraculously, the Mavericks almost managed to come back at the end anyway. Imagine what could have happened if these two guys had stopped taking shots they were almost certain to miss.

For the series, then, Howard shot 21/72 (29%) for 12.2 PPG, and Stackhouse shot 12/38 (32%) for 6.2 PPG.


For what it's worth, Dirk has never been swept in a playoff series. From what I've seen of the NBA playoffs, a superstar should always be able to get his team one win in a series, however out-matched they are (think: Allen Iverson in the finals against LA). The fact that Dirk has always come away with at least one win suggests that he's done his job: he has often been a superstar on an overmatched team, but only very rarely a playoff no-show. This is why Dirk has career playoff averages of 25.3 points and 11.1 rebounds (on 44.7% shooting, averaging 1.38 points per field goal attempt).

Minutes, Minutes, Minutes

Something to watch for in tonight’s game is whether Avery finally gets over his urge to give useless playing time to Jerry Stackhouse and JJ Barea. (Mike Fisher at dallasbasketball.com has great analysis this week, and he raises and answers a lot of these questions about minutes.) The Mavericks need at least two scorers on the court the entire night, and they already have the minutes to do that -- if Avery has the will to follow through.

Here are the average minutes that have been played by Dallas’ top players so far this series:
  • Dirk: 40.8 minutes
  • Howard: 35.0 minutes
  • Kidd: 35.0 minutes
  • Terry: 34.0 minutes
Since I'm not an NBA coach, I welcome someone to correct me if I'm wrong on this, but what jumps out at me is that, between Dirk, Howard, and Terry, that’s only 34 minutes of rest, which means there is no reason for more than one of them to be out of the game at any given time. Which means there is no reason not to have two scorers on the floor for every minute of the game. If Avery just bumped Terry and Howard up to 36 minutes each, he could rest Dirk the last four minutes of the first and third quarters, rest Terry the first six minutes of the second and third quarters, and rest Howard the last six minutes of the second quarter and the first six minutes of the fourth quarter. Or something like that.

Then just make sure that Kidd is in the game all the minutes that Terry is out, and you (1) always have a viable point guard on the floor, (2) always have two scorers on the floor -- that is, assuming Howard remembers how to score at some point, and (3) have all four of your best guys playing together the first six minutes and the last six minutes of the game.

If you figure those 40 minutes for Dirk and 36 each for Kidd, Howard, and Terry, then that leaves 92 minutes for the rest of the team. Then maybe 26 minutes for Dampier, 30 for Bass (at center for the 22 minutes Dampier is on the bench, and at power forward for the 8 minutes Dirk is on the bench), and then 36 minutes for the other swing men: Maybe 16 minutes for Devean George, 12 for Eddie Jones, and 8 for Jerry Stackhouse--always with two other scorers on the court.

Or better yet: I don't know exactly how much rest the 4 stars need, but if you give Dirk, Kidd, Terry, and Howard 40 minutes each for tonight's game (it is an elimination game, after all), then you only need 32 minutes of rest total among the four of them. That means you can have all four guys on the court for the first 8 minutes and the last 8 minutes of the game, and then you have three of the four on the court the entire rest of the game.

That also means you can cut an additional 12 minutes from George, Jones, and Stackhouse -- which would probably mean dropping Jones from the lineup altogether.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Blame J-Ho

I don’t have a lot to say here, except that (1) thank goodness at least Dirk is playing well, and (2) Dallas isn’t going to win a playoff series when both Josh Howard and Jerry Stackhouse have 4 straight awful scoring games.

Howard's lines:
  • Game 1: 4/16
  • Game 2: 3/10
  • Game 3: 5/16
  • Game 4: 3/16
Overall, that’s 15/58, or 25.9% field goal shooting for the series. Howard has also made a good number of free throws, so he’s managed 12.8 points per game, along with 6.5 rebounds.

Stackhouse’s lines:
  • Game 1: 2/9
  • Game 2: 4/10
  • Game 3: 0/2
  • Game 4: 1/5
Overall, that’s 7/26, or 26.9% field goal shooting for the series. He’s averaged 5 points and 3 rebounds.

Jason Terry’s numbers are somewhat better:
  • Game 1: 3/7
  • Game 2: 5/8
  • Game 3: 8/18
  • Game 4: 6/16
Terry’s totals have been 16.5 points on 44.9% shooting, which is pretty close to his season average. His play was impressive for most of tonight.

So here’s the problem: assuming we give Kidd at least a little bit of credit for his 7 rebounds and 6.3 assists (lame for him, but still obviously a valuable contribution), that means that Brandon Bass has been Dallas’ fourth best player this series, after Dirk and Terry, and Kidd. That’s a bad sign for the team, since ideally, Bass should never be better than the fourth best player on the court for the Mavericks at any give time.

I’m actually starting to feel sympathy for Avery Johnson. It should be outrageous to have Devean George (a stiff, in my book) taking 7 shots in a playoff game, except that the Mavericks really don’t have anyone else passable to bring off the bench. In the second quarter, Dallas was running Barea, Stackhouse, George, and Bass alongside Dirk. Nowitzki is a great offensive player, but he’s simply not dominant enough to score a bunch of points when there are four stiffs on the court with him (with apologies to Bass), which means the Hornets don’t have to guard anyone else.

As far as I can tell, for the Mavericks to succeed, they need two solid scorers on the floor at any point in the game. If Howard were scoring like he’s supposed to, Johnson could save Terry for the sixth man, to come in alongside Stackhouse for the second unit. But with Howard playing badly, Dallas needs Terry for the first unit; then with Stackhouse playing badly, Dallas is left without any dependable scorers in the second unit. The result is what we saw tonight: a strong start, followed by a huge drop-off when the bench comes into play.

All this adds up to how the Hornets could win even when Chris Paul didn’t have a great game: tonight, Dallas shot 36% overall, and 3 of their top 5 scorers didn’t show up. That’s essentially been the case for the series so far, so it’s little surprise the Hornets are up 3-1. In theory, the series could still turn around if the Mavericks played according to their talent. Unfortunately, there’s no real reason to think that they will.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Born Losers?

I can’t help seeing irony in a comparison between last season and this one, when we look at how the Mavericks ended their regular season and how they’ve begun the playoffs.

Last year, Dallas was widely criticized for blowing off one of its last regular-season games against Golden State, which helped allow the Warriors to make the playoffs, where they faced and demolished Dallas. It seemed to be bad karma for the Mavericks not to play hard as they finished their season, and it seemed that they were basically paying for that mistake as they lost to a hot Warriors team that bullied them throughout the series.

This year, Dallas came into its last regular season game against New Orleans, in basically the reverse situation. Whereas a win against the Warriors last year would have meant the Mavericks would not have had to face them in the playoffs, a win against the Hornets this year assured that the Mavericks would face them in the first round. This time around, it seemed that the Mavericks got it right: they played hard against the Hornets and beat them, which would seem to build up some good karma going into the playoffs. Right?

The plan seems to have backfired, though. Avery -- whom seems to have lost his ability to win big games as a coach -- trotted out a full-court press that frustrated Chris Paul in that last regular season game, and it did help Dallas build some confidence. Unfortunately, it also allowed the Hornets to adjust before the first playoff game. Whereas you’d really hope to bring out the surprising strategy as an edge to help you win game 1 of the playoff series, Avery unveiled it ahead of time. The result is a strategy that actually worked -- but at the wrong time.

There is one thing in common: in both cases Dallas told the other team that they weren’t afraid to face them in the playoffs. Which is another way to say that Dallas showed disrespect toward the team they would ultimately face in the first round. I’m not sure that necessarily has anything to do with their failure last year and (so far) this year, but it obviously hasn’t helped.

And surely there has to be a certain amount of luck that has gone into the playoff losses these last three years: Dwyane Wade’s parade to the free throw line, Baron Davis hitting half-court shots and falling-out-of-bounds 3-pointers, and Chris Paul hitting identical off-balance buzzer beaters at the ends of consecutive first quarters. These kinds of plays are extremely discouraging for a team -- after all, how can you expect to win when you’re playing against Superman?

Yet once the pattern sets in, it starts to seem less and less like luck. Whereas Dirk was the one playing Superman a couple of years ago, with his 50-point WCF performance against Phoenix (see this pose, where I compare it to a similar LBJ game in last year’s playoffs), this year he’s merely been good (27 point on 11 FG attempts is actually very good, at least on paper), while Paul has been the superhero. But more than that, the Mavericks are getting mediocre play from Stackhouse, Howard, and Terry, plus they’re playing lousy team defense. In the end, it looks like the Mavericks just aren’t very good.

This is ultimate fan hell: when your team does the wrong thing, it blows up in their face. When they do the right thing, it backfires. Bad luck, bad karma, bad effort, or bad coaching: more than anything, it’s just a bad experience for a fan.

Friday, April 18, 2008

50-Game Winners

A couple of weeks back, ESPN posted a stat (here) about how the Spurs have won 50 games for 9 seasons in a row (including this one), a stat which ties them for second place on the all-time list, alongside Bird’s Celtics (1980-1988), and trailing only Magic’s Lakers (12 years in a row: 1980-1991).

Dallasbasketball.com also posted a stat a couple of days later about the Mavericks’ place in that list, which puts the Mavericks only one 50-win season behind the Spurs, since Dallas finally reached 50 games this season, to make it 8 in a row. I can’t remember what that stat was exactly, except that it tried to put Dirk in the company of Magic, Bird, and Duncan, in light of the Mavericks’ long-term success. I can’t find the link to that page anymore, or I’d cite it specifically.

In any event, as it turns out, the whole ESPN statistic is skewed, because it doesn’t take into account 1998-99, when a lockout limited the regular season to only 50 games total, and no one finished with more than 37 wins. Now granting that no one actually won 50, still for the purposes of measuring long-term success it’s silly to skip that season, which cut off a couple of pretty impressive streaks of 50-win seasons.

So I did a run-through of every NBA season since the league first went to 79 games in 1961 (then 80 games in 1962, and finally 82 games in 1967). (Note that I didn’t get to double-check the results, so there might be mistakes in this list.) After adjusting for the 61% winning percentage that a 50-win season represents with the current schedule, here are the best streaks (with an asterisk by the active streaks):
  • 12 - Lakers ('80-'91)

  • 11 - Spurs ('98-'08)*

  • 9 - Celtics ('80-'88)
  • 9 - Lakers ('96-'04)

  • 8 - Jazz ('94-'01)
  • 8 - Mavericks ('01-'08)*

  • 7 - Bucks ('81-'87)
  • 7 - Suns ('89-'95)
  • 7 - Pistons ('02-08)*

  • 6 - 76ers ('80-'85)
  • 6 - Sonics ('93-'98)

  • 5 - Bucks ('70-'74)
  • 5 - Celtics ('72-'76)
  • 5 - Pistons ('87-91)
  • 5 - Bulls ('90-'94)
  • 5 - Heat ('97-'01)
  • 5 - Kings ('01-'05)
A couple of comments, before I get to my main point. Three teams (the Nets, the Warriors, and the Nuggests) have never had two consecutive 50-win seasons, and another four (Bullets/Wizards, Cavs, Rockets, Hornets) have never had more than two.

Next, Chicago surely would have won 50 or more in 1995 if Jordan hadn’t absurdly retired for a year and a half to play baseball, which would have given them 9 consecutive years ('90-'98). But of course, he did retire, at his own whim (unless Bill Simmons is right about it being a secret suspension for gambling), and the franchise paid the price.

And third, to keep things in perspective, the Mavericks had won 50 games only twice in their franchise history (1987 and 1988) before Nowitzki joined the team. My childhood memory wants to say that Dallas just had bad luck in always having to face Magic’s Lakers in the playoffs, but in reality the Mavericks just weren’t that good for very long.

The Top of the List

So then, the numbers put the Mavericks as tied for 5th on the all-time list (that is, since 1961). That position seems impressive, except that it only ties them with the Jazz (who could never quite get the job done), and it only puts them just ahead of Bucks, Suns, and Sonics teams that weren’t exactly known as dynasties.

I find the top three teams particularly impressive, because their respective stars (Magic, Duncan, and Bird) played their entire career with the same team and led their respective teams to 50 wins every year they played for them (only counting Magic until his first retirement).

With the Jazz and the Mavericks, that isn’t the case. The Jazz with Stockton and Malone had some other good seasons, but they weren’t great every year. The Mavericks, in Dirk’s first two seasons, only won 14 (23 if adjusted for lockout) and 40 games.

In one way the Mavericks’ streak is the more impressive of the two, because the Jazz had two superstars, while Dirk is the only Maverick on the team for their entire streak. Still, Mark Cuban has consistently put a lot of good players around him, so we should also credit the organization of adjusting quickly (e.g., to the departure of Nash) to keep the team good.

If Dirk isn’t going to fall into the Karl Malone mold (as my brother Jeremy thinks he will), it’s going to depend on what happens with the Mavericks these next couple of seasons. If they stay strong, they could jump into 3rd place on this list, which would help solidify Dirk (at least in my opinion) as a hall-of-fame player. A championship, of course, would do the same.

On the other hand, it’s easy to see the Mavericks fading if they don’t make a significant playoff run this year. There’s a reason that only Magic, Bird, Duncan, and Shaq have kept teams good for longer: it’s difficult to do, and most players/teams fade before they get there.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

In Rhythm

We’re seeing a trend here:
  • Against the Lakers on March 2, with the Mavericks trailing by 3 in regulation, Kidd sets up Dirk for a nice 3-pointer, which he hits with two seconds left to send the game into overtime.
  • Last week against Phoenix, with the Mavericks up 4 late in the game, Kidd gets the ball to Dirk off a pick at the top of the key. Amare Stoudemire is forced to close out on Dirk, who quickly makes a nice head-fake and then drives past Stoudemire, then hits an off-balance fade-away off his bad leg with 32 seconds left to basically seal the win. (If you haven’t seen the play, it’s at the 1:40 mark of this video.)
  • Last night against Utah, because Dallas is out of timeouts after Deron Williams ties the game with 5 seconds left, the Mavericks inbound the ball and push it up the court quickly. Eddie Jones finds Dirk for an open 3-pointer, which he sinks with less than a second left to win the game.
One point here is that it’s nice to see Dirk hitting big shots, even if one of them (the one against the Lakers) didn’t result in a win. But the more important thing (as I argue here and here) is that he hit all three of these shots in the rhythm of the game and off of good passes, not in isolation sets. I’m not sure if Dirk just psychs himself out when he has too much time to think about a shot, or (more likely) defenses just know how to guard him when he gives them plenty of time to get set, but these plays that are less planned just seem to work more often.

In my last post, I criticized Avery Johnson for pulling Dirk with two early fouls in the Phoenix game, even when Avery admitted during an on-court interview a few minutes later that Dirk is good at avoiding fouls, and that he wasn’t really worried about him fouling out of the game. The needlessness of the automatic benching after the second foul is something Mike Fisher at dallasbasketball.com has harped on for a long time, and that some of the TV commentators have mentioned occasionally as well.

What bugs me is that Avery follows basketball orthodoxy even when he admits it doesn’t fit the situation, and this is exactly what happens late in games when the Mavericks call the standard timeout to set up a careful half-court set to go for the game-winner. Considering how seldom those work for the Mavericks in particular, surely they would be better off just getting the ball into Kidd’s hands and pushing it up the court in late-game situations, trying to catch the defense off-balance and find one of their outstanding shooters (Dirk, Terry, Stackhouse) with an open shot in rhythm. Other teams do this (especially in the NCAA, if I remember correctly), and it appears to be the Mavericks’ best shot at actually winning those game.

Last night’s game was a huge relief, both to get the team into the playoffs and to see Dirk hit a big shot when it really mattered. We’ve seen he can make those in the playoffs too, but it’s up to the coach and the team to put him in situations where he’s best. I have to admit I still have some hope for this season.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Not off the hook

A few of the Mavericks’ coaching gaffes (a couple perhaps up for dispute) from the startling win over Phoenix:
  • Middle of first quarter -- Avery takes Dirk out of the game when he gets his second foul, even though Avery admits in an interview a few minutes later that Dirk is great at avoiding fouling out of games. Dirk finished with 4 fouls in 38 minutes.
  • End of 1st quarter (as db.com points out): Dallas has time to hold for the final shot, but Jason Terry shoots too early, which gives Phoenix time for a good shot.
  • After the Phoenix rebound, Dallas has a foul to give, which could break up the flow of that final play for Phoenix; instead, Dallas doesn’t foul, and Phoenix gets a bucket.
  • End of 2nd quarter: Nash figures out that Dallas is going to give a foul, so he starts his drive early, leaving enough time after the foul for Phoenix to get a good shot. Who wants to guess that Avery was screaming across the floor (where Nash could hear it) that Dallas should give a foul?
  • Start of second half, Dallas gives up two quick baskets, and Avery calls a timeout less than 2 minutes into the quarter. Isn't it at least partly the coach's responsibility if the team starts the second half not ready to play?
  • As Dallas is getting repeatedly burned by the pick-and-roll, Jeff Van Gundy says they should be giving up the open 3-pointer, but not uncontested dunks.
  • Late 3rd quarter: Mark Jackson points out that no one on Dallas is talking on the court about how to make defensive adjustments. Wouldn’t a well-coached team be doing that when they’re getting burned repeatedly?
It was embarrassing as a fan to listen to two sharp commentators (Jackson and Van Gundy) pick the Mavericks to pieces, and it was coaching decisions they repeated criticized, even if they weren’t using Avery’s name. Now admittedly, part of this is just the way that NBA coverage always work: if you’re winning, every decision is good, and if you’re losing, every decision is bad.

But still, for most of the game it seemed clear that Dallas was simply not playing like a team that is well-prepared, and as a result, I think Johnson should still be taking heat despite the win. The Suns missed their share of open shots this time, and Mavs fans all know that you can’t count on getting that kind of luck in the playoffs. Details matter a great deal, and I think it’s clear that Johnson still needs to figure some of them out.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

and again and again

How many times can we ask this? Is Avery Johnson not aware that Dirk is horrible at scoring on isolation plays at the ends of games? I only remember seeing that play succeed three times in all the years I’ve watched Dirk: once against the Spurs in the playoffs two years ago, once against the Heat in the Finals, and once in the regular season against Phoenix last year.

Other than that, Dirk’s points at the ends of games almost always come from either free throws or shots in rhythm, off the pass. Time and again, though, the isolation play fails.

As I wrote over a month ago (in this post), the Mavericks only hit game-winning shots when they’re set up with open looks in rhythm. Those kinds of set-ups, of course, are exactly what Kidd is best at. Get Kidd the ball, get people moving around, and let him find Dirk or Terry, or maybe even Dampier for a dunk if the defense breaks down.

So what do the Mavericks run tonight, with the game on the line and 30 seconds left?

Isolation to Dirk.

It has never worked with any consistency. Doesn’t matter why -- that play simply doesn’t win close game for the Mavericks. If Avery doesn’t get this simple fact, I don’t see why we think this team will ever succeed under his leadership.