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).


jeremy said...

You are correct that the Mavs need another star. But that is merely a necessary condition to their winning a title, not a sufficient one. (Note that Dirk lost multiple playoff series playing with 2-time MVP Steve Nash).

Craig Miller made the cogent point this morning that no team has ever won a championship unless it could score and defend in the paint. The Mavs can do neither. Their center is incompetent and their power forward is actually a 3 man in a 4 man's body.

That's not to say Dirk is a bad guy. But it is to say that he is an ill-fitting part. The fact that the Mavs have built their team around him means that they will never win a title unless they find a dominant center to play beside him.

scoots said...

I do agree that Dirk is an odd player to build a team around, and one of the key reasons is that he plays most of the game 17 feet from the basket, which means your best rebounder hardly gets any offensive rebounds.

I actually still like Dampier, and I thought the Mavericks' interior defense was decent for most of this series. West and Paul mostly killed them from 10-15 feet out, it seemed to me.

The ability to score depends on mis-matches, and this is why I primarily blame Howard for the Mavericks' failure this series. The Mavericks were at their best last night when Dirk could draw a double team. If they had had Howard as a real threat on the off-side, it would have made a *huge* difference in opening things up.

micah said...

It is mindboggling how badly Stack and Howard missed their jump shots. Not even close. You have to have guys who can make open jump shots. Peja wasn't great last night. When covered he usually missed, but when open he knocked them down.

So, who is our next coach?

scoots said...

Well, Cuban could always go for exorcising demons from the Finals by hiring Pat Riley...

JKnott said...


I agree on Stack and J-Ho. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seemed that Howard played one decent game, namely game 3 when he was under fire for he comments on pot use. Other than that, he stunk. Which seems to me to indicate a lack of interior motivation on his part. Is he still upset about losing Harris as a teammate? Or can he just not be bothered?

scoots said...

Even game 3 wasn't all that decent for Howard, looking at the box score. 18 points on 16 FGS isn't too bad (since Howard hit 8 or 10 free throws), but he still only shot 31% from the field that game (5 of 16), and he only managed 4 rebounds. The Mavericks only won that game because Dirk went for 39/19/6, and probably more importantly because Paul and West combined to shoot 10 of 38.

scoots said...

I think you make a good point about Howard's lack of interior motivation. That could be the whole problem, since he obviously has some talent. It seems like maybe he's not willing to be a number-2 guy on a team when things get difficult, which means the Mavericks may be in trouble if they can't find a number-2 scoring option who can get his own shot.

Glad to hear from you, Jason.

scoots said...

Wow, that was fast. Avery's gone already.

micah said...

I think that was a step in the right direction. Avery seems like a decent guy, but it seems like too many coaching mistakes lead to him losing influence on his team.

Did anyone hear about Josh Howard's birthday party after game four even when Avery asked the team to quit partying for the playoffs. I'm done with Howard too.

jeremy said...

Just listened to Avery's press conference. What a graceful man. Dallas is a poorer town for no longer having him.

JKnott said...

I'm glad Avery is gone. A nice guy with a great character, I'm sure, but his coaching style has been shown to bee to sphexish. Great word. Fits him to a "t."

I hope we don't get D'Antoni (sp?). No offense to him, either, but I don't think his style can win. Too bad Phil Jackson is doing so well at his current job.

jeremy said...

So Phil Jackson's hardheadedness in imposing his offense is genius. And Avery's is animalistic behavior. Huh.

JKnott said...

Not "animalistic" in any general sense but in the specific sense of stubbornly sticking to things that aren't working. I think it far from unfair to distinguish between a "hardheadedness" that won 9 of 12 championships in a row and one that lost twice in the first round with the same general lineup as the one that got to the finals. Sure, Phil's luck in coaching Michael and Pippen then Kobe and Shaq did help. But Michael never won without Phil, nor did Kobe and Shaq, and Shaq only won one without Phil and he played with Wade and was coached by another future hall of famer. Can you really say I'm being unfair to assume Jackson could have had better success with the Mavs? Maybe so, but at least it's a plausible assumption.

JKnott said...


Of course, one could dispute the claim that the Mavs in the postseason this year were in "general" the same, given the Kidd trade. But for that to undermine my argument, you'd have to maintain that they were so much worse off with the lineup after the trade to negate any negative reflection on Johnson's coaching.

Brad Cranford said...

I was an Avery supported until this past pre-season. I didn't agree with the reaction to last season's failure. That is, to treat the regular season as an experimentation and to discount the value of wins. I thought that was an over reaction and it repeated what I had feared was his greatest flaw: assuming the San Antonio way was the only way (or if it worked for Pop, it will work for me).

Then, as the season progressed Avery seemed to get more and more lost as a coach.

Sure, in previous seasons, especially the playoffs, he got out coached in certain situations but this was the only season in Dallas where he appeared to do a terrible job of coaching all season.

An interesting (semi-related) stat that I was reminded of the other day. Kidd had 13 triple doubles this season. Twelve of them coming before the trade to Dallas.

Granted, Kidd obviously can't hang with CP3, but 12 triple doubles pre-trade tells me he still has considerable ability in his 35 year-old body.

scoots said...

I completely agree about Kidd. He may start to fade, but the only chance the Mavericks have with this roster is to assume that he should be playing as well as he has for the past couple of seasons -- including a triple-double every 5 or 6 games -- which means if he's not doing that, they need to focus on figuring out why not.

JKnott said...

So, Scott, any thoughts on Carlisle?

scoots said...

Unfortunately, no. I've read a little bit about Carlisle, but I don't really have any particular opinions. Plus, today I have to hammer out a paper due tomorrow.

scoots said...

Sorry, but I just saw this comment that my brother left earlier on the post: Note that Dirk lost multiple playoff series playing with 2-time MVP Steve Nash.

Uh, note that Nash wasn't an MVP candidate when he played for Dallas. Remember all those big game-winning shots he *didn't* hit for the Mavericks? He became simply a different player when he went to Phoenix. With Dallas, he was a borderline all-star, but no one would have called him a superstar, and certainly not an MVP. I maintain tat Dirk has never played with a sidekick on par with Worthy, McHale, Pippen, Stockton, Drexler, or Kobe.

Maybe Nash and Finley were as good as Parker and Ginobili, but even that's debatable since Ginobili is so good at hitting clutch shots.

Argggh! Back to my paper...

JKnott said...

Huh. The Shaq-Kobe Lakers and the Dirk Mavs are STILL the only teams to beat Duncan's Spurs. As disappointing as their showing in the Finals was, as I get more distance from it I come to appreciate more and more what the Mavs did in '06.

scoots said...

I say, let the Spurs win the title this year, and then Dallas can have another shot of keeping up that stat.

JKnott said...

Yes, unless the Lakers win and we can say the KOBE Lakers and the Dirk Mavs are the only ones.