Monday, June 13, 2011

Musings on the NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks

Well, then. Game 6 of the 2011 NBA Finals was stunning on many levels, and I certainly have to eat some crow after proclaiming LeBron James the best basketball player alive just two weeks ago. It's a stunning turn of events for James, with such an underproductive series, especially in key moments. I really don't know what to make of him right now, after another strange playoff disappearing act, just after dominating the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

But that's for later. Today is a day to celebrate the 2010-11 NBA champion Dallas Mavericks, one of the more improbable NBA title outfits, for sure. Here we go:

1. ALL ABOUT THE CRUNCH TIME
On Friday, I posted about how exceptionally good Dallas has been in close games in recent years, specifically noting how dominant the lineup of Kidd-Terry-Marion-Nowitzki-Chandler performed in clutch situations throughout the 2010-11 season, both regular season and playoffs.

Well, here's a further quantification of what clutch play meant to these Mavericks, following up on Jeff Fogle's work for Hoopdata, which showed that Dallas had outscored Miami 60-26 in the 24 minutes which covered the last six minutes of Games 2-5, collectively.

In my post on Friday, I noted that I preferred Tom Haberstroh's definition of a close game as one which was within five points at any time in the last five minutes, rather than just judging by the final score.

Since Fogle already started the work, I created a bit of a mashup, compiling the Dallas point differential in the final six minutes of any playoff game which was within five points at some time in that final six-minute stretch. 16 of Dallas' 21 playoff games met this criteria, plus the overtime period in Game 4 vs. Oklahoma City for a total of 101 minutes, marked as CLUTCH below.

Here's the comparison:
             DIFF   MIN  PER 48M
    CLUTCH +77 101 +36.6
    OTHER +44 912 +2.3
    OVERALL +121 1013 +5.7
Just to clarify this, that means the Mavs outscored their playoff opposition by 77 points in 101 minutes of what I've defined as crunch-time play, almost double what their total differential was in 912 minutes of all other action, and note that a full +36 of that +44 came on one Sunday afternoon in early May which delighted Laker haters around the globe.

Dallas outscored its playoff opponents by 36.6 points per 48 minutes in the clutch! And by just 2.3 points per 48 minutes in all other action. That's the championship right there, folks.

The decisive factor in this championship run was superior execution down the stretch. Even that Lakers series - which lingers in memory as complete dominance due to the Game 4 destruction - easily could have been 2-2 with the Lakers going back to L.A. holding home-court advantage.

In Game 1, the Lakers were up 94-92 with 40 seconds left and the ball in Kobe Bryant's hands. In Game 3, L.A. was up 87-81 with 4 minutes left. But both times, the Mavs slayed the beast with the baddest clutch reputation in the game, and the sweep was on.

2. ONE OF THE BEST NBA COACHING JOBS EVER
Certainly, a decent chunk of that clutch execution can be credited to the superior coaching of Rick Carlisle and his staff. As far as specific moves made by Carlisle in the Finals, I don't have much to add to John Hollinger's summation.

I loved this Hollinger comment after their comeback win in Game 4:
    This is the type of thing Dallas did a lot this season. No, not pulling off miracle comebacks, but getting opponents to stop playing their game and leaving them stumbling into the locker room wondering, "How'd we lose to those guys?" Mavs coach Rick Carlisle is a master of junking up the game and did it again in the fourth quarter Thursday; as a Heat staffer told me a day earlier, the Mavs keep making you think, and can subtract a lot of an opponent's flow and spontaneity in the process.
I totally agree, as I really thought Carlisle and his staff were superb all season, both in consistently having the Mavs well-prepared with smart game plans, and in making in-game adjustments as well as anyone. For the entirety of the season, I really feel like this is one of the greatest coaching jobs in NBA history.

Look again at the names of the Mavericks who played in Games 5 and 6:
    Nowitzki
    Terry
    Chandler
    Kidd
    Marion
    Barea
    Stevenson
    Cardinal
    Mahinmi
That's an absolute beast on top in Dirk, for sure, and Chandler is a seriously tough defensive center. But, as much as Jason Terry stepped up in the Finals, he's still a sub-All-Star player, who doesn't seem like he should be a no. 2 offensive option on a champion (what would you have said if I'd suggested he was one two months ago?). Credit Jet for delivering, but also Carlisle, for doing things like dropping in the staggered pick-and-rolls in the Finals, to give Terry room to operate and put him in a position to succeed.

And, I mean, on the other end of the roster, Dallas couldn't or wouldn't even play Brendan Haywood, a very good backup center, or Peja Stojakovic, who provided 8.8 points per game in the first three rounds (which was miraculous enough in its own right), thus relying on contributions from Brian Cardinal and Ian Mahinmi.

On top of all that, this Dallas team now becomes the second-oldest team to ever win an NBA championship, trailing only the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls.

I really don't understand how this roster won a championship, and I swear, I say that out of the utmost respect for these Mavericks: these players and coaches wrung every ounce out of their potential.

3. HIRE THIS MAN


When I call this one of the best NBA coaching jobs ever, I don't think it was just Carlisle. All season long, I've thought the Mavs' outstanding corps of experienced, professional assistants were underrated factors in their success. Somewhere, George Karl is smiling, as three of his assistants from his 1996 Western Conference champion Seattle SuperSonics - Terry Stotts, Dwane Casey and Tim Grgurich - were on the coaching staff of the Mavericks.

Back when I handed out my 2010-11 awards, I gave my mythical Tex Winter Award for best assistant coach to Dwane Casey, the architect of Dallas' zone defense. It's just ludicrous that Casey, who has seemed to interview for every opening in the past few years, keeps getting passed over for head-coaching jobs.

New Warriors owner Joe Lacob recently hired Mark Jackson as his new head coach, and it's certainly his prerogative to hire Action Jax if that's his preference. But his stated reasoning against hiring Casey, in a recent interview with the San Jose Mercury News, seemed like an example of what I consider to be the unfair perceptions about Casey, encapsulated in this excerpt:
    I could've waited [to interview Casey, which was scheduled for after the Finals] but frankly he didn't meet all the criteria that Mark Jackson meets to me. He's probably a very good coach but he's 54 years old, he's a little older... he's a guy who has been a head coach before.

    I think one of my criteria - not that I view Minnesota as a failure, because that may not be his fault — but I really wanted to hire somebody with a fresh start. I wanted to take a fresh approach. We did.

    And I hate to use the word "re-tread" - he's not a re-tread. Dwane Casey's a good coach. But we just really didn't want to go down that path if we could avoid it.
Let me note a few things here:
i. Tom Thibodeau is a guy whose opportunities were delayed for nonsense reasons that had nothing to do with his coaching ability, such as not having time to interview because he was in the Finals (OK, Lacob was concerned about losing Jackson to Detroit by waiting, but still, it's crazy that being in the Finals is so often considered a detriment). Also, Thibodeau is currently 53 years old. Phil Jackson was winning titles in his 60s. Nothing to do with whether he can coach.

ii. To hint that Casey's time in Minnesota might have been a failure is unfair. He inherited a team in decline (look at the non-Garnett names on this roster!), and in 2006-07, Casey had the Timberwolves overachieving at 20-20 when he was fired, replaced by Randy Wittman, who went 12-30 with the same personnel as the Garnett era spiraled to a close.

Casey has had a year and a half of opportunity as a head coach. To suggest that he can't provide a fresh approach, after designing the defense which flummoxed the Miami Heat, is absurd.

iii. Yes, Casey is technically a "re-tread", but do you know who else is a re-tread? How about Rick Carlisle? How about Doc Rivers? To even float the term is unfair to Casey. It's an empty term with negative connotations.

Like Tom Thibodeau, Dwane Casey is a championship lead assistant coach, and like Thibodeau, he should be a head coach. Casey may yet get an open job, possibly in Toronto, but he deserves an emerging team such as the one Thibodeau got in Chicago. The Clippers, in particular, made a mistake in choosing Vinny Del Negro over Casey last summer, in my opinion.

It should have been clear that Tom Thibodeau deserved a head job after the 2008 Finals, and it should be clear that Dwane Casey deserves one now.

4. 2011 REVISIONISM: CHANDLER TRADE AS BAD AS GASOL?
With the entirety of 2011 Playoffs behind us, with the emergence of Marc Gasol in Memphis and importance of Tyson Chandler as an anchor of Dallas' championship, I wanted to float this question: could last summer's trade of Tyson Chandler from Charlotte to Dallas be considered worse than the infamous Pau Gasol trade?

In retrospect, it sure seems like the Chandler trade was the major decisive move in turning Dallas into a champion. Chandler and Alexis Ajinca were traded from Charlotte to Dallas, in exchange for Eduardo Najera, Matt Carroll and Erick Dampier (who had an unguaranteed contract).

Now, I'm not suggesting that Chandler is anywhere near as good as Pau overall, but Memphis now has three contributing young players - Marc Gasol, Darrell Arthur and Greivis Vasquez - as a result of the Pau trade, whereas Charlotte has absolutely nothing to show for it.

Maybe the Bobcats wanted to deal Chandler to avoid losing him for nothing, as he is now a free agent, but they got absolutely nothing - garbage players and little savings - for their starting center.

It's debatable, but it seems like Michael Jordan and co. deserve more heat for its "donation" (as Gregg Popovich called the Gasol trade) to the Dallas championship cause.

And it certainly wouldn't be the only piece of 2011 revisionism which looks favorably upon Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson. The Jason Kidd-for-Devin Harris trade and the Shawn Marion signing were widely-panned, including by me, as making the team too old. I thought Dallas needed drastic change after the 2007 playoff collapse, and should have considered trading Dirk, with the likes of KG and Kobe on the market. Mea culpa. Everything looks brilliant this morning.

5. MARK CUBAN: NO STONE UNTURNED
I've often noted in this space the simple truth that ownership really matters in the NBA. I've thought that Jerry Buss has been the most important person - more than any player, coach, or executive - in delivering the Lakers' many championships of the last 30+ years.

On the one hand, it's patently obvious that Cuban is a great owner, with 50-plus wins in every full season as owner, after inheriting a team that was close to the league's biggest laughingstock in the '90s.

I thought Henry Abbott's post on "the stealth Mavericks" was a brilliant reminder of how Cuban has left no stone unturned in pursuit of a championship. Dallas is the only team with a sports-psychology coach, in Don Kalkstein, the only team with a statistical analyst working so directly with the coaching staff, in Roland Beech. Beech was the one whose data analysis discovered just how effective a coach Carlisle was.

Again, look back to the top of this post - the team's margin of error was slim, and every little edge counted. I don't believe that these Mavericks would be champions today without Cuban's innovative ideas and hires on his staff. Ownership matters.

Certainly, he's also willing to spend whatever it takes. Despite the perception that the Heat were the team which was making it impossible for small markets to compete, it's the Mavs who were the luxury-tax paying team with a payroll $20 million higher than Miami's. This was a victory for wealthy teams, as well.

6. DIRK
And finally, Dirk, the king of the basketball world today. Nowitzki has cleared moved into the realm of the top 25 or so players in history with his performance in carrying the Mavs to the title. Almost 33, as a 7-footer with exceptional shooting ability and workout regimen with Holger Geschwindner which keeps him flexible, Nowitzki figures to age well, so he figures to rack up some gaudy stat totals when all is said and done. Dirk's already at 22,792 career points, ranking 23rd all-time in the NBA, with 10 All-Star Games, nine All-NBA First or Second Teams, one MVP, and now, one championship and one Finals MVP.

Here are a few other thoughts:
- While I do think Dirk has become a better scorer, more comfortable in the low blocks, and no longer bothered by the stronger smaller players who used to give him trouble, I'm not sure how much better of a player he's become. I think it underestimates how good he's been for a long time.

His PERs have dropped from their peak, mainly due to less rebounding. What struck me, at a quick glance (and with a small sample size disclaimer), is that he has now consistently lifted his production in the playoffs compared to the regular season, after a stretch of underachieving, comparatively. Here's a comparison of regular-season PER vs. postseason, with playoff games in parentheses:
           REG  POST  (G)  
    04-05 26.1 20.1 (13)
    05-06 28.1 26.8 (23)
    06-07 27.6 20.9 (6)
    07-08 24.6 26.3 (5)
    08-09 23.1 28.4 (10)
    09-10 22.9 28.3 (6)
    10-11 23.4 25.3 (21)
Since the nadir of his non-showing against Golden State in Game 6 in 2007, Dirk has been a complete clutch playoff assassin, with true shooting percentages over .600 in the last three playoff seasons, the best playoff TS%'s of his career.

- I get the sense that a little bit of backlash has developed against European players as a whole, yet we're now at two of the last five Finals MVPs hailing from Europe (Dirk and Tony Parker in 2007), with Pau Gasol not too far away from earning a third, after producing 19 points and 18 rebounds in Game 7 last year.

- On a final note, I have to say that, after Steve Nash left, the Mavs had been one of my least favorite teams to watch in the league, with their methodical style of play, but for some reason, I really enjoyed watching this Dallas team play all season. I loved how they executed and how smart they were. And I loved watched Dirk unleash that shot that John Krolik described as a "mid-to-high-post fadeaway [that] may be the most unstoppable and consistent shot since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's skyhook."

I leave you with my favorite manifestation of said shot from this playoff run, against blanketing defense from Nick Collison, to cut Oklahoma City's lead to 101-98 with about 1:30 left in Dallas' miraculous comeback in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals. Ri-Dirk-ulous:

13 Comments:

At 11:21 AM, Blogger Josh said...

I think Chandler is one of, if not the, most underrated players in the game. If you look back at his career, he's been at the center of a lot of teams that have "overachieved", from that good Scott Skiles Bulls team to the Hornets team we were all excited about a few years ago. Even last year's Bobcats overachieved. Since the beginning of the playoffs, I've been keeping a running tally of the Mavs record with Nowitzki and Chandler in the lineup (because both missed several games this year), and they finished the year at 68-18 against a tougher than normal schedule with those two playing. His value is somewhat depressed because of durability and injury concerns, but when he can play 35-40 minutes a game, as he did over the second half of the finals...what other centers would you rather have in that position besides Dwight Howard? Here's the list. When you have (arguably) the best power forward and the second best center in basketball, you don't need elite guards or wings (though Terry played like one to close out the series).

 
At 2:31 PM, Blogger Deron said...

Dirk earned his ring and he was the real closer last night. He has had to wait on long time for his ring, longer than other superstars. Congrats Dirk, J-Kidd and Co.

http://theresastatforthat.blogspot.com/2011/06/dirks-ring-long-time-coming.html

 
At 4:23 PM, Blogger Jackson said...

Great post, though I think you pick on the Bobcats a bit much here (disclosure: I am a Cats fan). Keep in mind that at the time Chandler was traded he was coming off that injury while with the Hornets and continued to be injured throughout the year with the Bobcats (though he looked good in flashes). So any discussion about the Bobcats "giving him away for nothing" that does not mention that there was considerable uncertainty as to whether he could ever contribute consistent minutes again in his career is not really being fair or providing a clear picture of the situation. The Bobcats chose to view Chandler at that point as an asset to get an expiring contract, which is a risk they took and obviously lost on since he was able to become healthy again. You really cannot compare that with the Gasol trade, where he was a much better all-around player in his prime and without an injury history and who was healthy at the time.

Personally, I wish we had kept Chandler because he is underrated as an all-around player that has a clear effect on the defensive end. But Chandler's injury history is an important part of the Bobcat's decision, and I get tired of people taking what I think are cheap shots at Michael Jordan over every single Bobcats transaction, when in fact they have done pretty well in some respects (e.g., trades) but not so well in others (e.g., drafting).

 
At 8:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jackson implies that Charlotte made the best of a bad situation in the Chandler trade - that Dampier's contract was the absolute best they could expect to extract from any swap. In fact they could have done better had Michael Jordan not nixed the trade with the Raptors at the last instant. They could have had Jose Calderon's experience at the point and certainly could have used Reggie Evan's rebounding skills.

 
At 6:46 AM, Anonymous khandor said...

Absolutely ... FAN .. TAS .. TIC post!

In fact, the best one read yet, as a recap of the NBA Finals.

 
At 10:51 AM, Blogger Eric said...

Intersting article, but why bring up the Pau-Marc trade? That was a great trade, even though everyone foolishly at the time thought it was not. Why should Memphis have paid Pau $13 million/year as a lottery team while they rebuilt? Instead they got Marc and he developed right on schedule. I agree that the Chandler trade was terrible for Charlotte, but to compare it to a trade that his turned out to be fantastic is a silly idea.

 
At 11:26 AM, Blogger Jackson said...

Anonymous, you seem to imply some things that I did not in fact say at all. I did not say the Bobcats "made the best of a bad situation", I said that any analysis of how "bad" the trade, especially putting it in such historical context, should factor in Chandler's injury history. In fact, I agree that they could have gotten more for him than Dampier's expiring contract, and I was a bit disappointed that we pulled the trigger on that. But clearly the franchise was prioritizing the cap relief if they did not pick up the option on Dampier's contract. I also had heard at the time that they were dangling the contract as trade bait but ultimately let it lapse for the cap relief. I think they could have done better there too. So I'm not waiving my pompoms here as Anonmyous seems to imply, and whatever point Anonymous is refuting was not made by me.

Reggie Evans would have been an interesting get for us, he is a great rebounder, but limited in other ways. I also was a proponent of getting Calderon, but now that Augustin looks like a better PG I'm glad we didn't bite on that trade either.

 
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