The common theme echoing throughout the Dallas locker room after Tuesday’s 97-91 loss to San Antonio was an acknowledged need to see more ball movement.
Look through the Mavs’ season game log and you’ll notice one thing: Dallas recorded 26 assists in last week’s win at Washington. That’s the only game since the season opener in which the Mavericks have handed out more than 22 assists. Rick Carlisle’s offense is designed to get players going downhill and forcing the defense to react, leaving either a shooter or a roll man open. But the ball has been prone to sticking on that end of the floor recently, which means there are fewer assist opportunities and more one-on-one basketball.
Carlisle believes the ball should hit the floor as little as possible on offense. “The dribble has to be used when needed,” he said. Some players — like J.J. Barea, for example — dribble the ball quite a bit but there’s a method to his madness. Barea is a master at kicking off a possession by using the ball-screen and then reading the situation. If he doesn’t like what he sees, he keeps the dribble alive and calls for a re-screen. He repeats until something desirable unfolds.
That’s a situation where dribbling is more acceptable, because the pick-and-roll is a set that involves two players and leaves open the possibility of a cutter or shooter becoming involved. Too often lately, however, the Mavs have fallen victim to switch-heavy defenses turning the offense into five games of one-on-one.
Take Saturday’s game against Cleveland, for example, when the Cavs’ shortest starter was 6-foot-5 Iman Shumpert. At all times, the Cavs had no fewer than four players who could freely switch to defend at least three positions, sometimes more. Dallas is a team that wants to target size or speed mismatches, but some teams are able to wipe out those weaknesses by fielding lineups of similarly sized players. The same thing happened the next night in Oklahoma City, where Paul George and Andre Roberson and their massive wingspans were able to keep Dennis Smith Jr. from getting past them. All of this results in grind-it-out possessions featuring a lot of isolation, which the Mavs want to avoid.
“That’s what happens when teams switch. That’s what they want you to do,” Dirk Nowitzki said. “They want you to slow the game down, get into a lot of one-on-one, shoot step-back jumpers, contested 2s. That’s where the game’s going. A lot of teams are switching now. A lot of teams are playing the same-sized guys — four, five, six, seven 6-9 guys switching everything. We’ve got to get better and attack that. We have shown flashes where we keep moving, cutting, finding open shooters, penetrating and kicking.”
Switch-heavy defensive units harm two players in particular: Smith and Harrison Barnes. Smith is a 19-year-old rookie point guard with otherworldly athleticism and already a strong feel for the game for such a young player. He’s having to learn a ton on the fly, though — the Mavs have played the most games in the league, so there’s been very little practice time, and 10 of their 15 games have come against teams with winning records — so he simply hasn’t had a lot of time to gain an understanding of what to do when a wing switches on him. He’s already shown that he can blow by most big men, though.
That’s an easy read for Smith. Pau Gasol is a brilliant player but he’s simply not quick enough to stay in front of the Mavs rookie. But every other team in the league has seen him do this to guys too many times already, so they’re beginning to make adjustments. When Gasol becomes Danny Green, Andre Roberson, or LeBron James, Smith’s read isn’t as easy because those guys are longer than him and also about as athletic. That’s where more practices — and time, in general — will help him.
“It’s something that we’re working on learning — well, at least me,” Smith said. “I’ve got a lot to learn about that, trying to get into the paint and still not dribble too much. It’s just taking some time. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m sure it’ll come around though.”
Smith, to be fair, scored a career-high 27 points against the Spurs, although many of those points came toward the very end of the game as the Mavs were hoisting shots in a hurry to erase a double-digit lead and San Antonio was backing off. Still, he’s scored at least 15 points in seven straight games and at least 20 in three of his last four. The rookie has come a very long way in a short period of time as a scorer, but his line of six turnovers against two assists reinforces his words: He needs some time to figure it out.
Barnes, meanwhile, continues to excel at exploiting size mismatches in isolation. He ranks in the 73rd percentile in iso scoring against a switch this season, per Synergy Sports, and last season he ranked in the 83rd percentile, scoring 1.125 points per possession. Smaller players simply aren’t tall enough to challenge his shot, and bigger players aren’t quick enough to stay in front of him. Barnes has developed into the kind of player who can terrorize size mismatches, but — like Smith — he and the Mavs are still finding ways to get him going against longer, switch-heavy teams.
“The mentality’s still the same,” Barnes said. “You still want to attack. You still want to get to the basket.”
Between Smith, Barnes, Barea, and Nowitzki, the Mavs have some of the most dangerous players in the league against physical mismatches. But when the opponent can erase those problems by throwing out a ton of wings on the floor, over-dribbling can happen.
“There has to be balance,” Barnes said. “I think we have guys on this team who can create off the dribble, who are good at that. But at the same time, I understand what (Carlisle is) saying, just in terms of moving, making sure everyone’s touching it, getting a flow to the offense. I think there’s a balance to be had with both. Right now, in trying to get out of this rut, I think we’re trying to figure that out.”
The Mavericks have shown glimpses of being able to score at will. For stretches of the games against the Wizards and Cavs, especially, Dallas became red-hot and the ball was flying all over the place. It certainly hurts that the team has been without Seth Curry all season and Devin Harris has missed some time, too, which limits the number of playmakers available; much of the ball movement problems can be solved organically with their return. In the meantime, however, the responsibility appears to have fallen on Smith’s and Barnes’ shoulders, as the two players most heavily involved in initiating the downhill movement this offense thrives on. It just so happens that they collectively have fewer than two full seasons worth of experience as featured players on an NBA team, so there’s definitely a learning curve.
They’re working through it right now, and so are the rest of their teammates. The Mavs recognize the problem and have identified the solution, and with two practices before their next game, they have some time to smooth some things out.