Dirk moves up to sixth all-time

Dirk makes history against Brooklyn as he moves into sixth place on the NBA's all-time scoring list.

The Mavs have improved from the last mile marker in more ways than one. Not only did the club boost its record to 18-13 by going 7-4 over the last 11 games, but we’re also seeing huge strides from the offense, the bench (namely J.J. Barea), and even the defense. It looks like Dallas is beginning to come together as a team, and that’s a good thing, too, considering how difficult the upcoming hectic January schedule promises to be.

Including tomorrow’s showdown with the defending champion Golden State Warriors, the Mavs will play 20 games between today and Feb. 2, with 11 of them coming on the road. The good news for Dallas, though, is that the road has been kind to the club this season: Only eight teams in the NBA have a winning road record, and Dallas is one of them. Home is where the biggest struggles had been coming, but suddenly the Mavs have turned American Airlines Center into an impenetrable force, winning four straight at home and none by fewer than seven points. That’s been great to see.

How have they done it? What’s changed? Let’s take a look at how the Mavs have fared in games 21-31.

CHANDLER PARSONS IS BACK

After spending roughly the first quarter of the season working on a tight minutes restriction and slowly playing his way back into both shape and rhythm, Chandler Parsons appears to be back near full strength. The small forward has become much more involved in the offense as a scorer and a facilitator recently, getting 70-plus touches on the ball in back-to-back games for the first time all season. The Mavericks are now 8-2 when Parsons gets at least 40 touches in a game, indicating that not only are they better when he’s involved, but it’s possible that they’re better because he’s involved.

Why? He’s a 6-foot-10 (with a ratchet) small forward who can handle the ball, pass, and shoot. There aren’t many players in the NBA with that physical makeup who also possess Parsons’ skill set. As well as Raymond Felton played at 2-guard in the starting lineup for nearly the entire season, Parsons simply brings a different dynamic to this group, especially in the pick-and-roll. When your small forward can run a P&R with a center, and your power forward can spot up for 3, you can destroy defenses because most just aren’t conditioned to defend plays like that. See below:

Marc Gasol is one of the smartest defenders in the NBA, so he knows there’s no way he can leave Dirk Nowitzki wide open at the three-point line. Meanwhile, because Parsons (and not a guard) is the ball-handler, that leaves just a point guard and shooting guard to slide over to help against a rolling 7-footer in JaVale McGee. Parsons has the quickness to get around Zach Randolph and create enough space for a pass, and the result is a dunk. Most defenses in the league aren’t equipped to stop this kind of play, and most offenses don’t have a stretch-4 like Nowitzki who can create offensive space just by standing still. In combination with Parsons, that becomes pretty devastating offense.

Now that he’s returned to the starting lineup and has played 34 minutes or more in three straight contests, it’s pretty safe to say that he’s back.

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ALL ABOUT PACE

Earlier in the season, the Mavericks were playing faaaaast. In fairness, so was the rest of the league. But somewhere in the last 15-20 games, Dallas has really slowed it down, and the offensive efficiency has improved. Correlation doesn’t always imply causation — especially when Parsons is working his way back into the rotation, which certainly helps the offense — but it’s something worth thinking about. Here’s how pace has related to the team’s offensive rating in each third of the season so far.

2015-12-29 10_02_02-Microsoft Excel - Mavs 2015-16 Tracking Stats

Although the Mavs are playing 4.1 fewer possessions per game in the last 11 than they did in the first 10, Dallas is scoring 5.7 more points per 100 possessions now than then. What’s more, Dallas is scoring 104.3 points per game in games 21-31 as opposed to the 101.7 it averaged in games 1-10 and the 99.4 it averaged in games 11-20.

How does pace tie into this? Part of it has to do with turnovers: The more you turn it over, the higher the pace will be, because giveaways usually lead to fast breaks. The Mavs have done a much better job of limiting catastrophic turnovers in the last few weeks, even committing a franchise-tying mark of just 4 giveaways in Monday’s win against Milwaukee. Secondly, the Mavericks are working to find better shots instead of settling for something easy. That’s something that’s a little more difficult to quantify, but we’ll get to it. It could also have something to do with the opponents, as the Mavs played a very East-heavy schedule in the last 11 games, and generally the East tends to play slower than the West. No matter the case, there’s some evidence to suggest that slowing it down could actually help the Mavs continue to heat up.

JUMPERS, JUMPERS EVERYWHERE

Perhaps the biggest reason Dallas has turned the offense around is jump shots are simply starting to fall. The Mavericks have hit 39.3 percent of their three-pointers in the last 11 games, averaging 12.1 treys per contest. When you can achieve a high volume of makes while doing it efficiently, the offense is usually going to surge.

Deeper than that, though, is the reason why those shots are falling. Through the first 20 games of the season, just 23.6 percent of the Mavs’ jump shots were what the team considers to be “open” attempts. SportVU, for example, considers a jump shot “wide-open” when the closest defender is 6+ feet away from the shooter, but the Mavs calculate it a little differently. (Sometimes, a defender might be far away but the shot is still not really open due to circumstances or timing of the shot, and the opposite can even be true.) In the last 11 games, however, 36.4 percent of the Mavs’ jumpers have been what the team considers open. That’s an enormous leap.

Some of that has to do with Parsons’ playmaking ability in the pick-and-roll, some of that has to do with Nowitzki’s floor-spacing ability, and some of it has to do with the team’s guard play. For example, in the last 11 games the Mavericks are shooting 47.0 percent on 6.0 three-point attempts per game following a Raymond Felton pass, per SportVU, and the Mavs are converting 40 percent or better on passes from five of Felton’s teammates, as well. When Dirk Nowitzki is your seventh-best three-point shooter over any extended period of time, you know your team is cooking.

Some of it could be fluky or streaky shooting, sure, but considering the Mavericks are getting more legitimately open shots, it’s no surprise that the percentages are where they are. Much of it has to do with excellent ball movement like this:

Ball Movement

THAT’S an open jump shot. So is this one, thanks to some very sharp passing.

Great Ball Movement

If the Mavs can keep working the clock and moving the ball to find shots like this, the rest of the season is going to be pretty fun.

Other Dribbles…

  • Dirk Nowitzki passed Shaquille O’Neal last week for sixth place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. Next up: Wilt Chamberlain. Some day we’re all going to sit back and find it hard to believe that we got to witness the career of one of the greatest players to ever set foot on the hardwood. Oh, and he’s still not finished yet, either.

  • J.J. Barea had back-to-back 25-plus point games for the first time in his career, scoring 32 points in a huge win in Brooklyn and then pouring in 26 against Chicago a few nights later. He’s been starting in Deron Williams’ stead while the point guard recovers from a strained hamstring. He shouldn’t be out much longer, but it’s got to be awfully nice to have Barea playing so well. It means that the Mavs won’t feel overwhelming pressure to rush their starting 1 back until they’re sure he’s ready.

  • We’re beginning to see more minutes for JaVale McGee in the main rotation, and it hasn’t taken long for him to show what he’s got. In one sequence against Milwaukee, for example, McGee threw down a dunk on the offensive end, contested a three-point shooter into a jump pass that resulted in a steal, and then the center leaked out on the fast break, caught the pass in stride, and dribbled the rest of the way for a breakaway dunk. There aren’t many centers in the league athletic enough to make those plays over the course of an entire game, let alone back-to-back-to-back within a span of 20 seconds. He and Parsons have already developed a nice bit of chemistry in the pick-and-roll game, as well. He’s got a very high ceiling at the backup center spot, so keep your eye on that moving forward.
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