The Mavericks pride themselves on being a veteran team, especially toward the top of the depth chart. And while it’s not easy to quantify exactly how “experience” helps a team win — at least in terms of stats — we don’t need stats to do it this season. We’re seeing it play out right in front of us.
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Dirk Nowitzki is red-hot to begin the 2015-16 campaign, leading the team in scoring at 17.0 points per game with shooting splits that boggle the mind. He’s shooting 51.3 percent from the field, 50.0 percent from three-point land, and 93.3 percent from the free throw line.
Arguably the biggest contributing factor to the German’s torrid start, aside from the obvious stuff, is who he’s playing with and how this team has come together. Dallas has plenty of young talent coming off the bench, but it’s the veteran-laden top of the rotation that has aided Nowitzki’s blistering first two weeks. The Mavericks run an offense designed to create mismatches all over the floor, but that only works well if the ball-handlers can recognize and attack of those situations. Deron Williams, J.J. Barea, Raymond Felton, and Devin Harris all know how and where to get Nowitzki the ball, and the German has taken advantage of those opportunities thus far.
Here’s an example from the Mavs’ win against the Lakers last Sunday. (Nowitzki scored 25 points in that game on 10-of-13 shooting.) In the play below, the Lakers defenders switch when Dirk sets a ball-screen for Barea.
It literally takes the Mavericks one second to realize what they must do. Barea immediately sees that Nowitzki is guarded by the smaller Lou Williams, and Nowitzki motions to send the ball over to Chandler Parsons on the opposite wing and makes for the low block so Parsons can get him an entry pass.
And here’s what Nowitzki was able to do in that matchup.
Earlier in his career, Nowitzki was most dangerous when he faced up a big man. But as he progressed and evolved as a player, he became adept in the post and used his size and shot to punish smaller defenders who switched onto him. Dallas hasn’t always been able to get him the rock in those situations since Jason Kidd and Jason Terry left the team following the 2012 season. Players like Monta Ellis and Darren Collison were good at attacking big men after a switch, but they weren’t always able to take advantage of a smaller guy matched up on Nowitzki.
Here’s another example. This time it’s Harris who recognizes the mismatch and feeds Dirk in the post, and he eventually hits a fadeaway over Lance Stephenson.
Nowitzki is still able to put the ball on the floor to beat big men, though, especially when it’s either a center or a power forward who doesn’t have very good foot speed. Most big guys simply aren’t used to defending far away from the rim, and they certainly aren’t used to playing against 7-footers who can take them off the bounce. Here, Nowitzki beats DeAndre Jordan with a pump fake and drive to the bucket.
The easiest solution to not being beat off the bounce is to back off of your man, but Nowitzki is such a good shooter that if you don’t play him tight, he’s going to burn you. Roy Hibbert learned that lesson.
And just for the heck of it, here’s a beautiful trailing three with a majestic arc so high that the ball exits the frame. Note, too, that after playing with Nowitzki for two seasons, Tyson Chandler knows exactly what’s coming, but even he can’t stop it.
The thing all five of these plays have in common is not only did the Mavs put their superstar in a position to succeed, but the guards recognized those mismatches right away and got him the ball in a good spot. Then, once Nowitzki established his position in isolation, they spaced the floor well so he couldn’t be double-teamed.
It isn’t just the guards generating good looks for Nowitzki. Big man Zaza Pachulia is lending an assist, as well, even though his contributions won’t show up in the box score. Pachulia has cleared room for Dirk jumpers all season long by sealing off his defenders with a screen at the top of the arc. Take this play against Anthony Davis, for example. Pachulia made a similar play earlier in the game as well, and Nowitzki converted both chances.
On this play, he’s seeking out Dirk’s defender like a pulling guard would on a power toss play in the NFL. Pachulia seeks and effectively destroys his opponent, giving Nowitzki the freedom to hit a shot he’s made 1,000 times before.
Little things like that — reading defenses, noticing mismatches, and feeding the star the ball when and where he wants it — go a long way in an offense. Nowitzki has been a superior scoring talent basically since he set foot on an NBA floor, but it takes quality guard play to force action to him when he has the advantage. The Mavs have that talent on the perimeter this season, and it shows: A different player got him the ball in each of those plays above. And the final play — the screen by Pachulia — shows the Mavs have high-IQ, unselfish players all over the depth chart.
It will be interesting to see what happens once Chandler Parsons returns to playing his normal 30-plus minutes. Parsons is also capable of attacking matchups, and the Mavericks will be capable of causing all sorts of challenges for opponents when Dirk and Parsons team up in the two-man game. Modern defenses almost want to switch, but a combination like Parsons and Nowitzki will prevent them from doing so because it will always result in a Dallas advantage.