Basketball season is finally here, everyone. Breathe it in. Enjoy it. We made it.
This Mavs team is so different from last season’s squad for a variety of reasons. Yes, there are plenty of new faces in the locker room, and yes, the team is much younger. But even the returning players are beginning this season under entirely different circumstances. Wesley Matthews, in particular, didn’t spend the summer recovering from a significant injury and ensuing surgery. Deron Williams went through an entire training camp and appears to be in good health once again. Although Devin Harris will be sidelined for tonight’s season opener, this team is in much better health today than it was one year ago.
That fact alone ought to be enough to get you excited for the season to start. The Mavs, though they are still figuring each other out, are going to have the opportunity to give it their best shot from the opening tip, without serious injury or distraction to derail their attempt to make the playoffs for the 16th time in 17 seasons.
But how will they get there? What are some of the numbers to keep an eye on this season — aside from the obvious — that could go a long way in showing how this 82-game marathon will go? Here are five stats you might not immediately think of, but ones to follow closely, as the season wears on that could very well tell the story of this 2016-17 campaign.
The Mavs signed Harrison Barnes this summer with visions of him one day becoming the type of player who could help carry the load in the post-Nowitzki era. However, Barnes is fully capable of helping this team win games in the meantime, and as the 24-year-old continues to develop his individual skill set, his level of involvement in the offense is going to be important to follow.
Last season, Barnes had a 15.9 percent usage rate, meaning he “used” roughly one-sixth of the Warriors’ possessions while he was on the floor, either by taking a shot or free throw, or turning the ball over. A “balanced” usage rate is 20 percent, as there are five players on the floor. I expect his usage rate to be much closer to the 21.6 mark he posted in preseason, although that number could certainly rise as the season wears on and he becomes more comfortable in his new, expanded role within the offense.
But how those shots come almost matters more than how many he takes. Eventually the Mavs hope to develop his pick-and-roll ability, but in the meantime Barnes has demonstrated he can post up smaller players and excel as a spot-up shooter. He also showed flashes of explosiveness moving off the ball and in transition during the preseason. He’s got the tools, and you can see where the Mavs are going in developing Barnes’ game, and now it’s just time to see how the team and the young star take the approach to reaching the finish line.
Assist percentage, or the percent of team’s field goals made that someone else assisted, does not correlate directly to winning. For example, only five of the top-12 in the NBA in team assist rate made the playoffs last season. But the importance of the stat, at least as it relates to this Mavs team, is that the number is going to indicate what level of ball movement this team can generate on offense.
Last season the Mavs were 13th in the league with a 59.2 assist percentage and were fourth in the NBA in passes per game. The ball flew around, and much of that had to do with the team’s reliance on two-guard lineups, and also it was a natural consequence of giving Chandler Parsons more of a playmaking role.
This season, with Barnes replacing Parsons and mixing Seth Curry into the fold, the Mavericks will have a different cast of perimeter players. How, if at all, will that affect ball movement? Will the team continue to pass more than just about any other, or will possessions be more iso- or post-up-oriented, meaning there will be fewer passes? I think the Mavs’ goal is to keep the ball moving, and this is one way to measure how effective they are in doing so.
Bedgear Training Camp Practice Report: Rick Carlisle
Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle looks ahead to tomorrow's season opener against Indiana.
We’ve heard it for years, but I think this could finally be the year that Dirk Nowitzki gets under 29 minutes per game, and that could be a very good thing both for him and the Mavericks. Last season, his MPG total jumped from 29.6 to 31.5, mostly out of necessity. The Mavs relied on Nowitzki to space the floor and keep the offense rolling. In a perfect world, however, the second unit would be able to maintain an advantage even without Nowitzki, and just a few extra minutes of rest for him could go a long way in keeping him fresh for the time of season when the team needs him at his best.
Barnes could see some minutes at backup 4, Quincy Acy will as well, and perhaps even Dwight Powell will split time between center and power forward. The Mavericks have more options at that spot than they’ve had in recent seasons — even Justin Anderson could play small-ball 4 at some point, in certain matchups — which means they have a greater chance of finding a combination that works which could afford Nowitzki just a little more time to rest in games. That could pay off in April.
Beneath only his minutes per game total, I’m also curious to see how many minutes, if any, he plays at center. A small-ball, 5-out offense with Nowitzki at center torched defenses last season, although the Mavs only went to it when they direly needed offense. If they could iron out a solid defensive unit around Dirk at the 5, the Mavericks could concoct one of the best offensive groups in the NBA for small stretches.
Of the 21 players in the NBA who scored at least 100 points in the clutch (last five minutes of the game when the score is within five either way), only Deron Williams shot at least 50 percent from the field. And he was the only one to shoot better than 50 percent from deep, too. He was so incredibly clutch for the Mavericks last season, and that was a huge reason why Dallas was the second-best clutch team in the league in 2015-16 (+16.0 net rating in a league-high 224 minutes), behind only Golden State.
How was he so successful? For starters, Williams is a veteran guy who knows how to create his own shot, and typically the Mavs would let other guys carry the load earlier in the game before relying on Williams and Nowitzki in the fourth. That was a very good formula for Dallas, and I wonder if it’s one we’ll see again in 2016-17. If Williams can continue his clutch heroics, not only will the Mavericks continue to win close games, but it will also mean defenses will have to focus in on Williams, potentially leaving more room for Nowitzki, Barnes, Matthews, or whoever else to find shots of their own.
Wesley Matthews looks like a totally different player this season, now more than one year removed from a serious Achilles injury which ended his 2014-15 campaign and severely limited his physical ability last offseason and early in the 2015-16 season. He was an absolute warrior in his first season as a Maverick, leading the team in minutes played despite recovering from one of the most significant injuries a player could ever suffer. However, the Achilles did appear to limit his ability off the dribble, and where the consequences of that injury reared their ugly head showed in Matthews’ 2-point percentage, which sank to a career-low 43.2 percent.
In 2014-15, Matthews shot a career-best 53.4 percent on 2-pointers. The year before, he was 49.0 percent, and 47.8 percent the year before that. I expect him to be much closer to those numbers this season than the 43.2 percent he recorded last season, and we’ve already begun to the extra pep in his step as he mixed in more drives to the basket in preseason games than we saw in 2015-16. That slight extra burst alone is enough to create more separation for drives, and his added explosiveness will lead to more dunks and fearless rim attacks. Matthews will shoot much better than the 50.0 percent inside 2 feet he shot last season, there’s no doubt about that. That will lead to more points for Matthews, and more points for the Mavericks.
There are way too many basketball stats for most of us to keep a close eye on, but those five stats are going to go a long way in telling the story of the 2016-17 Mavericks. The NBA season is a marathon, but if you follow these five numbers (and a few others), you’ll be able to see the finish line sooner than later.