At its core, the Mavs’ philosophy isn’t all that complicated: slow the game down, avoid turnovers, and play halfcourt basketball on both ends. Simply put, Dallas wants to control the tempo and manage the game, avoiding mistakes offensively while forcing them defensively.
In basic terms, that’s also what every other NBA team wants to do, but the Mavericks do it better than most. Obviously no one plans on turning the ball over 15 times in a game, but Dallas happens to have done it fewer times — just seven — than all 29 other teams. Every team hopes to play at their own tempo, but in today’s NBA it feels like it takes more commitment to play a game at a 95-possession pace than it does to play 100; only seven teams average fewer than 97 possessions per 48 minutes, but four of them would be in the playoffs if the tournament started today, and Dallas (one of the three who wouldn’t be) is knocking on the door.
All of this is to say every NBA team has similar goals — score points at one end and prevent them on the other — but they all go about it in different ways. The Warriors and Rockets launch 3s from all over the floor and turn the game into a track meet. The Mavs and Jazz are the two slowest teams in the league in terms of pace, Utah wants to squeeze the life out of you defensively and rack up blocks and rebounds, while Dallas wants to coax you into lazy skip passes and draw frustrating charges.
Each team is different, and each game is different, but there are a few pillars of truth in basketball. Generally, it’s easier to score after your opponent misses a shot or turns the ball over. And, generally, it’s easier to get a defensive stop after you score than when you’re chasing a team in transition after a clanging a 3 or getting stripped.
The Mavs’ approach to maximizing quality possessions and minimizing those catastrophic situations has been to slow down the pace, avoid pursuing offensive rebounds when possible, and foul to eliminate opponents’ transition opportunities. When you have fewer chances to score and even fewer breakaway chances, it’s hard to score 110 points unless, like Boston the other night, you’re red-hot from 3.
During the Mavs’ 11-6 run that has breathed some life back into the playoff pursuit, however, Dallas has almost defied this simple basketball truth.
InPredictable is a sports data and visualization site that measures win probability, per possession stats, and all sorts of other things. Those per possession rankings also take into account success rates following specific events, such as an opponent basket, missed shot, or turnover.
During the last 17 games, the Mavericks rank second in the NBA in points per possession following an opponent basket or dead-ball turnover, generating 1.11 points per possession in those situations. (That’s the same mark as the team has scored overall in that stretch.) Meanwhile, Dallas scores 1.10 points per possession after a defensive rebound, and 1.07 after a live-ball turnover, meaning the team has been more efficient scoring the ball after ceding a basket than it’s been when pushing the ball after steals. Only one other NBA team, the Hornets, has been less efficient following a live-ball turnover than a basket going back to Jan. 12.
That says as much about the Mavs’ halfcourt offense as it does about its transition game. Clearly, you would hope to be above-average in both arenas, but considering you’re going to be running offense far more often after a score than you are after a turnover, if you’re going to have to be better at one than the other, you’re going to want to pick halfcourt offense. The Mavs’ average time of possession following a bucket during the last 17 games is 17.8 seconds, 24th in the NBA. Dallas is going to move the ball and run screens until you make a mistake and give something up.
During that same time period, the Mavericks have the fifth-best defense following a made bucket or dead-ball turnover of their own, surrendering just 1.01 points per possession in those situations. (They’ve allowed 1.05 overall during the run, which ranks sixth.)
Meanwhile, following a live-ball turnover, Dallas has allowed a whopping 1.34 points per possession, which ranks 25th in the league. It’s a good thing, then, that the Mavs have turned it over on just 10.8 percent of their possessions in the last 17 games, which is by far the best rate in basketball; no other team is beneath 12.5 percent. And given that Dallas plays tremendously slow to limit possessions, that 10.8 percent translates over to only 10.3 turnovers total, which is exactly two fewer than any other team.
This is similar to the classic conservative NFL philosophy that the best way to protect your own defense is to run the ball and minimize risk-taking in the passing game. If you can control field position and avoid costly giveaways, you’re probably going to be OK.
This same theory has held true for the Mavericks. Dallas plays a very creative, modern offensive style with a starting lineup full of shooters and playmakers, but most importantly they are high-IQ guys who after driving would rather pull the ball out and reset, for example, than try a risky cross-court pass in traffic, even if it means losing a chance at a good shot.
The good news for the Mavericks is playoff basketball tends to become more of a halfcourt proposition than an open-floor track meet. Dallas still has plenty of work to do to reach that goal, however, currently sitting three games out of eighth place in the West with one game to go before the All-Star break. But if Dallas can continue to play this style of basketball this effectively — statistically elite in halfcourt situations on both sides of the ball — the wins will likely continue to come in bunches.
It might even take better than an 11-6 pace (a 64.7 win percentage) to catch and pass Denver, Sacramento, and Portland, and to stave off New Orleans and Minnesota. But, much like the tempo of the games they’ve been winning more often than not lately, the Mavs can only control what they’re doing in the standings.