Practice Report: Dirk Nowitzki

Mavs F Dirk Nowitzki reflects on All-Star weekend, the addition of Amar'e Stoudemire, building chemistry and momentum heading into the playoffs and more.

New Maverick Amar’e Stoudemire should fit in with the team about as seamlessly as a player can in this league.

His job will be pretty simple: Set a screen, roll downhill and into space, make himself a target, and catch any pass thrown his way. It seems like an easy responsibility, but not every big man in the NBA is able to perform in the pick-and-roll at a high level. For years, there was no one more feared in the league off a ball-screen than Stoudemire, and now he’ll look to bring that same level of effectiveness to the Mavericks.

The 32-year-old big man has suffered from numerous injuries since the 2010-11 season, and that fact combined with the New York Knicks’ struggles this season have led to all sorts of speculation that he’s past his prime. But the same exact things were said about Tyson Chandler after last season, and all it took was a change of scenery and some better teammates for him to return to being a defensive force and double-double machine. Too often, media and fans alike give up on players on underperforming teams, eliminating all context from their analysis. It shouldn’t take long, though, to see exactly how productive Stoudemire will be for the Mavs: He’ll likely be in uniform tomorrow night against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and his home debut will come one day later against the Houston Rockets.

While athletically Stoudemire might not be the high-flying beast he was during his prime in the mid-2000s, he’s still an extremely dangerous player in the pick-and-roll. The good news for him is that nearly 29 percent of the Mavs’ offense comes from higher the ball-handler or the screener in a pick-and-roll system, the second-highest volume in the league behind only the Orlando Magic, per Synergy. In short, Stoudemire was made for this system, and this offense is designed for players like him.

With the Knicks this season, Stoudemire scored 1.045 points per possession as the roll man in the pick-and-roll, good for the 65th percentile among all players in the league. It’s not an eye-popping number, to be sure, but this one is: Just 10.3 percent of Stoudemire’s possessions this season with New York came in in the pick-and-roll, which is not nearly enough for a player as proficient as he is. Instead, the Knicks’ Triangle offense led to more post-up opportunities for the big man (more than 46 percent of his possessions came in those situations) and while he fared well — 0.96 points per possession, 77th percentile in the NBA — he was a player out of his comfort zone in that respect.

For example, in 2006-07 with the Phoenix Suns, more than 16 percent of his possessions came as the roll man, and another 17.5 percent came off a “cut,” which for big men is nearly interchangeable with “roll.” It’s only a matter of semantics. Even last season, 18.1 percent of his possessions came on the roll (and he finished in the 91st percentile in points per possession, per Synergy), while just 31.8 percent came in the post. The point, then, is that Stoudemire has been playing with his back to the basket much more than ever before and is rolling less than ever. That will certainly change in Dallas.

He’s not performing in a lower volume of pick-and-rolls because of an inability to produce, either. New York’s offense simply does not call for many of them. But he’s still been able to show his stuff when the time called for it. For starters, Stoudemire has the size to play center against smaller teams or even bigger guys with slow foot speed. In the below clip, for example, the Knicks spread the floor to essentially play 2-on-2 basketball. Stoudemire breezes past Jonas Valanciunas like he’s not even there en route to an easy bucket.

Notice, too, that his pick-and-roll partner in the play is Jose Calderon, a player not known for his driving ability. But pair Stoudemire with a player like Monta Ellis, Devin Harris, or JJ Barea, each of whom can get to the rim seemingly at will and whose drive you therefore must respect, and all of a sudden you can see how devastating a player the newest Maverick can become.

One other way to cover a pick-and-roll is to trap the ball-handler, which teams will occasionally do against Ellis in particular if his roll partner isn’t a real threat. Try that with Stoudemire, though, and he’ll make you pay.

He’s got great touch around the rim, but he can also step out and shoot from 15-18 feet, making him an even more challenging player to defend. Defenses are paying more and more attention to the Mavs’ guards instead of their big men in pick-and-rolls, but if that big guy is capable of knocking down open jumpers, the strategy will have to change.

If you can’t trap the ball-handler, you can’t switch due to size issues, and your big man can’t stay in front of him, how can you defend it? That’s the question teams will have to ponder in regards to stopping Stoudemire for 18-20 minutes a game or more, depending on the matchup. It’s the same one clubs had to worry about when Brandan Wright was torching opponents in the pick-and-roll, as well. All Dallas needs to do is space the floor and let the play unfold. Ellis, Harris, Barea, and Rajon Rondo are all more than capable of making the right pass in a spread pick-and-roll system, as we’ve seen for years and years. Basically, Stoudemire will benefit from the Mavs’ guards and shooters in the same way they’ll benefit from his presence.

Much of the criticism Stoudemire has faced over the last year or so, playing with the underachieving Knicks, was also directed toward former Knick and current Maverick Tyson Chandler. In the span of one year, he’s gone from an overly scrutinized center to a defensive juggernaut and elite roll man in the offense. What happened? Did Chandler suddenly become a better player? Did he just work harder? No, not necessarily. He’s just in a better environment and has been deployed in better ways. When you’re surrounded by quality players at every position, everything becomes a bit easier. It’s like playing pick-up basketball with 6′ 4″ guys who can dunk after you spent the past two hours playing with 5′ 7″ guys playing with bum ankles and bad backs. You’d feel better about yourself, right?

Chandler, surprisingly, has actually been used in the pick-and-roll less frequently this season (by more than 4 percent, per Synergy) but he’s become even more efficient in those situations, scoring 1.39 points this season as opposed to 1.29 last season. One-tenth of a point might not seem like much, but an extra point every 10 possessions can win a game or two throughout a season. If you add .1 points to Stoudemire’s per-possession roll man numbers this season, he’d be in the top-40 in the league.

His efficiency isn’t by any means guaranteed to soar through the roof, but he remains an extremely skilled and talented big man at this point in his career. And playing with a team full of ball-handlers who can all perform exceptionally in the pick-and-roll, and next to a floor-spacing monster like Dirk Nowitzki, should only accent Stoudemire’s individual abilities in ways playing with the Knicks this season never could. He’s exactly who the Mavericks needed, and it shouldn’t take him long to get used to this system. After all, he’s one of the best in the league at doing what he does.

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