It was bound to happen eventually, and last night it did.
Mavs coach Rick Carlisle changed up the starting lineup, replacing Zaza Pachulia with Raymond Felton. Dirk Nowitzki started at center with Chandler Parsons at power forward as the Mavs tested a small-ball group against the hottest team in the NBA. Before last night, the Hornets had won a league-high seven straight games, while the Mavs had lost a league-high five consecutive contests and had slid down to eighth place in the standings.
After Saturday’s loss to Indiana, Carlisle pledged to make changes if necessary to give his team the best chance to win. The early returns following that change have certainly been positive, as a first-half blitz saw the Mavs lead balloon to as much as 19 in an 11-point win. However, Charlotte plays a much smaller starting group than most other teams in the league, so there’s no guarantee the lineup change will carry over to future contests. Still, the Mavericks have been rolling out enough small-ball groups lately that this is now officially a trend, so it’s worth looking at what’s made those units so effective and how it can translate to success down the stretch as Dallas continues on in the crowded playoff race.
The smaller the lineup, the more the ball moves
When Dallas can spread the floor with three players who can attack off the dribble, defenses are forced to rotate to absolute perfection. But by moving Chandler Parsons to the power forward spot, the Mavericks can play four guys who can penetrate and, next to the best-shooting big man in NBA history, that creates a terrible dilemma for defenses. Five-out basketball causes all sorts of problems for opponents because from a defensive perspective it can turn each play into five individual games of 1-on-1. When teams run traditional halfcourt sets with two big men, a defense can survive if one guy makes a mistake or has a disadvantageous matchup. But in 5-out ball, the offense can exploit every single matchup, which means you’d better stick to your man and keep him out of the paint, because you’re not going to get much help if you’re beat. All of your teammates are defending guys 25 feet from the rim, so who would normally be the traditional help man could be as far as 30-40 feet away from you. Each individual defender is on an island.
Of course, the offense wants the defense to help in those situations because it creates open jumpers on the outside. Here’s the Mavs’ first offensive play in last night’s game. Notice how this is set up: There are five offensive players all between 20-25 feet from the rim as Raymond Felton plays one-on-one up top.
Felton makes a quick crossover move on Kemba Walker and attacks the paint. Marvin Williams’ instincts take over, knowing that if he doesn’t slide down to help on the driving Felton, the Mavs guard will more than likely have a layup. But watch what happens when he helps.
Parsons is wide, wide open. It’s an easy three-pointer. Here’s the full play.
But driving the lane doesn’t always lead immediately to a shot, and that’s OK. The Mavs often attack and then pull the ball out and either reset the offense or swing to a player who becomes open as the defense falls off-balance. The Mavericks drove the lane 42 times in last night’s game, according to team analytics, and the club scored 50 points during possessions with a paint drive.
That high a volume of attacking creates an equally high volume of passing, and no team has done more of that since the All-Star break. In that time, the Mavericks lead the NBA with 352.9 passes per game, and in last night’s contest they made 366 passes. Seven players made at least 30 passes, an astonishing number. So not only is the team spreading the floor with quick guys, but they’re quick guys who can read the defense and make the right pass to lead to the most desirable shot. It’s a fun brand of basketball to play and watch, but it’s not fun at all to defend.
A quick note on the defense: Dallas switched on almost every screen last night, a luxury small-ball lineups tend to use religiously as it streamlines defensive coverage and mitigates any potential confusion in the pick-and-roll game. Also, Wesley Matthews was absolutely terrific against Kemba Walker in the fourth quarter, slowing the guard down after he went on a tear in the fourth quarter. Defense is part of the game, too, and the Mavs performed very well in that area last night.
Parsons and Dirk
Small-ball means Parsons plays the 4 and Dirk Nowitzki plays the 5. That’s a good thing for the Mavericks.
Since the All-Star break, Dallas has scored 1.411 points per possession in 77 minutes with that frontcourt duo in small-ball lineups, according to nbawowy.com. The Mavs have a 67.4 effective field goal percentage in those situations, an absurd rate. By comparison, the 59-win Warriors lead the NBA this season with a 56.2 eFG percentage.
On an individual level, Parsons has shined next to Dirk, with an 89.5 eFG, 88.6 true shooting percentage, and 68.4 field goal percentage in situations when he’s at the 4 and Dirk as at the 5.
Taking each player’s skill sets into consideration, though, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that they perform so well in those roles. Parsons has been playing more and more 4 lately, and it’s not crazy to think that, someday, he could make the transition to that position on a full-time basis. Meanwhile, Nowitzki has the same edge over centers today that he did against power forwards in the early-’00s in terms of quickness and exploiting opposing bigs’ discomfort defending on the outside. Centers naturally gravitate toward the rim so most aren’t going to think to stick tight to Nowitzki when he’s 25 feet from the basket, a mistake Nikola Jokic made last week that resulted in three Mavs points.
Parsons, meanwhile, has elevated his game to unprecedented heights in 2016. He’s averaging better than 20 points per game in the last two months and he’s rivaled by only Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard in terms of efficiency among high-usage players. He’s also climbed into the top-10 league-wide in points per possession among players with at least 750 possessions this season, according to Synergy Sports.
He ranks second in spot-up points per possession among players with at least 150 such possessions and he’s climbed up into the top 20 percent in PPP as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, in transition, and coming off cuts. His game is becoming more and more well-rounded as he’s even creating for himself at a high level this season, scoring 0.95 points per possession in isolation, ranking ahead of players like James Harden and DeMar DeRozan.
Power forward is arguably the most important position in the modern NBA, as your personnel at that spot will dictate the type of team you will be. If you have a stretch-4 shooter like Dirk, you can run a 4-out pick-and-roll and create driving and passing lanes for your point guard. However, if you have a dynamic scorer and facilitator like Parsons, who at 6-foot-10 (with a ratchet) can attack the paint, finish, pass, and shoot off both the catch and bounce, you can play 5-out and run your opponent ragged.
There aren’t many (or perhaps any) traditional power forwards in this league who can defend Parsons for 20-30 minutes a night, and there aren’t many centers who can do the same with Dirk. For the record, last night they combined for 47 points on 17-of-32 shooting and 20 rebounds. That combination is just lethal, and we’ve already seen the type of damage it can do, albeit on a fairly limited sample size compared to the Mavs’ rotation before the All-Star break.
The back end of the rotation
With Felton moving into the starting lineup, reserve minutes sprang open on the wing. Deron Williams battled foul trouble in the first half (before going supernova in the fourth quarter) which opened the door for rookie Justin Anderson to see some action. He scored only one point in eight minutes, but he made a play I can’t ever remember seeing before.
Charlotte’s Nic Batum drove the lane on a fast break and rose for the layup, but Anderson flew in literally out of nowhere and rejected the shot with his left (strong) hand, then grabbed the rebound with his off-hand in mid-air and launched a fast break the other way.
The Mavs have brought in plenty of super-athletic wings in the last decade-plus, from Gerald Green to Rodrigue Beaubois to Al-Farouq Aminu and more. But I’m not sure there are many people on the planet who can make the play Anderson made. Look at it this way: Not only did he block the layup, but he also got the rebound, preventing a Cody Zeller put-back dunk. Then, he made the outlet pass, ran the floor, collected a pass, drove the lane, and drew a foul going for a layup.
It was no secret coming out of the Combine that Anderson was one of, if not, the most athletic players in the NBA Draft. His combination of wingspan, verticality, and explosiveness gave him the physical makeup that every scout craves. As the season has worn on, he’s become more comfortable within the flow of the offense and playing defense at the professional level, adjustments which trouble pretty much every rookie. But no amount of coaching can teach a player to make the play Anderson did, which is what made him such a tantalizing prospect to begin with.
It’s unclear whether he’ll see more playing time as the race heats up and the season winds down, but that was a huge momentum play, and I’m sure it gave the rook a significant confidence boost. If nothing else, it’s a highlight play we’ll watch in awe for quite some time.
The move to small-ball was a resounding success last night, as it’s been for much of the season. And, looking at the schedule, the Mavs play their next five games against teams which don’t play traditional centers (Cleveland, then Golden State and Portland twice). This lineup could stick for a while, or perhaps it was a one-time thing to match up against a specific opponent in one specific contest. Either way, the Mavs have certainly found something with that philosophy, and their success in small-ball stretches could ultimately determine how far they go the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs.