What is the most important position in basketball? Some would say it’s center. If your big man isn’t athletic enough to defend the pick-and-roll or at least score efficiently around the rim, your team might be doomed. Some would say it’s the power forward. Can your 4-man shoot the 3? Can he exploit size mismatches due either to his strength or his quickness? Your power forward’s skill set defines your offense.
Many others, however — probably the majority — would say it’s the point guard position. Now more than ever, the NBA is catered to the quarterback. Nearly every team runs heavy pick-and-roll offenses that feature the point guard in an attacking, scoring-minded role. Gone are the days when 20 starting point guards would average single-digits in scoring. It’s a new era, and your point guard needs to be able to run an offense and score 15 or 20 a night while still creating quality looks for his teammates and defending guys like Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, and Chris Paul for 30-plus minutes. Sheesh.
By trading for Nerlens Noel last season and bringing him back for 2017-18, the Mavs shored up their center spot. Noel brings an athleticism and defensive versatility that this club hasn’t seen at that position in years, if ever at all. Dirk Nowitzki is thankfully still playing basketball, and he and Harrison Barnes can both still get you 20 points from the power forward spot. No questions there from a consistency standpoint.
Point guard, however, was the team’s biggest area of need heading into the summer. The Mavericks believe they filled that hole on draft night by selecting Dennis Smith Jr., who now steps into an offense that is practically ready-made for a player of his exact profile. Dallas will start athletes on the wing and at the 5-spot and can spread the floor with as many as four shooters around Smith who have all shot 38 percent or better from deep within the last couple years. All the offense needs is a player who can regularly initiate the sequence that results in a good shot. Ideally, that’s either a dunk or a 3-pointer.
The Mavs had some talented starting point guards last season, but neither were quite like Smith. Deron Williams entered the season as the starter, and while he was a terrific passer and at times a potent scorer from the 1-spot, he doesn’t have Smith’s explosiveness within the pick-and-roll. Williams was brilliant distributing the ball, especially once Nowitzki was healthy again, but he couldn’t attack switches against big men the way Smith projects to be able to. Yogi Ferrell, meanwhile, is a super-quick point guard and was an excellent 3-point shooter in his rookie season, but he doesn’t have Smith’s size or leaping ability. He gained a much better understanding of where his teammates want to be on the floor from a ball distribution standpoint, and hopefully with a full training camp to grow accustomed to these guys, Ferrell can take his passing game up another level this season. He and Smith will likely share the floor for stretches this season.
The Film Room: Dennis Smith Jr.
In this episode of The Film Room, we look at how one particular play illustrates Dennis Smith Jr.'s ability as a point guard.
The hope is that Smith’s game is an amalgam of those of Ferrell and Williams, that he can attack off the bounce like the cat-quick rookie and move the ball like the heady vet. If he can do those things, it could mean the Mavs’ shooters will find themselves in acres of space throughout the season, which could lead to a massive improvement in the team’s 3-point shooting.
Last season a combination of injuries, roster moves, and resting vets down the stretch led to some distorted team numbers. For example, the Mavs shot 36.2 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers in 2016-17, which ranked 21st in the NBA. However, the players they’re bringing back from that team collectively shot 37.0 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers, which would have ranked tied for 14th in the league. That might not seem like a significant difference, but considering the Mavs attempted 1,800 of them, it makes a difference across 82 games.
Those same numbers, too, took a massive leap once Dirk Nowitzki returned from injury on Dec. 23. The Mavs didn’t really start ticking offensively until later in the season, but bringing Nowitzki back achieved two things. First, it meant that between Dirk and Barnes, the Mavs could always play a power forward capable of shooting 3s, which opened up the offense. Second, it meant the point guards could always play pick-and-roll with a fearsome jump shooter, which bends defenses in fortuitous ways.
Below is a table showing the primary jump-shooters’ catch-and-shoot 3-point percentages both before and after Nowitzki returned from injury on Dec. 23, when many of their best shooters became even better.
||C&S 3P% Before Dec. 23
||C&S 3P% After Dec. 23
Of course, Nowitzki’s return wasn’t the only thing to happen that resulted in basically a full-scale improvement in 3-point shooting. Devin Harris and J.J. Barea both missed large chunks of time in the early part of the season, and most importantly once Ferrell came into the fold, the team saw an immediate offensive improvement in that regard. Why? Because for weeks at a time Ferrell was the only player on the roster who could consistently get into the lane.
Ferrell averaged 6.1 drives per game last season for the Mavericks, the most on the team. Most of those lane attacks came against opposing starting lineups, too. That number represents a big increase from Williams’ average of 4.9 drives per game and is a slight uptick from Barea’s 5.6 per game, but the Puerto Rican rarely played against starters. What we’re primarily focusing on is the starting point guard’s ability to get into the paint, because that’s where Smith is likely going to come in. The Mavs offense has to create penetration against opposing front line units to stay competitive early in games and avoid falling behind early.
Assuming Smith clinches the starting job in training camp, he’s presumably going to be playing plenty of minutes with Nowitzki. The German has an unrivaled influence on opponents’ defensive rotations, as his defender never wants to leave him open. That could mean Smith will commonly come off ball-screens with an immediate driving lane to the basket, forcing defenders to slide over and help. That’s going to leave Mavs shooters open all over the floor. In order to achieve all of this, though, a point guard has to have the quickness to attack, the explosiveness around the rim to strike enough fear into the defense to force help, and the court vision to identify the open man.
It’s been a while since the Mavericks have had a player with all three of those traits. The most recent is Monta Ellis, whose blistering off-the-dribble game fueled a top-five Mavs offense for back-to-back seasons from 2013-2015. Just look at everything going on here.
Ellis cruised right through the first line of help defense and into the paint, where the entire Pacers defense collapsed to prevent a layup attempt. That left Jose Calderon wide open for a 3 on the weak side. Nowitzki helped this action, but most of the credit goes to Ellis for so quickly and decisively getting into the lane. He knew he wouldn’t get a shot off, but by drawing so much attention through his action, he created a great look for someone else.
Ellis had a knack for attacking the paint early in the shot clock, and he and Nowitzki developed very good chemistry in the pick-and-pop game. The shifty guard had the freedom to choose whether to use his screen or attack in the opposite direction, and doing so would usually catch the defense off guard. Below, Ellis attacks before the opposing defense is even set, and again he finds Calderon open for 3.
Nowitzki wasn’t even involved in the following play, but his presence was surely felt.
Ellis called for a screen from a different player, then quickly crossed over and got going toward the lane with one hard step and dribble. Nowitzki’s defender was the only other big man on the floor, but he was pulled 25 feet out from the rim. That left only a couple guards to help against the driving Ellis, who once again found Calderon for 3. The Mavericks finished second in the league in 3-point shooting in 2013-14.
Smith is quick and explosive enough to make these plays. Swap out Calderon for Seth Curry or Wesley Matthews and you can have that similar 3-point production on the weak side. Barnes and Nowitzki are obviously no slouches from deep, either, and if Smith plays with Barea, Harris, or Ferrell, he’ll have another lead guard he can trust to hoist the long-range shots too.
He’ll have no shortage of options, but as was the case with Ellis, everything will start with Smith. Can he break down that first line of defense? Can he get into the lane and draw attention? And, if he does all that, can he also make the right pass to the right player at the right time? It’s a tough ask of a 19-year-old rookie, but that’s the kind of thing Smith will have to do multiple times per game for 82 in order for this offense to click at the level it’s capable of reaching. The good thing is Nowitzki and Noel will help him do that by drawing their own attention as a screener, and the shooters are going to be able to convert those looks when they’re there. Smith will only need to focus on doing his job, and fortunately he’s already shown he can do it.