Dennis Smith Jr. could open things up for the Mavs’ 3-point shooters

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.

Player C&S 3P% Before Dec. 23 C&S 3P% After Dec. 23 Difference
Dirk Nowitzki 31.6% 39.6% +8.0
Seth Curry 35.5% 43.4% +7.9
J.J. Barea 42.9% 46.7% +3.8
Devin Harris 33.3% 37.0% +3.7
Wesley Matthews 36.3% 38.9% +2.6
Harrison Barnes 36.6% 36.4% -0.2
Yogi Ferrell N/A 40.5% N/A
Totals 36.0% 39.7% +3.7

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.

Mavs’ second unit has maximized minutes since trade for Nerlens Noel

The Mavericks may have traded for Nerlens Noel with the intention of making him their full-time starting center in the very near future — be it this season or in those to come, assuming he’s re-signed this summer, as the Mavs have made it clear they hope to do — but since coming to Dallas he’s come off the bench in eight of his nine games.

For a team that has needed a burst off the bench all season long, Noel has almost proven to be a panacea for all things ailing the Mavericks. Dallas is 7-2 when Noel plays, and 6-2 when he plays as a reserve.

Not all the credit belongs to him, however. His arrival to the team has coincided with many other factors, many of which have proven to be fortuitous for the Mavericks, and the second unit in particular. Dorian Finney-Smith, for example, ran straight into the rookie wall in the month leading up to the All-Star break but appears to have forced his way through it. Since the break, he’s shooting better than 40 percent from beyond the arc.

Devin Harris, who Rick Carlisle considers the team’s unsung hero, has done the same; extending all the way back to Jan. 20, the backup off-guard is shooting 37.3 percent from deep, adding 2.6 assists and nearly a steal in just under 18 minutes per game. It helps, too, that J.J. Barea made his long-awaited return from injury six games ago and already had a 13-assist game before putting up 20 points yesterday in Brooklyn.

And Dirk Nowitzki, who plays a considerable amount of his minutes with backups, has been nearly unstoppable lately. Since Noel joined the team, he’s averaging 16.3 points on 50.6 percent shooting from the field and 42.0 percent from deep. In his last eight contests, those numbers have increased to 18.6 points on 53.1/47.2 shooting splits, and he’s recorded three double-doubles.

GAME RECAP: Mavericks 111, Nets 104

Dirk Nowitzki leads the way for the Mavericks scoring 23 points as they take down the Nets, 111-104.

Together those five have formed quite the second unit, and the fact that the group plays much (if not all) of its minutes against backups is unfair. Nowitzki is scoring at an astronomical rate for a player his age and Noel has All-Defense potential, yet they play at least a dozen minutes each against opponents’ third and fourth big men. Barea, meanwhile, played the best basketball of his career last season as a starter in the thick of a playoff race, and he’s remained in charge this season when healthy. Down the stretch against the Nets, Barea ran pick-and-roll on nine straight possessions and the Mavericks scored 12 points en route to a win.

It’s easy to forget about backups, simply because they don’t play a ton of minutes. Harris, for example, has only played more than 20 minutes in eight of his 52 appearances this season. Since Dorian Finney-Smith relinquished his starting spot to Seth Curry full-time in January, he’s filled in as a starter for injury purposes just four times in 33 games and has played at least 20 minutes in only eight of them.

That doesn’t mean they don’t make an impact. Since Noel’s team debut on Feb. 25, the Mavs are 8-5. Finney-Smith has finished with a positive plus-minus seven times, Harris has done so six times, and Nowitzki eight times. Noel missed three of those games (and Dallas lost two of them), but in the 10 he’s played, he’s finished above zero five times.

In yesterday’s seven-point win against the Nets, Nowitzki, Harris, and Finney-Smith all finished +12 or better. In the 11-point win against the Lakers on March 7, Harris, Nowitzki, and Noel all finished +11 or better. Finney-Smith’s +22 on Feb. 25 led the team in the 13-point win against the Pelicans.

Their per-game numbers might not jump off the page, but it’s hard to argue with the on-off splits: Suddenly, the Mavs have one of the league’s most effective second units, and the team is beginning to win games because of it.

Second unit, by the numbers

Since Devin Harris made his season debut on Nov. 30, the Mavericks are 27-26. Any time he’s shared the floor with Finney-Smith and Nowitzki for at least one second, the Mavericks are 20-15. Across an 82-game season, that’s nearly a 47-win pace.

Those numbers climb exponentially higher when factoring Noel into the mix, as well. Those four players have shared the floor for only 26 minutes combined spread across six games, which is not a big enough sample size to draw any huge conclusions. But even through that small sample, their numbers together have been outrageously good. (See the table below.)

Lineup Record Minutes Played Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating
Devin Harris, Dorian Finney-Smith 26-25 365 108.7 101.8 6.9
Harris, Finney-Smith, Dirk Nowitzki 20-15 201 110.3 93.6 16.7
Harris, Finney-Smith, Nowitzki, Nerlens Noel 5-1 26 138.3 74.9 63.4

Those who did the quick math all be saying the same thing: These lineups aren’t used very often. For example, Harris and Finney-Smith have shared the floor for an average of just seven minutes per game; Nowitzki is on with them for less than six minutes. Six minutes might not be a big chunk of an NBA game, but you’d better believe it’s a long enough stretch to swing a game. If you outscore an opponent by 17 points per 100 possessions and play 15 offensive possessions together, you’re gaining two or three points on your opponent, on average, during that time. (That trio is by far the Mavs’ best among groups which have played at least 200 minutes together.)

Noel’s inclusion has turbo-charged that unit even more, however. In the four minutes per game that group of four has averaged together, the Mavericks are outscoring opponents by more than 63 points per 100 possessions, which is a monstrous number. In per-game terms, Dallas has outscored opponents by 5.2 points in less than five minutes per game when that four-man unit is on the floor.

Again, it’s a small sample size, so one big run can swing those numbers either way, but that group has been so overwhelmingly dominant — sporting a 65.9 effective field goal percentage while opponents can only muster an eFG percentage of 36.9, and turn it over one out of every six trips down the floor — that the tremendous divide between that group and the opponent has been hard to ignore.

With Noel alone on the floor, the Mavericks have been terrific; Dallas outscores opponents 113.7 to 105.0 per 100 possessions with him in the game. In terms of net rating, the Mavericks (8.7 points per 100 better than opponents) are better than the Spurs (+8.6), and every other team in the NBA not named Golden State, with Nerlens Noel in the game.

Noel And-One

Nerlens Noel catches the oop from the Devin Harris and puts it in, plus the foul.

Why are they good?

Aside from the skill advantage Noel and Nowitzki provide the second unit simply because they’re quality NBA starters masquerading as backups for 10+ minutes a game, the Mavs’ second unit is on paper a very potent group. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the pieces have fit so smoothly. Most importantly it’s an extremely high-IQ group, with every player capable of making the right play in most any circumstance, reminiscent of the Harris-Crowder-Carter-Dirk-Wright second-unit lineup during the 2013-14 season that was among the best in basketball by net rating, at +26.6.

Harris remains an excellent fourth guard because he can defend both 1s and 2s, and can even switch off to defend some 3s at times. Defensively, he has a knack for drawing charges and forcing live-ball turnovers, which disrupts the opponent at the point of attack. Offensively, meanwhile, he can knock down the 3-ball, run offense as a secondary ball-handler, attack the basket both on and off the ball (including with the back-door cut with J.J. Barea that still catches teams by surprise once or twice a night), and run the floor in transition.

Finney-Smith Putback Dunk

Yogi Ferrell drives to the rim and misses the lay-up but Dorian Finney-Smith is there for the putback dunk.

Finney-Smith is long enough to guard 4s and quick enough to guard 2s, and most 3s in the NBA are either not as tall or not as long as he is. He’s a rookie with the defensive chops of a veteran. Offensively, he understands his role as a catch-and-shoot spot-up guy on the perimeter, but he also has a nice one-dribble pull-up shot to attack close-outs, and he can cut to the rim off the ball either for a shot or an offensive rebound.

Nowitzki and Noel, meanwhile, are two of the most fearsome pick-and-roll players in the NBA, with Nowitzki able to stretch the defense to the limits as a pick-and-pop jump-shooter and Noel able to do the same thing, only vertically and as a roll man. Whether they’re playing with Barea or Yogi Ferrell, both players make the point guard’s job so much easier because their off-ball movement opens up driving lanes or open mid-range jump shots. All the point guard needs to do is read the defense and then make the smart basketball play. Dallas runs complex offense, but for as nuanced as it is, it’s also extremely simple.

These guys don’t play all of their minutes together, but the fact that they each are net-positive players almost every night regardless of how their teammates look at the end of the game tells you at least this: The Mavs aren’t surrendering points when their starters check out, and that’s valuable when talking about backup players.

It’s going to be exciting to see where this second unit goes the rest of the season, and also what the Mavs do about it next season. If Noel remains with the Mavericks, he figures to be a starter, which could cut into his minutes with the reserves. Then again, the Mavericks have been so good with him coming off the bench — and he’s still played plenty of minutes overall, even in that role — that you wonder if it’s something they’ll stick with.

At any rate, the Mavs have found something pretty special with this group, albeit after a pretty small sample. Those four players will have plenty of chances in the final 13 games to prove the unit has staying power.

Mavericks guard Devin Harris undergoes left toe and left thumb surgeries

DALLAS — The Dallas Mavericks announced today that guard Devin Harris underwent surgery on both his left great toe and left thumb on Tuesday morning.

The surgery on Harris’s left great toe was performed by Dr. Martin O’Malley while the surgery on his left thumb was executed by Dr. Michelle Carlson. Both surgeries were performed at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.

Harris (6-3, 185) recently finished his 12th NBA season and averaged 7.6 points, 1.8 assists, 0.9 steals and 20.0 minutes in 64 games with the Mavericks.

Devin Harris and Jeremy Evans take part in Jr. NBA clinic

Dallas Mavericks Jr NBA

Throughout the preseason we’ve seen the youngest Mavericks get plenty of run on the floor at the American Airlines Center — guys like Jeremy Evans, Justin Anderson, and John Jenkins. On Tuesday, however, 42 players took the court and all but one was younger than the springy 6-foot-9 Evans.

That’s because he and Devin Harris teamed up with 40 middle school students from Dallas’ Uplift Peak Preparatory for a Jr. NBA clinic as part of the inaugural Jr. NBA Week, an effort by the program to expand its reach nationwide. The organization teaches the fundamental skills as well as the core values of the game at the grassroots level in an effort to help grow and improve the youth basketball experience for players, coaches, and parents. The program is for boy and girls ages 6-14, and the goal is to reach 5 million kids with clinics, skills challenges, and regional tournaments.

The clinic kicked off on the main court at the AAC with Director of Camps & Community Basketball Greg Nared and Camps and Community Basketball Manager Ben Hunt introducing the players and then running the kids through some stretching, ball-handling drills — some of which got pretty elaborate, including laying flat on the ground and trying to keep it bouncing — and shooting exercises.

All the while, Harris and Evans joined in. Harris, in particular, said that his experience working with NBA players when he was younger has made him want to pay it forward to students today.

“I’ve been to a bunch of camps and met a couple NBA players earlier in my career, and it did wonders for my confidence and excitement,” he said. “So I just couldn’t imagine what it’s like for little kids, so I try to give them that. I try to give them something they can hold onto and something they can remember.”

Evans added: “I just always think back when I was a kid, how I would want an NBA player to act with me if I was to come to one of these events. Just being like a big brother and make you feel like you’re somebody out there.”

Once each kid had a chance to get some jumpers up, it was time for knockout, a staple at every basketball camp. Harris and Evans made it a point to stand near each other in line, and once it got down to the final four players, Harris turned up the heat on his Mavs teammate. Evans missed his first shot from the three-point line and quickly chased the ball down, but Harris launched his shot quickly. As Evans went to dunk his put-back attempt, Harris’ ball swished. It was a photo finish and easily the biggest source of controversy on the day. Evans wisely deferred to his senior, though, and declared himself out.

“He’s dunking the ball,” Harris said, recollecting the play. “I feel like my ball hit the net first so technically I feel like I get the edge on that.”

“I let the vet big guy make the final decision,” Evans admitted, “so I feel like he made the shot first.

“First one together, so I let him slide on this one.”

Nared said after the event that having players in attendance who truly want to be there adds a little extra for the kids.

“Those guys are so good at teaching the fundamentals of the game, which is a huge part of what Jr. NBA is,” he said. “They interact with the kids, they’re high-fiving the kids. It’s a special thing for any kid to come to, and for the kids here to be able to go through that whole process with the players is pretty cool.”

This wasn’t the only contribution the Mavs made to Jr. NBA Week. As part of a YouTube coaching clinic series, Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle led a three-part clinic on shooting, especially focused on shooting form. As this is only the inaugural Jr. NBA Week, it will be interesting to see how much larger the program becomes in the coming years.

“It’s a huge initiative for the NBA, it’s a huge initiative for all the teams,” Nared said. “I think it’s special because we get an opportunity to get into the schools, get into the Boys and Girls Clubs, the YMCAs, and the different non-profits around the U.S. and touch lives. And that’s what it’s all about.”

2015 Year in Review: Devin Harris

Exit Interviews: Devin Harris

Devin Harris reflects on his 2014-15 season with the Mavs.

Devin Harris repeated his role this season as a sixth man and combo guard, playing both the 1 and 2 in the Mavs’ offense and occasionally even closing games running point. While combo guard is simple on paper — a guy who can play both on and off the ball — it’s a very demanding job which often requires the player to defend opponents who are either much bigger or much smaller than him. Also, it’s not always easy to stay in rhythm as a point guard if the ball isn’t in your hands most of the time.

That wasn’t the case at all for Harris this season, however, who ran the pick-and-roll effectively as a 1 and shot the three well as a 2. Once again, he came up big in his role as the third guard in a system that asks a lot from the backcourt and in many respects played better than he did last year.

SEASON STATS

PTS AST FG% 3PT% STL
8.8 3.1 41.8 35.7 1.0

PERFORMANCE EVALUATION

Shotchart_1433359368065

A huge reason why Harris’ field goal percentage was just 41.8 percent in 2014-15 is because more than half of his attempts were three-pointers. He connected on those at a 35.7 percent clip, a very solid rate for a guard who very often was asked to do other things besides just shooting. He hit 48.1 percent of his two-pointers, which is right in line with his career average.

The most pleasantly surprising element of his shot chart this season was how insanely effective he was shooting from either corner. From both combined, he shot 59.6 on corner threes, an astronomically high number. This isn’t particularly out of character for him, though — he connected at a 57.1 percent rate in 2011-12, albeit on a lower volume of attempts, and he’s a career 42.6 percent shooter on corner threes, per Basketball-Reference.

It’s almost unfair to expect any player to continue hitting those shots at such a high rate, but it will be interesting to see if Harris is used in those spots more regularly. He was seventh in the NBA from the left corner among players who took at least 20 attempts, and he led the league from the right corner among players who took at least 20. In today’s NBA, that’s a very useful skill, especially for players on a team which runs a lot of pick-and-roll. A dangerous corner shooter can shift the geometry of the defense, and when paired with the right players in other places on the court — like Dirk Nowitzki at the top of the key, for example — it creates a scenario in which at least one player will be open at all times.

Harris was also a terrific distributor of the ball this season. Per Synergy, he created 2.325 points per assist during the 2014-15 campaign, and the 1.322 points he averaged per possession plus assist — a metric that takes into account a player’s own efficiency in addition to shots he creates for others — ranked 19th in the NBA among players with at least 100 possessions. His 12.5 turnover percentage was a career-best mark, as was his individual offensive rating of 113 points per 100 possessions.

He was worth more win shares per 48 minutes this season (.120) than he has in any since his All-Star campaign in 2008-09. Clearly he was an important piece to this team despite playing only 22.2 minutes per game, his second-lowest total since his rookie season.

STANDOUT SHOWING

Before the Rajon Rondo trade, and even fairly often afterward, Harris was the point guard to finish the game for the Mavs, not Rondo or his preceding starter Jameer Nelson. Arguably Harris’ finest outing of the season came in a Dec. 2 road win against the Chicago Bulls, a double-overtime thriller you might remember most for Monta Ellis’ late-game heroics.

However, Harris was spectacular for the whole night, reaching the 20-point plateau for one of three times this season on 7-of-10 shooting, including a sizzling 6-of-6 mark from beyond the three-point line. He added eight assists against just one turnover, plus four rebounds and a steal to boot.

CONTRACT STATUS

Harris is under contract for another three seasons including 2015-16, and at this point it’s hard to envision a scenario in which he won’t be at least the third guard on the Mavs next season. He’s simply too versatile a player, as he can work from both the point guard and shooting guard spots in the lineup, and he can either be the primary ball-handler or act as a spot-up shooter. His flexibility and willingness to come off the bench in the sixth man role have been valuable assets for the Mavs the past two seasons, and it’s been beneficial for him as well.

Harris Lands in the Seats

Devin Harris hustles for a ball out-of-bounds and ends up in the first row seats.

FUTURE OUTLOOK

Harris will turn 33 next February, and it will be his 12th NBA campaign. He’s got the shooting touch to play another several seasons in the league, so long as he can remain a consistent from the three-point line. Despite battling through injuries the past few seasons, as well, he’s still athletic enough to defend quicker guards and he’s got the size to match up against bigger ones.

As Harris’ career unfolds, it will be interesting to see if he remains in the combo guard role that former Mav Jason Terry and current sixth man Jamal Crawford have established in the league. He played more shooting guard this season than he has in many years past throughout his career, and he even defended some small forwards when the Mavs went to a three-guard lineup. You would suspect that as a bigger point guard ages and his athleticism might slip, he would be able to seamlessly transition to 2-guard. That was certainly the case for Harris this season, but time — and the makeup of the roster around him — will tell if that will continue.

Dirk stands to be even more efficient with improved supporting cast

Kia Awards: Dirk Nowitzki

Dallas' Dirk Nowkitzki is a nominee for the Kia Western Conference Player of the Month.

Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban have made it their mission for the past decade to surround Dirk Nowitzki with a capable supporting cast full of players who can fit in with the system and complement Nowitzki’s own strengths. The 2011 title team was an example of their finest work, as the front office gave Rick Carlisle everything he needed to construct a perfect offensive strategy that highlighted what those players could do as opposed to what they couldn’t do.

As Nowitzki prepares to enter his age-36 season, it’s becoming even more important not only for the front office to continuously add strong complementary players, but also for Dirk to apply less stress to his body. That doesn’t necessarily mean playing fewer minutes — the Dirk we saw last season was not the low-post-banging Nowitzki of the mid-2000s, for example — but it does mean putting him in position to play off of other players more so than he did, say, five or six seasons ago.

The pieces are already in place for exactly that to happen. Monta Ellis and Devin Harris were terrific creators last season, and the additions of Chandler Parsons, Jameer Nelson, and Raymond Felton give Dallas three more facilitators, players who can create for themselves and for others — all the while allowing Nowitzki the freedom to play a less physically taxing brand of basketball. Banging in the post takes a toll on even the strongest players, as does driving the lane and taking contact. Over the course of the past half-decade we’ve seen Dirk gradually shift his game further from the basket toward the three-point line, and the results have paid off. Last season, despite playing the second-fewest minutes per game since his rookie season, he put together one of the most efficient seasons of his career.

THE TRANSITION

It wasn’t long ago that Dirk was playing 3,000 minutes or more per season, meaning not only did he remain healthy enough to play, but he played a lot. From 2006-2010 (age 28-31), he averaged 36.8 minutes per game. In the four seasons to follow, that number was reduced to 33.1 per night. Players generally stay on the floor for fewer minutes per night as they grow older, but not every player alters his game as much as Nowitzki has while also remaining just as deadly.

Nowitzki took 121 three-pointers during the 2009-10 season, a year in which Dallas won 55 games and earned the second seed in the Western Conference. That number nearly tripled in 2013-14, when Dirk launched 329 treys and made more (131) than he even attempted four years prior. That ’09-10 season is significant because it was the last time Nowitzki averaged more than 34.3 minutes per game. His activity has been on a general decline in the years since, but his efficiency has not experienced a similar drop-off. In fact, it’s actually on an upward curve.

Even as Dirk has played less minutes and farther away from the rim, his scoring has remained in line with his elite career average. In fact, in three of the last four seasons (each of which he’s played below his career minutes per game average) his points per 36 minutes mark has been significantly higher than his career average of 22.6. He’s also enjoyed three seasons with an effective field goal percentage above his career average, which is unheard-of among players in the supposed twilight years of their career.

How’s it possible? The three-point shot. In the table below, you’ll see Dirk’s minutes per game, points per 36 minutes, eFG, free throw rate (number of free throws attempts per field goal attempt) and three-point rate (percentage of FGA from behind the arc), win shares per 48 minutes, as well how far from the rim he was on average per attempt each season. (All numbers via Basketball-Reference.com.)

Dirk Being Dirk

Season MPG Pts/36 min eFG% FTr 3PAr Avg distance Win shares/48 min
09-10 37.5 24.0 49.8 0.392 0.081 13.7 .194
10-11 34.3 24.2 54.5 0.376 0.142 14.4 .213
11-12 33.5 23.2 49.5 0.343 0.205 15.6 .175
12-13 31.3 19.9 51.6 0.265 0.216 16.3 .145
13-14 32.9 23.8 54.9 0.295 0.258 16.7 .199
Career Avg 35.9 22.6 51.4 0.375 0.195 14.7 .208

As Dirk has grown older, he’s taken a higher volume of threes and far fewer free throws and has still remained just as valuable to the team in terms of win shares. Threes are obviously worth more than two-pointers, and because he’s such a sharp-shooter, Nowitzki has been able to score even more efficiently these past four seasons than he was able to in his physical prime. Most star players are much more stubborn when it comes to reinventing their games to adapt to physical limitations caused by aging, but Nowitzki has willingly accepted his age and has remained a super efficient player because of it.

That process has also been made easier by being surrounded with playmakers. Nowitzki and Ellis brought out the best in each other last season. Dirk, especially, benefited from Ellis’s elite driving ability. Per NBA.com, when Ellis was on the floor last season, Dirk shot 53.7 percent from 15-19 feet from the rim, an insanely high number. That number dipped nearly six percentage points when Ellis was on the bench. Nowitzki also shot a dramatically higher percentage and from 20-24 feet when Ellis played. The pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop games allowed Nowitzki to not only find easy jump shots, but also doing so while avoiding bruising contact.

This season, with a healthy Harris and the additions of Parsons, Nelson, and Felton, the Mavericks will have even more players able to drive the lane and create for others. Nowitzki will find even more open shots around the perimeter and could realistically have an even more efficient season in 2015 than he did in 2014. For example, Dwight Howard, Parsons’s old running mate in Houston, shot six percentage points better from the restricted area when Parsons was on the floor than when he was off, per NBA.com. Parsons was also one of only five forwards in the NBA last season to average at least 16 points and four assists per game. He’s a high-profile acquisition who makes his teammates better. In that same vein, Jameer Nelson has averaged seven-plus assists for the first two times in his career the last two seasons, despite playing for a team with less offensive options than the Mavs now have. The ball will be shared this season, and Dirk will benefit the most from it.

Rick Carlisle’s and the front office’s goal for years has been to give Nowitzki an outstanding supporting cast and reduce his minutes if possible. This season Carlisle will certainly have that opportunity. And if we learned anything from last season, it’s this: Dirk no longer needs to be a superstar for the Mavericks to be successful, but he will likely put up superstar numbers nonetheless.

DeJuan Blair’s energy, second-half defense spur Mavs’ 20-point comeback

Postgame: DeJuan Blair

Mavs F DeJuan Blair comments on the play that resulted in his ejection, the impact it had on the game and more.

At the end of a game in which they trailed by as many as 20 points and shot below 39 percent as a team, the Mavericks were still in position to tie the game with three seconds left on the clock. There’s no such thing as a moral victory in the playoffs, but the Mavs outscored the Spurs by 10 in the second half and nearly stole a game that seemed to be under San Antonio’s control for most of the contest.

As has been the case throughout the entire series, a reserve played a key role in jump-starting a second-half run. In Game 4, DeJuan Blair’s hustle gave the Mavs the energy boost they sorely needed. In just over 13 minutes in the second half, Blair hit all five of his field goal attempts and grabbed nine rebounds, four of which came on the offensive end. Dallas scored eight second chance points in the second half, and Blair had plenty to do with it. He also swiped two steals, upping his series total to six.

Unfortunately, he faced an early exit from the game as he was ejected with 3:08 left in the fourth quarter and the Mavs up by one point. Still, he was +6 in the second half and, if nothing else, brought Dallas out of a 20-point hole with the effort and emotion we’ve come to expect from the center.

“He did a great job,” Monta Ellis said of Blair’s play. “He came in and gave us energy and tough defense. He got rebounds and a lot of put-backs. He was a big part of us making that run to get back into the game.”

Added Dirk Nowitzki: “He was fantastic. I thought his energy was great. He was into it.”

Blair has played just 37 minutes thus far in the series — primarily finding minutes in Games 2 and 4 — but he’s made that precious playing time count. The Mavs’ numbers are better across the board when Blair takes the floor, and he has a hand in most of it. When he’s on his game, flying around the floor and creating second chances, he’s dominated the series and the Mavericks are reaping the benefits.

Blair’s Impact

  Blair Off Blair On
Mavs points/100 possessions 103.1 124.4*
Mavs pts allowed/100 possessions 103.9 99.7
Mavs net rating/100 possessions -.8 24.8*
Mavs FG% 42.5 54.4*
Mavs 3-pt% 34.7 36.4
Mavs offensive rebound % 26.4 35.7*
* denotes team-high in respective category

So what must Blair do to find more playing time? The center, though he stands at just 6′ 7″, showed in Game 4 that he has the strength to defend Spurs big men. In fact, Tim Duncan has hit just 40 percent of his shots in the series when Blair has been on the floor versus 57.8 percent when he rests. If Blair can stay active on both ends, he shouldn’t have a problem finding playing time throughout the rest of the series.

There was plenty else to watch in Game 4, of course. Here’s a brief rundown of the Mavs’ offensive and defensive performance in yet another close contest.

MAVS DEFENSE

The Mavericks have done well to limit Tony Parker and Tim Duncan throughout the series, especially in Games 2-4. It’s the third member of the Spurs’ longtime “big 3,” Manu Ginobili, who’s had the biggest impact in this series. The Mavs have had difficulty guarding him in the pick-and-roll — that is, until the second half of Game 4. A pretty simple adjustment made it all possible.

The left-handed Ginobili relies almost exclusively on his strong hand as he attacks the basket. He might begin a drive by moving to his right, but he will usually crossover back to his left before taking the shot. It might look like he had another big game last night — 23 points and five assists on 50 percent shooting — but Shawn Marion and Jae Crowder were able to hold Ginobili to just eight points, one assist, and one turnover in 14-plus second-half minutes. The secret? They made him go right.

Marion has spent most of his time and energy checking Spurs’ point guard Tony Parker, but due to both Marion’s defense and Ginobili’s stellar play, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich has run most of the offense through Ginobili in second halves. Last night, Marion switched over to guarding Ginobili instead of Parker, and the results paid off. Below is an example of Crowder forcing Ginobili to his right in the pick-and-roll.

Crowder Forces Manu Right

As Tim Duncan approached Crowder, the Mavs’ wing chose not to accept the screen and instead literally act as a wall, essentially blocking off Ginobili’s strong hand and in effect isolating Blair against the Spurs’ veteran guard. But, in what was nearly identical to a sequence we saw in Game 2, Blair was able to strip Ginobili as he came off the screen and it resulted in a Spurs turnover. Ginobili might end up in the Hall of Fame some day, but no player is perfect. Manu struggles going to his right, and the Mavs took advantage.

Marion covered Ginobili the exact same way Crowder did in the second half. For example, here’s another example of a Mavs wing teaming up with Blair to force him right.

Marion Forces Manu Right

Dallas was even more successful this time around, as Ginobili was blocked off entirely from the basket with just nine seconds left on the shot clock. In a hurry, he fired a cross-court pass to Kawhi Leonard, who immediately caught and drove to the rim, drawing a foul in the process. The Mavs could even take their aggressive defense a little further in the future by having Monta Ellis worry only about his man, Leonard, and completely ignore Tim Duncan as he rolls to the rim. If Ellis had taken a risk by playing the passing lane more aggressively, the possession might have ended in a fast break for Dallas.

The coverage scheme only appeared for one half, and Dallas still lost the game, but it will be interesting to see if Carlisle elects to continue defending Ginobili’s left hand the same way moving forward. It greatly limited the Argentine’s scoring output in the second half and forced the Spurs into some difficult late-clock situations, so it might be worth a shot. However, it could also mean moving Marion off of Tony Parker for longer stretches of the game, meaning Parker could see some extra chances on the ball. The Spurs are the No. 1 seed for a reason: They have plenty of weapons. Stopping them isn’t easy, but Dallas has been able to do so for prolonged stretches in every game thus far.

MAVS OFFENSE

DeJuan Blair wasn’t the only player to bring some energy to the floor. The Spurs played with desperation in the first half, and that extra fire played no small role in building their 14-point halftime lead. San Antonio held Dallas to just 29.3 percent shooting in the first half before the Mavs bounced back to shoot at a 46.5 percent clip in the second act. The key behind the second-half push — for the umpteenth time this season — was the team’s insistence on getting shots at the rim.

The Mavs attempted just five shots at the rim in the first half, hitting only two of them. All in all, Dallas took just one less three-pointer (13) than shots in the paint (14) before the break. In the second half that trend reversed, as the Mavs took 18 shots in the paint compared to just 11 beyond the arc.

And for the second consecutive game, Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle drew up a play to get Monta Ellis running toward the rim in the final seconds. In Game 3, Ellis was able to convert a tough runner over Tim Duncan, but Monday night Monta’s attempt against Duncan rimmed out. Following the game, all Carlisle said about the play was that the Mavs don’t want to find themselves in last-second situations, especially during games in which they fall behind so early. However, it’s safe to bet Carlisle’s squad was thrilled with the chance Ellis had to tie the score at 91. The Spurs know by now that Ellis is perhaps the most lethal driver in the game, and Popovich’s team has geared its defense accordingly, but Ellis was still able to beat them for six shots in the paint in the second half alone.

Many times this season, it appeared as if Dallas might have been forcing the three-point shot even when it wasn’t falling, but that wasn’t the case in Game 4. The Spurs led the league in fewest three-point attempts allowed per game, but Dallas managed to shoot 24 three-pointers Monday night and many of them were extremely good looks. If the Mavs can cobble together during Game 5 the same types of looks they found in Game 4, it will likely mean good things for the boys in blue.

The team executed Carlisle’s gameplan yet again in Game 4, especially in the second half, and Dallas was once again in position to tie or take the lead in the closing seconds. Considering the Mavs are the underdogs in this series, that isn’t such a bad scenario to be in moving forward.