His signing might not have been the Mavs’ most heralded of the summer, but Jameer Nelson is an ideal acquisition in every sense of the word.
When clubs like Dallas look for free agents — teams that are eyeing a high position in the conference and a potentially deep playoff run — three important factors stand out more than any other: disposition, fit in the system, and cost. How those key ingredients come together in a player’s makeup determines whether or not a contending team will bother pursuing him. Nelson checks out on all three, giving Dallas yet another capable guard in its already deep stable.
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Nelson isn’t a rising star like, say, Chandler Parsons. At 32 years old, he is what he is at this point. But that’s just fine. He’s a veteran player who understands his role in the system and has played on several successful teams in the past. Dwight Howard might have been the centerpiece of the Orlando Magic’s steady run during the late ’00s and early ’10s, but Nelson was one of the more proven players on the squad, flirting with a 50/40/90 during the 2008-09 season before a torn labrum sidelined him for half the season. He was an All-Star that year and hit threes at a 45.3 percent clip. His three-point percentage sank below 35 percent during each of the past two seasons for the first time since 2007 (more on that later), but much of that had to do with the supporting cast in Orlando after Howard was dealt to the Los Angeles Lakers. Nelson isn’t the type of player to settle for declining percentages, however.
That’s the mentality that successful front offices crave. New acquisition Raymond Felton also had a down year by his standards last season, but Rick Carlisle, Donnie Nelson, and Mark Cuban are hoping he’ll bounce back with the focus and energy required to reverse a trend. The same holds true for Tyson Chandler, who last season battled both injuries and an at times challenging environment en route to a difficult season in New York. The list goes on. Dallas has thrived off of these signings in the past — including way back in 2011, when midseason pickups of the cast-off Peja Stojakovic and the waived Corey Brewer directly impacted the Mavs’ run to the the Finals. Yes, Nelson is 32, and yes, he’s coming off a “down” year, during which he put up 12 points and seven assists per game, but he wants to get better, and he understands what he needs to do to make that happen. The Mavericks will welcome a player with his pedigree and that attitude all day long.
Part of the reason behind Nelson’s recent statistical decline has a great deal to do with the players he’s been surrounded by. With all due respect to the Magic, who are in the process of building one of the younger and more exciting teams in the Eastern Conference, Nelson will benefit from playing alongside Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, as most other players do. Nowitzki’s success with Monta Ellis in the pick-and-roll last season was well-documented across the league, and rightfully so. But Nelson’s presence provides another wrinkle teams must worry about.
During Dwight Howard’s final three seasons in Orlando (from 2009-2012) Nelson was a completely different player than the version we saw in 2013 and 2014. He spent more time on the ball in that offensive system and took a higher percentage of his jump shots from the mid-range, often running pick-and-rolls with Howard or creating on his own. During those three seasons (2009-10 is on the left, then 2010-11, followed by ’11-12), his shot charts looked like this (pay close attention to the mid-range shot from the right elbow):
Nelson hit 50 percent or better from that spot on the floor in each of those three seasons. In the season directly following Howard’s departure that number sank to just 21.4 percent and his overall eFG percentage dropped from 49.9 to 47.0. This past season he took just 16 shots from that area of the floor; his role in the offense shifted significantly once rookie Victor Oladipo took over more of the ballhandling responsibilities. Before Howard was traded, nearly 28 percent of Nelson’s career field goal attempts came from between 16 feet and the three-point line. (He shot 43.3 percent on those shots, well above league average.) In the two seasons without him, he took just 13.4 percent of his shots from that region and connected on less than 30 percent of them. Playing alongside Howard brought out the best in Nelson, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The same can be said for countless other players.
You give him a pick-and-roll partner who can attract some defensive attention, and he’ll make the defense pay. Nowitzki is already accustomed to running high pick-and-rolls with Ellis. Carlisle might very well use Nelson in the same respect. And in the same way Nowitzki will help Nelson, Nelson can help Dirk. The guard’s penchant for going right plays well to Dirk’s strengths, as he’s always shot better when moving to his left. If Nowitzki sets a pick to Nelson’s right, the point guard will scurry toward the rim while Nowitzki will have the option to either roll toward the hoop, fade to the corner, or pop out for a straightaway three from atop the arc, a spot from which he hit an absurd 43.7 percent of his attempts last season.
Howard and Nowitzki have always dictated defenses differently, as Howard’s constant presence near the rim forces defenses to condense themselves in an effort to stop entry passes. Nowitzki, meanwhile, stretches and contorts defenses, which opens driving lanes and shooting opportunities for other players. In a similar respect, Nelson can also excel with a player like Brandan Wright. Devin Harris and Jose Calderon both enjoyed plenty of mid-range shooting chances last season on pull-ups coming off Wright ball screens.
And if he turns the corner and a shot isn’t there, a pass almost certainly will be. Whether it’s to Parsons in one corner or Ellis in the other, Nowitzki behind him, or maybe even Chandler rolling toward the rim himself, Nelson will have plenty of options in the offense, and they all align with his own strengths. He can pull up, he can shoot the three, and don’t forget that he can distribute, too. He can start, he can come off the bench, he can create, and he can facilitate.
Add to that his willingness to sign a team-friendly contract and it’s very difficult to find any aspect of the signing to complain about. Expect a solid bounce-back season from a player who figures to fit right in to the Mavs’ offensive gameplan.