Game 7: Mavs vs. 76ers

Highlights: Harrison Barnes

Harrison Barnes scores 25 points and four rebounds in the Mavericks loss to the Sixers.

How pushing the pace could lead to a better Mavs offense

Practice Report: Dennis Smith Jr.

Mavs PG Dennis Smith Jr. weighs in on how training camp has been going so far, playing alongside Dirk and more.

Rick Carlisle’s announcement that Dirk Nowitzki would start at center instead of Nerlens Noel was easily the biggest revelation from Mavs Media Day. That statement may be spun in several different directions which all led to new questions. How does it affect Nerlens Noel’s future? Who will start instead of him? Will the Mavs be able to rebound? What about the defense?

Those are all important questions to consider, but one element lost in all of that thinking is a potential solution that decision brings to the table: By starting Nowitzki at center the Mavericks are going to play 5-out basketball to begin games, which should increase the pace of the game and lead to significantly better offensive starts for Dallas.

Looking back over the last couple seasons, how many times can you remember the Mavs falling behind 12-4 or 16-6 to start games? It seems like it happened almost every other night. Many of the supporting characters changed during that time, but one constant when the team was healthy was typically starting Nowitzki at power forward next to a traditional center (like Zaza Pachulia or Andrew Bogut), a bigger-bodied point guard (Deron Williams), and a “big” shooting guard and small forward (Wesley Matthews at 2, and either Chandler Parsons or Harrison Barnes at 3). The Mavs began games with more size than most opponents, but with that usually comes less speed and fewer chances to make explosive plays in transition.

During the 2016-17 season, opponents outscored the Mavs by 1.6 points per game in the first quarter, but not by more than 0.6 points in any other frame. In 2015-16, meanwhile, opposing teams outscored the Mavs by exactly one point in the first and 0.9 points in the third quarter (when starters play together the most), yet Dallas outscored opponents in both the second and fourth quarters.

NBA games are impossibly difficult, but the recipe to a victory is pretty simple: Win the first quarter. Over the last five seasons, the Mavericks are 137-59 in games when they lead after the opening frame, but just 72-125 when they trail. Carlisle often calls the NBA a first quarter league, and he’s absolutely right.

Practice Report: Rick Carlisle

Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle addresses the media after day three of training camp.

Where does Nowitzki at center factor into this? Last season, per nbawowy, the Mavericks scored 1.098 points per possession with Nowitzki at center. The Mavs’ two most-used lineups with Nowitzki at 5 both scored at least 108.9 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com, a mark which would’ve ranked top-10 in the league last season. For the season, the Mavs scored just 103.3 points per 100 possessions in the first quarter, per NBA Stats. Meanwhile, the only big-big combination including Dirk to consistently score at an above-average rate was the German playing alongside Dwight Powell, which didn’t happen very often.

Nowitzki basically broke the sport when he entered his prime around the turn of the millennium because he was able to stretch the floor and bend defenses in ways no other power forward before him had ever been able. His combination of shooting and athleticism made him a walking mismatch that nuked traditional defensive gameplans.

Moving him to the center spot is the modern version of the same idea. Assume he starts alongside Dennis Smith Jr., Seth Curry (or potentially Yogi Ferrell), Wesley Matthews, and Harrison Barnes. Those are five players who can all shoot 3s, featuring two ball-handlers and a 4 and 5 who can both bully switches in the post. When Smith runs high pick-and-roll with Nowitzki, the opponent faces an impossible decision: Do they switch a center onto the explosive Smith and a point guard on the 7-foot Nowitzki, or do they hope to fight through it while not leaving easy options for either player? And what happens if the Mavs run multiple pick-and-rolls in the same possession? And what about the shooters dotting the perimeter? That’s going to cause problems early in the shot clock.

“Coming off a screen with Dirk, I’ve never seen lanes like that before,” Smith said.

Putting Smith into all that space ought to work wonders for him individually as well. Whether teams switch against him or go under the screen, he’ll almost always have a way to find at least a decent look for himself or for another player. Because the Mavs are going to dial up the tempo a bit, they’ll be able to get into those sets faster and catch dozing opponents off-balance, which should free up even more room for Smith to get to the rim.

“It’s the perfect play style for this team, for the modern-day NBA,” Noel said. “I feel like this is the perfect position with the pieces we have, especially with Dennis leading the pack.”

This is a pretty significant shift in philosophy, although we don’t know yet to what degree they’re going to increase the pace, which is an estimation of possessions per 48 minutes. Last season the Mavs ranked 29th. Throughout most of Carlisle’s tenure as head coach, though, the Mavs have usually ranked somewhere in the middle-third in pace and in the top-10 in offensive rating. Last season was an exception in both cases.

Noel’s comments are particularly important because, if Nowitzki starts at center, it means Noel isn’t starting at all. It should be noted that even if Nowitzki starts, it will almost be in name only. Dirk played just 26.4 minutes per game last season, and he spent nearly half those minutes per game playing with J.J. Barea and the second unit, per NBA.com. The German is often the first player on either team to check out of the game, heading to the bench around the 7-minute mark. He spent only 16 minutes per game playing next to Harrison Barnes in 2016-17; if you do the math, that’s five minutes at the beginning of either half and a few minutes at the end of the second and fourth quarters.

Much of the rest of that time will ostensibly belong to Noel, and both he and Nowitzki could share the floor together against some second units and put Barea in pick-and-roll paradise. That should be an effective trio, as Barea and Nowitzki are both dangerous offensive players, especially in partnership with a rim-running big man. Noel can fill that role while also picking up the athleticism slack to clean up the defensive end.

“We make things happen,” Noel said. “Dirk is such a special player with his mentality of the game. He’s just able to make things happen regardless of whether he can move quick or not.”

2017 Media Day: Seth Curry

Seth Curry looks ahead to the 2017-18 season with Mark and Coop.

Pledging to start Curry or another shooting guard means the Mavs will open games with three players 6-foot-5 or shorter, but that doesn’t worry Carlisle. While bigger players like Barnes and Nowitzki are adept at using size to their advantage against switches, many other stretch big men in the NBA don’t have that same ability in the post, and there are only a handful of bigger guards who could potentially use size to their advantage on the block. That gives the Mavs the freedom to embrace their quickness edge and play some full-court defense if they so choose.

“(Post plays) are arduous, they take time, and generally they don’t produce that much,” Carlisle said. “But if you’re quick and you have the ability to cover ground, then get up and make this a 94-foot problem for the offensive guards.”

To Carlisle’s point, only four teams in the league used post possessions more than 9 percent of the time last season, per Synergy Sports, and even the best post team in the league scored below one point per possession in those situations. Post offense is generally inefficient because most players don’t have the skill to score more than half the time down low, and if you’re posting up, it means you’re not shooting 3s. One thing that makes Barnes and Nowitzki stand out as above-average post players is they’ll typically only back down guys who are six inches (or more) shorter than them. It’s much easier to post up when there’s a mouse in the house than when you’re picking on someone your own size. Dallas would much rather have to defend post-ups than roll out a bigger, slower lineup and have difficulty covering all the real estate around the perimeter.

Defensively, they don’t even need to press in order to bother opponents; the Mavericks can disrupt opposing offenses with those small guards simply by slowing down the beginning of a play. There’s an undeniable correlation between good offense and the time it takes to advance the ball past midcourt. Per Mavs analytics, Dallas scored at least 1.09 points per possession each of the last two seasons when advancing the ball beyond the halfway point in three seconds or less, but not more than 1.05 points per trip when it took four seconds or longer. The same holds true for every team in the NBA: The sooner you can get into your offense, the better.

Think about it: If the point guard can cruise up the floor and begin running a play before the poor big men can even get themselves down the floor and into position, the defense is already beginning at a disadvantage. Any precious seconds the guards can keep their opponent in the backcourt not only helps the big men, but it also shaves some time off the shot clock, shortening the possession the way an NFL running game shortens a game. It also leads to forcing more turnovers, which the Mavs have done better and more consistently than almost every other team the last five seasons.

This is a lot of information to think about, and it’s not even a guarantee that Noel won’t be a starter at some point this season, depending on the matchup. He’s going to get his minutes no matter what, of course. Again, Nowitzki starting at center is really something that’s only going to influence about 10-15 minutes each game, all in an effort to maximize the Mavs’ chances of scoring points during that time and not digging themselves into a hole. It’s a smart way to get the ball moving and find good shots to begin the game and hopefully get everyone into a comfortable groove, all the while putting Smith into a better position to make an impact on games by capitalizing on extra space and an increased tempo. And, hey, if nothing else it’ll at least make things more exciting to watch.

“It’s gonna be a lot different than how we played last year,” Smith said. “Obviously we were one of the slowest teams. We’re looking to up the tempo, and (Carlisle’s) showing me different ways I can contribute to that.”

Step one is to move Dirk to center. We’ll see what step two is when the rest of the starters are announced on Monday night.

Mavs’ depth, quickness should allow them to play full-court press defensively in ’17-18

DALLAS — Ninety-four feet. It’s the full length of an NBA court. And if the Dallas Mavericks have their way this upcoming season, it will be the full distance their defense will cover on a nightly basis.

Taking the court with plenty of depth in the backcourt, the Mavericks hope to use their quickness and agility to their advantage this season. The Mavs also intend to make defense their calling card after ranking near the bottom of the league in several defensive categories last season. And with five point guards on the roster, Mavs coach Rick Carlisle can see the team’s perimeter players picking up opposing teams for the full length of the court to increase the defensive intensity.

“Well, we’ll make the defensive game their style of game, which means use your quickness 94 feet and make it a 94-foot game on defense, instead of making it a half-court game where a size disadvantage can become a problem,” Carlisle explained. “Quickness is such an important part of today’s game. I don’t worry that much about mismatches in the post and things like that. I mean, those things are arduous and they take time, and generally they don’t produce that much. But if you’re quick and you have the ability to cover ground, then get up and make this a 94-foot problem for the offensive guards. That’s the thing we’re asking these guys.

“We’re going to have the option (to press full court), you know, with our depth at the perimeter positions. And look, these guys are some of our better players, so we’ve got to keep them playing. We’ve got to keep them on the floor.”

Last season, the Dallas squad showed that it could get back in transition after miscues at the offensive end of the floor, surrendering the fourth-fewest baskets off of giveaways while allowing 14.0 points a game following turnovers. The Dallas defense also ranked fifth while allowing just 11.6 second-chance points a game inside. And after allowing just 39.5 points in the paint per game to rank third in that department, the Mavericks will attempt to elevate their perimeter defense by implementing a full-court press.

The Mavericks allowed 13.6 fast-break points per outing to rank 17th in the league last season. The Mavs forced just 7.5 steals per game as well, ranking 19th in the NBA in that category. However, with the addition of first-round draft pick Dennis Smith Jr. to the backcourt and 23-year-old center Nerlens Noel anchoring the interior, the Mavericks expect to see more success at the defensive end of the floor. And after the Mavs ranked 22nd in the league with a defensive rating of 106.3, the team sees a full-court press as the key to a turnaround on that side of the ball.

“It’s going to help a lot. A lot of times people don’t want to press full, ’cause they might get tired and want to come out of the game. But we’ve got so many good guards, we’ll be able to give it 100 percent every single play,” Smith proclaimed.

“You know, I think it’s going to open a lot of things up, especially for me to be able to show my defensive abilities,” Noel added. “When they’re up pressing, those guards are not going to be able to go right by them and get a clear lane to the rim. So, you know, it’s giving your guys that comfortability to be able to scramble things up.”

With Dirk Nowitzki predominately at center, Mavs expect to see more offensive production in ’17-18

DALLAS — Despite signing fourth-year pro Nerlens Noel this summer during restricted free agency to continue to man the middle of the lineup for the Dallas Mavericks inside, coach Rick Carlisle believes the team could see its best offensive success during the 2017-18 season with 13-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki featured at center in the starting lineup.

This summer, the Dallas front office signed Noel to a reported one-year qualifying offer worth $4.1 million, hoping the athletic big man could build off his production last season after he averaged 8.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.0 steal and 1.1 blocks while clocking 21.9 minutes per outing during 22 appearances with the Mavericks. The 23-year-old Noel was also expected to contend for the first-string center job after making 12 starts with the team last season following the multi-player trade that sent him from Philadelphia to Dallas on Feb. 23. However, according to Carlisle, the 6-foot-11 big man will initially be featured in a reserve role this season while Nowitzki slides up from his customary power forward position. And with hopes of playing at a faster pace, Carlisle believes the move will lead to much more offensive production this season.

“You know, I had a discussion three days ago with Nerlens and his agent, Rich Paul, about that, and then two days ago Nerlens, myself, Rich and [Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson] were on a conference call talking about it. You know, I basically said to them that I am not sure that he is going to start,” Carlisle explained Monday before his team opens training camp Tuesday morning. “You know, at this point and time Dirk at the five position is probably the best scenario for Dirk and for our team, and I just don’t think Dirk is a guy that’s going to come off the bench as long as I’m here, and so there’s a very good chance Nerlens is going to come off the bench. He said he’s good with it.

“Nerlens is ready and he’s motivated. But look, Dirk is not going to play 82 games. We’re going to rest him some games this year. And in those games that Dirk rests, if we start out starting Dirk at the five, then Nerlens will be the starter,” the coach added. “That’s pretty clear, but I think we need to have the flexibility with the lineup at this point and time. Nothing is set in stone, but my sense right now is the best way for us to go will be with Dirk starting at the five to start the season. But we’ll see.”

Entering his 20th season with the Mavericks, Nowitzki will try to bounce back after an injury-riddled ’16-17 campaign that saw him miss 25 of the team’s first 30 games due to a right Achilles strain. The 7-footer will also try to provide his team with a much-needed lift on the offensive end of the floor after the Mavs ranked near the bottom of the league in several statistical categories last season.

The Mavs ranked 30th in league in scoring last season, posting just 97.9 points per game as a team. Dallas also dished out just 20.8 assists an outing, ranking 27th in that department. The Mavericks finished second to last in pace as well, averaging 94.16 possessions per game last season. That said, Nowitzki knows the Mavs will have to be open to changes during training camp in order to find a lineup that creates more offense when the season opens at home against Atlanta on Oct. 18.

“I mean, it’s whatever,” Nowitzki said when asked about the position change. “I had no idea I was going to play the five last year a lot of the minutes, so it’s whatever happens. You know, I want to help the team, obviously, by spreading the floor still and being efficient, hopefully. We have some great, great penetrating guards with Devin (Harris), J.J. (Barea) and Dennis (Smith) now, and even Yogi (Ferrell) is fast and can get in there. So, hopefully I can be out there and set some picks, getting those guys going downhill, in transition and getting those guys on the run. I will be trailing, for sure. I won’t be leading on the break, but playing faster can be fun. Sometimes when you play at a higher pace your skill level needs to be there, ’cause sometimes it looks a little sloppy. So, we’ve got to make sure we practice that here the next three weeks, and hopefully it will be fun to watch. I think we have some new guys that are going to be really fun to watch.”

Finishing with a 103.7 offensive rating to ranked 23rd in the league during the ’16-17 campaign, the Mavericks hope to see much more success on that side of the ball this season. The Mavs also hope playing at a faster tempo will lead to more transition scoring opportunities to keep from having to generate offense in the halfcourt.

The Mavericks averaged the fewest amount of freak-break points in the league last season, posting just 7.8 points an outing in transition. The Dallas offense also ranked last in points scored in the paint, averaging 32.8 points per game in the interior as a team. That’s something that must change in order for the Mavericks to contend for a playoff position, according to leading scorer Harrison Barnes. And with Nowitzki at center, the Mavs believe spacing the floor will help generate more offense.

“It will be huge for us. I mean, we had an extensive playbook last year, and we played almost exclusively in the halfcourt,” Barnes explained. “That led to us having one of the slowest offenses in the league and some of the lowest assists in the league, so it was primarily isolation basketball. Being able to just got out in tension and get our shooters open more will allow us to get easier buckets and allow us to play not always against a set defense.”

Mavs hope to develop Nerlens Noel’s ‘raw’ skills inside during ’17-18

DALLAS — After showing a glimpse of what he can accomplish during 22 games with the team last year, the Dallas Mavericks are hopeful center Nerlens Noel can continue to tap into his raw potential this upcoming season.

Last season, the Mavericks acquired Noel from Philadelphia in a trade-deadline deal on Feb. 23, sending back former first-round pick Justin Anderson, veteran center Andrew Bogut (who was later bought out) and a pair of second-round picks in exchange. Noel then quickly showed how effective he can be in Mavs coach Rick Carlisle’s system at both ends of the floor, averaging 8.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.0 steal and 1.1 blocks while clocking 21.9 minutes per outing. He also made 12 starts during his 22 appearances, anchoring a front line that featured leading scorer Harrison Barnes and 13-time All-Star power forward Dirk Nowitzki. Still, after signing Noel to a reported one-year qualifying offer worth $4.1 million this summer in free agency, the Mavericks are confident Noel can display even more down low this season.

“I mean, he’s still raw. He’s an athlete, he’s got amazing instincts and he’s got a motor. And when you have a lob threat and a motor, or someone who is athletic like that, it opens up the game,” Mavs veteran swingman Wesley Matthews said earlier this offseason while assessing Noel’s impact on the team. “If he doesn’t get it, he’s drawing enough attention that you can swing it to the weak side and then play on the other side with a man down. That’s what basketball is all about. It’s about creating a crowd, creating a problem and making two people guard the ball, and then giving it up and making a play.”

Suffering a torn ACL as a freshman at Kentucky, Noel missed the entire ’13-14 NBA schedule after garnering First Team All-SEC, SEC Defensive Player of the Year and SEC Rookie of the Year honors during his lone collegiate season. He then made up for lost time during the ’14-15 campaign, showing no signs of the ACL injury while averaging 9.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.9 blocks in 75 games to earn a spot on the NBA All-Rookie First Team.

Noel holds career averages of 10.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.5 blocks in 193 total games with the 76ers and the Mavericks, connecting on a staggering 51.1 percent from the floor during that span. But after seeing former big men Tyson Chandler and Brandan Wright shoot better than 60 percent during their previous stints with the Mavs, Carlisle is confident Noel can have a similar impact this season as he grows more comfortable in his new surroundings.

“That’s a trade that made a lot of sense for us, because we had an overload at the wing position,” Carlisle said of the initial deal for Noel’s services shortly after the conclusion of the ’16-17 season.

“You know, he’s going to gain more strength as time goes on,” the coach added. “You know, we put a big emphasis on the development of players’ bodies, keeping them healthy and keeping them strong. I talked to him about it in detail, and he’s on board as a guy that’s had an ACL (injury) and stuff like that. He understands at age 23 that your body is your vocation. It’s what earns you your living and stuff, so I’ve been very impressed with him. He’s a very likable guy. The guys in the locker room took to him, and he’s an exciting young talent. And I do think he can expand his game, but we’ve got to be careful about doing too much too soon. So much of success in this league is really geared towards a group of guys being tied together in the locker room and having a set of definable skills. We want there to be an element of positive predictability within the team, so everybody knows what everybody can do.”

According to Noel, he quickly built a bond and chemistry with the Mavericks’ veteran guards last season while operating in the team’s pick-and-roll sets. Noel also says he could see much more individual success with a full year in the same system, hoping to continue expanding his interior skills to give the Mavs a lift at both ends of the floor. That said, the 6-foot-11 big man believes he could be on the verge of a breakout season. And with plans of working tirelessly alongside Carlisle, Noel will try to tap into his full potential this season.

“I think I built a lot of chemistry,” Noel proclaimed while recapping his short stint with the team last season. “You know, Philadelphia was a little different situation with guys coming in and out, and I was just trying to find the right niche with young guards that could play. But this team had a veteran group that already knows how to play pick-and-roll. I know they’ve had Brandan Wright and Tyson, so they’re experienced guards. You know, I think it was something that I definitely needed and something that will continue to grow, assuming things go the way that they should into the next year.

“I’ll be looking to spend a lot of time with coach Carlisle. You know, the work that we’ve gotten in over the last month (of the ’16-17 season) is something that, if you get a whole offseason, I think we can make really big strides with. You know, I think this is the biggest offseason of my career, being with a new team and being in a new environment. And I can really build on some things that I wasn’t really capitalizing on in past seasons.”

Returning Mavs have the ingredients to put together a much-improved offense

With the Mavericks’ re-signing of Nerlens Noel, the club has solidified its core and essentially guaranteed which players from last season’s roster will return for 2017-18.

Dallas has experienced less year-to-year continuity than many other teams in the NBA since the 2010-11 championship season, but the Mavs have still managed to qualify for the postseason four times in those six years, bucking conventional wisdom. Typically, you would expect teams with extensive roster turnover would struggle from one year to the next, and that’s generally true, but has largely not applied to Dallas in that time. We’ve seen the Mavericks return as few as four players from one season’s roster to the next, but the engine has for the most part kept humming.

The 2016-17 roster was a microcosm of that trend, as the team experienced multiple waves of turnover in the same season. A whopping 24 players suited up for the club, the most since 27 did so during the 1996-97 season. Last year’s roster was decimated by injuries, and Dallas made a series of midseason moves including cuts and trades to send away players in exchange for new ones. The Mavs finished 33-49, but while they obviously weren’t happy with their record, they looked forward to developing the young nucleus of players they’d assembled of Harrison Barnes, Seth Curry, Noel, and first-round draft pick Dennis Smith Jr. — a group which, true to form, was brought together in the span of one calendar year.

This year represents a shift in that trend. The Mavericks are currently set to return 11 players from last season’s roster, with Noel the latest addition. Rounding out the roster are Smith Jr., Maxi Kleber, Josh McRoberts, two-way contract recipient Johnathan Motley, and several players who will be invited to training camp.

There are clear advantages to establishing year-to-year continuity. But the burning question is this: The Mavs won 33 games last season and are bringing back much of that roster. Does that group have what it takes to win more games? Are there any signs this group can improve from 2017? The answer is yes, at least on one side of the ball.

For years, Rick Carlisle has been considered one of the great coaching minds in the NBA, and his offensive system in Dallas is the envy of many coaches around the league. It’s produced serious results for the Mavericks for almost his entire tenure; his teams have finished top-10 in offensive rating six times in his nine seasons. Last year’s club, however, finished just 23rd, which on paper doesn’t look good. But when you take a look at only the 11 players the Mavericks are bringing back, you’ll see something to be excited about.

For this exercise, I took a look at the 2016-17 Mavs’ overall offensive efficiency in terms of points per possession, as well as the team’s efficiency by play type. Then, I compared the entire team’s numbers to only those of the returning 11 players to see how they’d stack up against not only the Mavs, but also the rest of the NBA. The results are pictured in the chart. (Click to enlarge.)

The Mavericks finished bottom-half in many of those offensive categories last season, but the 11 players they’re bringing back collectively finished much higher. For example, they would have combined to finish 10th in points per possession, up from the team’s position in 17th place. The returning Mavs were better at spot-up shooting, scoring in the pick-and-roll both as the ball-handler and the roll man, scoring in isolation and in the post, and when cutting or coming off screens.

The Mavs’ offense consists mostly of those actions. Dallas isn’t a big transition team and the Mavericks don’t run a lot of hand-off plays. They’re not particularly aggressive going after offensive rebounds, either. Generally, when they’re at their best, they’re running a ton of pick-and-roll to get looks at the rim or on the perimeter, and if that fails then they take advantage of size mismatches created by switches in the post.

Point guard injuries hurt the Mavs last season, as it took pick-and-roll scoring largely off the table. It’s difficult for less-experienced point guards to fill in for veterans and immediately replace their production. When players like Deron Williams and J.J. Barea were sidelined with injuries, Jonathan Gibson, Pierre Jackson, and Quinn Cook were called upon as replacements. To take pressure off of them, the Mavs relied more on Harrison Barnes and others in isolation, which allowed him to grow as a scorer but limited ball movement and the free-flowing nature of Carlisle’s sophisticated system. Luckily, Yogi Ferrell later burst onto the scene to make up for that lost production at point guard, and eventually Barea returned to action later in the season.

That’s where the addition of Smith is so key. He projects as an effective scorer in the pick-and-roll because of his combination of quickness and explosiveness, and hopefully Barea will be much healthier this season after being limited to just 35 games last year. Ferrell is also returning, and he really showed signs of improvement as the season went on. Dallas ought to be able to run much more pick-and-roll next season and much less isolation, and that could have very real benefits.

Below is the Mavs’ play type by volume in the Carlisle era, per Synergy Sports. The club’s offensive peak came during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons, when Dallas finished third and fifth in offensive rating, respectively. Notice in the chart below which play type is most prevalent.

Each of those two seasons, more than 20 percent of the Mavs’ offense came from pick-and-roll ball-handlers. Fans who remember those two seasons know Monta Ellis was the primary recipient of those possessions, while Devin Harris, J.J. Barea, and a few other players handled the rest of playmaking duties. The next season, 2015-16, Dallas finished 10th in offense, and pick-and-roll ball-handlers used 17.8 percent of their possessions.

Also pay attention to the inverse relationship between pick-and-roll ball-handling (dark blue) and isolation (black). The more pick-and-roll the Mavs run, the less isolation they run. When the ball is moving and the guards are attacking the lane coming off those screens, Dallas is not only scoring more efficiently, but the Mavericks are playing a better brand of team basketball. It’s no coincidence that roll men also profited when ball-handlers used more of the offense — if guards are looking to score at the rim, they’re also looking for teammates at the rim. Dallas finished third in offense in 2013-14, and more than 30 percent of its offense consisted of pick-and-roll ball-handlers or roll men using the possessions. In this era of the NBA, that’s a hugely important source of offense.

The hope is that Smith and the other Mavs guards (including Curry, who after a while grew more comfortable in that role) can use the pick-and-roll to generate more looks and more points within the offense. NBA defenses are the best in the world, but even they haven’t found an answer to dominant ball-handlers. LeBron James, James Harden, Chris Paul, and John Wall spearheaded some of the league’s best offenses this season by using ball screens to get into the lane and break down the opponent. When that happens, it opens things up for teammates around the arc.

Dennis Smith Jr. Highlights

Check out some of All-Summer League First Team Dennis Smith Jr.'s best plays from Las Vegas and NC State!

In the Mavs’ case, that’s Smith, Barea, and Ferrell getting into the paint to clear some space for Wesley Matthews, Seth Curry, Harrison Barnes, and Dirk Nowitzki, he of the 30,000-point club. That’s made even easier with the roll gravity created as Nerlens Noel rumbles down the lane, and both Dwight Powell and Salah Mejri proved to be more than capable roll men last season.

That space will certainly benefit the Mavs’ shooters. Last season, Jan. 12 became a very important date, as it was the night Seth Curry became a full-time starter and Nowitzki was declared starting center. Dallas pledged its allegiance to small-ball for most of the rest of the season, and it all began that night.

Before that date, the Mavs had struggled to consistently knock down 3-point shots, converting on just 34.8 percent from beyond the arc. But the combination of small-ball creating more space, acquiring Ferrell and Noel, and Barea’s return resulted in a much more wide-open attack, and it paid dividends. From Jan. 12 to the end of the season, the Mavs shot 36.1 percent on 3s. For reference, a 34.8 percent mark for the season would have ranked tied for 21st in the NBA, while 36.1 percent would have ranked 14th. The primary players who benefited: Nowitzki, Matthews, and Curry.

The chart below shows their success rate on catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts both before and after Jan. 12. (Not included were Barea and Ferrell, who combined to shoot better than 40 percent on 4.7 catch-and-shoot treys per game after Jan. 12.)

Player Before 3PA/g Before 3pt% After 3PA/g After 3pt% Difference
Dirk Nowitzki 4.0 34.6% 2.1 40.5% +5.9%
Wesley Matthews 5.6 36.4% 4.1 39.4% +3.0%
Seth Curry 2.8 39.6% 3.3 41.4% +1.8%

Not all of this has to do with small-ball and point guard play, but it’s hard to deny the correlation. Once the Mavs created more space, their best and most frequent 3-point shooters shot the ball significantly better.

OK, so what does this all mean? First and foremost, the returning Mavericks scored at a playoff-caliber clip last season. The goal is for them to pick up where they left off, and perhaps take it up another level with the addition of the dynamic Smith. How can they do this? Smith, Barea, and Ferrell — who combined to appear in just 13 games before that key Jan. 12 date — all are able to get into the paint and break down defenses more often than the Mavs guards were able to last season, which could lead to more looks at the rim both for them and for their pick-and-roll dance partners. Meanwhile, defenses might pack the paint to take that away from them, which would lead to open looks on the perimeter for the Mavs’ best shooters, who proved last season that their accuracy would rise with even the slightest extra smidgen of breathing room. If all of those things fail, then somewhere along the line the Mavs will have picked up an advantageous switch, leaving either Dirk or Barnes one-on-one against a smaller player.

Every facet of a team’s offense is connected. Dribble penetration creates havoc, but not if you don’t have any shooting. Solid screen-setting both on and away from the ball creates havoc, but not if you don’t have a ball-handler to utilize that space. Quality 3-point shooting creates more havoc now than it ever has in the history of the sport, but not if you don’t have other players working to set up those looks for you. The Mavericks still must execute at a high level (and hopefully have better injury luck this year than last), but they seem primed to run pick-and-roll and shoot at a high level. Those are the key ingredients to an effective offense, and the Mavs have been one of the league’s best offenses for most of Nowitzki’s career and especially in the Carlisle era. Their mission this season is to prove that last year was the exception, not the rule.

Signing of Nerlens Noel solidifies Mavs at center position for ’17-18 season

Noel Highlights 2016-2017

2016-2017 Nerlens Noel Highlights

DALLAS — He was a much-needed presence inside for the Dallas Mavericks after a mid-season trade that sent him from Philadelphia to Big D during the 2016-17 season. Now, the Mavericks hope the free-agent signing of big man Nerlens Noel on Monday is the final piece of the puzzle that helps the team return to the playoffs during the upcoming season.

Last season, the 6-foot-11 Noel was acquired by the Mavs from Philadelphia in a trade-deadline deal on Feb. 23 in exchange for former first-round pick Justin Anderson, center Andrew Bogut (who was later bought out) and a pair of second-round picks. The former Kentucky standout then went on to average 8.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.0 steal and 1.1 blocks during 22 appearances with the Mavericks, clocking 21.9 minutes per outing and making 12 starts. He entered restricted free agency from there on July 1, hoping to ink a long-term deal with the franchise to keep him in Dallas. But after a long negotiation that reportedly led to him signing a one-year qualifying offer from the Dallas front office worth $4.1 million, the 23-year-old is expected to anchor the Mavs’ center rotation prior to entering unrestricted free agency next summer.

“That’s a trade that made a lot of sense for us, because we had an overload at the wing position,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said of the initial deal for Noel’s services shortly after the conclusion of the ’16-17 season.

“You know, he’s going to gain more strength as time goes on,” the coach added. “You know, we put a big emphasis on the development of players’ bodies, keeping them healthy and keeping them strong. I talked to him about it in detail, and he’s on board as a guy that’s had an ACL (injury) and stuff like that. He understands at age 23 that your body is your vocation. It’s what earns you your living and stuff, so I’ve been very impressed with him. He’s a very likable guy. The guys in the locker room took to him, and he’s an exciting young talent. And I do think he can expand his game, but we’ve got to be careful about doing too much too soon. So much of success in this league is really geared towards a group of guys being tied together in the locker room and having a set of definable skills. We want there to be an element of positive predictability within the team, so everybody knows what everybody can do.”

Signing former Utah Jazz center Jeff Withey, 27, the Mavericks added depth to a center position that only had Tunisian big man Salah Mejri on the roster for this season. The Mavs now believe that Noel can solidify the middle of the lineup by anchoring a front line that features leading scorer Harrison Barnes and 13-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki. Meanwhile, Carlisle and the Dallas coaching staff will attempt to tap into Noel’s full potential during the ’17-18 season, hoping the athletic big man continues to grow his own individual game.

Suffering a torn ACL during his lone collegiate season at Kentucky, Noel missed the entire ’13-14 NBA schedule after garnering First Team All-SEC, SEC Defensive Player of the Year and SEC Rookie of the Year honors. The three-year pro now holds career averages of 10.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.5 blocks in 193 total games with the Sixers and the Mavericks, shooting 51.1 percent from the floor during that span. Noel quickly showed no effects of the ACL injury during his rookie season, averaging 9.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.9 blocks in 75 games to earn a spot on the NBA All-Rookie First Team. He’ll now attempt to eclipse those numbers in Dallas, hoping to build on his production during a short stint with the team last season. And with a full year in Carlisle’s season, Noel believes he and the team will see a lot of success together.

“You know, I learned a lot,” Noel said while summing up his time with the team last season. “I met a lot of great people and I started a lot of great relationships. And being around all the vets they have around here, it’s definitely something I took in with all the knowledge and all the small habits that help you succeed in this league for the duration of time that you’re in it. It’s been great. I love Dallas. You know, in my short time here, I’ve really enjoyed it. I think it’s been a great time. And with the pieces that we have and the opportunities that will be seen in the near future, I think there’s a lot to be excited for.”