Mavs’ depth, quality behind the arc could prove to be key this season

Dirk Forces OT

Monta Ellis finds Dirk Nowitzki who drains the deep 3-pointer to tie the game and force overtime.

The old rule in this league used to be jump-shooting teams don’t win championships. Instead, teams wanting to be successful should work the ball into the paint to either get a closer look or earn a trip to the free-throw line. The Mavericks of the early- and mid-2000s specialized in mid-range and 3-point shooting, and therefore those clubs were greeted with all sorts of criticism. After all, the old-school rules still applied. Big men, not big shooters, won championships.

But that rule, which governed the league for its first 60-plus years in existence, is quickly going extinct. While having quality big men is still absolutely vital to winning a title, no longer is the jump shot — and particularly the 3-point shot — considered taboo. On the contrary, actually: Teams are embracing it like never before.

Last season’s champions, the Golden State Warriors, attempted 27.0 3-pointers per game, ranking fourth in the league. Cleveland, the East champion, shot 27.5 long-range attempts a night. During the 2004-05 season, Golden State would have attempted 2.3 more threes per game than Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns, then considered a revolutionary team. That group shot 2.5 more threes than second-place Seattle. Only five teams that season attempted at least 20 treys per game. Last season, only 11 didn’t.

And as teams continue to take more and more threes per game — last season the Houston Rockets averaged an absurd 32.7 attempts — efficiency also matters more than ever. Hitting threes at an above-average rate used to be a nice luxury to good clubs, but now it’s a necessity. Thirteen of the top-14 teams in 3-point percentage last season made the playoffs, with only the Indiana Pacers missing out. That means, of the 16 worst 3-point shooting teams in the league, only three qualified for the postseason. And eight of the top-10 in attempts per game continued playing beyond the regular season. If you want to make the playoffs, you’ve got to shoot the three-ball, and you’ve got to do so at a high clip.

One way to track the shot and how it’s becoming the focal point of the game is through following free agency. This summer, players like DeMarre Carroll, Danny Green, and the Mavs’ own Wes Matthews were some of the most sought-after players on the market. What do they all have in common? The ability to hit the 3-point shot. They each also compound that skill with excellent perimeter defense, which certainly helped their case as some of the top free agents out there. But rarely in the history of the league have we seen such time and attention paid to players who couldn’t necessarily excel in “old-school” basketball which, for an off-guard, means the ability to slash to the rim and occasionally perform well in isolation. Those skills have been replaced by shooting and defense atop the wish list of every NBA GM.

And now, with Matthews and Deron Williams entering the fold along with the players Dallas already has on the roster, the Mavs’ trend of taking more threes per game figures to continue into 2015-16. Here’s a look at their 3-point attempt numbers throughout Dirk Nowitzki’s career, spanning back to the 1998-99 season. (All stats courtesy of NBA.com.)

2015-09-03 15_00_32-Microsoft Excel non-commercial use - Mavs 3PT through years

According to the chart, the Mavericks’ number of average attempts has been on a massive increase, almost year-after-year, since Avery Johnson’s first full season as head coach in 2005-06. Dallas peaked last season, attempting a franchise-record 25.4 per game, the fourth consecutive season the club has averaged at least 20 a night. Before the 2010-11 title season, the Mavs had attempted at least 20 per game just three times in 30 years. It’s not just a Mavericks thing, though. Attempts have been on an upward trend across the league after the elimination of the hand-check following the 2003-04 season. (In the years immediately following that rule change, as well as the inception of different illegal defense rules and the advent of basketball analytics, Nash’s Suns were lighting up the league with a style very similar to what most teams play today.)

Factoring Williams and Matthews into an equation which already includes Nowitzki, Chandler Parsons, Devin Harris, and Charlie Villanueva, among others, it’s possible Dallas could attempt even more this season. The Mavs’ first-round draft pick, Justin Anderson, shot better than 45 percent from deep at Virginia last season, so the acquisition of the lengthy rookie wing hints the Mavs are placing a higher and higher value on the 3-point shot. The club also acquired John Jenkins this summer, a sharpshooting 2-guard who’s shot 37.5 percent from behind the arc for his career. There is no shortage of shooting on the roster this season.

Obviously that’s important, as successful teams in today’s NBA are the ones who can shoot it well. But at least as it relates to the Mavericks, that trend is not necessarily new. Nowitzki is the original stretch-four, a power forward who can stretch the floor with elite shooting, thereby pulling a large opposing defender further from the rim and creating more space for rim attacks. Now it seems like every team plays four-out basketball, but the Mavs have been doing so for more than 15 years.

Given that past, there’s plenty of history to draw from when it comes to analyzing what has made past Mavs teams successful. And, no surprise, it has a lot to do with 3-point shooting. Here’s the 3-point percentage of every team in the Dirk era, charted against that club’s offensive rating for the season.

2015-09-03 15_00_44-Microsoft Excel non-commercial use - Mavs 3PT through years

While there have been teams with very high offensive ratings but lower 3-point shooting, it’s important to keep in mind which era those teams played in. For example, the 2003-04 Mavericks finished with the highest offensive rating (109.6) in team history but shot just 34.8 percent on threes, the third-lowest mark in Nowitzki’s career. That team also played in a completely different NBA, one that still relied on two-point shots and didn’t feature as much space for offenses because of the hand-check rules. But of the eight Mavs teams during Dirk’s career with an offensive rating of at least 108.0, only that ’03-’04 team hit worse than 35 percent of their threes, and only two others shot worse than 37 percent from behind the arc.

Since the rule changes preceding the ’04-’05 season, seven Mavs teams have hit at least 36 percent of their threes. Only two had an offensive rating worse than 107.5. In other words, good 3-point shooting has generally meant good offense. And that’s a good thing, because this team is sure to shoot lots of them. The Mavs did last season as well, but because Rajon Rondo and Monta Ellis weren’t necessarily surefire 3-point threats, teams were able to hone in on defending Nowitzki, Parsons, and the other shooters on the perimeter. More space for them should mean easier looks.

Interestingly enough, it was the same case for Deron Williams last season with the Brooklyn Nets. Seth Partnow of Nylon Calculus put together a chart listing all 207 qualified 3-point shooters and the volume of their attempts that SportVU considers “open” (a defender more than six feet away) and “wide-open” (10+ feet). Just 32.6 percent of his threes were open and only 5.6 percent were wide-open, per SportVU. His volume of open attempts ranked 141st among the 207 players, while his wide-open volume ranked tied for 154th. That means he had a tough time finding breathing room to get shots off. (Even Stephen Curry, the reigning MVP, took a higher volume of open 3-pointers than Williams, indicating Williams was always faced with a defender.)

Wes Matthews also found it difficult to get wide-open looks last season, as did many of the Mavs’ returning shooters. Here’s a list of new and returning Mavs and their placement on the list.

Shooter 3FG% Open % (Rank) Wide Open % (Rank)
Wes Matthews 38.9% 40.3% (104) 6.1% (T-145)
Chandler Parsons 38.0% 34.6% (133) 7.0% (124)
Dirk Nowitzki 38.0% 38.5% (112) 6.2% (T-142)
Charlie Villanueva 37.6% 47.3% (58) 9.1% (T-92)
Deron Williams 36.7% 32.6% (141) 5.6% (T-154)
Devin Harris 35.7% 41.3% (T-96) 12.0% (50)
J.J. Barea 32.3% 38.3% (113) 9.3% (T-89)

Now, not getting open shots isn’t an indictment of the player, and it isn’t necessarily one of the system they were playing in, either. More likely, the reasoning has to do with who those players were surrounded by and opposing defenses’ level of respect for the shooter. For example, Matthews played in a fairly modern offense in Portland but couldn’t get higher than a league-average number of attempts. Meanwhile, players like Parsons and Williams were never open, and for similar reasons: They weren’t constantly surrounded by numerous 3-point threats.

That’s what makes this Mavs team different than ones in years past. There are shooters all over the place. For maybe the first time in Nowitzki’s career, he will always be playing next to at least three players who can shoot the three at an above-average clip. The starting lineup alone has four players who shot 36.7 percent or better from deep last season, which should create all sorts of problems for opposing defenses. For example, if Williams is attacking the basket, does Matthews’ man slide over to help? Does Nowitzki’s man sink down to contest the shot? There will always be multiple shooters opponents simply cannot afford to leave open. And that means these dead-eye shooters will potentially have even easier looks than they’ve had in years past.

This will help Nowitzki most of all. For so long, Dirk’s gravity — the way he influences opposing defenses simply by being on the floor — has been the Mavs’ biggest offensive weapon, next to his made-for-a-statue one-legged fade. But now, with a roster stocked with shooters, each player will have a certain amount of his own gravity. Rather than opposing defenses acting as a solar system revolving around Dirk and Dirk alone, opposing players will each become a moon revolving around his own assignment. That makes it 1-on-1 all over the court, instead of 5-on-5, and that plays to the offense’s advantage every time.

As opposed to relying on Rondo and Ellis to create offense from the inside out, as was the case last season, Dallas can now create opportunities from the outside, outside-in, and inside-out. With the amount of respect opponents will have to give the Mavs’ new backcourt, Dirk might no longer draw all five sets of eyes on offense, which could result in a higher volume of open and wide-open shots, and that’s easy money.

With potentially more shooting than ever on this team, Dallas is sure to let ’em fly this upcoming season. Does it mean they’ll top the Rockets’ NBA record for attempts in a season? Probably not, but anything could happen. One thing’s for sure, though: This Mavs team can shoot it. And if history is any indication, that means the Mavs could score in bunches this season — and do it efficiently — which could mean big things for a club looking to move forward with a new core.