We’re two weeks away from training camp, which means the NBA season really is right around the corner. Over the next couple weeks, we’ll be diving deep into the numbers to see how the Mavericks can return to the playoffs this season. Today, it’s all about the 3-ball.
If you’ve watched the NBA any time in the last five years, you’ve probably heard that teams are shooting a lot of 3-pointers these days. The average squad hoisted 32 of them per game in 2018-19, and the long-ball accounted for nearly 36 percent of all field goal attempts last season.
Players are too talented and coaches are too clever to be limited anymore. There’s simply too much space on the floor and the game moves too fast to prevent teams entirely from shooting tons and tons of 3s. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing — Milwaukee allowed the most 3-point attempts in the league last season by far, yet finished No. 1 in defensive rating. The Bucks prioritized protecting the rim, and used a combination of length, activity, and scheme to recover when possible to defend the 3-point line. Think of 3s as an opposing superstar: You know you probably won’t stop them altogether from getting shots, but you can at least make them work hard for them.
The Mavericks did not make the playoffs last season, but they did have something in common with many teams that did. Dallas was the only team in the top-11 in opponent 3-point percentage to not make the postseason, which obviously isn’t the greatest distinction, but it does at least represent a building block for the upcoming campaign.
Finishing tied for sixth in 3-point defense is a particularly incredible achievement considering the almost absurd start to the season opponents enjoyed against the Mavs. Through Nov. 1, foes shot an unbelievable 47.9 percent on 3-pointers against Dallas; despite allowing only 26.4 attempts per game, third-fewest during that time, opponents hit 12.6 per game, tied for fifth-most. Not surprisingly, the Mavericks went 2-6 during that eight-game stretch, including an overtime loss at San Antonio in which the Spurs shot 45 percent from deep, and a one-point loss at L.A. in which the Lakers hit 58.8 percent. I can’t remember seeing anything like it before.
Fortunately, that run of extraordinary bad luck — because, really, that’s what it was — finally came to an end, although Dallas had a 2-6 record at that point. Still, from Nov. 2 through the end of the year, a season that included reintroducing Dirk Nowitzki to the rotation, trading four starters, and resting Luka Doncic quite a bit down the stretch, opponents shot just 33.3 percent from long distance against the Mavericks, the best mark in the league. I’m not smart enough to tell you exactly how they did it, but the Mavs were the No. 1 3-point defense in the NBA for 74 games.
|Team||Opp. 3PA/g||Opp. 3PT%|
*From Nov. 2 through the end of the season
Now, I’m sure that some of the same bad luck from which the Mavericks suffered at the dawn of the season haunted opponents at times later on, but there’s no denying the statistical significance of a 74-game stretch of basketball. For more than five months, the Mavericks had excellent 3-point defense.
Luckily, I’ve been able to talk to some people who know a whole lot more about basketball to get an idea of how these kinds of things work. Mark Cuban once told me that the mark of a good defender isn’t so much about the shots that they allow or how many points their assignment scores, but rather the shots that they don’t allow their opponent to take. In other words, no easy buckets. Texas Legends head coach George Galanopoulos told Mavs.com on a podcast recently that perhaps a player’s most underrated (or under-discussed) quality among fans and media is his ability to close out against shooters on defense. I asked him for an example of a player on the Mavs who does a good job at closing out, and he immediately responded Dorian Finney-Smith.
So, combining these two pieces of wisdom — good defense is sometimes more about taking away easy shots than it is forcing tough ones, and Finney-Smith is good at closing out — it seems pretty sensible to believe that there should be some good examples of Finney-Smith defense against 3-point shooters that could perhaps explain why Dallas was such a good team at stopping the 3 last season.
By any metric, Finney-Smith is a workhorse. His average speed on defense was second-highest on the team last season, per SportVU, and he rates as one of the most versatile defenders in the league over the last six seasons in terms of positional matchups, according to research by Krishna Narsu. If you pay attention to defenders, you’ll often see him flying all over the court when the other team has the ball. And, according to Second Spectrum, the stats strongly support Galanopoulos’s high opinion of Finney-Smith as a good closeout defender. Opposing teams scored just 0.950 points per direct closeout by Finney-Smith last season, which ranked 13th out of the 157 players who closed out on shooters at least 300 times.
Here’s an example of great closeout defense from Finney-Smith.
There’s a lot to talk about here. First, Finney-Smith doesn’t fall into the trap of totally abandoning his own man in favor of helping on the ball-handler, the more immediate threat. Now, he does give Malcolm Brogdon a bit of attention, but you can see him look back at Khris Middleton a couple different times to make sure he stays within closeout range. Brogdon eventually does kick it out to Middleton, who shot nearly 38 percent from 3 en route to making the All-Star team last season. Finney-Smith knows that he’s got to get out on the shooter as soon as possible, and he does. But as he does, he gets down into a defensive stance rather than committing himself to contesting a shot that would never go up. If he throws himself at Middleton, arms flailing wildly and flying three feet in the air, the wing will clearly never shoot a 3 — but he could easily step into an 18-footer.
By staying in a stance, Finney-Smith positions himself to contest both the shot and the drive, and in this case Middleton goes with Option B. Finney-Smith doesn’t budge, staying in front of the All-Star and even swiping once at the ball. The shot clock gets low as Middleton picks up the ball and pump-fakes, attempting to lure Finney-Smith into a silly foul. But the defender stays disciplined and keeps himself from making any body-to-body contact as he closes out any breathing room Middleton had created for himself. The result is a frantic jump pass out of bounds. This was masterful defense.
Here’s another similar example, only this one involves both navigating through a screen and defending Steph Curry, perhaps the most threatening distance shooter in NBA history.
Again, Finney-Smith did a terrific job of getting out to the shooter without going past him, and more importantly he was able to recover enough after the close out to keep up with Curry once the superstar abandoned his 3-point plans and chose instead to drive. Maxi Kleber gives Finney-Smith an assist by slowing down Curry just enough, too, before Finney-Smith once again fails to cooperate with the shot-fake and completely shuts down the play. A seemingly disappointed Curry passes to Andre Iguodala for 3. Whether or not the shot goes in (it didn’t in this case), this was a victory for the Mavericks. The defense wiped out what could have been an open 3 for Steph and instead granted a late-clock, 27-footer to a player who shot 10 percentage points worse from deep than Curry did last season.
Elsewhere in the season, against the same action from the same opponent, Finney-Smith found himself in a different position on the floor. Instead of chasing a Warrior around a screen, he’s atop the arc in front of the passer. The Warriors appear to have the advantage — Klay Thompson working off a pin-down with only Doncic and Dirk to slow him down — but instead of simply giving up as a wide-open Thompson receives a pass, Finney-Smith digs deep and manages to contest the shot.
Whether his contest actually mattered is tough to tell. But he gave the effort. Finney-Smith knew Thompson would come off that screen, and he knew he’d be open, and he got there in time to at least force Thompson to shoot it without any breathing room. The ball usually moves faster than the defense, but not in this case.
The following play was one of my favorites I found on this search for truth.
Finney-Smith recovers from a broken play and absolutely puts the clamps on Bradley Beal, one of the best scorers in the entire NBA. This was a very impressive play.
Of the four plays we’ve seen in an article about 3-point defense, only two of them actually ended in a 3. But that’s kind of the point, right? Sometimes good defense is more about the shots you don’t allow. More times than not, all four of these plays would have ended in open treys, but instead one ended in a turnover, one as a blocked runner, and one as a heavily contested 3. Finney-Smith was able to neutralize all these threats with a combination of body control, anticipation, discipline, and, more than anything else, effort.
Other Mavericks rated very well as closeout defenders last season, as well. Tim Hardaway Jr. performed extremely well once he arrived here via trade (although it was a small sample size), and Dennis Smith Jr. did the same before the swap. Luka Doncic also did well.
A good closeout could mean many things. Sometimes it means a tough, contested shot for the opponent, and other times it might mean no shot at all. Both are great results. The ingredients are there, and the key players are in place. If the Mavericks defend the 3-point line with anywhere near the same efficiency as they did last season, the hope is that improvements made elsewhere on the roster will be effective enough to lead them back to the postseason.