The Mavs are about to enter perhaps their most demanding stretch of schedule all season long. The club will play 17 games between today and Feb. 2 in a jam-packed January, and given the nicks and bruises the Dallas backcourt is playing through — not to mention Chandler Parsons’ continued push back to full speed — Rick Carlisle is having to be creative with his rotations.
J.J. Barea has been the starting point guard for a couple weeks, the power forward minutes are being spread around in different ways every game, and Wesley Matthews has predominantly played shooting guard now that Parsons is playing heavy minutes with the starting unit. As the season has unfolded, different guys are being put into different situations. But if there’s one guy to trust with juggling minutes — and potentially even giving the rotation an complete face lift midseason — it’s Carlisle.
Long a proponent of lineup data, he’s made what looked like wacky decisions at the time work out beautifully. Many often cite his decision to insert Barea into the starting lineup before Game 4 of the 2011 NBA Finals as a move that changed the series, but almost everyone forgets that the most significant roster moves happened months before: Shawn Marion didn’t become a regular starter until late March but eventually shut down Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James in consecutive series, and DeShawn Stevenson replaced Rodrigue Beaubois in the starting lineup for the last game of the regular season before starting the first 18 games of the postseason, when he shot 39.7 percent on 3s and had to check Bryant and then Dwyane Wade.
Carlisle’s own penchant for experimenting with lineups combined with the Mavs’ yearly roster turnover has resulted in a constantly changing rotation. Even last season, Al-Farouq Aminu spent the first half of the season mostly out of the picture, but Mavs fans can’t imagine the 2014-15 campaign without him.
So when Carlisle admitted almost off-hand that things might look a bit different for Dallas moving forward, he probably wasn’t kidding.
“There are a lot of different ways we can go with this thing,” he said. “We have data on which lineups have been most successful, so I really have not decided. I went over a couple different scenarios with the team today that involve different guys coming off the bench that you might not suspect. So we’ll see where we are tomorrow. But anything we do has got to be geared toward the team’s best chances for success.”
While that quote came in response to a question about who would start at point guard, Carlisle then expanded his line of thinking to the entire team. Some might be thinking to themselves, “Just how important is a rotation, really?” I’d point those curious to the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors, who inserted Draymond Green into the starting lineup at the power forward position and proceeded to win 67 games and the championship. Boiled down to the simplest form, a coach’s job is to put players in position to be most successful, and there’s probably no better way to do that than by managing the rotation. For example, Aminu thrived last season for Dallas playing the power forward next to Dirk Nowitzki at “center,” although Aminu was the true rim protector. Brandan Wright came into the NBA as a power forward, but at center he turned the Mavs’ second unit into the most unstoppable group in basketball. Nowitzki even originally came into the league playing a ton of small forward, but Don Nelson moved him to power forward full-time and the rest was history.
With all of that in mind, according to NBA.com, here are some of the Mavs’ best five-man units since Dec. 14 — the first game Parsons really stood out. (The club’s record during the 10-game stretch is 6-4.)
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given that group was huge against both the Bulls and the Warriors, the latter of which was a blowout win. (That fivesome was +11 against Golden State, according to the Mavs’ analytics team.) Matthews and Pachulia bring a defensive punch to the group, while Barea and Parsons have the ball-handling and playmaking skills to make things happen in the pick-and-roll with either Pachulia or Nowitzki, whose floor-spacing ability remains one of the deadliest weapons in basketball. Nowitzki can still get teammates open by literally standing still. He’s incredible.
This is an intriguing unit. JaVale McGee has flown a bit under the radar as he continues his return back to a steady, consistent helping of playing time. Alongside Parsons in the pick-and-roll, however, he’s a total force, leaping for alley-oops and bringing a vertical element the offense sorely missed earlier in the season without him. That five-man group has an absurd 64.1 eFG percentage in 21 minutes in the last 10 games, scoring almost at will. Barea can make things happen with Nowitzki and Parsons can make things happen with McGee. Felton, meanwhile, can attack the rim one-on-one against a defender, and his spot-up shooting has really gone underrated this season. Offensively, there’s not much that group can’t do. It’s struggled more on the defensive side of the ball, however, and it’s been tough for that group to develop defensive chemistry through consistent playing time together because of how the injuries to Williams and Harris have affected the rotation.
Of all the lineups that have played double-digit minutes during the last 10 games, this one has the best defensive rating. More interestingly, this is maybe the only group with which Felton has played the “true” point guard role; otherwise this season, he’s played the Harris-like “combo guard” role. Playing with this group gives Parsons the chance to have the ball in his hands more, attacking in the pick-and-roll while Nowitzki and the red-hot Matthews spot up in space. Defensively, Felton has the size to battle point guards — or even to defend the 2-guard if Matthews defends the point man himself.
All of this is what we’ve already seen, though. What about new things? More potentially wacky moves fans might debate over? Let’s get weird (and speculate like crazy).
For one, I wonder if we might start seeing more Jeremy Evans at the power forward spot. He’s voluntarily appeared in a couple games in Frisco with the Texas Legends to work on his outside shot, a move Carlisle raved about. Evans has looked much more comfortable shooting from the outside in recent games when he’s gotten the chance, and he has the length, rim protection, and athleticism the Mavs could really use on the defensive end. When a guy like Evans makes a seemingly impossible move on defense, it absolutely energizes not only the crowd, but his teammates as well. The only problem is that there aren’t many minutes to go around at the power forward spot, as Nowitzki still plays 30 or so minutes per game and Dwight Powell and Charlie Villanueva are also in the mix. But if you slide Nowitzki to center and play Evans at the 4 a la Aminu in 2014-15… things get interesting.
The longer Harris (who Carlisle declared probable for tomorrow’s game) and Williams (questionable) battle the injury bug, there’s potentially a chance for John Jenkins to get more minutes at 2-guard. If Williams is out, it means Felton has to slide over to point guard, leaving a bit of a minutes void at the off-guard spot. Enter Jenkins, who can come into a game at any moment and hit a jumper. The Mavs have a 107.4 offensive rating when Jenkins plays, according to NBA.com, second-highest on the team behind only Matthews (a stellar 109.6). He is a shooter in the purest sense of the word, but if the Mavs are ever fighting through a bit of a cold spell from deep, Jenkins is the type of guy who can provide some instant heat off the bench.
Dallas has played two point guards simultaneously for basically the entire season, but on the other side of the Kings game, the team’s next three opponents (New Orleans, Milwaukee, and Minnesota) all have pretty long backcourts. That might mean the Mavs could experiment with going a bit bulkier at the guard position, especially if either Harris or Williams are out. Does that mean more minutes at “true” point guard for Harris and Felton? If so, it would open up more time at the 2 for Matthews and potentially expanded minutes for Jenkins and/or Justin Anderson at 2. That has a domino effect on the rest of the roster, too, opening up more minutes at small forward for Anderson or Evans, and so on. You never know where your minutes are going to come from in this league, which is why Carlisle’s main mantra is “stay ready.”
Rick Carlisle is the kind of coach who always has not one, but six new tricks up his sleeve that you aren’t expecting. It’s a long season, and we aren’t even at the halfway point, so nothing is set in stone in terms of the rotation. There’s plenty of time to experiment with new lineups and extra minutes here and there for this guy or that guy. The Mavs reserves must earn those minutes, obviously, but if they do, there will always be an opportunity for them to get into the game and make an impact. It will be very interesting to see how Carlisle manages the club during its busiest month of the season, especially if the injury bug keeps biting.
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