By Adam Spinella
After going 11-7 between Jan. 10 and the All-Star Break, the Dallas Mavericks are a true sleeper to capture the eighth seed out West. Everyone is looking at New Orleans after acquiring DeMarcus Cousins, or Denver with the sudden emergence of Nikola Jokic as a unicorn-like big man. Even Portland, captained by Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, seem to be mentioned above Dallas despite their defensive ineptitude. But Dallas is right there, hanging tough with the rest of the teams jockeying for position for the final playoff slot.
Rick Carlisle has pushed all the right buttons internally, maximizing their versatility within his vaunted offensive system while protecting elder statesman Dirk Nowitzki every step of the way. An aggressive move at the trade deadline to bring aboard Nerlens Noel — for a very reasonable price — has set up the Mavericks with a core of players moving forward that can help Dirk compete in the twilight of his career. Better yet, a Noel and Harrison Barnes duo is primed for versatility and success in the years to come. This isn’t a move just to get over the hump this April, but a long-term plan that keeps Dallas ahead of their competitors beyond this season as well.
Dallas entered the season with the hopes of using a savvy, veteran group to push for the top half of the Western Conference. Dirk was flanked by Andrew Bogut, a good passer and elite rim protector, in the frontcourt. Deron Williams was the slow-down, clunky point guard that would occasionally post-up smaller defenders. Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews, the starting wings, also used their size to brutalize the undersized, quick wings they faced. Rick Carlisle planned to batter teams on the interior and use everyone’s outside shooting ability to create spacing. Offensive sets and actions were slow, deliberate and featured lots of traffic near the post.
Results never translated. Dallas was losing games at an alarming rate, starting the year with the worst record in the West and lacking the speed in the frontcourt to defend the modern NBA. Injuries dismantled their continuity, taking both Bogut and D-Williams off the court for stretches. Carlisle adjusted, and on Jan. 10 finally decided to commit to a small-ball scheme that maximized his roster’s supreme versatility. Dirk was moved to center, Barnes to the 4, and Seth Curry inserted into the starting lineup. Dallas has posted the fourth best record in the West since then.
Enter Nerlens Noel, an up-tempo pick-and-roll pogo stick of a center who slots in similarly to Tyson Chandler back when the Mavericks won the 2011 NBA Championship. Now Carlisle, breeding success with his small-ball lineups around Dirk at the 5, must balance the space-and-pace system that resurrected their season with the new toy in Nerlens Noel, who will be the frontcourt cornerstone of their future — all while keeping Dallas in the hunt for the postseason.
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Rick Carlisle’s accomplishments shouldn’t fly under the radar. In 15 seasons as a head coach, Carlisle has only one losing season — his last season with the Pacers. He’s won an NBA Championship, his 58 playoff wins are fourth among active coaches (behind Pop, Spoelstra and Doc Rivers) and has done so all without winning a Coach of the Year award since 2001. He’s a tremendous defensive strategist, but his offensive playbook is a thing of beauty.
Carlisle has long built a system around Dirk Nowitzki that features three facets: pick-and-pop opportunities, post-up isolations at the nail hole and the mid-post, and allowing Dirk to come off screens at either spot when his head is under the basket. Stick a small defender on Dirk to stay with him around pick-and-pop scenarios, and he feels out contact to post him up. Put a big, lumbering defender on the German and he’ll knife off screens as a shooter and get himself open. There’s no good way to defend Dirk.
Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews, two physical and large players for their positions on the wings, thrive in these scenarios as well. The system works especially well for them when Dirk is a screener, where opposing defenders fear letting him loose for a good look around the basket. Barnes is the Mavericks most versatile scorer not named Dirk since Michael Finley donned a jersey, and his value scoring inside and out has prevented the Mavericks’ offense from stagnating around one player hunting for touches at the spots emphasized in Carlisle’s scheme.
So what exactly is Carlisle running that makes his teams so successful?
Everything begins and ends around ball screens and isolations for their man scorers, Dirk and Barnes. As screeners, both Nowitzki and Barnes are dangerous to roll, pop, or force a post-up on opposing guards who switch onto them. Carlisle utilizes the high pick-and-roll a ton within his offense, knowing his teams have always had shooting wings to provide proper spacing. Dirk Nowitzki as a pick-and-pop threat is ideal to open up the paint… especially for inexperienced ball handlers like Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell.
Other big men, like Noel, gash up defenses as the roller when they bulldoze down the lane with euphoria. All the attention that a defense puts on a sharp cutter like Noel opens kick-out lanes for other shooters — especially Dirk when he raises to the perimeter. To create those openings, Carlisle runs various ball screen actions, including a Rip Screen into a Ball Screen to take away the hedge, and many other sets to move the ball side-to-side before a screen.
Clearly a taught skill, Nowitzki and all other Mavericks with a physical size advantage are adept at creating a switch or posting with physicality right above the free throw line. That’s the area where Carlisle wants to isolate Nowitzki or Barnes because a double-team makes for an easy kick-out. Help defenders cannot trap in the middle of the floor without ceding an open shot, making it a great attacking zone for isolations.
Nail hole isolations aren’t the only area where the Mavericks seek their shots one-on-one. The long staple of Carlisle’s playbook for Dirk has been the Cross-Down option attack, where Dirk can either come off a cross screen to the mid-post for an isolation, or to the top of the key to isolate at the nail hole. With the same tenets applying, Harrison Barnes can slot himself here against smaller wings as well.
Barnes and Wesley Matthews are both physical wings with a size advantage on most nights. Dirk playing at the 4 makes the Mavericks quite large, and Carlisle has several post-up sets to use that brutality on the interior. A baseline stagger set gets Matthews or Barnes clear on the low post to isolate on one side of the floor. There’s a brush 1-3 ball screen before hand, which can only create a greater post advantage for the physical wings if a point guard switches onto them.
Other portions of their playbook, like a shuffle stagger to get a post isolation, or a screen-the-screener action for a shot when the defense pays too much attention to the post screen, are predicated on these post touches and the threats it creates for all players involved. Defending the Mavericks is a game of pick your poison. Go big, and they’ll ball screen you to death and use their speed for drive-and-kicks. Go small against them, and they punish you with relentless wing post-ups or switches on ball screens.
Mismatch hunting is a dangerous game to play in the NBA, but Carlisle does it well. There are games where, when he feels the size advantage on the perimeter, he’ll use Dirk’s shooting ability to provide spacing around wing post-ups, and he’ll call those plays time and time again. There are other games where Carlisle moves the ball around with fewer isolations, preying on the opportune pick-and-pops that naturally occur within their offense.
Of course, Carlisle has some sets up his sleeve to institute more ball movement and player movement than the ball screen or isolation-heavy offense. Dallas has long run a version of Mover-Blocker offense (or Circle) to read defenses and use off-ball screens to free up their shooters or big guys for slips. Their flex sets are designed for shooters, and they’ll put so many of their players at different positions to punish defenses for how they defend the flex action.
Ball and player movement reading to a ball screen? Look no further than the Philly Series, where a guard cuts off two cross screens at the elbow to create a catch. From there, a series of side ball screens occur, and the Mavericks get great ball movement and a free-flowing sort of movement to score even when plays break down.
Not too much changes for the Mavericks’ offense bringing Nerlens Noel into their game plan, as he’s the versatile type of screener and finisher near the basket Carlisle has encountered before. Nerlens shot 71 percent in the restricted area for the Sixers this season, a career high and the type of threat that defenses must pay attention to on the pick-and-roll. A spread PNR concept in Dallas keeps the Mavericks offense simple, modern and open for their best players to create on the fly, and is one that Noel can play in quickly.
Seeing how Carlisle plays with rotations now that Nerlens is in the picture could change the way the Mavericks play at different periods of the game. Dirk has been the anti-Steve Nash in his substitution patterns, playing in multiple five or six minute shifts per half, instead of two longer chunks of playing time with a stretched-out rest at the quarter break. Adding another big man to that equation — and one that likely commands upwards of 30 minutes a night — provides a balancing act for Carlisle. He now must balance the time Dirk spends at the 4 and the 5 with his minutes and unique substitution patterns to keep him fresh.
Building a win-now title contender around Dirk would leave the Mavericks in a difficult position in the future — Cuban and Donnie Nelson understand that. Nowitzki is showing his age, airballing more open shots than ever before and needing shorter spurts of play in order to stay fresh. The strikeout at winning with veterans like Bogut and Deron Williams, but having greater success with Harrison Barnes and Seth Curry, has led Cuban to take the risk on acquiring Nerlens Noel as a restricted free agent, bank on paying him whatever he must to keep him, and having a young enough core of players to withstand a Dirk retirement that approaches closer day by day.
Of course, the Noel acquisition tightens up the defensive side of the ball right away, an area the Mavericks were incredibly weak throughout the season — especially against ball screens. Nowitzki is a slow-footed big man to begin with, and now at age 38, his defensive abilities need to be masked more than ever. Carlisle subs Dirk out of ball games late on big defensive possessions, opting for the young Dwight Powell instead. The film shows Dirk, no matter what scheme or protections he has around him, is a defensive liability.
Against the pick-and-roll, Nowitzki lacks the agility to ever dissuade a guard from driving to the basket: one dribble move and Dirk is toast. Even hard-hedging against shooters leaves Dirk sprinting to get back into the play and giving up wide open jump shots.
To combat this, Dirk drops back against the pick-and-roll, sprouts roots in the lane and tries to force ball handlers to take a mid-range pull-up. The theory behind the strategy dictates that Dallas wants opponents to take as many mid-range jumpers as possible, the lowest value shot in terms of percentage and points per attempt. But Dirk’s clumsy attempts to contest these shots rarely do much to prevent a bucket. Forcing mid-range jumpers only works as an efficient defense if those shots are contested, and Dirk does very little to put pressure on the ball handlers.
That Nowitzki-Bogut pairing was too slow to corral any ball handler on the perimeter and bled points out of the pick-and-roll early in the season. Carlisle adjusted with Barnes at the 4, and the schemes he employed showed a defensive level of sophistication that protected Dirk. It starts with matchups, where Carlisle places Dirk on a big man who is less mobile or sets fewer pick-and-rolls. Against the Celtics, Dirk was guarding Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko, who are relegated to the corners and blocks on offense, while Harrison Barnes checked the much larger yet perimeter-based Al Horford.
Two main adjustments are made by Carlisle to protect Dirk when it’s less predictable to know when Dirk will hide in the corner based on who he guards. The first is in double ball screens set high, where Nowitzki takes his drop back scheme to new levels. When pairing Nowitzki with an athletic 4-man (like Barnes, who can switch and defend multiple positions), the Mavs will zone the double pick-and-roll. Nowitzki takes the rim responsibility, while Barnes and the man on the ball snake their way through the screens and corral the ball handler and then scramble to defend whoever is left open.
The second adjustment, which only works against teams with slower small forwards, hides Dirk in the corner against a shooter. Before the screening action can occur, Dirk switches with a wing off the ball and avoids being involved in a screening action completely. It works against the Blazers, where Aminu and Harkless are both inconsistent three-point shooters, or the Sixers, where Gerald Henderson is a secondary threat to Saric as a screener.
There are massive downsides to playing a pick-and-roll defense built around hiding a center. Carlisle certainly has the brain power to conceive of when these opportunities exist, but the effort of the other four guys on the court needed to switch continually and be aware of how and when to protect Nowitzki is quite draining.
Seeing how the Mavericks hide Dirk now that there’s a more mobile rim protector like Noel patrolling the paint will really be intriguing. Noel has the athleticism to be playing in that switching scheme, blitzing ball handlers with his length on the perimeter while Dirk drops back positionally around the rim. Or Noel can defend the pick-and-roll while Nowitzki hides in the corner and prepares to rebound. At the end of the day, having another versatile toy to play with is any coach’s dream. For Carlisle, it’s a legitimate weapon that Western Conference foes need to be prepared for.
The real improvement from this roster comes from the youth movement that Carlisle has committed to in his rotation, maximizing the likes of many of their 25-and-under core. Seth Curry is the leader of that group, a player the Mavericks took a chance on after seeing him shoot the ball so well in Sacramento at the end of last season. Curry starts as the team’s 2-guard playing off the ball, but he fits the bill that Carlisle looks for as a secondary option that can also create off ball screens.
Curry has been red hot for Dallas during their resurgence. Since Dec. 1, Curry has shot an astounding 47.5 percent from three on more than four attempts per game. He’s got more than a two-to-one assist to turnover ratio, is creating turnovers and has handled backup point guard duties in the midst of the team’s many injuries. Seth isn’t as multi-faceted as his brother, and struggles on the defensive end in most situations. The boost he’s given them offensively has sewn up his role as a legitimate NBA starter and a threat worthy of an entire defense’s attention.
Dwight Powell, Salah Mejri, Yogi Ferrell and Dorian Finney-Smith are all long-term NBA players who can survive in a rotation. Powell is a combo 4 and 5 that can shoot jumpers, attack the glass and has eerily long arms to pester shooters. Mejri has become a great roller off ball screens and a decent shot blocker, filling that quintessential young big man role similar to Bebe Nogueira in Toronto or Alexis Ajinca of the Pelicans. The Yogi Ferrell story has made him essentially Jeremy Lin-lite, and he’s deserving of a long-term contract, though he may not be a long-term solution as a starter. Finney-Smith’s emergence as a combo forward and a fairly reliable shooter (32 percent on the season) is what allowed Dallas to view Justin Anderson as expendable.
Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut are now gone, giving way to these youngsters. Somehow, it doesn’t seem like the Mavericks are sellers, or are missing out on a whole lot, by giving up the two former All-Stars. Bogut and Nowitzki played together like they were starting in the nursing home league, barely moving up and down the court or keeping the ball moving. Williams, one of the top pick-and-roll creators in the league per Synergy sports, doesn’t play with the speed that this new-look Mavericks team will cultivate. Yogi Ferrell, Seth Curry and returning J.J. Barea play faster, the apparent desired style for a team featuring Nerlens Noel and Dirk Nowitzki in the front court.
Mark Cuban has routinely struck out on the free agent market, somehow failing to market his dedicated ownership, a tax-friendly state, decent fan base and market, and an elite-caliber head coach with support and continuity. This February seemed to be the first time Cuban threw in the towel on chasing the big boys on the free agent market and thought outside the box. General Manager Donnie Nelson acquired a restricted free agent in Nerlens Noel, giving Dallas the right to match any offer he receives in July. In essence Noel becomes their free agent signing this summer, and the price to get him was Justin Anderson and what likely is two second-round picks.
The fit of Noel finally fills a gaping hole the Mavericks have long been seeking. Noel is an athletic rim protector that can play an up-tempo, ball screen style on offense while locking down the interior on the other end of the court. We’re not even two years removed from the DeAndre Jordan saga, committing and then decommitting to the Mavericks. Even an old Tyson Chandler, re-acquired from the Knicks in a salary dump, wasn’t the same athlete as his 2011 championship glory days. This is the first real athlete next to Dirk since the Mavericks won the championship, and it will pay dividends.
Noel instantly fills in the biggest weakness of an otherwise well-oiled machine of an organization. Carlisle is the second-longest tenured coach in the NBA behind division rival Gregg Popovich. The Mavericks have one of the best D-League teams in the league, perfectly blending young player development with scouting for other role players that could help. Eduardo Najera, the team’s D-League head coach, played for Carlisle during his NBA career, and that continuity is nothing if not an asset in preparing players to thrive in the big leagues.
One player who flamed out a bit was Justin Anderson, the 2015 first-rounder who failed to become a lockdown defender or a league-average offensive threat. Anderson’s three-point shot has failed the touting of a 3-and-D wing he was drafted with. His body and his athleticism are certainly that of an NBA weapon, and it’s not like he’s not an NBA player. He has a great work ethic, and as Tim Cato wrote on the youngster, his work ethic and personality leave lots of hope for his future.
But Anderson’s lack of outside shooting (a career 28 percent three point shooter) and inability to create off the pick-and-roll or with a size advantage in the post made him a poor fit in Carlisle’s scheme. Plus, Anderson struggled with basic principles of shot selection, often passing up great shots when he didn’t need to. Dallas can afford to trade a former first-rounder and a few seconds for a core building block like Noel because they use their D-League so well. The likelihood of keeping their 2017 draft pick is high, and the Mavs can add another rotation hopeful in June in one of the deepest and most talented drafts in recent memory. The loss of Anderson really isn’t a great one.
The cap situation doesn’t look too grim, either. Noel’s next contract will be expensive, but is necessary at this point. 2017-2018, with Dirk’s $25 million deal still on the books, is the only year the Mavericks will be tax saddled. They’ll likely avoid the repeat offender tax in ’18-’19 after Dirk’s contract disappears, the same year Seth Curry would be due a new deal. If Dallas can make it through this summer by re-signing Noel, adding a rookie and tightening up the end of their bench, they’ll be in good shape. The Bogut trade has net them a nifty $6.6 million trade exception they can use next winter to improve the roster, and they’ll have the flexibility to not have to take an expiring to avoid the luxury tax threshold (again, thanks to Dirk).
Donnie Nelson, Mark Cuban and Rick Carlisle don’t get enough credit for running a top-level, smart and competitive franchise on every level. Top to bottom, the communication and continuity within the organization soaks the most out of every asset, and the decision-makers in the front office make moves that reinforce and bolster those assets. Dallas won’t set the world on fire this year, perhaps doing enough to scrape into the postseason and give Golden State or the like a competitive first-round series.
The moves of the last few weeks were made to give the Mavericks a better chance at competing next season, in what could be Dirk’s finale. A classy, smart and savvy organization gave the future Hall of Famer their word they’d do everything to keep the end of his career a competitive one, and one in a Dallas uniform. After a shaky start to the season, the organization has fulfilled their promise. Now the ball is in the team’s hands to gel quickly, push for the postseason now and develop the chemistry and feel for the game to make a move in the standings next season.