Monday Musings: Mavericks’ failures this season go beyond Lamar Odom

Lamar Odom is famous because he is on some awful reality show and once served as a hugely valuable member of multiple title teams. So his failure this season with the Mavericks, culminating with their’ decision Monday to essentially deactivate him, will be viewed as a crucial reason for their demise if they lose in the first round of the playoffs — assuming they even get there.

Odom was a disaster this season, out of shape and out of sorts, but he wasn’t even supposed to be part of the plan. He was a gift, a “what the heck?” bit of good luck on the trade market, and the attention to his failures has masked all the other reasons Dallas has regressed as a scoring team to the point that it ranks 23rd in points per possession — with no signs of improvement coming.

Last season, the Mavs made important structural changes to their offense, adjustments that fit their personnel and recognized the team’s age. They transformed themselves from a mid-range team into one that took a ton of three-point shots, open perimeter looks they got by running multiple pick-and-roll combinations, spacing the floor well and whipping the ball around the court with precision. They finished with the eighth-best offense in the league, and then, remarkably, they improved by about three points per 100 possessions in the playoffs — when offense generally drops — and blew the doors off everyone they faced.

No team assisted on a higher percentage of its field-goal tries. Only the Magic shot the ball more efficiently in the last eight seconds of the shot clock, per, evidence of how well the Mavs moved the ball and players until a defense finally broke. Only five teams got a higher percentage of their shots in those final eight seconds, evidence of how important patience was to Dallas’ scoring success. Only San Antonio and New York attempted more corner three-pointers, a shot for which Dallas showed no real affection until last season.

The Mavs didn’t get to the free-throw line all that much, had little use for offensive rebounds and turned the ball over at an average rate. In short: Other than Dirk Nowitzki post-ups and the mid-range shots that remained (mostly for Dirk and Jason Terry), Dallas relied almost entirely on getting a good first look near the rim or from three-point range, and making it.

For reasons well beyond Odom’s failure, the Mavs have been unable to function this way in 2011-12. Even more damaging, there is no fall-back plan on an aging team with no consistent off-the-dribble creator on the perimeter. Odom is a decent creator and absolutely could have helped, had he showed up ready to compete at a high level. The Mavs, at the very least, need a backup power forward capable of keeping the offense afloat when Nowitzki sits, and coach Rick Carlisle showed creativity in fitting Odom amid intriguing super-big lineups in which he was essentially the small forward.

It was a risk worth taking, and it didn’t work. But the Mavs’ issues go far beyond Odom’s.

Rodrigue Beaubois was supposed to fill the role as a go-to perimeter creator. He has advanced in small increments, but he does not get to the rim as often as J.J. Barea did, he is not as accomplished a passer and his outside shooting — 28 percent from three-point range — remains a liability that hurts the Mavs’ precious spacing. Delonte West helped early, but injuries to his hand and ankle have stunted his progress, and his game has always featured more step-back 15-footers than at-the-rim drives and dishes. Pairing Beaubois and Jason Terry, intended to be a facsimile of the dangerous Barea/Terry little-man duo, improved Dallas’ offense in the 685 minutes they’ve shared, but it hasn’t been enough to change the larger picture. Using West and Terry together has been a disaster, and teaming Jason Kidd with just about anyone has been hard to watch.

Kidd long ago evolved into a spot-up shooter assigned to hit open three-pointers and pick apart defenses with passing from beyond the three-point arc. But that evolution might have passed a breaking point. Nearly 82 percent of Kidd’s field-goal tries this season have been threes, up from about 65 percent last season. His assists per minute have reached a career low by a huge margin, and his increase in turnovers has sabotaged what remains of Dallas’ transition game. The Mavs rank 29th in points per possession on fast-break chances, per Synergy Sports. Kidd was at least a nominal threat to do something other than shoot threes last season, but he has not been this season. His passing, always a step ahead of rotating defenses, is less valuable now that Dallas’ spot-up shooting game is less dangerous.

The Mavs have redistributed a significant chunk of their three-point attempts — about 1.5 per game — from the corner to other areas, and they miss the spot-up brilliance of Peja Stojakovic and the version of DeShawn Stevenson that showed up last season.

Teams can generate good looks without an All-Star type on the perimeter if they have an explosive big-man finisher to use on pick-and-rolls, but Brendan Haywood is not in Tyson Chandler’s league in that sense. Dallas has suffered more on offense for its decision to let Chandler go and stock up on cap space this summer. Chandler shot nearly 70 percent on three attempts per game last season out of pick-and-rolls and cuts, and when defenses fouled him, he made them pay by morphing into a league-average foul shooter. Haywood has attempted only about 1.5 shots per game from pick-and-rolls and cuts, and he is simply not a threat to catch the ball from 10 feet out and do something productive with it. He is slow and needs time to gather himself after catching, and in that time, his defender can recover well enough to either contest a shot effectively or foul. Haywood has shot just 46 percent from the line, and that’s actually an improvement over last season.

The Mavs feasted last season by using Chandler on the pick-and-roll and stationing Nowitzki along the perimeter as an outlet. Such action removed a big man (Nowitzki’s defender) from the paint and spared Nowitzki some of the shot-creation burden. Though Dallas has tried to approximate it using Brandan Wright and Ian Mahinmi along with Haywood, it cannot approximate last season’s results.

Nowitzki is still hugely effective in the post and as a pick-and-pop threat so dangerous that defenders often stay glued to him, opening driving lanes for the Mavs’ guards. But those guards haven’t been able to do as much with those driving lanes this season, and even when they can, the shooting around them is not as deadly. Even Shawn Marion’s off-ball cutting, an alternative way of creating space for a non-shooter (see Avery Bradley in Boston), has dropped off over the course of the season, along with his post game, perhaps the result of cumulative fatigue from defending so many star point guards early.

Bottom line: The video tape and numbers — literally almost any kind of numbers you might choose — indicate a total system failure. The Mavs have dropped from first in assist rate to middle of the pack, suggesting that the easy buckets at the rim and the open threes just aren’t there. They still get a disproportionate number of field-goal attempts in the last four seconds of the shot clock, but they rank as one of the league’s dozen worst-shooting teams on such attempts, per And try as he might, Carlisle just hasn’t been able to find enough lineups and player pairings — super-big, super-small, whatever — that work consistently.

Mixing and matching is key on an aging team, especially one that has suffered short-term injuries to so many key players this season. Only the Nets, Bobcats, Nuggets, Hornets and Raptors have played their most common five-man unit fewer minutes than Dallas has played its No. 1 minutes-logging group. Few teams have played so many units at least 30 minutes combined, suggesting that Carlisle and his staff have tinkered more than most.

The Mavs will probably make the playoffs because the hardest part of their schedule is over and they have tiebreakers already in hand over all four teams right around them in the Western Conference standings (Utah, Phoenix, Denver and Houston). Things could get very dicey if the Mavs don’t do well in their next three games, against the Warriors, Kings and Trail Blazers, but they should still sneak in as the No. 7 or No. 8 seed.

That will be disappointing for the defending champions, especially because it would mean a meeting with either San Antonio or Oklahoma City. Odom’s play didn’t help, but it is just one of many factors contributing to the root cause of Dallas’ decline.

1. The Knicks, playing small

We’re early in this version of the Knicks, and they will change things back to “normal” if and when Amar’e Stoudemire returns, but in the meantime, it has been really fun watching this team puzzle everyone it faces. Most teams don’t want their own power forward defending Carmelo Anthony, now manning that spot for New York, and that in turn forces Knicks opponents to use one big-man defender on a perimeter player — usually Landry Fields. That creates chances for Fields (or his backups, including J.R. Smith) to work off the dribble or shoot with extra space.

And I sometimes wonder if the change is beneficial, almost by accident, for Anthony’s defense. He has no choice but to work his tail off against someone like Carlos Boozer in the post, and though Chicago attacked him on cross screens under the rim and pick-and-rolls, Anthony just has less opportunity to mail it in on the perimeter now.

Again, this is a short-term solution. But New York is effectively junking up games, dictating matchups (did you see Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau go small in the first half on Sunday?) and experimenting with lineups that include no traditional point guard. And it’s working!

2. The Mike Conley road-runner sound effect

I haven’t noticed if the Grizzlies’ play this whenever Conley scores or only when he scores on fast breaks, but I love the way the patented “meep meep” comes after a slight delay, when Memphis’ opponent is well into its next possession and the crowd has quieted. Nice touch.

3. Denver’s defense

The Nuggets have slipped to 24th in points allowed per possession, and they have trended downward — especially on the defensive glass — since flipping Nene for JaVale McGee, per’s stats database. They still switch too much on and off the ball, and both Andre Miller and Corey Brewer — a pest on the ball — can be caught ball-watching and are thus vulnerable to smart cutters. Rookie Kenneth Faried, for all his brilliance, struggles with positioning, especially against power forwards with range.

Denver isn’t close to a sure thing for the playoffs, though it clinched the tiebreaker over Phoenix with a stirring comeback win over the Suns on Friday. The Nuggets’ schedule is fairly tough, including a back-to-back next week against No. 6 Houston, and they have already lost the tiebreaker to the 10th-place Jazz. But even if the Nuggets maintain their spot, I just can’t trust this team to do much damage in May.

4. Byron Mullens’ trigger finger

I’m not sure any player in the league looks to shoot as quickly upon receiving a pass as the Bobcats’ big man does. He knows the rules allow him to pass to the other four guys in his uniform, right?

In fairness, Mullens is a 7-footer with a jump shot, and he has shown flashes as a useful rim protector on defense. His assist rate is only a hair below that of Andrew Bynum, but unlike Bynum, Mullens is shooting a below-average percentage (just 44.0) for a big man. He’ll have to diversify going forward.

5. Tyreke Evans, cutting more

Evans’ development in Sacramento has been very frustrating, especially his fall-off as a jump shooter. Rookie point guard Isaiah Thomas’ delightful emergence has thrown a monkey wrench into that development because Evans now has to work more off the ball. But that might be healthy in the long run, and Evans will now execute three or four vigorous off-ball cuts per game. The Kings have also occasionally used him as a screener in pick-and-rolls, something that encourages this sort of movement.

Evans’ commitment to this kind of thing is inconsistent, which isn’t surprising, considering the degree to which he has dominated the ball all his life. But it’s something to watch as the Kings play out the string.

6. Manu Ginobili’s functional no-look passing

It’s great to have Ginobili back for a million reasons, but it’s especially nice to have another guy whose no-look passes actually serve a purpose. We lost one such player when Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio went down with a knee injury, but Ginobili is back, freezing back-line defenders on the pick-and-roll by looking one way and passing the other — as opposed to how some players toss a pass and then, looking away, try to convince the highlight shows that they have done something impactful.

Pick-and-roll plays will often leave one opposing big man near the rim responsible for two people, his defensive assignment and the other big man rolling toward the hoop. Most guards make the simple play — hit the roll man — but a few, such as Rubio, Ginobili and Kidd, are smart enough to read that poor big man’s footwork and freeze him with a mean no-look dish to either teammate.

7. The big man surprise dribble-drive.

Lots of teams run several sets per game through the high post, with a big man at one of the elbows responsible for reading a defense and throwing the next pass. Lots of these big men are generally non-threatening as scorers, especially if they have to dribble. But on occasion, such a big man will catch his defender leaning toward a cutter moving nearby, and in that moment, he’ll suddenly spin to face the hoop, unleash a surprise dribble-drive and pray that he can finish before the defense rotates. Sacramento’s Chuck Hayes and Oklahoma City’s Nick Collison are particularly entertaining in this regard.

8. The evolution of Jared Dudley

Players don’t have to make huge leaps or evolve into stars to make themselves more valuable. The Suns’ Dudley is a great example. Once a spot-up shooter, Dudley has gradually gotten better at running off screens for catch-and-shoot plays and even posting up smaller players when he draws a switch. He’s a creative finisher near the rim, capable of using up-and-unders and funky angles on the glass. Kudos to one of the NBA’s Twitter All-Stars, who becomes more well-rounded every season.

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