Dallas is not the best team in the Western Conference. Nor have they fared particularly well against the teams that are the best in the West. How bad has it been? Well, Dallas has yet to notch a single victory against the four squads ranked ahead of them in the conference standings. They are 1-7 against the current teams in the top-eight. And as they say, “You have to beat the best to beat the best.” If you haven’t heard that before, then I would like to formally welcome you to the realm of sports clichés. Until Dallas’ record against top notch talent improves, be prepared to become well acquainted with the phrase.
Is this concerning? Yes and no. Is that answer a bit of a cop out? Yes, but it’s also the only way to realistically address this problem. The problem with using that unfortunate record as a benchmark of evaluation is that it is really an accumulation of many other issues. So what are those concerns? Well, I’m glad you asked.
The first is perimeter defense. This should be the most obvious contributing factor. Many were concerned about the Mavericks’ diminutive backcourt’s ability to guard the perimeter before acquiring Rajon Rondo. The concern remains justified, but that should not come as a surprise to anyone who has taken a look at Dallas’ depth chart. Dallas’ rotation of guards includes: Rondo (6’1), Monta Ellis (6’3), Devin Harris (6’3), J.J. Barea (6’0), and Raymond Felton (6’1). Not a single player over 6’3. Rondo is an upgrade and can get some steals for the team, but other than that, not a whole lot of defensive acumen.
This is concerning for a number or reasons. Most of the league’s premier scorers reside on the perimeter – Steph Curry, Chris Paul, James Harden, Damien Lillard, and so on. These guys are human highlight reel freak shows placed on this earth to spit in the face of every defensive scheme that’s ever been scribbled on a white board. Oh, and a lot of them play basketball west of the Mississippi.
Monta Ellis is capable of being this guy at times for the Mavericks offense, but Dallas has limited answers on the defensive side of the ball. The evolution of the do-it-all, take-your-lunch-money-and-make-you-like-it offensive superstar calls for teams to have an immediate answer on their squad. You have to have a stopper, someone who’s going to push back and wear down that opposing superstar. These guys are grinders, scrappers, pests, and they take great pride in what they do. If they can knock down a three and create spacing while on offense, then they’re all the more valuable. The Grizzlies have Tony Allen. The Spurs have Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. The Rockets have Patrick Beverly. Dallas….well, Dallas has Rondo, J.J. Barea and Devin Harris.
What’s to stop Steph Curry from pulling up at leisure from beyond the arc? Better yet, who’s going to contest shots from his 6’7 backcourt mate, Klay Thompson? Golden State in particular is a matchup disaster for Dallas, but the Mavericks give up threes to everyone. Dallas’ opponents make 39.7% of the threes they attempt. No team gives up a higher percentage of threes. Houston, the league leader in opponent three point percentage only gives up 28.5%. On average, teams make 9.7 three point shots a night against Dallas. That’s 30 points of offense a night right there.
Who is going to prevent James Harden from slashing to the basket and drawing fouls? And what is going to happen to the defense when those fouls are called on Tyson Chandler, the only Maverick who has received any kind of defensive accolade? Chandler is the mighty beam that holds the shaky ship together. He’s also Dallas’ best rebounder by a landslide, and when he has to rest his presence is missed in the paint and on the boards. Chandler is a rim protector and rim protectors have to protect the rim whenever an opponent slips a defender. But he’s also a human. He can only do so much and cover so much ground. In the case of a healthy Houston team, Chandler also has to spend his time tussling with Dwight Howard, who, according to advanced scouting reports conducted by my eye balls, is pretty good.
Rick Carlisle and the Mavericks are well aware of these flaws and have repeatedly stated that they plan on relying upon defense by committee. The specific plan relies on milking the abilities of the entire unit in order to compensate for their lack of defensive stalwart. But that’s taking a pretty big gamble. You need at least one ace in the hole. When Dallas won the title, they had DeShawn Stevenson and Shawn Marion available to match up with whoever was getting hot on the other team. Right now, Dallas runs the risk of being in a shootout every night. Right now, the best part of Dallas’ defense is their ability to create turnovers. The issue there is that that is reliant on your opponent making mistakes. Good teams don’t make many mistakes, and that might just be one more reason the Mavericks have struggled in big games this season. The perimeter defense is a concern that isn’t going to go away anytime soon. That is a problem that we should all be worried about.
The fact that the Mavericks struggle against good teams shouldn’t be a surprise. Everyone struggles against good teams. That is what makes good teams good. Only three teams have beaten the Golden State Warriors all season- the Spurs, the Suns (that happened in consecutive games back in early November) and the 21-4 Grizzlies in Memphis this past Tuesday night. And it isn’t as if Dallas has just been destroyed in those contests against the conference leaders. They lost to San Antonio on opening night by a single point. They lost to Houston by three points on the road in a tightly contested game they had a chance to win. Take away that atrociously horrible first quarter against the Warriors and who knows how that game finishes.
That 1-7 record also fails to acknowledge quality road wins against solid Eastern Conference competition. Is the East as good or as deep as the West? Of course not, I feel ridiculous even typing out that question. But there are good teams out east and Dallas has beaten three of the top four teams in the conference on their home courts- Chicago, Toronto, and Washington.
The goal of the regular season is win enough games to make it to the postseason. It doesn’t matter who the wins come against or how close the games are. Once you get into the playoffs, it’s all about matchups. But it’s only mid-December and the goal is to stay in contention. Dallas is right there in the thick of the playoff picture as expected and so far that’s a success. They’re going to have to pile up some wins against the teams ahead of them in the standings to stay there, but just because they haven’t yet doesn’t mean that they won’t.