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Fixing the Mavs

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With Dirk Nowitzki back, it's time for Rick Carlisle to slow the pace of the game down and give more minutes to his best defensive and rebounding big men.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

If you rank the four Mavericks centers -- Chris Kaman, Elton Brand, Brandan Wright and Bernard James -- in terms of their rebounding rate and points per play allowed this season, the list goes (in order) James, Brand, Kaman, Wright.

No one with any ounce of sense would argue that the Mavericks have a bad coach. Rick Carlisle is one of the best coaches in the NBA, and while the Mavericks have had some highly-touted coaches over the years, he's the only wearing an NBA Championship ring. With blue and white on it.

Yet, at first blush, some of Carlisle's choices this season seem to defy logic. The Mavericks are, after all, 27th in the NBA in points allowed, 22nd in rebounds per game and they refuse to play the two players who, statistically, are their best defenders and rebounders.

This isn't entirely fair, of course. Brand is currently recovering from an injury, and before that was averaging 21.8 minutes a night, good for 7th on the Mavericks. Nevertheless, though, Brand ranks seventh in minutes behind Mayo, Marion, Collison, Kaman, the recently-departed Derek Fisher and Vince Carter. He's only ahead of such luminaries as Jae Crowder, (the gone but never forgotten) Troy Murphy, Wright and Dahntay Jones.

Suffice to say that getting second-round draft-pick minutes was hardly the ceiling imagined when Dallas picked up Brand for pennies on the dollar this off-season. Less-than Troy Murphy minutes was, presumably, unthinkable.

A closer examination, however, reveals some relevant details. While the Mavericks are giving up the 2nd most points in the NBA, they are limiting their opponents to 48.6% effective field goal percentage. That's not great, but it's good for 14th in the league. Their defensive rating (105.6) is good for 16th. In other words, their defense has been middling, but not nearly as terrible as the points allowed would suggest.

What this reveals is a perhaps not-too-startling revelation: the Mavericks ugly points allowed number is a victim of the pace they're trying to play, the 3rd fastest in the league. When you consider their personnel -- lacking, for the most part, skilled half-court operators -- this makes some sense. The problem is, it may not make enough sense.

As Tom Ziller pointed out two weeks ago, Dallas is among the teams seeing the least benefit from their fast play. It's not a coincidence. Lacking a skilled operator to direct that chaos, Dallas is turning the ball over at an insane rate, currently 25th in the league and getting worse by the game.

Meanwhile, with their lack of rebounders coupled with a lack of half-court defensive pressure, they are 28th in offensive rebounding percentage. Couple their personnel problems with the lack of positioning which pace often creates, they are 27th in defensive rebounding percentage.

With the turnovers and failure to rebound, they are giving away a huge percentage of their possessions. Somehow or another, they shot 18 more shots than the Heat and lost by 15. However, that game aside, they have averaged 10 less shots a game than their opponent over the last six, which I strongly suspect is unusual for a team playing at the pace they're playing at.

Carlisle is a much better coach in some ways than a guy like D'Antoni because he doesn't need specific personnel for his system. He adapts his system to the personnel. There is, however, one way in which this is a weakness. There's a reason most teams play basketball basically the same way, and why sometimes a coach like Vinny Del Negro can jump out 20-6 -- better, even, than Gregg Popovich at 20-8.

Unorthodox uses of personnel can create orthodox, irreducible problems.

Who knows where the Mavericks would be if they hadn't sacrificed rebounding and ball security for pace this season. In all likelihood, they'd be worse off. But with four OT losses this season maybe, just maybe, keeping the ball a little bit longer and a little bit more might have made the difference. And how might 16-11 look with Dirk back in the rotation, compared to 12-15 with SA, OKC, and SA still coming?

This point is particularly hard to argue with anybody who watched the end of the Dallas-Memphis game. Despite playing a vastly superior team and getting nothing from their star, the Mavs still had it within 6 with 1:42 to go.

Then Conley missed a two and the Grizzlies got the offensive board, Tony Allen missed a jumper and they got the offensive board, Rudy Gay missed a two and they got another offensive board and finally Marc Gasol made a jumper to make it an 8 point lead with 41 seconds to go. The whole minute lost was more fatal than the points. Meanwhile, Carlisle had Dominique Jones, Dahntay Jones, Carter, Mayo and Marion on the floor.

I am certain, when Elton Brand comes back, that he'll get his playing time, especially since Carlisle has stopped playing Kaman much in the 4th. A good decision, for the most part, since his offense comes entirely at the cost of everyone else's, despite its high-efficiency.

But in a world where Crowder is getting 20 minutes a game, shooting 23.7% for the month of December and 14.8% from three, Dallas seems completely uninterested in throwing any minutes Bernard James' way. James is currently the Mavs with the best defensive rating and the best rebounding percentage. If they were interested in fixing these problems, that's exactly what they'd do.

One assumes that his game, and to an extent Brand's game, has been sacrificed in the name of pace. This is a decision made in the face of conventional basketball wisdom, but for the sake of best use of personnel. It may need to be re-examined.

I can't think of a specific movie, but there must be one where the hero has to watch the destruction of something he or she loves, though it could be stopped, for the sake of a higher goal. This is, presumably, how Carlisle watched that last Memphis possession, described above.

One wonders if he really must torture himself, and us.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.