Down and Dirty Data, or: What Do the Short Season's Stats Say About the Mavericks?
Shawn Marion's defensive versatility, combined with ball-hawking guards, means a surprisingly tough Mavs' defense.
The Mavericks -- like virtually every other team during this bizarre, lockout-shortened NBA season -- are nearly impossible to pin down. A combination of odd scheduling, injury adjustments and minimal practice time seemingly puts a different Maverick team on the floor every night out; in one game they'll settle in comfortably against a capable defense, and in another they'll struggle to create any kind of sustainable offensive rhythm whatsoever.
Every NBA regular season has its natural ebbs and flows, but this one seems to lack a trustworthy anchor for evaluating team performance. Dallas, in particular, has been all over the place, leading Mavs owner Mark Cuban -- who has long looked to the quantitative world for a leg up on the competition -- to express a rare distrust in this season's statistical data.
"It's a complete aberration," Cuban told Brian Gutierrez of Mavs.com. "It's dirty data." Cuban went on to say that advanced stats this season are "pretty much worthless for everybody," and he specifically warned against using this year's data as a means to evaluate those in the upcoming free agent class.
To an extent, Cuban's right; this season's numbers should be laced with asterisks before they're used as a predictive tool. But this season's stats do at least show what teams are capable of at both ends of their performance spectrum, even if the swings between high and low are more extreme and more frequent than they might otherwise be. Advanced stats may not tell you who will win tonight's game, but they can still give us a decent read on the holistic performance of a team to date, and what we can generally expect from that team's play going forward -- so long as the proper context is applied.
With that, here's a look at three worthwhile statistical angles on the Mavs' performance this season, with a side of explanation and logical hedging:
Effective field goal percentage: 47.8 percent (15th in the NBA) Good ol' field goal percentage is a simple, handy stat, but neglects the impact of three-point shooting on offensive performance. If making a shot from beyond the arc is good for three points rather than two, then shouldn't the shooting percentages -- which function as probabilities -- be altered to reflect that difference?
Effective field goal percentage takes that consideration into account, by weighting three-point shots and two-point shots differently. As you can tell from the Mavs' current ranking in this measure, scoring from the field hasn't exactly been one of their strengths.
But fortunately, Dallas's effective field goal percentage marks -- which have largely floated in the 15-20 ranks -- represent a worst-case scenario in the process of being remedied. In a way, this is the kind of misleading stat that Cuban spoke about; Dallas, quite simply, is not a team worthy of such dismal shooting numbers (and rankings), even if their performance this season clearly dictates that they are. Current statistical standing aside, the Mavs have ranked no lower than 12th -- much less ranked below the league average, where they stand now -- in effective field goal percentage since 1999. Dallas may not climb back to the elite level of shot making that became the signature of their championship season, but the shooting of Jason Kidd, Lamar Odom, Jason Terry and Dirk Nowitzki will only improve from here.
Opponent effective field goal percentage: 46.0 percent (7th in the NBA) Good defensive teams force their opponents into difficult, inefficient shots, and though last year's Mavs didn't have a defense-first reputation, they used swarming coverage to push opponents into tough, contested looks. That trend has continued this season, and it's a big reason why -- amid fears that the team's defense would regress with the departures of Tyson Chandler, DeShawn Stevenson and assistant coach/defensive architect Dwane Casey -- Dallas has unexpectedly become one of this season's elite defensive outfits.
There are no outright guarantees that the Mavs will remain elite in this area, but thanks to the team's defensive versatility, it seems likely. The Mavs have all kinds of coverage options thanks to a crew of multi-faceted defenders, anchored first and foremost by the ever-versatile Shawn Marion. Marion's long arms, quick feet and sound instincts make him a good defensive option for aggressive wing players, scoring guards and rangier bigs. His season is lived out from unenviable defensive assignment to unenviable defensive assignment, as he functions as the Mavericks' best answer to the questions of who will guard Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and a motley assortment of other superstar-caliber opponents.
From there, Rick Carlisle is able to cross-match his defenders as he sees fit, pitting Delonte West on quicker opponents, Jason Kidd on bigger guards, Brendan Haywood and Ian Mahinmi on interior threats and a rotating cast of help defenders in between. Then, because guys like Marion, West and Kidd are able to defend different positions, the Mavs have a unique freedom to switch on screens mid-play without much fear of exploitation. Kidd is strong enough to challenge the shots of much larger opponents, and Marion is quick enough to hang with even some of the league's fastest perimeter types. The Dallas defense is far from perfect, but that kind of flexibility provides an incredibly stable foundation for good shot defense.
Opponent turnover rate: 15.5 percent (7th in the NBA) By far the oddest element of the Mavs' defensive success thus far has been their suddenly manifested ability to create turnovers. Historically, Dallas has forced opponents into tough shots but failed to force miscues and take the ball away. That kind of aggression just wasn't congruent with the Mavs' defensive style, as Dallas' most successful defensive possessions often involved wearing opponents down over the course of the 24-second shot clock.
But this year's defense has been able to rack up steals without sacrificing those crucial defensive fundamentals. On its own, that screams statistical aberration; considering that the Mavs are using more or less the same defensive system that they used a year ago, a random jump into the top five or so in opponent turnover rate should immediately raise a red flag.
But there may be a plausible explanation for the Mavs' unexpected dominance of the turnover column: As a byproduct of Dallas's sweeping roster overhaul, the team's back-court minutes have been redistributed to players far more likely to generate steals than their championship predecessors.
Stylistically, Kidd hasn't changed much; he looks a bit slow at times, but Kidd still disrupts passing lanes and routinely makes life difficult for opposing ball handlers. The real difference lies in the perimeter players around Kidd -- gone are positional defenders like J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson (neither of whom generated all that many steals last season, though Barea did draw his fair share of charges), and in their place are the long, active arms of Delonte West and Rodrigue Beaubois.
In those guards alone, the Mavs have three of the league's elite thieves. But the key for this Dallas team is its depth; last season, only two regular contributors had a steal rate (a percentage of a player's on-court defensive possessions in which he is credited with a steal) of 1.9 percent or better: Kidd and Jason Terry. This season, the Mavs have six regulars creating turnovers at that rate. Having so many kleptomaniacal players on the roster at once creates a synergistic effect; individual players create turnovers, but having this many players wreaking havoc on defense creates a culture of prevention and pressure.
(All advanced stats used in this piece are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com)
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