The Mavericks currently live in the murky cloud that makes up the bulk of the Western Conference: Their credentials are decidedly less than those of the conference-leading Oklahoma City Thunder, but beyond that their prospects remain a mystery. We know now that Dallas is a good team - as evidenced by the fact that they boast the NBA's fourth-best defense, if nothing else - but how good can they be?
That much will undoubtedly be determined by the Mavs' oddly inefficient offense. Dallas may have once lived and died on the strength of their pure bucket-making ability, but this season's script has been reversed without warning or precedent. We know that the Mavs are a year older and, for the most part, a year further past from their playing primes, but their substantial offensive drop-off ranges between curious and baffling. Dirk Nowitzki is back to being a dominant offensive player. The Mavs on the whole are a deep team of capable scorers. And yet they remains mired in their own self-sustaining struggle, an offensive limitation that seems to persist without regard for all of the reasons to the contrary.
With more or less the same group (and arguably less offensive firepower), last year's Mavs were able to post a top-10 offensive mark. This year's team is only now breaking into the NBA's top 20, a sadly accurate reflection of a woefully inconsistent offense. Some subtle difference in formula (J.J. Barea's dribble penetration? Tyson Chandler's vertical extension?) has left Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle with little choice but to toggle through his options; Carlisle has never been one to sit content with a set scoring distribution or lineup configurations, but this season's struggles have increased the need for experimentation.
Which brings us to a Maverick most versatile and valuable when it comes to a reimagining of Dallas' many riches: Shawn Marion. Nowitzki is the team's indisputable centerpiece, but Marion has the most potential for reach in any particular direction. He defends when Dallas needs a smothering on-ball presence. He rebounds effectively and is impossible to box out. He scores from the block and from the perimeter, seemingly fitting into whatever lineup and role Carlisle assigns him.
Yet with Marion's many responsibilities comes a certain price. As the Mavericks demand more and more of their most talented defender (which they certainly have), they can expect to get less and less out of Marion on offense - a painful cost for a team already struggling to score. Fatigue isn't some made-up construction; players get tired, especially when they're playing their fourth game in five nights and chasing around players much smaller, much quicker, and much younger.
The defensive responsibility that Marion has accepted without question takes a considerable toll, a reality that puts Carlisle in a tremendously difficult situation. One can practically trace Marion's fatigue in his offensive production over the course of the season:
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Not only are Marion's points and field goal attempts per minute tapering off as the season goes on, but his efficiency - represented in a very crude sense by point production exceeding field goal attempts on a game-by-game basis - has also plummeted.
Nowitzki is doing what he can. Jason Terry is who he is, and isn't quite prolific enough to be a day-in, day-out second scoring option. Lamar Odom has yet to escape from his spiral. Rodrigue Beaubois remains an alluring scorer but is inconsistent at best. And then there's Marion, the man who could potentially give Dallas another stable scoring option but has been ground down into a role as a defensive stopper.
The answer - or at least a possible answer - could be right in front of Carlisle. But Marion represents the one move he cannot make; Marion's defensive responsibilities are just too vital to the team's overall success, and though focusing more of his energies on the offensive end could give Dallas a substantial lift, it may come at too great a defensive cost. Marion needs rest, but he also needs to score more to maximize his utility, and yet the Mavericks need him to expound much of his energy in defensive coverage. There's virtually no happy medium, and if Carlisle isn't careful, he may overwork Marion to the point of muted effectiveness across the board.
Rob Mahoney writes about the Mavericks on his ESPN-affiliated blog The Two Man Game and about basketball for The New York Times's Off the Dribble blog. He occasionally writes about the Mavericks for Unfair Park.