The Mavericks played at the second-slowest pace in in the NBA last season. If their style this preseason is any indication of what’s to come when the games start counting, that grinding style will soon be a thing of the past.
Rick Carlisle often mentions the importance of controlling tempo. During the past couple seasons, that meant slowing the game down and turning it into a knock-down, drag-out battle featuring plenty of isolation and other plays that limit the possibility of turning the ball over. Dallas had slower rosters the past two seasons, particularly in the frontcourt, so that style fit the personnel.
This season, however, Dirk Nowitzki is projected as a full-time starting center and Harrison Barnes is the full-time starting power forward. The Mavericks have committed to spreading the floor, and when combined with the addition of 19-year-old point guard Dennis Smith Jr. that lends itself to playing a much faster, more aggressive brand of basketball. Fortunately for Mavs fans, faster basketball is also more exciting to watch.
First, a primer on what exactly this stat is: Pace is the estimation of possessions a team plays per 48 minutes. Last season, the Mavs played at a pace of 94.16 possessions per 48 minutes. Only the Utah Jazz played slower. So far this preseason, however, Dallas is playing above 103 possessions per 48, according to NBA Stats. Playing slower isn’t necessarily bad; Utah and San Antonio both finished bottom-5 in pace last season and both teams won 50+ games. Carlisle’s offensive system, though, works best when the ball is moving and possessions flow.
“Trying to play off play-calls is a difficult way to go in this league now, with the way zones can slough over and scouting is so good,” the coach said.
One of the most obvious ways the goal of increased pace has manifested itself in transition, where there’s no need to call a play or set up anything too complex. Smith has permission from Carlisle to push the ball whenever he sees fit.
“He gave me the green light,” Smith said. “If there’s a lane, he wants me to go as many times as I can.”
In the play above, Smith pretty casually brought the ball up the floor but then saw a driving alley and attacked it decisively. J.J. Barea later made a similar play. These are plays the Mavs just didn’t make very often last season. Dallas ranked last in fast break points per game last season at just 7.8, but so far through two preseason games the Mavs have averaged 13.5 fast break points. Yes, it’s only preseason, but it’s clear the club intends to push the pace, and that begins from the instant someone gathers the rebound.
“Someone” is the operative word in that sentence. Carlisle doesn’t only want the point guard to bring the ball up the floor this season. It could be a guard, sure, but it could also be Wesley Matthews or Harrison Barnes. It doesn’t matter who’s pushing the ball, as long as it gets up the floor as soon as possible.
“It allows us to get into the offense quicker, instead of every time finding the guard, going down, getting into the set offense,” Barnes said. “You lose that kind of momentum from that stop.”
Wesley Matthews has been a big beneficiary of that new style. He began playing more small forward last season and will likely almost exclusively play that position this year, which gives him a step against some bigger wings. His assist numbers took a step up once the Mavs went small last season, and that trend has continued so far this exhibition season: In 38 minutes this preseason, he has seven assists.
“The more fulcrums you can have to the offense out there, especially in transition, it just makes it harder to guard,” Carlisle said.
In the play above against Milwaukee coming up the floor after a miss, Matthews and Nowitzki are already in a pick-and-roll just five seconds into the shot clock. Last year that would have been almost unthinkable, as it takes almost that long just to, as Barnes said, locate the point guard after the rebound and wait for everyone to get into position. If you can run a legitimate-but-simple play five seconds into a possession you can put all sorts of pressure on an opposing defense, and when your center can pop out 26 feet from the rim that strains the defense even further. Matthews drove away from the screen and found Barnes open in the corner for a 3-pointer.
It helps, of course, that the starting lineup features five players who can all shoot. With Nowitzki setting ball-screens for every player 1 through 4, the Mavericks can force switches and bend defenses in ways a lot of other teams that start traditional centers simply aren’t able to. That can often result in an easy look early in the shot clock, as teams are reluctant to switch a center on a point guard and defenders are nervous about helping too far off their own man.
In the play above, two defenders followed Smith off Nowitzki’s screen, leaving only Justin Holiday to defend both Dirk and Seth Curry. That’s a tough proposition for the defender, as both players can shoot the 3 at a high level and he can only guard one of them. That’s a great look at the basket 14 seconds into the shot clock. So far this preseason, the Mavs have made a point to shoot their shot if the look is there. As a result, everyone is playing with a little more freedom and confidence, and the offense rarely bogs down.
“We’ve been watching a lot of tape of last year of ruts we got in — good shots, bad shots — and I think it’s really important, especially for us vets but for everyone in general,” Barnes said. “Good shots are contagious, and so are bad shots. If you burp up a bad shot, that can get contagious to the team.”
Again, it’s only preseason, but the seeds to a faster, more exciting offense are there. The Mavericks are attacking the basket, sharing the ball, and playing a more free-flowing style that lends itself to consistently better shots. As the preseason continues and we reach the quickly approaching regular season, we’ll see if they can continue to play this way. That will start tonight against Orlando, but the club will be without a few of its top players. It should be a good test then, especially for Smith, to see how he responds to playing without Nowitzki, Barnes, Matthews, and Noel.
“Pace” was a big buzzword last year and it will continue to be so this season, only this time around it means something totally different.